June 1986, Baker Beach, San Francisco. A couple of dudes built an eight-foot stick figure out of wood and set it alight. Fast forward.
September 2023, Black Rock Desert, Reno. Plans for burning another (and much larger) conflagration are foiled by Mother Nature.
The two dudes – Larry Harvey and Jerry James – and a few others grew this pyro-inspired activity into a larger “radial self-expression” event. The annual burn grew from the few friends into a throng of thousands. In 1991, the event moved from the beach in San Francisco to “the Playa” — which sits about 100 miles north of Reno on an expansive alkali flat that stretches east seemingly forever.
It’s a whole lotta nothin’ out there – save for a week and change each year around Labor Day. In a Brigadoon-esque way, the arid land becomes home to roughly 70,000 people. Like any urban city, the population ebbs and flows during the week as folks arrive and a few depart. Unlike other urban cities, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management acts as stewards of this land and limits the total population of what becomes Black Rock City.
Black Rock City operates on 10 principles, including several that read like a utopian novel: self-expression, self-reliance, civic responsibility, radial inclusion. In any town anywhere, these are ideals worth achieving. The principle “leave no trace” may prove a challenge to organizers this year.
Beginning Friday night, Mother Nature turned on the faucet, and the rains began pouring down onto the Playa. While there are no weather stations in Black Rock City, radar models suggest between three-quarters and 1.5 inches of rain fell on the community.
You might see “playa” and think of the Spanish word for beach. But no, this is the English version of playa, which means dry lake bed. So, no, there is no natural drainage in Black Rock or its surrounding desert.
Community members – known as “burners” – now experienced what befalls other communities: a natural disaster and emergency responses. Radical self-reliance gave way to pleas to conserve food and water and support your neighbors.
Stories are circulating of Burners walking out and hitching a ride, some wearing bags on their feet in the mud, others slogging through barefoot. Climate activists at the event saw their grim predictions realized. The earmarks of an evacuation before or during an emergency as we’ve seen elsewhere in the world time and again.
For burners, the question may not have been when are we going home as much as, “When does the Man burn?” Saturday night is the traditional evening, though shelter-in-place and cease-travel mandates halted that. Sunday night was the new date, but alas, rain on Sunday further delayed that plan.The man was finally burned on Monday night, according to updates from organizers.
Perhaps the bigger question will be how this influences Burning Man’s future. Weather is always a factor – camping on a dry lake bed brings risks of rainwater having nowhere to go but soaking into the unstable alkali earth. For those who walked out, they left behind vehicles, camping supplies and the like – everything they pinky-promised to take with them to “leave no trace” when tickets were purchased.
Organizers ultimately have the duty to BLM to restore the Playa to its natural, no-evidence-that- Black-Rock-City-was-ever-here state. Future event use permits depend on it. This year, that effort will undoubtedly be significantly more complex.
The question also lingers as to if this weekend’s weather will prod some of the denizens who hail from outside the early burner mindset to stay home. Burning Man is an extension of community and society as a whole. Will that continue, or will the influencers, bloggers and celebrity names move on to greener, drier pastures in 2024?
Top image: In years past, The Man burns on Saturday evening following a ceremony of fire, the Man raising his illuminated arms, before ultimately being set alight. Paul George/The Express
Paul George is the copy editor of The Express. Follow him @paulgeorgePIO.