My collection of silly buttons from the Burning Man festival in Nevada includes one that says, "Burning Man was better last year." The irony, of course, is that this button is given out every year, and every year thousands of people keep coming back.
If you've ever been part of an annual event that lasted more than five years, you're probably familiar with its evolution. Events generally go through a cycle of being original and innovative, then progress to bigger and better, tapering off at last into predictable. Everything from Mardi Gras to your Uncle Larry's Fried Frog Leg Festival goes through this process. Too many years together working on anything leads to discontent -- just look at the divorce rate.
If you have no idea what Burning Man is, let me explain. It's a seven-day festival held the week leading up to Labor Day in the dusty Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Last year it attracted 44,000 people from around the world. It costs about $250 to attend, and on top of that you have to bring all your own supplies. Other than ice and coffee, you can't buy anything. It's hot, there are windstorms, there's no cell phone coverage and what Internet there is, is unreliable. Sanitation is dependent on port-o-potties, and you can't bring your dog. Some days the temperature tops 110 degrees. Despite these minor drawbacks, it not only survives, it thrives.
If this description doesn't do it for you, head on over to Google-land and type in Burning Man. Be careful, though, because there are so many words and images out there about Burning Man that your search will cause the entire Internet to slow to 1985 dial-up speeds. If you don't have a computer, there are a couple of dozen books written about the event. They range from one that is nothing but a collection of photos of hips to one that goes into excruciating detail about the event's organizational structure.
Approaching Burning Man as a media event is an extractive industry. And, like all such Western industries, eventually you are going to run out of the resource you are extracting. Still, there are probably lots of things you don't want to know about Burning Man. It's become like those annoying people who tell you in detail how they are doing when you ask them how they are doing.
The following is a transcript of a conversation I had with the actual Burning Man this year.
Me: "So, Burning Man, mind if I call you Burnie? Tell me about all the naked people; it sounds so very counterculture."
Burning Man: "Well Dennis, mind if I call you Denny? Like many people approaching middle age, I'm starting to feel the need to leave some sort of legacy. After a certain age, acting drunk and stupid is really no way to go through life. I don't want people to remember me that way. So lately, I have been moonlighting with projects such as Black Rock Solar and Burners Without Borders."
Me: "Really? Well, Party on, Burnie!"
Burning Man: "Well, thanks, Denny, though that's a pretty tired Wayne's World impression. It's not about a party. I get a lot of satisfaction bringing solar power to grade schools and high schools in western Nevada. Just last week, I finished a solar array in Lovelock."
Me: "Dude, you said Lovelock?"
Burning Man: "Will you stop that! Yes, Dennis, the city of Lovelock is a wonderful community and the county seat of Pershing County, where Burning Man takes place. This was a great opportunity to give back to the community."
Me: "But what's Burners Without Borders? That sounds like taking Burning Man global."
Burning Man: "Well, you are partially correct. What I really want to do is take worldwide some of the skills and principles of sharing developed at Burning Man over 23 years. To help the people of Hurricane Katrina, I collected a lot of money and sent a large contingent of people there to help rebuild communities. If we can build and dissemble a city for 45,000 people in the Nevada desert every year, we can help people rebuild anywhere. We now do disaster relief and build projects all over the United States and three continents. But Dennis, I've got to go -- I have a date with a bonfire in a few hours. See you next year when I'm sure I'll be better, if not bigger."
Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Logan, Utah.