On a warm Wednesday afternoon in early September, a light rain of ash falls on Gerlach, Nevada. Under a cloud of bruise-toned smoke that’s drifted 120 miles from the south — where the Caldor Fire is decimating structures and more than 200,000 acres of forest and counting near Lake Tahoe — a steady parade of RVs rolls through the main drag of this dusty western outpost. (The welcome sign here reads “Population: Wanted.”) Roadside vendors sell ice, pizza and snow cones, while drivers top off at the town’s lone gas station.
Any other year around this time, none of this — except maybe the smoke, ash and general sense of climate-anxiety apocalypse — would be extraordinary. Gerlach is the last inhabited place on the map before Black Rock Desert, a stark 300,000-acre expanse of dry lakebed (called playa) that since 1990 has hosted the annual cultural phenomenon of art, hedonism and civic experimentation known as Burning Man.
But what are we all doing here, with our fun hats, water jugs, electrolyte packets and the other hundred supplies necessary to survive a week of partying in this punishing physical environment? While Burning Man typically happens the week before Labor Day, in April the roughly 70,000-person event was canceled for the second year in a row due to the pandemic — but this time with a caveat. Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell noted then that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which controls the Black Rock Desert, had informed her team that these public lands would remain open to said public all summer. Thus began chatter of a “Rogue Burn,” a “Renegade Burn,” a “Free Burn,” a “Plan B Burn” that would be like a regular Burn in a regular year, only it wouldn’t be sanctioned by the regular producer, Burning Man Project. What might happen out in the desert with zero official infrastructure, limited law enforcement and medical support and no porta-potties has been an opaque but intriguing proposition.
“Philosophically, we don’t have anything against this,” says Goodell, who’s in Gerlach for the week, while watching packed RVs pass from a bench in front of the town’s old post office that now serves as a Burning Man office. “That would be an impossible concept. [Keeping people away] was never something we had any interest in.”
The San Francisco-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit Burning Man Project — which owns a significant chunk of the commercial real estate in Gerlach along with a 360-acre parcel on the edge of town that’s being developed into a workspace for Burner artists — has an obvious stake in this going well. Maintaining a healthy relationship with BLM, which issues the Special Recreation Permit that allows Burning Man to happen in all its flame-throwing glory each summer, is fundamental to the event’s ongoing success.
“That’s the big interest,” says Goodell. “If things are going to go sideways, does it harm our future here?”
And yet Burning Man is not sending any of its employees to the playa in an official capacity. There will be no Burning-Man-sanctioned group of volunteer Rangers who typically support law enforcement. The police presence from Pershing County will also be light, given that this group is typically funded by tickets sales, and this event requires no ticket.
Nor will there be the event’s robust medical team and full-sized hospital. There won’t even be porta-potties, making a significant number of the conversations ahead of Free Burn about where and how attendees plan to go to the bathroom. (In their RVs, in paint buckets full of sawdust, in plastic bags filled with kitty litter, etc.)
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.
As if a divine switch has been flipped, one of the most remote places in the United States now feels like the center of the universe. By Saturday, drone footage shows the event sprawled across the same roughly 14,500-acre footprint occupied by Burning Man in a regular year, with an estimated crowd of 15,000 Free Burners. (Other reports say 20,000, and some say 25,000. As is true with most unticketed mass gatherings, no one knows exactly how many people are out here.)
The way the crowd has organized itself this week creates a crucial difference between Free Burn and regular Burn. Typically, organizers set up roads emanating like spokes on a wheel from a circular patch of playa at the center of the event. (The man usually stands in the center of this circle, although this year due to BLM restrictions, there is… no man.) While Free Burners have managed to create this perfect circle of empty playa at the center of the gathering — where people, art cars with massive soundsystems and other sundry fun-makers congregate at night — there are no spokes, no street signs, no art structures or standard geographical references to orient oneself around, and thus no solid navigational system. So, people are getting lost. Like, really lost.
“Because Burning Man is typically an expensive and hard-to-get ticket, there are a lot of new people here,” says a Free Burn volunteer who goes by the playa name “Maverick.” (Burners often select “playa names” for both whimsy and to ensure that employers or others in the “default world” who might disapprove of Burning Man cannot connect them to the event.)
Burning Man tickets run between $475 and $1,400, and many of the new people attracted to this free event have arrived from outside the U.S. (Maverick reports an especially high density of South Americans.) “They’re coming to a harsh place,” he says, “so they’re struggling. They don’t have enough lights, they don’t have the right clothing, and they get lost almost instantly. They walk 20 feet out of their tent at night, and they’re done. They can’t find their way back.”
On Saturday morning, at the ad hoc medical tent Maverick and his fellow volunteers are operating out of, a naked man on an electric skateboard cruises by. A volunteer offers him sunscreen. This area has been providing shelter and blankets to lost Burners who cannot find their way back to camp after dark, when temperatures dip to the mid-40s.
This tent is also a hub for the 44 EMTs contracted by the State of Nevada to provide Free Burn medical support. Coming from throughout the United States, these EMTs were hired by the Las Vegas-based agency Guardian Elite Medical Services. A medic from Iowa who’s adopted the playa name “Happy Mutant” notes that he’s largely been treating dehydration, heat exhaustion and minor cuts and abrasions. “Nothing super major,” he reports while grooving to a 10 a.m. house set (the 2000 Kings of Tomorrow classic “Finally” bumps in the background) and noting that he plans to tell everyone back in Iowa how “warm and welcoming and loving this community has been to us.”
“These poor guys were driving up here from Las Vegas Googling ‘What is Burning Man?’” Maverick says of these EMTs. “We have loved them, because I can call medical right now and get someone who needs help out of here fast. Otherwise, I’d have to call 911 and maybe get an ambulance here in an hour or a couple hours. That’s a long time.”
“While the event is on federal land, state and local authorities have a responsibility and jurisdiction on matters of public health and safety,” says Shannon Litz, Nevada Department of Health and Human Services public information office, of sending these EMTs. “As a large crowd was expected to gather, the State determined it was vital to have first aid and emergency services support on site. The total contract for planning, staffing and supplies was about $300,000 paid through Coronavirus Relief Funds.”
Of course, a mass public health issue is the very reason Free Burn is happening at all. While other large-scale gatherings around the world navigate government mandates and shifting safety protocols, here one could (and perhaps aspires to) simply forget that we’re struggling our way out from the grips of a crippling global pandemic. “Our community doesn’t want anything to do with it,” Goodell says of the COVID-19 vaccine. “There are a lot of people who aren’t necessarily ‘anti-vaxxers,’ they’re just libertarian and ‘let me make my own choice.'”
Are Free Burners social distancing? Not really. Are they wearing masks? A few, but dust makes masks common here in any given year. While some camps required proof of vaccination and a test prior to arrival, the vibe around protocols is distinctly loose, particularly in areas where drinks, food and free hugs are being offered. One Free Burn attendee reports that participants of a “conscious play party” (a type of orgy) that happened here earlier this week were required to show vaccination cards, and that one person had to bow out for lack of one.
Generally, however, it’s fair to say that Free Burners are doing predictably well. “I’m never worried about Burners,” says a BLM officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Burners have their s–t together.”
Really, the Burning Man community has been training for an event like this since Burning Man began in 1986. Burning Man culture is steered by its fabled “10 Principles” — a sort of sacred social and philosophical framework that includes “Radical Self-Reliance,” “Communal Effort,” “Civic Responsibility” and “Leaving No Trace.” Burners take these rules very seriously. There is no garbage on the ground. If Free Burn is functioning smoothly, it’s because the community has been well-primed to do this on its own.
“I think that that’s the most rewarding part, and the part actually, of why I’m here. To watch it happen,” says Goodell. “All the work that we’ve done to create community, this is the proof in the pudding.”
“There are no rules,” adds Maverick, “but there is a certain amount of respect we must have to support each other and educate each other.”
A crucial difference between this and any other festival is that Burning Man is largely crowd-sourced. At a typical Burn, organizers provides only infrastructure — the SRP permit, roads, health and safety services, places to go to the bathroom. Everything else — the art, art cars, music, stages, fire spinning, yoga classes, performances, lights, games, speakers, hugging booths, Ferris wheels, roller-skating rinks and sandwich giveaways — are created, paid for and facilitated by attendees, examples of the event’s participation and gifting principles.
“Most other festivals are spectator festivals where somebody is producing the entertainment, whereas with Burning Man, we are all producing the experience,“ says Alix Rosenthal, a Bay Area resident who’s been attending Burning Man since 2004. “We’re all so used to being doers and making it happen ourselves. Can you imagine a self-organized Lollapalooza? It would never happen.”
While the temporary restrictions mean that Free Burn is missing a lot of the more fantastical installations (like the Ferris wheel, skating rink, etc.) people are doing what they can — which with the music, lights, cauldron of pho and a small-scale version of the typically massive temple– is a lot. Many of the temporary restrictions are being loosely enforced, and Free Burners have found workarounds, such as building structures then throwing netting over them so they masquerade as legal “shade structures.” The dozens of art cars here were advised to arrive after dark to be less obvious to law enforcement.
According to Black Rock Field Office manager Mark E. Hall, during Free Burn, BLM has issued close to 100 warnings, along with 47 actual citations. (On Friday evening, a friend of a friend is fined $250 for fire spinning, a choreographed display of lit batons that is common at Burning Man.) Occasionally, police sirens are heard in the night, and on Saturday afternoon the police tackle and handcuff a man involved in an altercation.
More citations may have been issued via Pershing County Law Enforcement, who did not respond to requests for comment. But the crime rate feels low. (“The incidents are few and far between,” the anonymous BLM officer reports.) By all accounts, the firearm usage, mindless driving and theft we’d been warned about simply isn’t happening. While drug use is prevalent, as it is at any given Burn, Maverick notes that law enforcement focuses mostly on “the most egregious offenses of the law and things that are really a safety concern to the community… Otherwise, most everyone here would be lined up in handcuffs all the way down the 447.”
In ways, this is a very easy Burning Man. Artists and camps that typically would spend months applying for placement and permitting simply showed up, free from the restraints of centralized organization. The absence of many of the longstanding large camps has made space for more bespoke experiences. Sound stages that have grown to mass scale in recent years were traded out for smaller venues, like the tent slinging jungle juice and remixes of early 2000s pop hits. While the prevailing Burning Man sound is the ultra-minimal “playa tech,” this year there was more hip-hop, soul, psychedelic rock and one wonderfully hyphy remix of “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Ingress and egress, which can take hours (and hours), was as simple as driving a few miles back to the paved road. While there were many wet spots on the playa, people more or less figured out where to use the bathroom (many camps rented and transported their own porta-potties), with the only feces spotted on the ground being that of the dogs who — banned at the official Burning Man — turned out in high numbers this year.
Of course, some things were lost. The clumping of camps meant areas were more isolated and there was less communal revelry. The typically robust schedule of talks and events (Himalayan monkey chanting, holotropic breathwork, permaculture, tantra, free jazz, knitting) wasn’t really happening. Large-scale art installations, a crucial, beating heart component, were nonexistent, stripping away the sense of wonder that this work facilitates. By Sunday, we were perhaps a little bit bored, with BLM reporting that the majority of Free Burners left on Sunday and Monday, Sept. 5–6. (As of Thursday, Sept. 9, the BLM office reports that the only people left on the playa are those doing clean up, with someone from this crew attempting to track down the Free Burners who left a solitary porta-potty on the playa via an event Facebook group.)
In the end, did the Free Burners accomplish anything special? For many the answer was yes, if only on a personal level. “This matters because we are in a situation of unprecedented levels of extreme mental health crisis,” says Eamon Armstrong, who’s been to 11 Burning Mans, “and Burning Man is community in a very profound way.”
For many, it’s been a hard year and a half on Earth. We’ve been isolated; we’ve watched each other get sick from afar; die from afar. We’ve witnessed floods, hurricanes and fires, and when a thick cloud of fire smoke dims the sun on Saturday afternoon, even the suspended reality of Free Burn is pierced by the reminder that the years ahead are likely to be anxious ones. If nothing else, for those who were privileged enough to attend — to have the money, resources, connections and time to make it happen — Free Burn was vastly more life-affirming than sitting at home doom-scrolling.
“Plenty of people would say it’s self-indulgent,” says Goodell, “and it absolutely is self-indulgent, [but] someone has to start emerging from the difficulty, because as humans we have to be resilient, for f—’s sake… [This event] is like, ‘Fine, I’m going to go out in the middle of the desert and there’s going to be smoke and no porta-potties. What am I going to get from it? I’m going to dance; I’m going to bring gifts, I’m going to make food and I’m going to see friends I haven’t seen in almost two years. That’s kind of a good idea. And then I’m going to go home and continue in my community.”
As we’ve all traveled home and returned our RVs and unpacked our dusty clothing, what’s remained are questions about what this event means for the future of Burning Man. Does it even need infrastructure? Will anyone pay for tickets now that we’ve seen we don’t have to? Was this the end of Burning Man as we know it? On the playa, the cardboard gravestone marked “Burning Man, 1986-2019” indicated that at least one person felt as much.
For Goodell, however, that sentiment doesn’t track. “For us, creating organization actually allowed to scale larger. If you’ve been to the Black Rock City when there’s roads and speed limits, it’s charming to feel renegade and like, ‘we’re doing it our way!’ but it doesn’t work at a particular size.”
“It’s a brave new world everywhere, and for all of us who love Burning Man,” she adds. “It will take time to hear what the community sees were the best takeaways as they apply to Black Rock City. And, from government agencies, and local stakeholders. The best approach right now is to listen and absorb. That’s what I love to do. Evolve from what we learn.”
There is no general consensus beyond that Free Burn was safe and fun. For some it felt the same as regular Burning Man and for some it was entirely different. Some missed the art, and some were okay without it. Some yearned for fire, while others felt good not burning anything at all — particularly when not so far away a massive fire was causing so much suffering. On Saturday night, when the man typically burns, thousands of people instead gathered to watch 250 drones organize into the shape of a 300-foot tall man. Organized on the playa by the Amsterdam-based Studio Drift — who programmed the show in just two hours — this drone-rendered man raised his arms in victory, before descending into drone-rendered flames.
We watched. We cheered. We cried. We hugged our friends. This time, nothing had to be lit on fire to make it so.