Burning Man: What Is It, Exactly?

Sept. 4, 2011— -- Q: What is Burning Man?

A: If you have to ask, you'll never know.

Q: Seriously, what is it?

A: It's a weeklong annual festival held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Some 50,000 people gather to create Black Rock City, a temporary 1.5-square-mile settlement dedicated to self expression and radical self reliance. Burners, as participants are known, dress up in costumes, dance around, show off their artwork (whatever form that may take), make friends, and hang out together in the desert. A week later, they depart, ostensibly without leaving a trace.

Q: How did it get started?

A: It started in 1986, with 20 people gathering on San Francisco's Baker Beach for the Summer Solstice. Artist Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James erected an 8-foot wooden human effigy, which they then lit on fire. By 1989, more than 300 people convened to watch the Burning Man, as police attempted to break up the gathering. After that, they moved to the desert.

Q: Isn't it hot in the desert?

A: Yes. Daytime temperatures exceed 100 degrees F. Burners who don't want the descriptor to become literal are advised to wear lots of sunscreen. Drinking lots and lots of water is also essential. The festival's organizers say each person should drink at least a gallon a day.

Q: What sorts of amenities are provided?

A: Very little. Burners are expected to bring their own food, water, and shelter. The city is mostly made up of RVs and tents or other temporary structures. There are portable toilets, however.

Q: Who's in charge?

A: In theory, Black Rock City is a Temporary Autonomous Zone, territory that is free of authoritarian control. In reality, it is organized by the Black Rock City corporation, which obtains permits from the federal Bureau of Land Management, which also conducts law enforcement.

Q: Can I sell my handmade Anasazi-themed jewelry there?

A: No. Black Rock City is a largely commerce-free zone. With the exception of an area that sells ice and coffee, there's no buying or selling anything. Instead, the city runs according to gift-giving principles, in which people give away products without expecting anything in return.

Q: Whoa.

A: I know, right?

Q: Can I bring my dog?

A: No. Dogs are not allowed. Your dog is already largely free from the strictures of mainstream American culture, and therefore does not need to have its mind blown at Burning Man.

Q: What is "moop"?

A: Litter. "Moop" is an acronym for "matter out of place," a term for dirt coined by social anthropologist Mary Douglas in her influential 1966 book "Purity and Danger." Because burners are expected to leave the desert exactly as they found it, leaving moop behind is frowned upon.

Q: Is Burning Man inspired by the 1973 horror classic "The Wicker Man"?

A: You'd think so, but apparently it isn't.

Q: How do I get around Black Rock City?

A: On foot or by bike. You can camp near your car, but you're not allowed to drive it around the city. The one exception is a Mutant Vehicle, an auto that has been radically transformed into sort of a moving interactive sculpture. These need to be licensed by the Department of Mutant Vehicles. The speed limit is 5 mph.

Q: Is there an age limit?

A: No.Q: Sounds cool. Where can I get tickets?

A: You can't. For the first time in 25 years, the festival is sold out. So you'll have to wait until next year. Burning Man takes place the week prior to and including Labor Day weekend. Tickets are $300, but there are discounts for students and people with low incomes.