Why Would Anyone Go to Burning Man?

You Can Meet God—and His Name Is Larry
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 21 2011 7:23 AM

Why Would Anyone Go to Burning Man?

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You can meet God—and his name is Larry.

Larry Harvey in his camp in his platform looking at everything.
Burning Man founder Larry Harvey on his platform

I have been to a variety of press conferences in my years as a journalist. There was the somber one at the 2010 Winter Olympics, held right after an athlete died on the luge course. Or the one I accidentally stumbled upon in Dubai, where I learned all about the fresh water situation in the Middle East (BREAKING: There is very little fresh water in the Middle East). Until now, though, I had never attended a press conference at which the reporters wore bikinis and bustiers.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Such is the nature of Burning Man. Even the press corps, with its mandate to observe, is encouraged to get in the spirit and participate. A few journalists used the pronoun "we" when referring to Burners in their queries. And I was a bit startled when a friend and colleague from the East Coast media elite—a guy I've only ever seen wearing jeans, business casual, or suits—suddenly appeared behind me in the media gaggle, adjusting his floral-print dress as he stood to ask a question.

With its temporary population of 50,000, Burning Man ranks among Nevada's largest cities (if only for the week). Like any city, it has its amenities and its community focal points. There are press conferences, held by the volunteer media relations department. There are multiple newspapers released during the week by Burner press collectives. There's a tiny, 18-seat silent movie theater at the far reaches of the desert, where—because there is almost no exchange of money at Burning Man—admission and even candy concessions are free. There's a temple, where people mourn loved ones they've lost during the past year. There are also various academic institutions that pop up around the city. Some of these present talks on philosophy and politics. Others list courses like "How to Give a Perfect Handjob."

(Somewhat relatedly, overheard at Burning Man: A middle-aged woman introduced herself to a man on the street, brightly saying, "My name's Mountain Mama!" Her new acquaintance, a muscular guy in nothing but a g-string, said, "Nice to meet you, my name's Handjob!" I can only hope he was the presiding lecturer at the above-mentioned educational offering.)

Three state troopers pureched out in the middle of the playa keep an eye on the event from a distance.
State troopers perched out in the middle of the playa keep an eye on the event from a distance

There's security at Burning Man, too. With scalped tickets going for $500 or more, there are teams of people whose job is to prevent freeloaders from sneaking in. One security guy said he'd confiscated the best counterfeit ticket he'd ever seen this year. He explained that it was flagged by a deaf woman who works in the ticket office—when she held the ticket in her hands she noticed, presumably employing her heightened senses, that something was slightly off about the paper stock.

As for real cops, they're on site but largely out of mind. I chatted with a couple of Bureau of Land Management rangers sitting in their SUVs on the outskirts of the madness. They said this assignment was a good gig and that they'd returned after working Burning Man in previous years. If you smoke a joint right in front of them they'll arrest you. But they told me they don't go looking for drug offenses.

They do, on the other hand, go looking for boobs. I noticed they showed up for the Critical Tits topless bike ride exactly on time and close to the action. Watch your back, potential topless malfeasants! Because the rangers will be watching your front.

The Burning Man medical center featured the strangest hospital lobby I've ever seen. There were at least two topless women filling out induction forms on clipboards, and a fully nude man in a cowboy hat was accosting an EMT. I noticed one patient chart with the words "staples in arm" hastily scrawled on it. A very sweet RN named Wendy described for me a few of the incidents they'd dealt with during the week. Lots of sprained ankles and "broken tib/fibs," as, for instance, 35-year-old women on ecstasy decide to scale the Thunderdome to watch the sunrise—and then inevitably crash to the hard desert floor. There was at least one cock ring accident (apologies, but I'm not totally clear on the mechanics of it) that swelled a man's testicles to the size of a bowling ball, necessitating transport to a nearby real hospital for draining.

Nude man at Burning Man hospital.
A nude cowboy asks an EMT for a place to sit in the Burning Man hospital

Worst by far was when a man—clearly high on some sort of psychedelic—barged into the medical tent shouting, "I'm so stuuuupid! I'm so stuuuupid!" He'd hacked his thumb nearly all the way off with a machete. It was dangling by a ligament. Bummer of a trip, man.

Meanwhile, high above this busy civilization sits its creator. I refer, of course, to Larry Harvey. The first Burner. The O.B.

I interviewed Harvey on the high-up platform in the center of the camp where he spends the week. His perch looked out over the whole, impromptu city, to the open desert and the mountains beyond. Born in 1948, Harvey wore a Western shirt and his signature Stetson hat as we spoke. He ashed his cigarettes into an empty Altoids tin.

Harvey is a thoughtful guy who loves to talk about things like the radial, "enfilade" design of the 9-square-mile city (which presents dramatic views of the massive wooden man at its center from every angle). He held forth on the role of the wooden man himself—how any community, religion, or nation needs some sort of rallying point, and how the man serves that purpose while allowing adherents to imbue him with all manner of meaning and resonance. "I don't think we'd inspire the same sort of feelings if we were burning a giant toaster, like a postmodern joke," he says, responding to the notion that the man is an arbitrary stack of kindling. "At the same time, if I were to declare what the man means, people would commodify that—try to make it into a capsule so you can pop it."

In 1996, there was a struggle for what Harvey calls "the soul of the event." Some saw the week in the desert as a platform for total chaos. "There was this anarcho-punk-renegade faction with a transgressive sensibility. They wanted to act recklessly and disruptively. Their idea was to set up warring fortresses and fight each other with flamethrowers." (He's not exaggerating. I talked to a few Burners who remembered the old days when people would toss live grenades around and fire machine guns from the back of pick-ups.) "The side in favor of civility and civilization won out. We were more interested in fomenting community."

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Recently, the New York Times ran a story outlining the slightly opaque business structure of Burning Man. Harvey owns the festival in a partnership with a handful of other people, but he is now converting the operation into a nonprofit tasked with administering the event and sponsoring art projects. He will take a cash-out as part of the process and will sit on the board of the new foundation. Given that the event must be grossing something on the order of $15 million a year, Harvey could be a wealthy man if he wanted. But he says his payout will not make him rich and he will still have to work for a living.

More interesting to me than the potential for money is the realization of power. Sitting up there serenely above it all, hidden under his big hat and sunglasses, Harvey seems a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Or maybe even something more.

He created this entire civilization from nothing. He decreed its 10 principles (though he says they are not prescriptive but descriptive—an attempt to codify the norms Burners themselves created together over the years). He continues to shape this hermetic world and rule over it.

"No, I don't feel like a god," he chuckles when I ask him. "People imagine the power, but they never imagine the responsibility part. 'I will be powerful! I will attend endless meetings! I will be blamed for everything!'"

I suppose he's right. But when the man burns in a raging inferno at the end of the week, it's sort of easy to see Larry Harvey as the Father sacrificing his Son—watching the flames reflect in the eyes of his growing flock.

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