Burning Man: What’s it really like to survive nine days in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert?

In the dark hours of the morning, deep in the open desert, long-time “Burner” Stewie sits with his back to a flimsy orange plastic fence. Ski goggles perched on his head despite the lingering dust storm, he turns an embroidered badge over and over in his fingers. Bearing a map of where we are, it reads “EDGE OF THE KNOWN WORLD”. 

“I always do this,” he tells me. “Every year, I come here, and just look back at it all.” Sitting on the floor at the furthest point of Burning Man, where the low fence in place to catch drifting rubbish gives way to remote nothingness, we both look ahead at the blinking neon in the distance. The tinny thump of music from a passing giant cat-shaped car halts the reverie. Two cyclists, one in a tutu, one in a spacesuit, follow behind. 

Which pretty much sums up my evening. I’ve spent this, the second night of the now notorious annual gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, getting deliberately lost. 

For nine days every year, in the week prior to and including the US Labor Day weekend, Black Rock City rises from the dust. The event – which this year took place from 27 August to 4 September – has become a pilgrimage of sorts for those that want to leave the banality of everyday life behind and participate in, as Burning Man itself describes it, “an experiment in temporary community”.

According to organisers, the event is “the place to find out who you are, then take it a step further”. For those that haven’t been, images of either elaborately dressed or naked attendees posing next to huge art pieces in apocalyptic looking conditions may spring to mind. For those that have, returning to the 70,000-strong temporary city is called “coming home”. 

An art car at Burning Man (Claire Dodd)

“Welcome home” are also the first words I hear from a greeter at the gate who hugs me before making me roll around in the dust for being a Burning Man virgin. Traditions matter here.

Tonight, leaving the crescent-shaped streets of the city behind, I’ve cycled out (bikes are essential) into the deep playa to explore. The whole site, situated on a dried-up lake bed, covers around seven square miles. While the city is where participants set up camp, the open playa makes up a vast proportion of the area. Home to some of the most pivotal landmarks for citizens, such as the Man itself, and the Temple, it serves as a blank canvas for artists to place their work. 

Caught by a dust storm so dense…

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