A man standing in front of the burning man
A Burning Man participant holds up his arms as the wooden man effigy is burned at the conclusion of the festival in 1998. Photo by Mike Nelson/AFP via Getty Images

What Is Burning Man Without Burning Man?

The world’s most famous festival turned cultural phenomenon is canceled for the second year in a row. What will rise to fill the Technicolor void it leaves behind?
July 28, 2021, 1:00pm

This is part of a special series, Indulgence, which explores extravagant living in a time of restraint. It’s also in the September 2021 VICE magazine issue. Subscribe here

For the second summer in a row, Jonathan, a tech worker who lives in the California Bay Area, will soon head into the Nevada desert for an event that isn’t happening. He’s not alone. “I think definitely a lot of people will come this year,” he mused in June.

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Jonathan, who works in privacy and security and asked that his last name be withheld so he could speak freely about his personal life, is one of several thousand people expected to flock to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert this year during the nine days leading up to and including Labor Day. That’s when Burning Man would traditionally happen, drawing close to 80,000 attendees for the mammoth event’s signature blend of art, music, celebrities, self-expression, highly alkaline playa dust, and fashionable goggle-based looks. But for the second year in a row, because of the coronavirus pandemic, Burning Man has been canceled—though Burning Man Project, the 501(c)(3) organization that governs the event, is planning a virtual one, which they also did last year.

Thousands of people, however, are expected to come to the Black Rock Desert anyway, for what’s now being loosely referred to as “renegade burn,” an unstructured event that carries the potential to be either a creative revival of Burning Man’s earlier and more DIY days or, for inexperienced campers, a potential disaster.

Since its first year, in 1986, Burning Man has evolved from an anarchic subcultural party on a San Francisco beach to a mega event awash in the money and excesses of the tech industry, whose denizens make up some of its most devoted and notorious fans. In 2019, Burning Man Project famously banned one ultra-deluxe so-called “turnkey” or “plug-and-play” camp, calling it part of a “cultural course correction” needed to bring the event closer to its roots. The camp, Humano the Tribe, was reportedly charging up to $100,000 per spot, according to SFist, and faced accusations that its fancy portable toilets leaked sewage onto the ecologically delicate playa, and that its participants were profoundly douchey overall. All of which raises the question: Are a couple of years in the metaphorical wilderness precisely what Burning Man needs? 

a bunch of people in the mud at Burning Man

A woman laughs after a desert thundershower in 1995. Photo by MediaNews Group/Tri-Valley Times via Getty Images

According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees federal public lands in the United States, including the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man takes place, around 3,000 people came out last year during the time Burning Man would have typically happened, and several people familiar with the event said they expected to see more this year. A “renegade burn” subreddit has just over 1,000 members and a private Facebook group has 800. Discussions about it regularly crop up in the main Burning Man Facebook group, which has nearly 120,000 members, with people arguing passionately both for and against it in threads that span hundreds of comments.  

Several of the key elements that make Burning Man happen will obviously be missing. In a normal year, Burning Man Project’s Department of Public Works (DPW), a team composed of hundreds of people, spends about 100 days preparing in the desert beforehand, creating roads, street signs, and larger structures, like the titular Man who burns on the last night of the event, as well as the pavilion around him.

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“DPW is only one part of the helpful infrastructure,” Logan Mirto told VICE. He’s DPW’s personnel manager and is part of a council that runs the department. “When it comes to thinking about a gathering out there, the bigger things are the infrastructure from other departments, the medical teams, and the Rangers; all that plays a huge role in mitigating the environment.” (Rangers are volunteers who function somewhere between camp counselors and lifeguards during the event and assist the paid staff.) 

For Jonathan, who has attended Burning Man around a dozen times, the so-called renegade burn represents a chance for a different kind of experience: less structured, more intimate, and more self-reliant. “It’s more effort to go when it’s not built up for you, when you have to provide everything for yourself,” he said. “And that attracts a different crowd.” 

“We call Burning Man the ‘Nevada Regional.’”

Besides being smaller, the event will obviously be more dispersed across the playa, less a city than a collection of atomized camps. The BLM has also prohibited some of the signature aspects of Burning Man, like art structures and installations, as well as, per a letter one renegade burner received, bonfires, fireworks, airplanes taking off or landing, or companies that service portable toilets. In other words, campers can bring out a Porta Potty, but it can’t be serviced or drained by professionals for the duration of its stay on the playa. And the people who come to Burning Man by private jet during normal times will have to drive in like ordinary plebes. 

Heather O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management’s Winnemucca District, where the Black Rock Desert is located, said people are welcome to camp this year too. “There are no plans to close the playa and people are welcome to come camping using their own resources.” 

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But many in the broader Burning Man community are expecting heavy enforcement of the rules by both the BLM and local law enforcement in the area around the playa. 

a man standing in front of the Israeli burning man

The 2015 Midburn festival in the Negev Desert—the Israeli version of Burning Man—near the Israeli kibbutz of Sde Boker. Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

“You can bet your dusty ass that LEO [law enforcement officers] will be issuing tickets for every ticky-tack violation they see that even arguably violates the BLM guidelines or local laws,” one person wrote in a large Burning Man Facebook group, explaining why they didn’t plan to attend this year’s renegade burn. “Every camp where they count more than 50 people, every drip of oil from your car, every ‘structure’ they find that isn’t being slept in or used for cooking or shade is going to get ticketed. I suspect drug dogs will be more prevalent than in previous years (remember Marijuana is still illegal on federal land even though it’s legal in Nevada!) and we may well see a return to the unlawful traffic stops and searches on the way in and out like we saw back in 2018.” 

“Worst case scenario, it’s a memorable clusterfuck,” Jonathan said with a laugh. He’s traveling out in an RV, after riding his motorcycle last year—and spending part of his last day with a flat tire, waiting for a tow to the closest mechanic. (“It wasn’t a big deal,” he said, since he had the wherewithal and the know-how to quickly build himself a shade structure while waiting.) Both years, he and the friends he’s camped with have made an effort not to stop on tribal land or in small towns, to avoid exposing people in more isolated or underserved communities to COVID-19.

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Janet Davis, the chairwoman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, one of several Native communities in the area near Black Rock, told NPR the event’s cancellation was “a sigh of relief” for the tribe. Slightly more diplomatically, Burning Man Project wrote on their blog: “We are counting on the individuals enjoying the desert to do so in a way that takes into consideration the big picture and our return in 2022.” In a statement to VICE, they wrote, in part, “We here at Burning Man Project share this enthusiasm for visiting the playa in a year without Black Rock City, and we encourage our community to recreate responsibly. Planning ahead, playing it safe, being prepared, respecting local communities, and leaving no trace are central to making sure we all do it right.” (Their full statement is below.) 

Clovis Buford has been to Burning Man about nine times; he’s also a regional contact for Austin, Texas, to Burning Man, meaning he acts, as he puts it, “as a conduit.” “I try to make sure I communicate Burning Man stuff out to the wider community here and relay any of our community concerns to BMOrg in the other direction.” (“BMOrg,” short for Burning Man Organization, is a colloquial name some people use for Burning Man Project.) 

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“If you’re out in the open desert, you’re responsible for your own experience,” Buford said. “Let’s hope everyone makes wise choices.” With the absence of roads and people potentially driving very fast across the playa, he said, “Personally I would want my tent lit up like I was calling the goddamn mothership.”  

The chance to see a smaller, less built-up version of Burning Man also appealed to Meredith Fortner, who lives in Texas and has attended Burning Man twice, in 2009 and 2017. “I saw it as a chance to time travel, to see what it was like in the early days,” Fortner said. Almost as quickly, though, she decided not to go. “And then I read the fine print, that there wouldn’t be ice or any possibility of a medevac, and said, ‘Fuck that noise.’” 

“People better be veterans if they’re planning to go without that safety net,” Fortner’s husband, Cooper Crouse, added. “The thing that’s trying to kill you is the heat, the altitude. There’s no humidity. You’re constantly fighting dehydration, sleep deprivation, and heat exhaustion, so any additional intoxicants add to that physical stress load. Everyone focuses on the substances without acknowledging how brutal that environment is.” (Unprepared newcomers taking on environments they’re not ready for has been something of a theme of the pandemic. Some wilderness search and rescue teams have been strained to their breaking point searching for missing hikers and campers across the U.S.) 

The Burning Man campsite as seen from above in 2018

The 2018 festival as seen from above. Photo by DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

For Fortner and Crouse, though, Burning Man has never really been the main event. Fortner is a longtime volunteer at Flipside, the oldest so-called “regional burn,” which takes place outside Austin over Memorial Day weekend; Crouse is a Flipside board member. (Like Burning Man, Flipside was also canceled this year.) Regionals are held all over the world, from Texas to Spain, throughout the year, and for some people they’ve become as important—if not more so—than Burning Man itself. 

“We call Burning Man the ‘Nevada Regional,’” Fortner said, chuckling. The intimate, community-driven nature of regionals brings something very different. “You don’t get as many spectators at the regionals,” she added. “You need so many volunteers to run events, everyone has to pitch in—or should. For a 3,500 person event, we have medical, mental health services, site ops, perimeter, Rangers, fire team—and more. We try and instill in the community a culture of volunteerism. You can’t just go, like it’s a thing you can spectate, like someone who bought a ticket and that’s all.”  

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Clovis Buford has also attended Flipside about 20 times, and said he’s optimistic that both events will be “amazing” come 2022. “The art will be fantastic. You know, the Roaring 20s coming out of the flu of 1918 was quite the scene.” (Buford, Crouse, and Fortner all wanted to make it clear that they were speaking only for themselves, not as representatives of Flipside or Burning Man.) 

Buford, who is 65, said that the cancellation of Flipside was hard. “It’s like a family reunion for me at this point.” He quarantined by himself for much of the past year, which wasn’t easy. “At this point I feel like we all had a year stolen and we probably oughta make up for it,” he said. “It’s certainly made me reflect on the very temporary nature of us being here.” 

When Burning Man does reconvene, it’ll be in a radically changed world. Logan Mirto, DPW’s personnel manager, has spent his unexpected time off sharpening his other skills, like working on Burning Man’s podcast as a producer, and planning how to make the coming year even better for his crew. But he has also spent a good deal of time thinking about grief, loss, and how next year’s Burning Man will reflect those forces, which have borne down on nearly everyone in the world in one way or another. 

“None of us who have gone through this are the same people we were,” Mirto said. “Burning Man is always a reflection of what people bring to it. There’s a place for grief in Black Rock City. There’s a place for exploration and release. It’s a city and it’s evolved to meet the needs of its community. The community is robust. It’s thousands of people. I’m not concerned they’ll bring all that energy to it. The people who have chosen to make Burning Man a part of their lives, they recognize what Black Rock City will provide, and I hope it will provide them the catharsis or release or closure they need to feel like life is resuming.” 

In a statement, Burning Man Project told VICE: 

Many Burners consider the Black Rock Desert their home away from home, so it’s only natural that some will decide to head out there this summer. We here at Burning Man Project share this enthusiasm for visiting the playa in a year without Black Rock City, and we encourage our community to recreate responsibly. Planning ahead, playing it safe, being prepared, respecting local communities, and leaving no trace are central to making sure we all do it right. 

Through observations from our staff, it is our understanding that the July 4 weekend, normally a time when some Burners visit the Black Rock Desert separate from the Burning Man event, was a safe and responsible time of recreation.  

Burners adapt to all sorts of situations, and this summer provides another opportunity for the beginning of a new era. We have all the confidence in the world that our community and culture will continue to be great stewards of our desert home.

Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.