The first-ever Burning Man began with a phone call: Harvey gave James a ring and said, “Let’s… let’s burn a man, Jerry.” So the two friends built a human effigy and burned it on Baker Beach in San Francisco on the Summer Solstice. The date was June 22, 1986.
Harvey died at age 70 on April 4, 2018, after suffering a massive stroke.
Harvey and James made their first Man using scrap lumber, and the final sculpture reached 8 feet. But that’s tiny compared to the effigies that have come after. In fact, the tallest Man in the history of Burning Man was erected in 2014, towering at 105 feet.
Flickr | Jonathan Lidbeck
The first Burning Man started with just Harvey and James. But as the Man began to burn, beachgoers rushed to the area. A crowd of about three dozen formed to watch the Man become engulfed in flames. One woman even ran up to the burning effigy and held its hand — what’s considered the event’s first spontaneous performance.
Flickr | zaigee
The Bay Area’s Baker Beach served as Burning Man’s campground until 1990, when Golden Gate Park police shut the annual fire party down. That year, Harvey and James moved Burning Man to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. And they were joined by 350 of their friends. But San Francisco still plays host to Burning Man Decompression Parties.
Flickr | torbakhopper
Black Rock City, Burning Man’s temporary town, becomes one of Nevada’s 10 largest cities when the event sets up camp for the week. Last year, more than 69,000 people set up residence in Black Rock City for the event. Nevada’s 10th largest city, Carson City, has fewer than 55,000 residents, according to Homes.com.
Flickr | Ian Norman (Lonely Speck)
The Black Rock City community runs on a gift economy model, which means your money’s no good at Burning Man. Attendees exchange food, drinks, trinkets and other items. The only products for sale are ice and coffee, which are available at Burning Man’s center camp.
Flickr | Jesse Wagstaff
The experience at Burning Man is unique, and so is its community. So much so that members have developed their own lexicon. For example, the land is called “the playa,” which is the Spanish word for beach that’s also used to describe dry lakebeds like the Black Rock Desert.
Flickr | fabola
People who’ve attended Burning Man have described the event as one that will “test your physical limits.” And that’s not an exaggeration. Last year’s Burning Man was hit with a heat wave. That meant the Burning Man community had to endure temperatures in the 100s.
Flickr | sfmission.com
Black Rock City can become a frozen tundra at night. After all, Burning Man is held in a desert 4,000 feet above sea level. Nighttime temperatures can drop as low as the 30s.
Flickr | Hawaii Savvy
First-timers are asked to raise their hand if they’re a Burning Man virgin when entering the gate to Black Rock City. To shed the label, they’re asked to jump onto the playa and roll around in the dust. And they do this while yelling, “I’m a virgin no more!”
Burning Man may be fun, but it’s also expensive. Entry prices for the annual event range from $190 to $1,200, while the vehicle pass costs $80. But paying more doesn’t translate into extra perks. Rather, the different prices give attendees the opportunity to support the event at a level that makes sense for them.
Burning Man is more of a community than it is a festival, and if you want to take part, there are 10 principles you should follow. Burning Man co-founder Harvey put together the guidelines in 2004 as a way to reflect “the community’s ethos and culture.” Among the principles are radical inclusion, radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.
Another one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man is to “leave no trace.” That means attendees must clear the space of trash, art, tents and anything else brought into the Black Rock Desert so that they “leave such places in a better state than when we found them.” But Burning Man has faced criticism over this principle: According to the San Francisco Chronicle, residents of Reno have complained that once the event is over, Burning Man attendees illegally dump their trash around the city.
While there’s no doubt plenty of partying at Burning Man, the event also has a growing sober community. In fact, two camps — Anonymous Village and Run Free — are dedicated to clean and sober living.
Flickr | DoNotLick
Black Rock City exists on federal land, meaning that federal laws governing the use and possession of substances supersede state legislation. So even though Nevada has legalized the recreational and medicinal use of marijuana, toking up in Black Rock City is still illegal. And if you’re caught with illicit drugs and paraphernalia, you can either be evicted from the event, cited or arrested — if not all three.
A bike is essential for every Burner in Black Rock City. Sure, you can get around on foot, but a bicycle will make traversing the Black Rock Desert easier — and far more enjoyable. Plus, you can deck out your bike and transform your ride into a moving art sculpture.
Flickr | dvsross
Burning Man’s ceremonial fire activity is organized and carried out by the Fire Conclave, a coalition of fire performance groups from around the world. This not only includes the burning of the Man but an opening fire ceremony and procession of the ceremonial flame. Crimson Rose, a founding board member and board secretary of the Burning Man Project, started the Fire Conclave in 1991.
People who want to use fire in their art must first gain approval to do so. This applies to open fire artwork and pyrotechnics installations. All fire artists have to follow guidelines compiled by Burning Man’s Fire Art Safety Team, as well as designate a fire safety liaison and leave no trace lead on their project team.
People who go to Burning Man aren’t merely attendees — they’re “Burners.” Being a Burner means you are connected to the culture and community. According to the Burning Man website, “Being a Burner is more than attending an event, it’s a way of being in the world.”
Flickr | papertygre
Burning Man is a place for reinvention. And part of that reinvention is getting a playa name. How you get that name, though, depends on you: You can christen yourself or have someone else give it to you.
Flickr | ImNotQuiteJack
For a week, Burning Man takes over Black Rocket Desert, a remote area more than 140 miles north of Reno. And that means attendees have to contend with high winds and sweeping dust storms that can sometimes shut down festivities. So if you decide to go to Burning Man, make sure you pack yourself scarves, goggles, face masks and hats.
Flickr | valiscariot
The Black Rock Desert is not so much a desert as it is a dried lakebed. So the dust storms that blow through Burning Man don’t carry sand or dust. Instead, it’s the lake bed’s alkaline remnants.
Burning Man isn’t just for young people. All age ranges are represented in Black Rock City, even kids. And you’ll see celebrities on the playa, too, such as Paris Hilton and Diplo.
Flickr | jurvetson
In 2014, the group Desert Wizards of Mars built an observatory on the playa. Known as the Black Rock Observatory, it consists of two 21-foot domes and a 20-inch telescope with a rotating canopy. Now, Burning Man’s astronomy enthusiasts can see the rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter.
Flickr | peretzp
Every year, a Temple is built on the playa as a place for attendees to mourn those they have lost. Grieving members of the Burning Man community are encouraged to write letters to their dead loved ones and leave them in the Temple, which is burned in a ritual ceremony near the end of the event. Some people even scatter the ashes of the people who have passed.
Flickr | chrisweger
Want to get married at Burning Man? You’re in luck: The Burning Man team can help couples plan their ceremonies and make sure they’ve dotted all their Is and crossed all their Ts. But Black Rock City is also a place for partners who want to host a spiritual gathering, rather than a legal one, to celebrate their wedded bliss.
For many people, Burning Man is a spiritual excursion, one where they’re able to connect the spirit and soul in an immediate way. But not everyone who attends Burning man is religious. According to the Black Rock City Census Team, nearly 24 percent of the Burning Man community identifies as atheist. Another 46 percent define themselves as “spiritual, not religious.”
The 2017 art theme, Radical Ritual, sought to tap into the sacred connection people feel at Burning Man. Attendees were asked to create works that cast aside dogma and instead focused on “the immediate experience of play.”
“Build your own Man. Or, if there’s something more impactful for you, do that. Pay attention. Invite others. Be surprised,” Caveat Magister, a member of Burning Man Project’s Philosophical Center, wrote on the event’s official blog. “Just don’t go through the motions.”