The procession created so much attention from curious onlookers that the two returned the following year, kicking off an annual tradition that continued until local police demanded the event be relocated.
For the last 15 years the festival has taken place in the desert, attracting ever larger crowds and a growing variety of artworks and installations.
"They have really become a proper organization and production," Wilson said. "They had to get it together in '97 when the population exploded."
Now the event is bigger than ever, requiring impressive coordination to continue living up to the festival's "leave no trace" motto, an attempt to minimize the event's environmental impact.
Even though the growing size might suggest Burning Man is losing its alternative roots, "burners" say this is not the case.
"If it were the usual suspects, it would have been a lot less interesting to me," Wilson said. "For a mass gathering, it is a much more enlightened crowd than you'd find at any art festival or concert that I've been to."
Scott London, a Santa Barbara journalist and "burner," agrees.
"The organizers had a very enlightened idea. They've managed to stay true to those ideals, and the participants have embraced them and internalized them."
In June, the organizers of Burning Man received permission to continue using the Black Rock Desert for the next five years, securing the event's short-term future.
"I don't know of anything else on the planet that's in the same ballpark," Wilson said.
With that sort of reputation, Burning Man's long-term future hardly seems in doubt.
For more information: www.burningman.com