The annual Burning Man event centers on building an almost-anything-goes city in the desert for just a week.
Trevor Hughes/USA TODAY
RENO, Nevada — Tens of thousands of costumed participants flooding into Nevada for the annual Burning Man festival are facing newly toughened law enforcement scrutiny as they wind their way into the remote desert to build a temporary city for 70,000 people for a week of all-night dance parties and with a strong dose of nudity.
The event is being held for the first time since two notable deaths, including that of founder Larry Harvey, who passed away this summer following a stroke. Participants will also be mourning the death of man who during the final days of last year’s event shockingly ran into a massive fire in view of thousands of participants.
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The event officially runs Aug. 26-Sept. 3 and culminates in two days of massive fires, first the raucous burning of a 100-foot-tall wooden effigy amid a blazing fireworks display, and then the solemn burn of a wooden “temple” stuffed with notes and letters to loved ones.
About half the participants are returners, and the other half, like fulltime digital nomad Brittney Gustin, are brimming mix of excitement and anxiety. Burning Man participants must provide all of their own food and water for the event; the only things for sale will be coffee and ice. Friday found Gustin loading her van with supplies in a Walmart parking lot, surrounded by dozens of similarly occupied “Burners.”
“I have no expectations. And that seems like a good thing,” said Gustin, a health care consultant who lives in her van. General admission tickets for the eight-day event cost nearly $400 and sold out within minutes. Participants routinely give food or trinkets to each other, but bartering and the exchange of money is frowned upon.
The festival itself is facing a crossroads, driven by organizers’ eventual desire to increase annual participation to 100,000 people while maintaining the ethos that made it special in the first place: an “almost anything goes” atmosphere of nudity, drugs and all-night dance parties. Organizers are also trying to balance a culture of consent and the #MeToo movement with the festival’s longstanding tradition of strangers hugging hello.
The event has drawn criticism over the past several years for the growth of special camps for the ultra-wealthy, where hired staff cater to their every need, including customized Instagram-ready costumes, and private planes whisk them in and out without the inconvenience of waiting in line. Executives from Google, Apple, Facebook and Tesla have all attended previously.
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But before it has even officially started, this year’s festival is already facing controversy: Federal police are targeting participants heading from Reno north into the desert, pulling over drivers for minor traffic infractions and searching for drugs. Burning Man officials are threatening to sue the federal government over the traffic stops, complaining they are unwarranted and unconstitutional. Federal officials say the timing of the extra-tough traffic stops is merely a coincidence as the Trump Administration cracks down on opioid abuse.
Here’s a quick peek at the scene on the playa before the first official day of Burning Man.
Andy Barron, Reno Gazette Journal
“The real gauntlet is getting to the playa,” said Mike Harden, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, whose lands most Burners must cross via a two-lane road to reach the event. It’s unclear whether the get-tough law enforcement attitude will extend to the playa itself, which is federal land rented by Burning Man for the event. Federal cops circulate within the festival, and have been searching arriving vehicles to enforce the federal ban on marijuana, which is otherwise legal in Nevada.
Longtime participant AleXander Hirka of New York City said the “amazing” level of freedom at Burning Man is a major draw for participants, who adopt playa names, wear costumes and take on roles they might never consider in the outside world. That freedom means people are welcome to walk around naked without judgement or fear or arrest. As he usually does, Hirka is camping with a group of polyamorous friends, who celebrate unconventional romantic relationships. Still, Hirka said he’s noticed an increased law enforcement presence over his 11 years attending: “It does feel more oppressive.”
Crimson Rose, one of the event’s founders, last year said there’s always been a struggle to balance safety and freedom.
“It’s easy to dismiss the idea of strangers peacefully existing on a barren lakebed,” she said. “How do you explain it? It’s about community coming together. Sometimes people don’t know how to handle the extremes. There’s so much freedom here.”
Dozens of participants are usually arrested each year, mostly for drug possession, and the Burning Man organization officially disavows any illegal activity. In their threat to sue over the traffic stops, Burning Man organizers said the harsh policing seemed designed to stifle participants’ First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and express themselves.
Free expression and the art accompanying it is what draws Tammy Remington of New York. Fantastic and whimsical art installations are scattered around the seven-square-mile “city” in the desert, and lighted vehicles circulate constantly, dance music pumping from massive speakers. There’s nothing else like it on Earth, she said.
“I don’t go because it’s cool. I don’t even think of it as cool,” Remington said. “It’s just that you go and there are these sublime moments you have that you know will never happen anywhere else and will never happen again.”
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