An Oral History of Burning Man, the Biggest, Weirdest, Most Clothing-Optional Desert Carnival on the Planet
Burning Man, the annual super-rave in Nevada, has become Independence Week for a worldwide tribe of inventors, artists, and desert freaks. Brad Wieners talks to founders and fans about how the party got started—and the death, mayhem, and power struggles that almost shut it down.
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“This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words. And indeed in thought.” —T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
It took some convincing to get me to Burning Man, even though—or because—friends couldn’t shut up about it. Their pictures were intriguing, sure, but the camp back then resembled nothing so much as the costumey parking lot of a Grateful Dead show.
Not a sell for me. And I like people fine, but when I go camping I generally hope to see fewer of them. Finally, worn down by heartfelt entreaties—and especially the assurances from my great friend John Law, a main mover in the festival’s start-up era—I drove overnight from San Francisco and made the Black Rock Desert shortly after dawn.
What I will never forget about that first trip to northwest Nevada was striking out onto the playa, the vast, vacant deceased lake bed. It was 1994—the ninth Burning Man, the fifth in the desert—a time before cell phones, and the map of the area I was headed to was blank. Directions? Look for the second traffic cone and a line of those small red-flag wire thingies. Leave the road. Drive eight miles, turn right for two more. Really, that was it.
Five minutes out, I found myself in an alkaline whiteout, partly of my own making because of the rooster tail of dirt I was kicking up. When I finally made camp it felt like an achievement, and I had adrenaline to burn. So, despite being sleep deprived, I wrapped a kaffiyeh around my head and took off on a walk.
Immediately, I started to get what I’d been missing: the almost gravitational communal spirit (needed for survival) and the permission, even insistence, to get your freak on. Everyone seemed busy: erecting tepees, hanging wind socks, painting their bodies. It was Montessori for grown-ups, in the most astonishing void.
Eighteen years later, tens of thousands have made the pilgrimage, some a bit too avidly, it’s fair to say. As the event grew, a pop-up metropolis formed—Black Rock City, whose population this year may top 60,000. The outfit that stages the festival, Black Rock City LLC, is now a $23 million-per-year concern with 40 full-time employees, hundreds of volunteers, and a non-profit arts foundation that doles out grants. Demand for tickets is so great, the organizers used a lottery system this spring. That turned out to be a mistake. Big-time artists and veteran volunteers were shut out, while scalpers ran the tickets ($250 face value) up to $1,000 on eBay.
For Burning Man’s principals, the ticket fiasco was merely the latest crisis they’ve had to overcome to keep the dance going. They’ve been faced with such challenges every year, it seems, and somehow they’ve always managed to meet the task—or to finagle someone who could.
In this light, Burning Man is partly the story of a half-dozen eccentrics—an unemployed landscaper (Larry Harvey), an art model (Crimson Rose), a struggling photographer (Will Roger Peterson), a dot-com PR gal (Marian Goodell), an aerobics instructor (Harley Dubois), and a signmaker (Michael Mikel)—who made good. Less charitably, it’s the tale of a group of slackers who grabbed hold of the one thing that brought them notice—and, eventually, a paycheck—and have ruthlessly ridden it for all it’s worth. The truth contains elements of both, of course, but one thing’s for sure: it’s never boring.
IN THE BEGINNING: 1986–1989
Before it drew thousands of determined pilgrims to the Nevada desert, Burning Man consisted of a small group of friends torching an effigy on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Was it a summer solstice party? Guerrilla art? Or, as legend had it, one man’s attempt to exorcise his heartbreak?
LARRY HARVEY (co-creator and executive director of Burning Man): My friend Mary Grauberger had done a celebration down on Baker Beach for years. In 1986, she’d decided not to do it again, and I thought we’d recreate that, but in our own way. I really wasn’t an artist. I was hanging out with these famous latte carpenters, all of whom, in their spare time, were writing novels or painting pictures or playing music. I think Jerry [James] may have asked me to repeat my statement on the phone so he understood what I was telling him: “Let’s burn a man on the beach.”
JERRY JAMES (co-creator): There wasn’t much more to it than that. Larry called me and asked, “Do you want to build a figure and go burn it for the solstice?” OK, sure.
FLASH (born Michael Hopkins, Burning Man jack-of-all-trades): Larry and I met on a double date. I was dating the daughter; he was dating the mother. He was smart and didn’t see the mother after that. [laughs] But I remember thinking: Whatever happens on this date, I like this guy. Later he tells me he’s going to do some ritual on the beach. Everyone had their thing. You helped on their thing, they’d be there for yours.
JAMES: The first one was just a little stick figure. Scrap wood from Flash’s mother-in-law’s garage, I think. I started by crafting a rib cage with dimension to it and trying to figure out how to do a head. So, a pyramid shape.
JOE FENTON (member of the Black Rock Rangers, Burning Man’s security team): I didn’t go to the burns on the beach, but I did a paper about them for a college course on the anthropology of festivals. Larry told me very specifically that the figure was an effigy of his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his son. He told me he wanted to burn her out of his memory. He moved off that soon afterward. I guess he figured it wasn’t very politically correct, and now that idea is actively suppressed.
FLASH: Of course it’s a woman! Look at the hips! It freaks people out when I tell them that, because they’re so serious about it now. They’re on their journey to the sacred. But what does it matter? The Man is what you need him to be.
HARVEY: The idea that it was over a breakup—I actually made that observation once, to a reporter from Outside [“Black Rock Flambé,” September 1993]. That was not a conscious thought in my mind at the time. That was the result of introspection. But people like a simple story; it gets them off the hook. It’s over a love affair. Oh.
JAMES: It was June. A typical dark, foggy, windy night on a San Francisco beach. Besides our little group, there were really only about four other people around, and they came over when we ignited this thing. One of them had a guitar or a tambourine, and that was sweet. But it wasn’t like people just fell upon the Burning Man. I think they wanted to get warm.
HARVEY: To some it represented a guerrilla action, and that was kind of inspiring. But it wasn’t really a criminal thrill. We wanted to do it, and we had to do it sort of undercover, because the authorities would never permit a fire of that magnitude.
JAMES: By the second or third year, the Man had grown to 40 feet, and I needed help getting it set up out there. Larry wasn’t a builder. He had ideas for the design, but I needed bodies. I’d read about the Cacophony Society, so we contacted them.
MICHAEL MIKEL (co-creator, founder of the Black Rock Rangers): Our motto at the Cacophony Society was “We’re a randomly gathered network of free spirits, united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.” We got a lot of our philosophy from the Suicide Club, which did things like climb the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of the night. But the Suicide Club was so far underground, I couldn’t find them. I decided Cacophony would be much more open. We started listing events in the newsletter, and it just grew.
STUART MANGRUM (publisher of the Black Rock Gazette, the first Burning Man newspaper): The Cacophonists were like this magic network, turning their imaginary friends into real friends, people who otherwise were too unusual to unite with others. Some of them were really feral. But the critical thing was, Cacophony turned you from a talker into a doer.
P. SEGAL (writer whose apartment at 1907 Golden Gate Ave. served as Cacophony headquarters): Typically, whenever we wanted to make something happen, we had a party. That’s how John Law made his entry into my life: climbing through a third-story window that had no fire escape. I met Carrie [Galbraith] that same evening. She really brought together all these people who became pivotal in making Burning Man happen.
JOHN LAW (co-creator): There were a few philosophical underpinnings to Burning Man, but the one that got us to the desert was the Zone concept Carrie came up with. The idea was that you would cross an imaginary barrier, and after that you’d be in an alien land where anything could happen.
CARRIE GALBRAITH (Cacophonist): The concept for the Zone came from my infatuation with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically Stalker and the book it was based on. In Cacophony, we took turns leading the others on Zone Trips, where you didn’t know where they were taking you. For the first one, I just put an event write-up in the newsletter. “We’re going to the Zone. Meet at my place at 11 p.m. on Friday night. We’ll be back on Sunday.”
LAW: We did two Zone Trips to L.A., and at least one to Mexico. The idea for a Zone Trip to the Black Rock Desert came from Kevin Evans.
SEGAL: Kevin was young, like 19, but he was such a good artist, so we invited him to live with us at 1907. Another of my roommates was very good friends with this guy Mel Fry, an alias. Mel grew up near the Black Rock Desert, and he would do these events out there. The most famous was the Croquet X Machina game, which my roommate had gone to in 1988. Later we went to something called the Wind Sculpture Festival. Kevin and I and two friends built a canopy bed on wheels and went out there to sail it around and had an absolutely amazing time.
KEVIN EVANS (artist and animator): The Black Rock’s this sea of nothingness, and setting art on the desert reminded me of these sculptures in the mudflats of Emeryville [east of San Francisco] that I admired as a kid. When the Man didn’t burn at the beach in 1990—because the police and fire department shut it down—I suggested taking it to the Black Rock.
HARVEY: I don’t remember the exact words they used to describe the desert, but I imagined something extraordinary. And it turned out to be that.
THE FIRE AND THE GLORY: 1990–1995
Burning Man on Baker Beach was a bonfire, but Burning Man in the Nevada desert quickly became something more: an itinerant carnival, bacchanal, and no-walls art showcase.
VANESSA KUEMMERLE (co-creator): When you reach the point where you can see the desert open up, it’s amazing. We’d piled into this station wagon and thrown some potatoes on the manifold to cook, and when we got to the edge of the playa there was nobody there. Nobody anywhere. We got there at dusk, which is my favorite time. You look out, it’s like the goddamn surface of the moon.
WILL ROGER PETERSON (Burning Man board member): The life-changing experience has to do with the place itself. You weather a few dust storms, see a few rainbows, look at the sky at night. It’s like being on a boat on the ocean, except it’s not. You can walk on it.
FLASH: Black Rock City has greeters now, did you know that? Like you just entered Walmart. “Welcome home, Burner!” they say. Are you kidding me? This isn’t home. This is not Shangri-La. Why it was funny in the first place was that we had no business being there.
MIKEL: We survived on granola bars. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner—it was what we had. Now you can get seven-course gourmet meals. You can have sushi on a naked woman.
FENTON: The first thing you learn when you arrive is that you’re not done yet. You have to figure out shelter, you have to figure out shade. You don’t just come, drop your plate of vegetables, and get your party on. There’s work. I really responded to that.
WILLIAM BINZEN (artist): Larry asked me for ideas about the layout of the camp. I said I thought we should have circles within circles, like a target, with four sections: north, south, east, and west. From the beginning, I told Larry that Burning Man should be much more than just a blowout barbecue party—that we should make it about art. Because art is a way that we define who we are in time and place and share an experience we would not otherwise have.
CRIMSON ROSE (Burning Man board member): When Larry first called to ask me if I’d do something for the project, I snobbishly turned him down. But the next year, in ’91, I saw the Man in San Francisco and something clicked. I knew I had to go.
MIKEL: I started the Black Rock Rangers in ’92. That year, Burning Man was way up on the north end of the desert, miles and miles away, and if you missed it by a couple of degrees you could go veering off and get lost. So I got together with a bunch of friends and formed the Rangers. Back before we banned driving cars in camp, we had one guy who had been reckless, so we let the air out of his tires and left a note saying “Air pressure is a privilege.” That was our frontier justice.
FENTON: Our idea for the Rangers was, don’t be such an idiot that the real sheriffs have to get involved. We were going to protect you from yourself.
LAW: Everyone contributed based on what they knew how to do. I did neon at a sign company, so I did neon for the Man. Nothing was set in stone at all. Three Day Stubble, the first band to play out there, was the last band you would ever expect to hear in the desert—this retarded nerd rock. It was like the absolute antithesis of what anyone would imagine to be a spiritual experience.
KUEMMERLE: We pretty much always wanted there not to be drum circles. We never quite got that one to fly.
LAW: Yeah, we made bumper stickers: NO DRUM CIRCLES. It was a joke, mostly. As early as ’93, we were joking about Burning Man becoming a religion.
FENTON: Later there was this idea that those of us with guns didn’t care about safety, but that’s bullshit. We were the first to recognize when firing weapons wasn’t safe anymore. In 1993, I did the Drive-By Shooting Range and the Golf Skeet, and they were both 10 to 15 miles outside camp. For the Golf Skeet, we had one guy with a 12-gauge and one hitting balls with a sand wedge, and you’d get points every time you hit the ball. The Golf Skeet died when this guy showed up with an M1 Garand, which is a .30-06 rifle that can shoot a mile.
CHRIS RADCLIFFE (Cacophonist): As a kid in Yosemite, I’d seen this thing where they lit a cord of firewood and dropped it over Bridalveil Fall, so you had a river of sparks pouring down. I found this rock wall at the top of the playa. Everyone had their semiautomatics, mostly AK-47’s, and on my signal we emptied a clip into the plate rock. As much ammo as you can, and there’d be this shower of sparks cascading down, followed by a freight train of echoes. A waterfall of fire. Beautiful.
KEVIN KELLY (a founding editor of Wired magazine): They’re burning stuff, exploding stuff, there was the primeval draw of flickering flame—but it felt safe to me. In 1994, I took my two daughters, who were six and eight. They were the only children I saw at that time, but there was a feeling that outside the tribe you were vulnerable, but inside you were safe.
“CHICKEN” JOHN RINALDI (director of Circus Redickuless, a 1990s punk talent show): Burning Man wasn’t a church, it was a possibility engine. It wasn’t about who makes great art, it was that everyone is making art. That’s the greatest thing.
FENTON: My first year, 1991, it’s 100 people. The second year it’s 400, and the third 800. At that point it wasn’t so much that there were a lot of people but that there were a lot of people you couldn’t vouch for. Some came to party, some came looking for an art event, and some were Mad Max reenactors. Then, in ’94, we called it the Black Rock Arts Festival, and we had real artists doing real art, like Pepe Ozan. That’s the same year the theme-camp idea came about.
HARVEY: Peter [Doty] has been celebrated for Christmas Camp, the first really funny one. It was a spoof of a mall Santa. Peter was Santa, and he played Christmas carols constantly and guilt-tripped everyone: “Santa gives and he gives, and what does he get?” He served eggnog in 95 degrees and then complained bitterly when you wouldn’t drink it.
BINZEN: Some of the most astonishing moments came from Kimric Smythe, one of the early pyrotechnic people. As Exploding Man, he and his wife, Heidi, both had these big spinning armatures strapped
to their backs, with fireworks and sparks shooting off. It was inspiring to see what unexpected things people could do. We’d go to their camps afterward to congratulate them before hunkering down in the quiet of the desert—until the first rave camp came to the desert and cranked it up.
MANGRUM: After ’94, Larry wanted a theme for the entire festival. I made fun of him: What, like Enchantment Under the Sea? Like it’s a prom? But there were getting to be some real tensions. In 1995, there was the first rave, and it went 24/7 and kept people up. So I think Larry thought a theme would help define it.
In a series of pre-festival events in San Francisco, artists and Cacophonists hatched various plays and subplots, all based on Dante’s Inferno and all supporting a central story about a hostile takeover of Burning Man by Helco and Papa Satan, its CEO.
MIKEL: The whole theme was a parody about commerce. The idea was that the devil was going to take over Burning Man. He ran a fictitious company called Helco, and it was like the end of the world.
HARLEY DUBOIS (Burning Man board member): We were always looking for the tipping point. When does it not work anymore? In ’96, we found it.
KUEMMERLE: We talked about it many a time. When does a group of people become a mob and lose a sense of responsibility for their actions and the wellbeing of all?
MIKEL: It started during the setup days. Michael Furey, a neon artist, was in the town of Gerlach, drinking at the bar. Toward dusk he got on his motorcycle to go back to camp, and people tried to convince him to put his bike in a truck, but he declined. There was somebody in a van driving back at the same time, and Michael started doing these runs at the van to see how close he could get.
KUEMMERLE: It was that twilight hour. I had gone into town and was at a gas station where there were a whole bunch of people trying to figure out how to get to Burning Man. There was a caravan of maybe 10, 20 cars. Beautiful sunset. At some point I see a flashing light out on the playa. Is it really far away? Close? And then all of a sudden, whoom!—I see that it’s John [Law]’s white van. A guy called SteveCo was driving. I pull over and stop the car. SteveCo stops the van and just looks at me and goes, “Mike Furey’s dead.” Furey had been playing chicken with the van and was basically decapitated by the side mirror. There wasn’t any ambiguity there.
LAW: Furey killed himself, but it was Larry’s response that made me certain I was done after that year.
KUEMMERLE: We’re waiting for a coroner and the sheriff. An SUV comes up, or a minivan, and Larry and a few other people get out. Larry bursts onto the scene and he says—I swear to fucking God—four times in a row: “There’s no blood on our hands!” My jaw was on the playa. It was one of those moments of looking into someone’s mind and not being too excited about what I saw.
FENTON: Larry’s way of dealing with 1996 was to try and control what was getting to the media. When Furey died, the first thing Larry did was look at his watch. He made sure to say it happened at 11:30 the night before the event officially began. So it didn’t happen at the festival but before the festival, as if Furey’s death was somehow not related. It was a stupid, alcoholic, moronic death. But you couldn’t deny that he chose this event to die at.
RADCLIFFE: Burning Man had become Larry’s whole life, so for John to say it’s over—that was a problem. Larry started politicking during the festival, telling me that John was handing out speed to volunteers. I told him if he repeated that, I’d strangle him. And he did. So I did.
HARVEY: That is an invention. Chris never threatened me with violence. He’s a fertile source of ruses. When it came down to it, there was this argument in ’96 that divided myself and others. John was among them. There were members of that crowd who put out a T-shirt that said BURNING MAN: WOODSTOCK OR ALTAMONT? YOU BE THE JUDGE. You could tell they were secretly rooting for Altamont.
ALAN “REVEREND AL” RIDENOUR (head of Los Angeles Cacophony): In ’96, Burning Man was at its peak. We did the Damnation of Tinseltown and the flaming Helco tower. Burn Night felt like a scary, transformative ritual. Flash played Satan, and he came through with a gas can and doused Doris Day and John Wayne. I was on acid when I heard Flash’s booming laugh. He was Satan.
ELIZABETH GILBERT (author of Eat, Pray, Love who wrote about Burning Man ’96 for Spin): Honestly, I was scared of it. I remember the way the camp turned from this playful thing by day—beautiful and fanciful and Narnia-like—to this menacing thing at night. Being around all that fire, people with guns, and a lot of people on drugs, I was like, “They’ll be eating each other soon!” And in some ways they were—more sexually than anything else. I understood that Burning Man was waking something up. That awakening might lead to transcendent creativity—or it might be savage and ungovernable once it’s released.
HARVEY: What finally occurred in ’96 was a question about two different visions of what Burning Man should be. Should it be civilized? Or should it be, essentially, a repudiation of order? If it’s a repudiation of order and authority, and you’re the organizer and it involves thousands of people, what does that mean for you? What kind of a moral position is that to be in?
LAW: Of course it had to change. We knew better than anyone, because we worked hard to keep everyone safe. But there was an opportunity there to say, Don’t make it bigger. Why does it need to be thousands? Keep it to a size where you know who you’re dealing with.
CHICKEN JOHN: We didn’t finish cleaning up that year until October 3, a full month later. When Larry left—I think it was the second morning after the burn—I was actually relieved. But back in the city, he was telling a bunch of artists that they’d see $500, or $300, or $200—and that John Law would give them the money when he got back. Only John spent everything he had left on dumpsters and keeping us alive out there. It got personal. Larry wasn’t doing the work, we were. All while he was setting John up.
BINZEN: Many of the old-timers who no longer participate really liked Larry at first but came to see him as a classic manipulator, a user from behind the Oz curtain.
KUEMMERLE: I remember going to a post-event meeting in October 1996, and there were accusations pointed at John and me that we had stolen money and were doing crazy shit. We’d just killed ourselves cleaning up this mess, only to come back to San Francisco to hear others bitch and moan. That was it for me.
MIKEL: There was a second serious accident in ’96, the morning after the burn. Someone drove over a tent with a couple in it and then crashed into another car, scalding a third woman with radiator fluid. The couple had to be medevaced, and the burned woman had to be driven all the way to Reno.
LAW: No one who goes to Burning Man today is going to care about a bunch of old farts who are mad at each other because the band broke up. But they should know who they’re dealing with. Larry’s no saint. He’s also no visionary.
MIKEL: That was the year John Law decided not to do it again, and the accidents were really traumatic for those of us who’d responded to them. But afterward I looked at everything that had happened and realized that, by and large, people there had an incredibly wonderful time. I decided to keep that perspective. Rather than not do Burning Man anymore, we needed to keep it going.
OUT OF THE ASHES: 1997–1998
After 1996, the Bureau of Land Management wouldn’t allow the event back on Black Rock Desert, so it was moved onto private land 10 miles northwest of the old site, on the grassy Hualapai Playa. Two women—Marian Goodell, a.k.a. Maid Marian, and Harley Dubois—stepped in to revamp the festival’s logistics.
FENTON: If it hadn’t been for Marian and Harley, it would have fallen apart.
MARIAN GOODELL (Burning Man board member): I came in as Larry’s companion, so I went to the meetings with public officials, and I had a fresh perspective. We’d been like cowboys with our hats tilted sideways, and that wasn’t the best approach.
DUBOIS: There was a new appreciation for organization. Most of the infrastructure that people see when they come to Burning Man today, I created. I created Playa Information Services, which maps out where all the theme camps go. I developed the New Earth Guardians, the environmental arm that teaches people about Leave No Trace.
GOODELL: Even on private property, Nevada has to approve mass gatherings, and since the event was partially held on scrub-brush land, $350,000 had to be designated to Washoe County for fire protection. We didn’t have that. We made an agreement that 25 percent of every ticket would go into an escrow account. When they found that the escrow balance was low, the sheriff started taking the entire gate home every day.
BRIAN DOHERTY (author of This Is Burning Man): While it definitely changed after ’96—it was way more planned—that didn’t keep it from being amazing. Before then, a lot of the art was discards. Stuff cobbled together, old doors or signs, or Steve Heck’s surreal collection of junk pianos. As it went on, the art was commissioned. It may have become more of a theme park, but people were still making the theme park as they went along.
MICHAEL CHRISTIAN (artist): What I found is that whatever you needed, you could get, and the joy of building out there was not knowing where your project was going exactly, but adapting to what’s “provided.” I was always surprised by what you could find. You’d put the word out: we need a physicist who knows these sorts of calculations. Well, there’s so-and-so at camp blah de blah. You’d go down there, and they’d tell you, “The electric polarity of your blah de blah is off….” Really, did that just happen? And that happened a lot.
DOHERTY: It isn’t as if all the danger went away, either. In ’97, Jim Mason did his Temporal Decomposition sculpture, which he all but killed himself making, with 60,000 gallons of cubic ice in a massive sphere. He also had his Veg-o-Matic—this flamethrower on a tractor that shot fire 40 feet. He drove around on Burn Night looking for stuff to torch, burning whole camps, it seemed, and then ended up attacking his ice ball—this epic battle between fire and ice. Ice won: he ran out of fuel.
GOODELL: Everyone agreed private land had sucked. After the ’97 burn, we got more tactical. Flash created the Empire and Gerlach Chamber of Commerce, with a phone number that rang at a bar where he worked. I found an ally at the BLM, and we had a letter-writing campaign. It took all winter, and I remember I was standing in a snowstorm outside the BLM office when we got the news that we’d get the permit. We were going back to the playa.
FLASH: Help wasn’t easy to come by in Gerlach, and I hired this woman on as a cook, and … well, if I’ve learned only one thing in life, it’s this: never tell a chick she can’t cook a chicken. She’s serving it, and it’s still bleeding. So I fired her. Next night, she came after me with a .38. I was walking along, and she yells at me. I turn, see she has the gun, and she shoots at me. I hit the deck, but she’s walking toward me, so I get to my feet and scramble into Bruno’s bar. I get in there, and my leg’s hit. I figure I’ll go out like in a western. I yell, “Boys, some bitch just shot me! Give me some whiskey!” The bartender gives me two shots of Jack Daniel’s. Unfortunately for the woman, she was a bad shot. She got five years. I got famous.
TENDING THE FIRE: 1999–2012
Back on the playa after 1998, the organizers established a template that has endured since, even as lawsuits among board members and an act of sabotage tested the event’s integrity.
GEOFF DYER (author of Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, among other books): By the time I went, in 1999, a lot of people were already lamenting that it wasn’t the anarchic free-for-all that it had been. I stopped going myself in 2005, but I feel very sure that the people who started going in 2006 were as absolutely wonderstruck as I was.
JESS HOBBS (artist): The '90s were known more for the art of these guys who created dangerous machines—on fire. The Flaming Lotus Girls started in 2000 with 12 girls who wanted to make more interesting large sculptures with fire. To say Burning Man changed my life is a cliché, but I didn’t build large-scale art before I went, and now that’s a big part of my life. That happened for a lot of us.
KELLY: It became a venue where technologists and artists introduced new things. Like el-wire—this neon wire. Out of nowhere comes this glowing outline of a galloping horse. It was the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen.
FLASH: El-wire. LEDs. Lasers. There’s so much light, it’s a strange version of Vegas now.
DYER: The second year my wife and I went, in 2001, we were aware that there was this sort of sex dimension at Burning Man. Somebody mentioned this place called the Fornication Station. We found the tent and started queuing up, and there was this incredibly muscular guy in bondage-like wear. In a lovely, soft voice, he explained what the rules were. This really cool woman said, “Oh, I’ll just see if there’s a table for you.” If you went now, it would probably be full of Europeans.
ADRIAN ROBERTS (publisher of Piss Clear, Burning Man’s alternative newspaper): This year will be my 20th, and by far the best burn ever was in 2007, when someone burned the Man a week early. It was at the start of the week, maybe 10,000 people were in camp, and all of a sudden you’re like, Is the Man on fire? It was spontaneous. It was exciting. It was everything that the burn hadn’t been in years.
DUBOIS: I slept through it, and when I woke up in the morning somebody said to me, “Harley, whoever lit the Man has red and black paint on their face.” I said, “Paul Addis.” Because I knew him. I’ve known him since ’94. I totally understand that old-school mentality, but he probably wasn’t on his medication, which he needs to stay on.
ROGER: I was not amused. There’s a difference between doing a prank and arson. It cost us thousands of dollars to build a new Man in just a few days. We took him to court over the damages.
CHICKEN JOHN: But they didn’t have to make it a felony! Addis was not well, and the board knew that. They sent their sick friend to prison, for what? No one got hurt. He burned firewood—wood that was intended to be burned. And it was funny. It was like going back to the beach. And yet [Will] Roger showed up in court with every receipt he could find to make sure it amounted to a felony.
ROBERTS: Part of the reason I’ve been going to Burning Man for 20 years is that I’ve never gotten too close to the source of the flame, so to speak. Practically every person I know who works close to the board gets burned out, because they kind of get used.
DUBOIS: It’s been difficult. All of us have wanted to quit at times. But as an organization, we’ve gotten better at managing the cycle. And we’ve weathered all the interpersonal stuff, too.
MIKEL: After the 1990s, Larry built a political power base, and he chose to keep only yes-people around. I was the only person during the 2000–01 period who was willing to say, “No, Larry, this is not right.” That power struggle came to a head in 2003, when Larry decided to take complete ownership of it all. I called him on it and filed a lawsuit. John Law sued him, too. Eventually, everything got settled, and it got to a point where board members could stand up for themselves.
FLASH: If you want the real story of the founders in a nutshell, it’s this: We’re friends. Here’s the money. Here’s a knife. That’s it.
GOODELL: One time, I think it must have been 2004, I told Michael Mikel that I thought I was going crazy. He told me, “We’re all going crazy.” And I was like, “That isn’t helpful!” I was worried that I was caught up with a bunch of people and that Larry’s vision had manifest as something potentially evil. My dad didn’t like Burning Man—well, he eventually did, but he was very cautious. He looked at the website, and when he saw Larry’s bio he said, “That’s a messianic personality.”
ROSE: It’s still worth it, because it gives artists the chance to realize their vision.
CHRISTIAN: A lot of fun stuff still happens, but it’s not what it used to be. Not that I’m pining for the good old days, but Burning Man itself doesn’t really have any original ideas. They’re just kind of steering the ship, and not exactly in the way most people I know would recommend. It’s become a lot more like Mardi Gras, people coming out to go to a great party. But it is a great party.
GILBERT: I’m too old to be surprised by failed utopias. It’s more amazing that it continues at all. And I’m glad it endures. I’m always happy to hear people say they’re going. They always invite me, for some reason. I always say, “Next year—I’ll go with you guys next year.”
Additional reporting by Meaghen Brown.
Brad Wieners (@BradWieners), a former senior editor at Outside, is executive editor of Bloomberg Businessweek.