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Beginner's Guide & Review: Burning Man 2010

Check out our historical guide to the experience-of-a-lifetime festival that is Burning Man in Nevada, by our local expert Michael York.


The experience of Burning Man is impossible to describe in words. It eludes sensible description, because it means something completely different to every individual who attends. If I were asked to try to explain what Burning Man meant to me, to someone who has never been to the event, I wouldn't know quite where to begin?! I imagine I would probably tell them what an important someone once told me: “Buy a ticket and bring an open mind, you will never be quite the same when you return”! Eleven years later, that statement couldn't have been closer to the truth. I haven't been the same person ever since, and I'll never be the same person again!

Because Burning Man isn't like anything else you've ever seen before, or anything you'll ever seen again. It isn't anything you might think it is, and it isn't something you can experience without being transformed......some more profoundly than others. So what exactly is Burning Man then, and what makes it so damn special? Why would anyone pay thousands of dollars to spend a week in a filthy, hot desert where it takes so much planning and preparation just to survive.....and then do it again the next year??? Well, if you've been to the event before, the answer to that question is obvious. And if you haven't, you won't understand it until you go. Welcome to Black Rock City, Nevada. Welcome Home!!!

A Brief History; The Early Years:

Burning Man started in a somewhat spontaneous fashion on Baker Beach, in San Francisco, in the Summer of 1986. Larry Harvey, Jerry James and a few friends met on the beach to celebrate the Summer Solstice that year. Larry Harvey and Jerry James built and erected an eight foot tall man, made of scraps of wood and sticks. When the effigy was set ablaze, passer-bys and friends alike were drawn from all directions to the flames. Noticing the effect the fire had on those present, Larry and Jerry came back the next year to do it again. This ritual continued and grew exponentially larger for several years, until 1990....when law enforcement became involved due to the now hundreds of participants that continued to gather. They were told by the police that they could erect the man that year, but that it could not be burned! Larry Harvey knew that they would have to move their event elsewhere due to the popularity of the gathering on the beach.

In 1990, the two men did some research, and plans were made to move the effigy to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada; a land so barren and vast, and where the event continues to this day. Less than 100 people showed up to create Black Rock City in it's first year. As they arrived in the desert, someone took a stick and drew a line in the desert floor. Forming a single row and holding hands, they crossed over the line together; embarking on what would be an amazing journey, and forming the roots of what would become a city of more than 50,000 individuals who create it still today.

The Black Rock Desert

The remnants of an ancient prehistoric lakebed, the Black Rock Desert is one of the most beautiful and unique landscapes in the world. The 1000 sq mile (2600 square km) desert is surrounded by mountain ranges, and is the second largest flat of land in the entire Northern hemisphere. Within this area is a section known as 'The Playa'. The Playa itself is 200 square miles (520 sqare km), and is the area of the desert that is home to Burning Man event. Barren of rocks, trees and wildlife, this desert void is the perfect location to create a Tabula Rasa, a blank canvas for art, self-expression, and a city of 50,000+ people every Summer.

The cold and wet Winters in Northern Nevada, usually cause the desert floors to become hard-packed; creating perfect conditions for walking or riding a bicycle on. It is often a result of this that various land-speed records are also set here. Various military training and rocket launches have also been housed in the Black Rock Desert. The closest city to the Playa is Gerlach, Nevada, a very small town of less than 500 permanent residents. Due to the lack of "big city lights" from Gerlach, the Black Rock Desert is an AMAZING space to connect with the Universe. It seems from here that you can see every star in the sky. The desert is also home to many geothermal hot spots. When the Burning Man event is not in progress, the desert has various hot-springs in the area where one could come out and soak while they watch a magnificent sunrise or sunset. The Black Rock Desert is visually spectacular and certainly shouldn't be missed. It feels like a World away from this one and deserves a visit to those in close proximity.

Milky Way visible from Black Rock City

The Event Today in 2010

What started as a small gathering of participants in 1990, has today become a vibrant, pulsating metropolis of music, art, and radical self-expression. Every year during this week, Black Rock City becomes the 10th largest city in Nevada, and the wildest and most spectacular city in the Universe. This year's theme was "Metropolis" (the theme changes yearly). In 2010, the event drew more than 51,000 people from all over the World to celebrate freedom, life, and creativity. In Black Rock, most everything and anything goes. Although several law enforcement agencies patrol Black Rock City, things that may be illegal or taboo in any other U.S. city often go unnoticed.

The city is laid out in a semi-circle formation. The radial streets form times on a clock (in 1/2 hour intervals from 2:00 to 10:00) and the concentric streets are named anew each year (depending on the theme). Large "Sound Camps" are found at the outer edges at 2:00 and 10:00. It is here where you will find the main line-up of legendary DJ's. In 2010, the playa saw the likes of Carl Cox, DJ Dan, Desyn Masiello, The Chemical Brothers and many others. There is no red carpet treatment at Burning Man....everybody is a celebrity!! World class DJ's are not paid to play at Burning Man, and must purchase a ticket like everybody else who attends. The inner most ring of the city is called "The Esplanade", and it is here you will find the prime desert real estate. The Esplanade is where you will find the majority of the interactive 'theme camps' and dance clubs....although craziness abounds all over Black Rock City.

There are no cars allowed to be driven once you arrive at the event. The only motorized vehicles allowed in Black Rock City are 'mutant vehicles', which take the appearance of various animals, insects, phallic objects, spacecrafts, dragons, pirate ships, robots, and a grip of other creatures and unimaginable creativeness. During the day when the temperatures soar, many participants will hang out at their shaded camp or will take a leisurely stroll to visit other camps listed in the "What, Where and When"....a booklet handed out when you first enter the Event, and which contains a map and various activities and events that occur throughout the week. Many 'day camps' host a variety of events, including: massage, safe-sex workshops, recycled paper making, bondage lessons, tea parties, sock monkey puppet shows, 70's movies marathons, pink-attire dance parties, and pretty much anything else you never thought you'd be interested in! When the sun finally sets behind the mountains and darkness falls on Black Rock City, that is when the freaks come out to play. Night time is when Black Rock City comes to life, and is nothing like you've ever seen before.

In a dark desert with no electricity, a neon alien world is created. Fireworks explode overhead, laser beams shoot across the night sky, electronic music vibrates from all directions, and Halloween quality costumes dress what once were normal looking human beings. Imagine Disneyland meets the Las Vegas Strip meets LSD, and multiply that by 1000...and it will only begin to scratch the surface of what you will experience during this most spectacular week. And with all this sensory overload, a piece of Burning Man is permanently burned in your soul (and a piece of you is permanently burned in Black Rock City). Which brings me back to my original are never quite the same when you return. Burning Man is a profoundly spiritual place, and the connections you make in your short time there are nothing short of amazing. Tickets to Burning Man 2011 go on sale mid January. I will be the first in line.....hope to see you there!

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