Black Rock, Nevada - The song Stand By Me will never again sound the same. Not now I've danced to it in a dust storm, with only snow goggles and cycling mask to protect my eyes and lungs. Not when the chorus concluded a pop-up wedding I chanced upon in the Nevada desert.
This is the sort of thing that draws more than 55,000 people to the Burning Man festival each year, from the last Monday in August to the first Monday in September. It's not just escapism, but the hope that not just one song, but life itself will appear a little different when you return to the grind. It takes place in Black Rock Desert, and has been dubbed by some as a “playground for the extravagant, the absurd and the lunatic fringe in society”. Though it has also been dubbed by others, simply, as “home”.
You might have heard the buzzphrases - “radical self-expression”, “decommodification”, “participation”, “self-reliance” - and groaned. The truth is, Burning Man is not very British; it is unlikely to rain, and you won't find Rolf Harris playing on any stage. If the US fosters the “can-do” mentality, then the annual construction of a temporary city spanning almost six square miles in the middle of a barren desert is about as American as calling football “soccer”.
Its organisers prefer not to call it an event, but “a way of life”. Its founder, Larry Harvey, 65, tells me it's a “cultural phenomenon” akin to a social movement. What began as a local initiative in San Francisco - in 1986, a group burnt an 8ft wooden man on Baker Beach to celebrate the summer solstice - has now spawned 115 regional groups on five continents. And last year the effigy stood 40ft tall. Tickets now cost around $380 (about R3 400), although there are 4,000 low-income tickets at $190.
There are no commercial sponsors, and little money is exchanged: only ice and coffee are sold on site. Every “participant” must bring all they need to survive the week: 1½ gallons of water is recommended per day. People spend months building the city and the art installations that fill it; last year saw life-size pirate ships, an alternative Wall Street, the very first Bank of UnAmerica. There were 864 theme-camps, gay villages, meditation centres, yoga haunts, children's spaces, cereal bars, mojito corners, jazz bars, and even a cinema playing The Wizard of Oz on loop.
Black Rock City, the company which organises the event, spent around $20m in total production costs; around $750,000 was put aside for grants to secure artists.
Organisers have high hopes for its future. Transitioning it into a non-profit organisation called the Burning Man Project, Harvey says his aim is to “disseminate our culture throughout the world. We want to bend the course of history in the 21st century.”
Which is quite the ambition for anyone. So what is this culture? “Collaboration,” is one part of it, Harvey notes. “Leave no trace,” is another. Scores of volunteers stay on in the desert for up to a month, with diminishing supplies, after the eight days are over. They rake every last square foot clean. Then there is “gifting”; I gave my London Games 2012 Oyster card to a man who worked at the “post office”. In return, a week later, my east London flatmates received a postcard direct from the desert.
Stephen Bissinger, a 42-year-old graphic designer from Alameda County, California, has attended Burning Man for the past 18 years. It takes him five months to build his bar, ceremoniously labelled Eggs, which is located in his own dusty corner of the desert. He handed out more than $13,000 of food and drink to strangers this year. Why? His description of the event as “an experiment in utopia” offers a clue.
“I expected it to be hot, dusty and full of naked people,” says Lucy Warin, a 25-year-old who works in environmental communications and travelled from London to Nevada for the first time last year. “I was right about that. But my lasting memories are about the people I met and the conversations I had.” Alan Smith, 45, from LA, says Black Rock is a place where he feels “not just tolerated, but needed”.
For some it won't seem radical enough: you will be hard pushed to find good old British models of social activism, but for Harvey, the very act of being there is political. “People affiliate out there,” he says. “We fought many battles to even exist.” There might not be lectures on neo-liberalism, but for many it offers space to reflect and re-stock before returning to everyday life. Plus, the couple I met getting “married” were two women - in Nevada, where same-sex marriage is still banned.
MORE FESTIVAL FUN
1 Whirling dervishes, mystics, dancers, chanters and musicians converge on the walled Moroccan city of Fes for a celebration of spirituality during the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, 7 to 15 June (fesfestival.com/2013)
2 Rick Stein’s Cornish Arms in St Merryn is hosting a second Beer & Mussel Festival (16 and 17 March). Expect mussels, music and some of the UK’s best beers (rickstein.com)
3 Winner of the best small festival in Scotland 2012, the Inner Hebrides’ Tiree Music Festival (20 to 21 July) offers open-air concerts, ceilidhs and more against a backdrop of white sandy beaches (tireemusicfestival.co.uk)
4 The 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth is being celebrated with a yearlong festival in Germany. Highlights include a birthday concert (wagnerjahr2013.de)
5 The Sunrise Festival’s 2013 location is still a secret (somewhere between Bath and Frome). We do know there will be organic arts, world music and a “Micronation” – an independent state with its own bill of rights (sunrisefestivals.co.uk)
6 A pilgrimage for bluegrass fans: Jerusalem Ridge Festival is held early October in Rosine, Kentucky, birthplace of the genre (jerusalemridge festival.org)
7 A celebration for the gentler reveller: the Scottish Snowdrop Festival (inset, from now to 17 March) sees 50 gardens – everywhere from castles to country estates –showcase their winter blooms (visitscotland.com/natural) - The Independent on Sunday