Cruising at Burning Man Festival

June 2, 2010
J.Joshua Placa
J. Joshua Placa
Contributing Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

J. Joshua Placa is the former editor of Cruising Rider magazine. He freelances for a number of moto publications and has contributed to national travel and adventure magazines, as well as major dailies. Whereabouts unknown, Placa is rumored to be holing up in a clapboard desert shack, chopper chained to his pet coyote, Stinky, and comfortably hiding from the Vatican.

Cruising Burning Man Travel
Need an interesting destination for an extended two-wheeled jaunt? Our correspondent found the Burning Man festival a memorable experience.

Next time you’re droning down the highway wishing some adventure would come your way, take a moment to imagine a place where you can be truly free and uninhibited, a biker’s paradise. Picture somewhere that is all you ever dreamt motorcycle rallies should be, but never were. This isn’t the latest 3D fantasy flick; the event is real, and you can ride there.

The road to Utopia is open but once a year. For a singular week in September, some 50,000 of the faithful make the pilgrimage to a naked playa somewhere in the sun-drenched Nevada desert. The destination is Burning Man, a galactic, raw romp of pure, dazzling, inconceivable fun. If you ride anywhere in your life, ride here.

This is not somewhere over the rainbow. You can find it off Nevada Route 447, near the parched town of Gerlach, 120 miles north of Reno, pretty much right in the middle of absolutely Nowhere. It kind of looks like hell, but it will feel like heaven.

The annual event is an alternative-culture, avant-garde happening that redefines the borders of bohemia. Those frontiers were last seen in the underbelly of cities like New York and San Francisco, circa 1960s. They haven’t vanished, they just moved to the desert. This interactive art-music-weirdness festival is a coronation of passion, creation, destruction and rebirth.

Cruising Burning Man Travel
Don’t want to ride a bike? Art vehicles have become a normal part of the event. Vehicles can range from creative to “what the..?” We’ll classify this one under “What the…?”

In 2009, Burning Man drew nearly 44,000 freedom seeking souls from around the planet to its bare, fertile bosom. They came by motorcycle, they came by scooter, they came by serpentine waves of RV caravans, cars, SUVs, trucks, bicycles, and vehicles of unknown origin. They come more each year.

“Black Rock City” is temporarily erected on a featureless alkaline clay playa of the Black Rock Desert, complete with streets, signs, radio stations, a daily newsletter, a town square and a volunteer civilian patrol, the Black Rock Rangers. Nothing can live on the salt flats—what better place for a party?

It is a surreal, sensual experience that will enrich you, change you and leave you wondering why the hell this can’t happen everyday. The event’s crescendo is the spectacular, ritualistic burn of The Man in an out-of-this-world pyrotechnic display that makes the Fourth of July look like a wet firecracker. Thousands defy the dark, dancing under a full moon in frenetic revelry. The Man never dies; it renews itself every year as the centerpiece of this experimental community.

There are rules. This is survival in a hostile environment. Throngs of often-exhausted, partied-out people pitch tents in close proximity in an alien, ceaselessly stimulating world. There is no water, no food, no goods or services of any kind. It is not for the meek, or those who can’t get the most out of a saddlebag. Everything you will need for a week in the wilderness must be brought in. Nothing may be left behind; nothing. The rangers will politely inform you of the don’ts. You can do everything else.

Cruising Burning Man Travel
Young or old there is no age limit. How you dress is up to you, ranging from body painted costumes to Mardi Gras.

The emphasis at this metaphorical metropolis is on participation, on active involvement with people from all ages and walks of life, and interactive art forms that boggle the imagination and enchant the senses. From super-size playgrounds to outdoor art galleries to scooters and motorcycles shaped like flying saucers, dinosaurs and land sharks to Taj Mahal-like edifices and robotic sculptures, the dry lake bed is populated with the bizarre, the comical, the sublime, the suggestive, the bold, the sardonic, and mostly, the unreal. It is raw, it is refined, it is provocative and will tilt your view of the world 180 degrees. It has been called, “an arena of visionary reality.”

No matter how creative you think you are, you will be humbled. Burning Man cannot be compared to any other event in the history of the human race, or any race. It is a daring fusion of Woodstock, a San Francisco performing arts festival, Mardi Gras, Halloween, and Daytona Bike Week. It is an unbridled 24-hour, seven-day celebration. It is pagan, spiritual, clothes optional; it is creatively assertive, wild, outrageous fun colored in body paint.

Through a prism of art and action, of liberated self-expression and total acceptance, a joyous light shining brighter than the hot Nevada sun will focus in your mind, burn away your paradigms, and change the way you think. But enlightenment isn’t free.

Every year, organizers must petition the Bureau of Land Management for permission to use public land. It is always a battle. Since the event’s environmental impact record has been excellent, the festival prevails. The good news is that Burning Man is a “private” event, which means a lot goes. The law is as near as the nearest cop cruiser, but there is a lot of tolerance.

Cruising Burning Man Travel
And you thought Valentino Rossi was the only one with wacky helmets!

Rather than always wear the predictable biker uniform of menacing leather and evil T-shirts, you can reinvent yourself everyday. The biggest decision you’ll have to make is which body paint to use that afternoon. Complete or partial nudity is in vogue. You can dress like the man from Mars, or you can don nothing but the international motorcycle colors of black and red and no one will bat a glittered eye. This may be one of the reasons this is such a peaceful happening—it’s hard to argue with a naked person.

Perhaps awkward at first, it very quickly seems like the natural state of things. It’s a non-conformist’s dream; you can be whatever you want to be. If you ever wanted to ride your bike clothes-free, this is the place. After days in big black boots, the clay playa feels good on bare feet.

Cruising Burning Man Travel
Not enough room on the bike for everyone? Forget sidecars, a lawn chair on a trailer is in style at Burning Man.

Vehicular traffic is banned within Black Rock City, although once past the “town limits,” riders can be seen buzzing the endless playa, aiming their bikes hell-bent for the distant Black Rock Mountains. On the outer streets, however, I frequently saw guys putt one way, only to return with a woman on the pillion. Even here, the motorcycle is literally a mighty pick-up machine, as were a large assortment of unearthly looking pedal-powered contraptions. I was constantly amazed what a little welding know-how, some junkyard parts, a chain, sprocket and a lot of imagination could invent. It was part science fair, part Frankenstein repair manual.

Equally amazing was the fortitude of bikers bent on making Burning Man a motorcycle rally. They weren’t large in number, just big on balls. They rode in from everywhere, from California to Kalamazoo. They pitched their tents, rendezvoused with buddies, and sprayed on their costume. They came for a day; stayed for a week or until their saddlebags ran out of supplies. They escaped the world. And maybe that is true motorcycling.

Biking logistics offer a special challenge. Many rode in for only a brief stay, which makes packing all the necessities possible. Others asked friends to carry their gear and supplies. It can be done, and was. There were Harleys, Boss Hoss’ and old BMW sidehacks among the unbranded cobbled together contraptions. Real motorcyclists ride wherever the spirit leads. At Burning Man, it led to the core. Here, the heart is both tribally savage and highly civilized, social and individualistic, creative and symbolically destructive. It’s damn Disneyland run amok.

Cruising Burning Man Travel
The yearly event attracts all types of folks. Not everyone is dancing around in body paint or costumes.

Of course, desert survival inspires some practical advice, such as this gem from a guy on a Fat Boy who would only identify himself as “Andy from Boise”: “The alkaline salts really can screw up your electrical system, so dose your bike with baking soda before and after. That way, your wiring won’t get eaten.”

Another rider, leaning up against his Ultra Classic, said the event was very “therapeutic” for him: “Yeah, my brother is getting spanked, my sister’s in a cage; man, I never felt better!” And so it went for seven glorious days.

All commercialism is banned; gawking is discouraged. Nothing is sold here, not even T-shirts, but there is barter. You can swap a jar of mayonnaise for a bottle of Jack Daniels, or bread for a blanket, or water for a massage. The void of vendors, the absolute lack of something, anything to buy forces people to move their focus away from themselves and onto the experience. It encourages people to act out, to express their otherwise private passions and beliefs without care or consequence.

Burning Man means something different to most people. It can be a spiritual experience fraught with pomp and ceremony, a “burning” or cleansing of the soul, or it can be just one tremendous release. To most, it’s a mix of many things, a collage of fantasy and free-spiritedness.

Virtually anything and everything goes, as long as it hurts no one. The police stay on the periphery and out of the way unless there is real trouble, which has never, to my knowledge, occurred here. The citizens of Black Rock City do a good job at policing themselves. People like it that way, and it works, at least for a week.

Cruising Burning Man Travel
The creativity of attendees doesn’t stop at art cars and costumes. Even camp sites can be anything but normal.

Amid the sprawl were tents of every size and description, from pups to multi-room Arabian-style parachute silks. There were rows of RVs, there were people bivouacked in station wagons and bamboo huts. Standing out from the bustle and attracting steady streams of celebrants were theme camps.

Cultural, musical or theatrical in nature, they were living art and dream installations, as colorful in design as they were in name. These have included the Temple of Atonement, Illumination Village, Drano City, the Aging Hipsters, the Greaseball Panoptikon, the Tower of Babel, the Disco Headhunters, Church of the Orbital Orgy, Camp Smart Ass, The Wheel of Faith, Cultural Workers Union Camp, Bianca’s Smut Shack, the Aesthetic Meat Foundation, Picasso Camp, Cirque de Flambé and Disturbia. Some were inviting teahouses or lounges or sin shops or structures such as the Abduction Chamber, which simulated a visit to another planet. Some catered to specific fetishes.

There were stages everywhere, emanating non-stop rock, surf, soul, disco or hip-hop. A giant Tesla Coil fired bolts of lightning to the ground, the Fire Opera awed, the Electrical Parade delighted, the Critical Tits Bicycle Ride attracted scores of women and a few bra-sporting men, the Santa Convergence amused, the motorized Piano Bar packed in patrons and the Fashion Show blew everybody away. Many people rode bicycles, but for better perusal, most walked.

Cruising Burning Man Travel
Burning Man has come a long way since its small beginnings on the beach in 1986. With an average attendance of over 40,000 people it can be a bit of a challenge to navigate the temporary city constructed for one week in September. I’m sure getting directions is anything but average here.

All this controlled madness began on Baker Beach, San Francisco, in 1986. Artist Larry Harvey and buddy, Jerry James, built an eight-foot wooden figure and burned it in front of some 20 cheering, probably drunken spectators. No one knows why, but some believe Harvey razed it as an effigy to himself, to purge his spirit of a broken relationship. Officially, it’s a celebration of the summer solstice.

By 1991, The Man rose to 40 feet and the ritual had outgrown Baker Beach, thanks from some urging by the local constables. The new location was the Black Rock Desert. About 250 people participated. By 1997, Burning Man was gaining international notoriety. It had been moved to nearby Hualapai Playa. Some 10,000 attended.

In 1998, the Burning Man Festival moved back to Black Rock. Built upon a pyramidal pedestal, The Man had grown to 50 feet and stood alone in the night like a giant neon sentinel. Attendance then peaked at 16,000; 430 theme camps were registered. The event has grown exponentially since then, despite its challenges. If you’re a sissy, stay home; otherwise, sack up and ride out.

Burning Man remains non-funded. There are no sponsors and no free rides. Organizers and the massive work force are volunteer. Ticket prices have a sliding scale (see sidebar).

Cruising Burning Man Travel
If Sturgis is getting to tame for your tastes it might be time to think about Burning Man.

A trek to this event is not an inexpensive venture. You will need stuff, including about double the water you expect to use, at least one gallon per person per day, not including cooking or washing. There are porta-toilets, but no showers except for the moving water spray truck and a trickle from the One Tree, a sculpture erected in Center Camp, that drips water by day and burns lanterns by night.

Historically, the Burning Man Festival has a theme. For 2010, it will be “Metropolis Tumult and Change, churning cycles of invention and destruction—these forces generate the pulse of urban life. Great cities are organic, spontaneous, heterogeneous, and untidy hubs of social interaction. We will inspect the daily course of city life and the future prospect of civilization.”

Burning Man will be held Aug. 30 to Sept. 6. For more information and a Survival Guide, call 415- TO-FLAME; visit