There’s a repurposed school bus that’s often parked in the vacant lot next to The Mine Shaft bar in Winnemucca, Nevada. This small painting adorns its side. I’ve often pondered what it means. My best guess is that it illustrates the evolution of Homo Erectus, subspecies Incendo — collectively known throughout the West as “Burners.” Every year, in late summer, they congregate on the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man — an event that features, among other things, the torching of a huge man-shaped sculpture on the playa.
Sounds simple enough, but over the decades the gathering has accumulated a complexity that’s staggering. Burning Man encompasses everything from inspired public art to hedonistic debauchery and back again. Every human fantasy that can be dragged out to the vast playa behind a vehicle makes an appearance.
If you live in a rural community along any of the migration routes to the Black Rock Desert, you’ll witness a plethora of urban-looking people driving strangely equipped RV’s or towing makeshift trailers piled with bicycles, 55 gallon water drums, building materials and the random odds and ends of civilization.
On the way to Burning Man, everything and everybody is clean. A week later, the same parade passes by in reverse — thoroughly coated with dust. If you live downwind of the Black Rock Desert, it can be hard to imagine what would compel a Burner to pay more than $400 for the privilege of wallowing in all that dust. Any windy day the same dust arrives in Winnemucca for free! But most anyone who’s been to Burning Man will assure you the expense is worth the opportunity to live out your wildest dreams — or watch someone else live out theirs.
I try to imagine what the early pioneers along the Overland Trail would have thought if they came across the modern migration to Black Rock City. Those bedraggled settlers might have rubbed their eyes in disbelief, concluding the desert light was playing tricks on them. That’s how it seems. Burning Man exists as its own mirage. By the end of the week, only the camaraderie, and the dust, are real.