“On your way to Burning Man, traffic is light, as usual.” So says my navigation system, yet this year is anything but usual. The organization that manages Burning Man—popularly known as the Borg—canceled the event in April because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s Friday, and I’ve got my jeep packed with food, water, and camping equipment and am heading to the site of the annual festival anyway, because the desert itself—federal land—is open. As a 20-year veteran of the event, I know that nothing is going to keep the hardcore burners away. I want to meet them and figure out why they’ve come this year, of all the years. Heck, maybe I’m even one of them, I think, musing on the irony. There’s a lot of time to cogitate on the six-hour drive from San Francisco.
Rolling into Gerlach, the last outpost before the desert wilderness (population “wanted,” reads the sign), I find that the visitor center and the Burning Man office are closed. The tiny town, which is usually crawling with burners at this time of year, is eerily quiet. “State wide order,” flashes an orange highway sign as I drive away: “No fires of any kind.”
Gerlach is at the edge of the great alkali flats known as the Black Rock Desert, or the “playa” in burner-speak—the vast beach of an inland sea that dried up 9,000 years ago. I enter the playa by turning off a two-lane highway and onto the trackless hardpan. A mirage shimmers in the distance. It’s no Black Rock City—more burner-speak, for the yearly encampment of 80,000—but something is out there, levitating at the horizon.
I make my approach at high speed (this desert, after all, is where a car first broke the sound barrier) but slow when I see a man on a fuzzy bicycle heading toward me. I roll down my window to greet him. “Welcome home,” he says. These are traditional words of greeting at the Burning Man gate. “My name is Pop Tart. Do you have your ticket?” There are no tickets, because there is no event—but I play along. Where can I get a ticket this year? I ask. Pop Tart points out a dusty travel trailer: “At center camp.” I thank him and drive on.
Indeed, there are tickets at center camp. Mine is number 0814, with a face value of “$000.” There’s a quote on it from Larry Harvey: “Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere goodwill. They grow out of a shared struggle.” Harvey was the public face of Burning Man up until he died in 2018.
I park and walk over to Ben, Jigsaw, Goldie, and Troublemaker: a friendly klatch of burners, all in their 30s, sitting in the shade of their trailers and socializing, drinks in hand. Ben and Jigsaw are Silicon Valley tech workers and wield their irony like lightsabers. Goldie is a fellow journalist, from Boston, here on her vacation but willing to entertain my questions with sincerity. Troublemaker came to the playa from Austin, and she ended up being taken in by the rest of the group. I feel myself being taken in as well. None of us are wearing masks, united by an unspoken, and arguably irresponsible, agreement to leave the so-called default world behind. They’ve been here since the very end of August and have seen the crowd grow from a handful of people to more than they can count—there are scores of campsites in view and even more over the horizon. It’s been a weird year, they say.
THE MASH NOTE
“There’s been some bad juju, with the coyote head and all,” says Jigsaw cryptically.
“The people on this side of the playa are super self-sufficient,” says Goldie, gesturing to the other RVs and campers scattered randomly across this section of the playa, “and then you have the people in the shitty.”
“The shitty” is the nickname for “the City”—a group of campers about three miles deeper into the playa who, it seems, are trying to re-create Burning Man in the absence of the Borg.
The shitty has rules and regulations, even a so-called mayor.
“There are a lot of people out here who are anti-authority,” says Goldie, “and so there has been some drama between them and the shitty.”
The drama, as it turns out, has taken the form of a severed coyote head, left on the kitchen table of the mayor. Accompanying the head was a note that, Ben claims, read: “I think you are cute. Do you like me?”
As to who left the head and the mash note, “there are legends and tales—but no one knows who did it,” says Ben, who clams up for good on the subject after saying, for the record, “I will neither confirm or deny that I know anything more.”
To investigate further, I drive deeper into the desert to the shitty. It’s no Black Rock City, but it’s definitely a village. There are many dozens of camps, organized into a rough plan. There’s an esplanade, streets in the traditional C-shape, and even an open central plaza, where “the man” would normally be. A Cessna has just landed there and is taxiing around in a kind of victory lap. I creep across the plaza at idle speed, marveling at the scene, until I’m accosted by a person of advanced age wearing a fuchsia tank top and a turquoise cowboy hat, who asks: “Have you ever been to Burning Man before?” Yes, I answer, on and off for 20 years. “Well, then you fucking know that you shouldn’t be driving on the esplanade!” I have met the shitty’s mayor: Lynne Tornado.
Mayor Tornado consents to an interview. She’s a 71-year-old transgender woman from Sonoma County who, through near happenstance, has found herself filling Larry Harvey’s boots this year. With the Borg absent (and, in its public pronouncements, “highly discouraging people visiting the Black Rock Desert”), there was a power vacuum that sucked Tornado in.
“Burning Man doesn’t own this place,” she says, sweetening up for our interview and offering me a root beer slushy. “We own this place. It’s yours and mine.”
I tell Tornado that the campers at the far end of the playa seem to have a problem with her and her friends acting as if they did own the place—acting as if they were a new Borg, in essence. She’s surprised: “Us? We’re not the Borg. We’re thumbing our nose at the Borg. But I don’t have a problem with the rules: Five miles per hour. Don’t drive on the esplanade. If I’m being dictatorial, so be it. Enjoy the port-a-potties.”
I can say from personal experience that, despite sharing his affinity for cowboy hats, Tornado is nothing like Harvey was. The Burning Man co-founder was a self-styled philosopher committed to the doctrine of live and let live. Tornado is all spit and vinegar—although she reserves her most unkind remarks for the Borg, the organization that Harvey built.
Later that night, I pitch my tent and drift off to sleep to the distant thump-thump of half a dozen sound systems, calling burners to the party in the shitty.
The next day, I discover a rumor that’s circulating widely: despite having advised the public to stay home for the safety of Gerlach and the surrounding communities—full of older retirees and thus especially vulnerable if exposed to the virus—the Borg has dispatched a select few to burn the man on private land adjacent to the desert. It is seen as an act of extreme hypocrisy by most of those I talk to. An exception is Mark de Bibo, a 56-year-old general contractor from the Bay Area who goes by the name Marky Mark here on the playa. He’s a longtime burner, well-connected in the scene, and just about the only pro-Borg voice I hear. “The Borg keeps everything organized and safe. So what if they’re having their party catered. Good for them,” he says. “They deserve it.”
Marky Mark even has kind things to say about Mayor Tornado and her notorious sidekick, Titty Targaryen: “They’re among the rudest people on the playa this year,” he says, “but they proved that we don’t need the Borg. It’s our burn.”
As a way of proving his point, Mark takes me to meet the Lost Boyz, a group of young men who met on the playa this year and ended up pooling their resources to camp together. I’m introduced to two of them: Blaze, a 29-year-old commercial fisherman from Vancouver, Washington, and Stowaway, a 34-year-old self-described climber dirtbag who lives in his van and travels the West. Blaze got his nickname during a stint working as a stripper. Stowaway got his at last year’s Burning Man after managing to enter the festival without a ticket. This is both men’s second burn.
“I believe Burning Man to be one of humanity’s greatest achievements,” says Stowaway solemnly. Blaze nods in agreement and tells me the story of his first burn, last year: “I took 25 hits of acid, and Larry Harvey came to me in a vision. He told me that ‘you can do anything you want to.’ ”
What Blaze had planned to do this year was build, out of a load of scrap wood he had transported to the playa, a Viking-style longship in tribute to a good friend who had been lost at sea. But when he got to the playa—a week ago—he realized that there was no man to burn, so he built one of those instead. “Nobody was building anything, and I had all the stuff,” says Blaze. “It’s what my buddy would have wanted.”
“You’ve seen the buttons, right?” adds Stowaway, nodding in agreement. “ ‘Larry Would Go.’ ”
They invite me to the burning of their “trash man,” as they call him: 9 p.m., sharp.
As the sun sets, a coyote-like howl is taken up and repeated in all corners of the playa. The night of the burn begins. New people are streaming onto the playa. I can tell because it’s the first time that I have seen anyone wearing a face mask. Burning Man is always described as an alternate reality, an escape, a vision of what the world could be like, if only. And I realize the cliché is true: For the past 48 hours, I have been out and about, socializing at makeshift bars and at impromptu gatherings, making friends, chatting—even occasionally accepting a hug—with not even a thought about COVID-19. No one talks about the pandemic. We are all united in a silent calculation that the relentless UV and wind will make short work of any virus and that, if there is any residual risk, it’s worth it to be here, just to feel normal again. There’s no real art this year and not much in the way of costumes or theme camps, either. But it’s as unreal as ever: a place where the pandemic never happened.
I run into a couple of uniformed (but mask-free) officers from the BLM—which at Burning Man doesn’t stand for Black Lives Matter, but rather for the Bureau of Land Management—the government agency in charge of policing this stretch of hinterland. They give me their estimate of the crowd size, 3,000 people, and say that there have been no significant issues so far: a couple of tickets for illegal fireworks and the discharge of explosive munitions, but that’s about it. The “no burn” order is designed to prevent wildfires, they say, so if there is no risk of wildfire and precautions are taken to avoid scarring the dry lake itself, they are empowered to look the other way.
All and all, the BLM is glad to see that people are here, enjoying the public lands, and particularly pleased by this crowd, because burners know how to keep safe in the harsh environment of the playa. “I was impressed by the level of respect and responsibility of the people who were out there these past 10 days,” says Mark Hall, the BLM’s Black Rock field manager. As far as COVID-19 restrictions go, that’s a state thing—and the BLM is a federal agency.
Just a few hours later, though, at 9 p.m., the BLM is in a standoff with Blaze, Stowaway, and several hundred other burners gathered around the trash man. There are fire dancers gyrating, music from a car stereo, and illumination provided by the high beams of a dozen or so cars idling in a circle. But the trash man is not aflame—yet. The BLM officers threaten to arrest Blaze if he sets fire to the wooden figure he has built.
“If they need to arrest somebody for lighting the man on fire, it’s going to be me,” announces Stowaway, working himself up. “Everybody get naked!”
Meanwhile, the Borg is livestreaming its burn from nearby Fly Ranch—the rumor was true. The video is being viewed by the burners who stayed home this year to attend the virtual Burning Man hosted by the Borg. The live feed shows a single woman, Crimson Rose, using torches to light a pyrotechnic charge inside a nearly 30-foot-tall human effigy. Soon the entire figure is alight.
Blaze’s eyes are on fire as he explains to me the situation as he sees it. “They’re having a big party at Fly Ranch right now,” he says, distraught with frustration and anger. “The only problem I have with that is their statements about ‘Don’t spread COVID into these small communities out here.’ And there they are having their own party down the road?”
The trash man is eventually pushed over. It’s an anticlimax, but Marky Mark is satisfied with this version of a burn. “It was still a celebration watching the man fall,” he says. “That was all we needed.”
I find myself nodding in agreement with Mark, the voice of moderation and reason on the playa, and at the same time realize that I came here not just to report on the scene but, like the rest of the crowd, for a desperately needed break from the default world, which has lately turned so grim.
Mark drifts off, along with most of the crowd, headed for the thump-thump of the shitty. I stay to chitchat with a few of the friends I made “buying” my ticket at the gate—Ben, Jigsaw, and Troublemaker—until we’re interrupted by Stowaway, who pulls me aside to tell me, “I did it!”
Sure enough, the trash man, now just a pile of scrap wood in a heap on the playa, is burning. But why? I ask.
“Because,” says Stowaway, eyes aglow, “the man has to burn!”
Adam Fisher is the author of Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom), named a top book for 2018 by both Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the BBC. He lives near San Francisco and writes for Wired, MIT Technology Review, and the New York Times Magazine.