This is it. Time for the throngs of freaks, hipster hippies, that artsy spiritually awake nudist you dated but broke up with because they kept eating your houseplants, and most of Silicon Valley to jump in a car/van/yacht on wheels/spaceship and make haste toward a tiny, generally unremarkable slab of dust in a godforsaken corner of Nevada for a week of bohemia and dusty debauchery.
Just as last year’s attendees have finally managed to pry every speck of sand from their bodily crevasses, it’s time to do it all over again. Cash in the vacation time at their massage therapy parlor, crystal healing center, tech start up, private equity gig, or lobbying perch and get their burn on with some 70,000 plus like-minded free spirits. And while spirits may be free, not everything is, even though technically money is eschewed. A ticket to get in can set you back up to nearly a grand, and the tech elite who have adopted Burning Man as their own Bohemian Grove power networking session have been known to throw preposterous parties that cost more than the average Wal-Mart employee’s salary just to rub naked, dirty elbows.
Fair warning: You’re gonna hear a lot about the big-tech takeover of Burning Man over the next few news cycles. Just like last year, they’re coming, and it’s a popular topic for think pieces and nostalgic musings.
“The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” Tyler Hansen, a long-time burner told The New York Times last year, adding that he wouldn’t be going back. “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.”
And while it’s certainly true that the nouveau-est of the nouveau riche set treat the festival as a spend-it-if-you’ve-got-it, my-chakra-is-bigger-than-your-chakra orgy of ostentatious fly-in campsites, hallucinogens, and pyrotechnics, there’s still plenty of that scrappy underground communal vibe lurking in the strobe-lit shadows of what is, for a short time, the tenth largest city in the Nevada. In fact, even festival organizers are bristling a bit at the thought of their to-do becoming Club Med for some one percenter’s free-the-nipple psychedelic therapy/corporate spitball session–so much so that this year they’re enacting new regulations to make concierge plug-and-play style camping a harder service to provide.
It’s a tale of encroaching gentrification and good vs. evil that has reached dramatic proportions. Literally.
One enterprising group of Google employees have launched a crowd-funding site for Burning Man: The Musical, which seeks to tell the tale of old school burners and the invading techies via apropos musical revelry and the saga of a young entrepreneur’s mushroom adventure in the high desert. While their goal is to raise $20 grand for the project, it’s seven days in and they aren’t even close. Yet with the average Google salary paying well into the six figures, if the whole crowd funding thing fails they’re likely to have plenty of other options.
Oh, what’s that? You want to hear one of the songs? Of course you do.
If cornball theatre and billionaire blowhards aren’t enough to threaten the average Burning Man enthusiast, this year it even seemed for a short time that nature herself was turning against the event. Remember the plague of stinking, biting bugs that descended upon the site just a couple weeks ago? As the official festival blog ominously warned:
“They’re everywhere. They bite. They crawl all over you. They get up and in you.”
Think about that particular turn of phrase: “Up and in you.” These are very naked people, after all.
Thankfully, now the pests are all but gone, dried up and blown away by the same fickle desert winds they rode in on. Still other threats lurk, however, such as a new local sheriff with a strong distaste for the sort of trippy party favors required to make running around naked in the desert for a week in the hottest part of the summer seem like a good idea.
“We don’t change the laws when Burning Man comes to town,” Pershing County sheriff Jerry Allen told the Reno Gazette Journal. “Burning Man brings nothing to Pershing County except for heartache.”
Heartache and, to be fair, around $55 million in annual cash to the local, less-than-thriving, Northern Nevada economy.
Law enforcement is provided by area police and federal agents, and has traditionally worked with festivalgoers—last year saw only 15 arrests. But Allen maintains that his particular regiment of local cops will be “upholding to the best of our ability” all laws, with the exception of enforcing bans on public nudity. Not to worry—even if his officers take an antagonistic stance against wasted attendees, they’re only a total force of 31 men. And there’s no indication any other law enforcement agencies will veer from their hand’s off approach toward minor infractions. Which makes sense. With 70,000 people expected to descend upon the region like a conquering force of free-loving, orgy-hunting barbarians, there’s likely little they could really accomplish.
If you do make it out to Black Rock and manage to navigate the cops and bugs and upstart billionaires and amateur show tune crafters, there’s just one last thing to be aware, and probably wary, of. Each year’s event has a theme, and this time it’s the decidedly wicked seeming “Carnival of Mirrors.” Replete with a midway, funhouse, and creepy clowns. Yes, clowns. Lots and lots of deranged clowns. See the official video trailer below:
These aren’t your balloon animal blowing Bozos, that’s for sure. It’s an entire “Sad Clown Town,” and the sad clowns are not stoked on attendees whose hearts and souls aren’t invested in the burner spirit.
“Beware Plug and Players, the clowns have your number,” a missive on the official event blog warns ominously. “Locate, Tag, Track and Acculturate. Participate or clowns will eat you. My advice is to befriend a clown as soon as possible upon arrival. They are a hive mind and they can sense your intentions and fear. Bugpocalypse was just a warm up to our possibly most menacing problem. The clowns are waiting with painted smiles to welcome you to Black Rock City.”
Based on a study from this spring, which not surprisingly pegged hallucinogens as Burning Man’s drug of choice, shit could get dark indeed for the weak-of-mind in the desert. But to expect otherwise is really just idealistic and ill-informed.
While Burning Man started as an art party, growing into the take-all-comers communal that welcomes any who adhere to the Ten Principles, which are basically “leave societal conceits like money behind,” “if you show up, be present and take part,” “get weird AF,” and “don’t be a dick—if you see somebody being a dick, tell them to stop,” it has never pretended to be a spiritually coddling utopia. At its core, this is a ritualistic bacchanal based around the fiery exorcism of a massive man-shaped effigy, which is lit aflame for the fest’s grand finale.
It’s not a free wheeling Phish phestival, and it’s not the pop counterculture frat boy farm league that is Bonnaroo. If you have any doubts about that, just remember you’re dealing with a group of people who, evil clown fetishes aside, essentially advocate the killing of bunnies.
“There is an overabundance of jackrabbits in the area,” reads the official Burning Man survival guide. “It is not worth jeopardizing your safety to swerve in an attempt to avoid them.”
But hey, the weather does look perfect. And as Dr. Thompson famously said, “buy the ticket, take the ride.” Or, perhaps more appropriately, “I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes.”
Don’t forget your sunscreen, and leave the drones at home.