Officially, Burning Man 2021 takes place in an alternate reality. The VR version of Black Rock City, which I reviewed last year, is returning with several neat upgrades — including museums dedicated to the event’s nondenominational Temple and its eponymous Man, along with live musical performances via virtual hologram.
But that’s not the hot topic of conversation among veterans of the 35-year old counterculture festival, which normally takes place the week before Labor Day. Frustrated by the second year in which COVID-19 canceled an actual physical gathering, thousands of Burners are taking matters into their own hands — by camping in their regular spot in the Black Rock desert of northern Nevada. Even a giant pall of smoke from California’s ongoing mega-fires does not appear to be dissuading them.
Call it Rogue Burning Man. Some veterans estimate as many as 20,000 people could show up next week. (Black Rock City’s population in 2019: 78,850.) A private Facebook group called Black Rock Plan B has more than 13,300 members, and its admins are constructing an unofficial map. It overlays the planned coordinates of 500-plus unofficial Burning Man camps on the traditional Black Rock City road grid — normally constructed a month in advance by Burning Man’s official Department of Public Works, now no more than a vague idea.
“We’re not dissuading people from going,” says Marian Goodell, longtime CEO of the nonprofit Burning Man organization, who plans on visiting Rogue Burning Man herself. “But I don’t think you should try to go if you’re not an experienced Burner. And if you last went in 1996, when we respected the dangers of the desert and communal effort was key, this is your year.”
In the years after the event transferred from San Francisco’s Baker Beach to the Black Rock desert in 1990, it was a rough-edged gathering with few rules. In 1996, three people were seriously injured when a drunk driver ran over a tent at night. Co-founders John Law and Larry Harvey disagreed about whether it should be held again. Harvey took control and returned in 1997 with the city grid, a 5 mph speed limit, and the beginnings of an army of volunteers.
“I don’t think you should try to go if you’re not an experienced Burner. And if you last went in 1996, when we respected the dangers of the desert and communal effort was key, this is your year.”
As Black Rock City became larger and safer, Burning Man’s anarchic early years have acquired a kind of mythic status among some attendees. Be careful what you wish for, Goodell warns: “I was there in ’96, it was scary as fuck,” she says. “People were driving 45 mph” — a speed at which cars can kick up large dust clouds on this ancient lake bed, not to mention hit things, especially at night. “I wouldn’t camp out on the edge of the playa, you’ll need to be near people,” says Goodell. “Camping in groups helps keep you visible.”
Not that much of anything may be visible anyway. At time of writing, the air quality on the playa is at an unhealthy-to-all value of 160 on the Air Quality Index, and has risen as high as 350, a hazardous level, in the last week, thanks largely to the out-of-control Caldor fire near Lake Tahoe. Wildfire smoke can make you more prone to a COVID infection, and the nearest hospitals, about 100 miles away in Reno, have seen a threefold increase in COVID cases this month.
The entrance to Burning Man’s location on August 18. Mountains are normally visible in the distance.
Credit: washoe county sherrif
Throw in all the other potential hazards of Black Rock life — hundred-mile-an-hour dust storms, sudden downpours that can trap vehicles in mountains of mud — and you have plenty of avenues for potential disaster.
Which is just the way that some adrenaline junkie Burners like it (a frequent motto at the event is “safety third”). But many event volunteers are nervous. One says he has dissuaded 13 people from attending by asking what they would do if a campmate broke a leg at 3 a.m. Drive them to Reno while keeping them sedated with tequila and a joint?
Goodell says she isn’t worried about hospitalizations for injury or dehydration so much as outsiders with evil intent infiltrating the event, or possible food poisoning. (In prior years, camps that served food to the public at Burning Man were required to get a permit.)
The Bureau of Land Management can’t stop people camping at the site; it is public land, after all. But the BLM has introduced temporary restrictions: no fires beyond elevated camp fires, no fireworks, no lasers, no gray water, no peeing on the playa, and perhaps most importantly to would-be attendees, no porta-potties. A good portion of the Plan B Facebook group is devoted to discussing various makeshift personal toilet options, for those who aren’t bringing an RV with enough capacity.
Thanks to such unappealing specifics, the number of attendees appears to be whittling down by the day. Anecdotally, out of my 41 friends who are members of the Plan B group, I could only confirm that two are planning on attending. The tone of the group appears a lot more sober than it did in July, even if there are still a few genuine posts from newbies asking about whiteouts and WiFi. (Given the prankster nature of the event, there’s also a lot of trolling along those lines.)
Rogue Burning Man may yet be a success. The air quality may drop to safe levels just in time. Either way, there will be art, there will be dancing to EDM, there will be playa weddings. Goodell’s hope is that Burners trained by years of radical self-reliance will be able to improvise their own infrastructure, such as agreeing to leave 20 feet between neighboring camps in case emergency vehicles need to get through.
But if you’re nervous about even trying, you absolutely do not need to go just to battle FOMO. After all, there’s a fascinating VR Burning Man taking place in the next universe over.
Read more: mashable.com