The first clue is the patina of playa dust encrusting the vehicle. Then there’s usually at least one bicycle, or parts of bicycles, hanging off the side with wheels spinning in the wind. That’s usually enough to tell, but the final and most assured way to know is by the Burning Man symbol, sometimes just an X with a circle between the upper arms, taped or painted on the tailgate or trunk.
The driver of this vehicle is a Burner going home.
A decade ago, when we lived in Truckee, we’d see vans and trucks and autos of all kinds lumbering along I-80 on Labor Day. Their vehicles not only sported the above listed signs, but often, there would be remnants of art fluttering or swaying as the vehicles crossed Donner Pass.
Burners fascinate me from this slightly removed state, much as hippies did back in the Sixties if I spied one or two in my Great Basin home town. This counter culture flashed its presence around us mainstream kids like forbidden trinkets on a carnie sideshow.
It wasn’t until my husband and I shared a pool in a hot spring near Bridgeport, CA a few years ago. It was the day after Labor Day and this nude young man soaked to removed the playa dust embedded in his skin.
At first, we were all bashful, but soon he spoke of artworks that defied description and the ceremonial burning of an art piece that took its maker years and several thousand dollars to build. The concept of such waste baffled me, but that’s the whole point of Burning Man: detachment from material possessions.
This year, the pageant of Burners appeared to have evolved into something more upscale. No longer did we see ancient, hippie-esque vehicles swaying under the weight of installations, camp gear and heavy, white dust.
We saw two Class A RV’s, one rather new and expensive, racing to merge from a diminishing right lane. Between them was an unmarked delivery-type truck, the Burning Man symbol taped in the corner of its tailgate the only clue.
Later on, a dusty white Prius whizzed around us, followed closely by an equally dusty, black Prius. They had identical, chrome Burning Man symbols shining from the left rear bumper. We figured they were traveling together until the black Prius sped forward and left the white one far behind it.
“Burning Man has come up in the world,” I said to my husband. He countered with “I don’t doubt it. You have to have money to buy tickets these days.”
Burning Man sold out this year, bringing around fifty thousand burners to Black Rock City. Of course, Burning Man is no longer a small collection of hippie artists burning driftwood structures across the bay from San Francisco as it was back in the Sixties.
Thousands gather from all over the world now, some bringing their children, to experience this yearly ritual of free living and what some might call decadence. The fact that this celebration has moved from the Bay Area to a desert in Nevada says a great deal. Nevada has lots of room to make big mistakes.
The Burning Man organization, however, takes great pains to ensure the event is well organized, relatively safe and fun, and that there’s a crew on hand to clean up whatever mess is left after Burners have removed everything they brought in with them.
Unlike Woodstock, Burning Man is a testament to the fact that people can let their inhibitions go for a week and still be able to clean up after themselves. It would be a sad irony if these environmentally aware folks left a quagmire behind.
A clean playa isn’t all Burning Man leaves behind, though. For several years, Burning Man has donated thousands of dollars to set up clean energy systems for schools in surrounding communities, such as Nixon and Gerlach, NV.
In fact, Burners bring millions of dollars to Reno, Sparks and other communities. Camping equipment, food, water, clothing; everything has to be brought into the playa for the event. I joked to my husband that car washes for hundreds of miles around Black Rock Desert must do a huge business on Labor Day Weekend.
What’s more, I discovered this year that UStream furnishes a live webcam of the event. Watching Burners walk and bicycle around the open plaza of art pieces and listening to DJ Rusty Rebar over KBMI radio brought me just a wee bit closer to experiencing Burning Man for myself.
Someday, I hope I’ll work up the courage and the cash to actually get a little playa dust embedded in my skin, even for a day.