Strange days

In the heart of the Black Rock Desert, there's no water and temperatures rise above 100 degrees. It's an extraordinary place - and the perfect venue for the weirdest event in the cultural calendar
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The Independent Culture
On this last weekend of summer, there are wildfires all over the American West. Some are being fought, because towns or properties come within range of the wind and the smoke. Others are watched as they burn. I saw one in the Yosemite area a few weeks ago; it seemed like a cream cloud from several miles away, but then I turned my binoculars on it and, within the smoke, I saw jumping gobbets of rose, dark flecks that might be branches burning and, then, the amber thrust of flame itself.

Wildfires can occur in pre-existing temperatures of 100F. The firefighters just guard the beast and cut away its food - the brush that is crisp kindling by 1 September. People die in these fires. Firefighters have heart attacks. Thousands of acres are turned to charcoal. Trees explode before your eyes. Houses are erased by the surging western winds. So, the West has mixed feelings about burning, and there's hardly any great vista that doesn't have its warning signs.

Yet today, Saturday, 4 September, not long after dark, 15,000 or so liberated young Americans will set fire to a statue, a primitive "Man" figure, as large as they can build it. They will gather around it, sing and dance, and take substances that are even more mind-altering than being on the edge of the astonishing beauty of the Black Rock Desert in north-western Nevada. Another festival of the Burning Man will have reached its climax. The night will be given over to revels and all those things that can be sheltered by the darkness.

On the morrow, people will lie stunned, stoned or drunk, or they will begin the long trek home that produces a wearisome, and very modern, traffic jam on the two-hour road from the desert back to Reno.

It would be pretty if I could tell you that this was the renewal of an ancient native American rite; if I could report that Paiute Indians led the dance and then paid fond tribute to the culture that surrounded nearby Pyramid Lake centuries before any white man came. I would be lying.

The Burning Man festival had its origin on a San Francisco beach as long ago as 1985. A few people camped out there over the Labor Day weekend with some crates of beer. They built a man - if not quite a "Man" - and set fire to it. The holiday was impromptu, and I'm sure it was a happy occasion. A man named Larry Harvey was the most available organiser and instigator, and people suggested to him, in a vague way, that it might be fun to do it again the next year.

The idea arose that a San Francisco beach - where the water was too cold for comfortable swimming - was a half-hearted location. Ambitions soared, and some told tales of deserts in Nevada where abandonment might be more complete, or more atmospheric. By the early Nineties the event had shifted to Nevada and, in recent years, to the sun-cracked white playa of the Black Rock Desert (where the mountains look dark in the distance and their reflections tremble on the desert floor). By word of mouth, Internet publicity and one or two coffee-table books about the art that is on show in the desert, the annual crowd has grown to somewhere in the range of 10,000 to 20,000.

This has not gone on without some awkwardness, and a pressure for tidy management that runs counter to the spontaneity of the festival. The Black Rock Desert is one of the marvels of the western US, and it has always relied on the natural protection of being hard to get at and hostile to basic survival.

The daytime temperatures in summer easily pass 100F (and it is a dry heat). Correspondingly, the nights can be suddenly cold, for the desert floor is in fact 4,000ft above sea level. There is no easy or reliable water, and it is a part of Nevada where casinos and fast-food joints have not penetrated. There is a town about 10 miles from the site of the festival, Gerlach, and it has a population, this year, of 243. That number will be smaller today, because some Gerlachians hate the festival and its crowds, the noise, the attention and the risk to the desert. These people went to live there because it was, so to speak, user-unfriendly and Godforsaken.

Nevadans do not much enjoy Californians, and the majority of Burning Man celebrants come from the San Francisco Bay area, with notable contingents from other "hippie" strongholds in the US, and from the world at large. A few days ago I dined with the British writer Geoff Dyer and his girlfriend, and they could not wait to get to the desert. They had hired a camper van. They had bought food and drink to last them for several days. And they were ready to put down their $100 a head. He was going for the rave; she favoured the "primitive-techno-art" which she had heard about.

Of course, there are bars in Gerlach, car repair shops and even a motel that makes a killing - after all, not everyone wants to sleep out on the desert floor. But the spirit of Gerlach is not at ease with the drugs, the nudity, the art or the music of the festival, especially since, a few years ago, the numbers got out of hand. There were some "traffic" incidents. There was a death. There were local protests and requests that the land use be withdrawn from the festival.

It's a tribute to Western compromise that the thing was not killed off. The festival organisers sat down with the Nevada Bureau of Land Management. They were compelled to take out heavy insurance - which pushed the entrance fee much higher. They entered a pact with the bureau which said that, as they bring in everything the festival needs, so they will take it away later. I have been going to the desert for several years now and I would say that they've lived up to their side of the bargain. There's a small city there today, row upon row of parked vehicles, infantry lines of portable lavatories, generators for the sound systems, tents, cooking materials, stalls, stages, elaborate art works and, more or less, anything that anyone wants to think of and can transport to the desert.

Much of the art is burned afterwards, along with the "Man", because that's the easiest solution to the clean-up problem and it fits the pagan ethos that "nothing lasts anyway".

I was on the Black Rock Desert three weeks ago, with my wife and children. There were a few gliders near Gerlach, and away to the east we saw what looked like a cyclist on stilts, wind-surfing on the playa. No one else. We walked out into the whiteness, the four of us, on diverging paths. My hat blew off and my son scampered half a mile to catch it. The wind was steady. But there were no other sounds. We had come from Reno, but that seemed much farther away. The children grew calmer, and then more adventurous in their play. My wife photographed us. It is a magical place - if you are close to alone, and close to those you are alone with.

Now, one long weekend of crowds and celebration is never going to destroy that possibility, even if you might prefer the art done by loners who lived out in the desert. It is highly likely that the ravers really do have as good a time as they tell you. Some may even be tempted to go back at some other time and try the solitude. Black Rock does report more and more visitors every year, and more requests for special use. A couple of years ago that's where an British team broke the world land speed record. But there are rumours that the Bureau of Land Management is wary of these "developments". The wild places cannot compromise. Too much of the American desert has already been tamed by highways and modern convenience.

I take another view still, having come to love Nevada in recent years. It leaves me cautious with the whole concept of Burning Man. Not that the fire dangers on the desert floor are great. There is nothing to burn. But Nevada has another kind of burning men in its history. In the Fifties, the state was the site for many of America's atmospheric and underground nuclear weapons tests. People stayed up until dawn in the Las Vegas casinos to see the fireball and feel the buildings shake.

That is over now, but deserts do not forget or accelerate the half-lives of toxic traces. In and around Nevada there are fall-out cancers as vivid as the desert sunsets. And even now America plans to deposit all its nuclear waste (that burning stuff) in a place called Yucca Mountain, a few hundred miles south of Black Rock Desert. "Well, it's got to go somewhere, hasn't it?" says America. Nevadans resist and resent the plan. But America lives by a code that shows how biblical a place it is, and how both Nevada and burning fit in; for the tests and the waste are in exchange for, and as a curse upon, gambling.

Let Nevada take the big chance!

The writer's new book, `In Nevada', is to be published by Little, Brown on 2 December