Burning Man isn’t your usual festival. It’s a city wherein almost everything that happens is created entirely by its citizens, who are active participants in the experience. The Playa (the desert stage location where the Man, the temple and much of the art is) is a culturally curious place, one part hedonistic, one part idealistic.
At its heart, Burning Man is a celebration of artistic self-expression for those who have a utopian vision of the world. For some it’s about creating a spiritual sense of oneness in an intentional community based upon 10 principles. For others, it’s about all-night parties and dancing. But no matter what archetype defines you and your experience, anyone who has done the pilgrimage to the desert is known as a Burner, and this may truly alter the course of your life.
It’s ironic that Burning Man falls on Labor Day weekend, because the amount of sweat and elbow grease that goes into creating the temporary art displays is staggering. The result is the world’s largest interactive display of art, set in a lunar landscape that gives an otherworldly flavor to the whole experience. You’ll see art cars that look like magic carpets, mechanical fire-breathing dragons trolling the desert and maybe a life-size replica of an 18th-century shipwreck. At night, this Mad Max-meets-Alice in Wonderland experience turns into a visual spectacle so surreal you’ll think you’ve regressed to being a 4-year-old experiencing the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland for the first time. Of course, there’s the elaborately designed temple, which burns on Sunday night in a solemn ceremony after the tribal, primal burning of the Man on Saturday night.
Theme camps are the cultural cul-de-sacs that populate Black Rock City. Depending on the year’s theme, these camps—which often have as many as a few hundred participants in their tents, hexa-yurts and RVs—help create the festival’s homegrown flavor. Ideally, if you’re coming for the first time, there may be a set of Burners you can join. Otherwise, you can reach out to a theme camp to see if you can be part of their village.
Burning Man is also about discovery. For those who want to learn, there are more than 2,000 free classes, workshops and events offered each year during the festival. Everything from Understanding Personality Types and a Vegan Coconut Ice Cream Social to a Human Carcass Wash (particularly valuable as you’ll have desert dust in every crevice) and How to Drive a Vulva is on offer. Given all the informative and irreverent workshops and events, you’ll need to either plan ahead or leave it to chance. While we recommend the latter, you can prep yourself by checking out Rockstar Librarian’s annual guide for music.