by Kevin Taylor

Art Bell may not know this yet, but one of the largest cities in Nevada will vanish without a trace in just a few weeks. It's a city filled with people in feather boas, glitter, slinky dresses and booze. And those are just the men.

It's a city filled with public art... at least until the artists hurl their creations into raging fires as thousands of largely naked people dance and scream in the night.

No, it's not Las Vegas. This city, which is even now rising from an ancient lake bed in Nevada's empty upper left-hand corner, is Black Rock City, home to as many as 30,000 people for about a week at the end of every August. And it has entranced people from around the Western United States, who make the annual pilgrimage.

"There was this 40-foot man on fire and 20,000 people were gathered around, and there were other fires all around us and people were jumping through the flames and other people kept throwing things in,'' says Spokane's David Gross, remembering his first trip there.

Welcome to Burning Man.

This year's Man runs from Aug. 27 to Sept. 3. Tickets are already going for more than $200 and will rise considerably as the event approaches. But anyone thinking about making the trip might want first to visit and read the section marked Survival Guide. This is not like going to your county fair.

"It's about extreme self-expression in an extreme environment,'' says Spokane's Rob Crumley. "It can be 110 degrees during the day and drop to 40 degrees at night. There are 70-mile per hour winds and dust storms so thick you can't see three feet. And the thing is, there are 30,000 people not just existing in that environment, but thriving in it.''

Crumley first saw Burning Man on a television documentary and began giggling uncontrollably as one strange image after another flickered on the screen. "I felt like I found my people."

His first visit to the Man two years ago was a jolt. "You can feel the energy shift as you drive up. Suddenly you are in this place where normal rules don't apply, and you can choose to rebuild who you are.''

Crumley offers this tour of Black Rock City: "You are painted bright blue and covered in fairy dust, and you are naked and have a bright orange Cheeto in this hand. Then somebody offers you an ice cream cone that you carry in your other hand. And you are walking along and you come to a barricade where people are shouting, 'No work! No work! You have to go around because there is no work happening here.'

"And somebody comes up to you with an antique gold picture frame and wants to take a picture of your butt. And then you hear somebody calling 'Dino! Dino!' and you look over and it's Fred and Wilma Flintstone looking for their lost doggie dinosaur... and so you help them.

"Then a dust storm comes from behind you at 70 miles per hour, and you can't see the person next to you, so you just hunker down. And when the dust clears you are right next to a school bus that's been turned into a pirate ship, and there are 100 people on the roof with Super Soakers.

"And this is five minutes at Burning Man,'' Crumley says. "We create a city I would choose to live in if I could, but the city only lasts a week. It's where my spirit calls home.''

Although it may resemble Celtic ritual (think The Wicker Man), Burning Man has no pagan root. It grew out of a painful breakup.

In 1986, Larry Harvey was trying to get over the loss of a girlfriend from a particularly passionate relationship. "She was the first thought I had in the morning. She was the last thought I had at night,'' he wrote in a 1997 essay. "I had never been through anything like that... when you are in that state of mind, the anniversaries kill you.''

So Harvey decided to confront the pain with action and catharsis. He built a wooden figure for a solstice celebration and burned it on Baker Beach near San Francisco. It was a hit. And the Man, as well as the crowd of celebrants, grew larger year by year until police and park service attention forced a move to the Black Rock Desert by 1990.

As Crumley says, this is an extreme environment. Not many art festivals are held on alkaline desert playas that are the remains of Pleistocene-era lakes. Participants must haul in all the food they will need and all the water they will use for drinking, cooking and cleaning. There is no power except what you can create via generators, solar-devices or wind. Burners must bring their own shelter, toys, art and fun, as there is no commerce on the playa.

The event has become an ongoing experiment in art-driven community. Burning Man is run by the mottoes of "NO SPECTATORS" and "Leave No Trace."

Everyone who comes to Burning Man is expected to contribute, either by volunteering to help build and run the city or just by being entertaining.

And year after year, the presence of up to 30,000 people is erased to the satisfaction of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

"In most of the media it's tits and drunks, tits and drunks. Well, whatever. Burning Man is a lot more than that,'' says Gross, who brings his son and daughter to the festival, where they roam the theme camps looking for trampolines, swings, games and art.

"The surrealistic aspect is there are no assumptions. There is no status quo. You go down there and get out of your box.''

Gross, a welder, discovered Burning Man several years ago at a parade of art cars in north Portland. He had created a Toyota Celica with a bullet-riddled second skin. Someone came up to him and, pointing to the bullet holes, said, "You must have been to Burning Man."

"And I says, what's Burning Man?'' Gross recalls. The other guy started spinning a tale of this cool event in the desert that featured a Drive-by Shooting Range. "Sounded like my kind of thing,'' Gross says.

But by the time Gross reached the Man, the Drive-by Shooting Range had packed it in. The event has grown to the point where all guns and even fireworks are now banned for public safety. And Gross has joined the Rangers, the kilt-wearing alt-police who enforce the rules against the very thing that lured him to Burning Man in the first place.

"It's an evolving thing,'' Gross says, laughing as he tuned up some bicycles for the desert.

"It is a lake bed and you start from zero. There are no ants, there is no sagebrush, there are no flies. There is no life there,'' Crumley says. "We bring in our own food, our own water, and we create the fourth-largest city in Nevada for a week.

"Burning Man is about pure opportunity and potential. Spokane is about limits and constraints,'' Crumley says. "I found a place that is the antithesis of Spokane, and the world is not falling apart because of it.''

In fact, Crumley says, after going to Burning Man, it's Spokane that seems surreal. The event is not for everyone, he says, but the event has grown from an obscure act of grief on a Bay Area beach to the cover of the current issue of National Geographic.

And all seekers are welcomed at the entry point, which seems to be a border crossing to a different reality.

"Do you remember that scene at the end of Field of Dreams where all the cars are going through the cornfield? It's like that at Burning Man,'' says Crumley, who has volunteered to be a greeter.

"Cars come at all hours of the day and night,'" he says. "They are backed up for miles, and at night you can see a string of lights. And when they reach the greeter's station, we welcome every one.

"There was one woman, you could tell it was her first time, and so I reached in and held her arm and says, 'What took you so long? We've been waiting years for you to join us,'' Crumley says. "She burst into tears and says, 'Thank you. I'm glad to be home.' And I felt the same way -- it's like I was home.''

Kevin Taylor will work as a journalist at this year's gathering, writing for the Burning Man's daily newspaper. Pick up The Inlander on Sept. 6 to read his report from Black Rock City.

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.