Such trepidation has been compounded by online discussions about the potential of firearms usage, theft and reckless driving. (Last year, Free Burners on the playa drag-raced a car and a small airplane. No one was hurt.) Burning Man is physically and mentally intense in a typical year. If Free Burn sounds acutely dangerous, it's because it might be.
To mitigate the risk of catastrophe -- which Goodell says would be something like a large-scale public health crisis such as food-borne illness, or the national guard having to drop in supplies if attendees get stuck in the desert due to rain -- on Aug. 18, BLM issued a comprehensive list of temporary restrictions that will stay in effect through Oct. 31, 2021. These restrictions are intended to prevent Free Burn from becoming, Goodell says, “messy, and from 20, 30 or 50,000 people from [showing up], because we know that many, many people would have come if there were toilets being emptied.”
Temporary restrictions include banning fires (outside of campfires), building structures, flying or landing airplanes (Burning Man typically has a small airstrip), commercial activities (many large camps hire contractors to empty toilets and deliver supplies) and the possession and/or use of lasers.
I’ve been to Burning Man six times, and Goodell tells me, “I think if anything, a Burner like yourself ... is going to be like, ‘Okay, I got it. I see how it can be without roads, but I like 500 art cars. I like the big art I can climb on. With 8,000 people, you don’t have that. You’re going to get bored in two days.”
That may be true, but before one gets bored at Free Burn, one first gets to delight in its novelty. This begins by taking a right onto the playa at the 12-mile marker out on Route 34. In a typical year, this is where the Burning Man entrance would be, and security would give you a vehicle inspection after waiting in a line that can sometimes take 12 hours, with all attendees entering via a single road. It's kind of a buzz kill. Cruising through an unmarked entrance and driving freely across the desert towards the burgeoning make-shift city in the distance, in comparison, feels like a scene out of Mad Max -- in a 22-foot class C motorhome.
On the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 1, the Free Burn appears relatively humble, mostly RVs, U-Hauls, vans, cars and tents grouped into village-like clusters. It’s sweet, if not exactly thrilling. But by Thursday night, the playa has transformed into something livelier that looks and feels a lot like regular Burning Man. There are theme camps shilling liquor and talks on the winning attributes of the gentle masculine. There are ecstatic dance tents, blinking lights, yoga, people handing out cups of pho from a large streaming cauldron. There's that guy who's always at parties like these who wafts unsolicited sage smoke at you while encouraging you to take off your sunglasses so you he can stare into your eyes. There is Diplo playing deep house at dawn on the Burn’s very famous, very loud Robot Heart art car, Lee Burridge doing roughly the same, a barefoot Ry X doing an acoustic sunset show, and countless cars packed tightly with people and supplies arriving in a steady stream.