Northern Nevada plays host to chaos with rules at Burning Man

CARSON CITY — A temporary city on a desert playa 120 miles north of Reno will play host to tens of thousands of free-spirited, art-loving dwellers who will dance, sing, cavort and play with light and fire under the Nevada sky.

Burning Man, the annual festival to the creative human spirit and all things outlandish, beautiful, fun, daring, wacky and eccentric, runs Aug. 30 through Sept. 7 in the Black Rock Desert.

About 70,000 people from around the globe will transform a dry lake bed into Black Rock City, making it the sixth-largest metropolis in Nevada, at least for nine days.

After Labor Day, it will vanish.

The festival culminates with the torching of “The Man,” a towering wooden structure set ablaze in a nighttime ritual that gives the event its name and its participants the nickname “burners.”

A survival guide for first-timers warns: “The desert is governed by physical laws that cannot be ignored. You are responsible for your own survival, safety, comfort, and well-being, and for ensuring you leave no trace.”

Should it rain, the playa turns to muck. When the wind blows, sand and grit pelt anything exposed in a dust-storm whiteout. The hot desert sun makes skin sizzle. People with sensitive feet are advised to wear shoes or boots to prevent “playa foot,” a sometimes painful cracking and drying of the skin caused by the alkali in the lake bed.

Drinking plenty of water is a must. Lip balm, dust masks and goggles are recommended.

Artwork and play time

Art is the soul of Burning Man. From decorated “art cars” to monumental buildings, light shows, fire dancers and interactive sculptures, artistic expression and appreciation constitute the main attraction.

“The first year I went out there, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Geralda Miller, who will be attending Burning Man for the eighth time this year. “But I was amazed with the arts. I was amazed that there are these beautiful art installations all over the playa.

“I was also fascinated … here we are in the middle of nowhere, and at night it lights up like you’re in Disneyland,” the Reno woman said. “It’s just beautiful.”

Miller, who writes a script describing the art pieces and gives art tours on the playa, said Burning Man is an open invitation for adults to play.

“I think that’s something that’s missing in the everyday life of people,” she said. “Adults don’t play. … This is that opportunity for them to play and be creative.”

Building a community

Burning Man is all about radical self-expression and self-reliance. Yes, there are naked or half-naked burners. And people do outrageous things.

But long-time burners say the gathering is so much more: the building of community among strangers and sharing the barest of essentials. Everyone participates. If you don’t, you just don’t get the essence of Burning Man.

“Building the community is what I love,” said Ellen Perkins, a social worker from Minden who has attended Burning Man for more than a decade. She and her core group of Burning Man friends — two commercial pilots, a doctor, trader, lawyer, nurse, accountant, executive and hairstylist — have a camp called “Camp Peace of Ass.”

“We’re all professional people with licenses,” said Rachel Cooper, also a social worker and camp participant. “We’re not out there doing drugs.”

Cooper added, “How they build an actual city in a week … There’s no TV, there’s no commerce. We have neighborhoods. People get along.”

Each year the camp makes hundreds of fleece bicycle seat covers to give away. Bicycles are a favored mode of transportation on the playa.

“Gifting” — giving to others with no expectation of receiving in return — is expected, and it’s a philosophy that many burners practice throughout the year, Perkins said.

“After Hurricane Katrina, a bunch of burners left the playa and went down to the Gulf Coast to help,” she said. That group, called Burners Without Borders, also went to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010 killed more than 150,000 and left more than a million people homeless.

The playa becomes a city of colorful, organized chaos with its own set of strict rules. Black Rock City has its own public works department, “rangers” to help keep the peace, emergency services, a radio station, motor vehicles department and airport.

Drones are prohibited unless specifically approved. So are lasers.

The Bureau of Land Management is there to make sure the public lands are not damaged. And there are plenty of law enforcement officers to enforce federal, state and local laws both on the playa and as throngs of burners make their way to the remote location.

No MOOP allowed

One bedrock rule at Burning Man is to leave no trace. When you leave, you are expected to take any remnants of your existence on the playa with you.

“The idea is that we leave behind nothing that wasn’t there when we arrived,” Perkins said. “Even if you’re eating sunflower seeds, you bring the hulls back with you.”

Sequins and feathers on costumes, carpet fibers, shreds from tarps, all must be picked up and packed out. That goes for gray water, too. Brush your teeth, spit in a bucket and take it with you when you leave.

Burners call anything left behind “matter out of place,” or MOOP.

Art, giving, healing

For Cooper, who lives in Reno, last year’s Burning Man was bittersweet. Her son, Brad, was killed in a car crash in South Carolina on July 4, 2014. He was just shy of his 23rd birthday. He had been helping one of his best friends, Warrick Macmillan, with an art project called “Library of Bable” and was to attend Burning Man for the first time.

After Brad’s death, Macmillan dedicated the piece to his friend, and Rachel Cooper was there to share in the moment.

“It’s just a beautiful sculpture,” she said. The project was a take on the story by Jorge Luis Borges about a library that contained every book that has and hasn’t been written.

The sculpture included 1,000 blank, cloth-bound books for people to draw in and write their own stories.

“It changed my life, losing my son,” Cooper said. But the artwork, the friendships, the memories and the blank books for stories yet to be written brought a moment of peace to her grief.

“I am going again,” she said.

Contact Sandra Chereb at or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb

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