Burning Man Flares Up Again In The Desert

Burning Man CBS

Every year Nevada's barren Black Rock Desert, 120 miles outside of Reno, is transformed into Black Rock City when 45 thousand people gather for the art festival known as Burning Man.

Burning man makes the expression "roughing it" something of an understatement, even though tickets can go for a few hundred dollars.

Still, if you can get past the crowds and the dust and even the occasional sandstorm, the experience can be, illuminating.

But fire isn't the only draw at Burning Man. There is, of course, the art.

Like the Big Rig Jig which is two container trucks disassembled and then rebuilt here on the playa.

"The playa"? That's what folks call the flat, dusty landscape. It was once a lakebed. The people who find their way here from all over the world are called burners.

Most get around by bike, but some are literally transported by the art, like Darin Selby's "skeedaddlehopper."

CBS Sunday Morning's Daniel Sieberg asked Selby how long it took him to build his mobile artwork.

"This one here took about three months, just working on it every day. And you first start out…you lash it all together, bicycle inner tube and then duct tape. You know, it's better with a roll of duct tape."

"Two rolls of duct tape," Sieberg suggested, examining the vehicle.

"Two…two rolls of duct tape," Selby agreed, laughing.

Black Rock City has its own post office, its own radio station. There's even a census bureau, complete with a "countess".

"Which they call me that because I've been in charge of the Black Rock Census for the last few years, so I count burners. One burner. Two burner. Three burner. Five burner."

The Countess says you'd be surprised just who attends Burning Man.

"There are even people here who are over 80!" she told Sieberg, "It's very exciting to have all these ages represented here. There's really something for everyone here."

The Countess went on though to add a brief note of caution.

"As long as you can survive in the desert, that's really the kicker. If you can't handle the dust storms, if you can't handle camping out here for a long time in the heat and the cold night and preparing yourself for that? It's probably not the best place."

And that's what made novice burner Nancy Connors, a marketing director from Croton-on-Hudon, New York nervous.

"Someone described it as like camping in hell. It can get up to 110, at night, down to 30. You have to be prepared for all that. People want you to wear costumes. I mean, gee, you know? What am I gonna do about that? I don't know. It just…"

"Just be yourself," suggested another burner.

"Yeah," she said, laughing, "Yeah, go as a middle-aged white lady!"

She never did figure out a costume, but she did find a home on the playa.

"This is our playa home and it almost blew off yesterday," she explained to Sieberg, "but four guys in dresses came by and helped us stake down more rebar."

"That's a very Burning Man experience," observed Sieberg.

"It was a very Burning Man experience," Connors agreed, "And then they gave us a drink, and then they left. So that was kind of cool."

Larry Harvey has been the guiding spirit behind the festival since 1986, when it started as a small gathering on a beach in San Francisco. Then, as now, it ended with the ceremonial burning of this guy - the guest of honor.

"And when we lit that thing," Harvey remembered, "strangers just came running and joined us. And there's nothing like the enthusiasm and kindness of strangers to move you, because it seemed unconditional. It seemed so immediate. And that's why we decided to do it again…because we were moved."

Twenty-one years later and a 1,000 times larger, the spirit of Burning Man still burns brightly.

For artist Michael Ross, this is his first big exhibit. Maybe "big" is an understatement.

"I think it weighs about 48,000 pounds," Ross told Sieberg. "It's 45 feet tall, goes nine feet deep into the earth, and it's two real trucks and two real tankers."

Like everything else at Burning Man, Big Rig Jig is meant to be touched.

"I wanted people to be able to crawl through it, mostly because I wanted to crawl through it," Ross said. "I was like, 'Well, if I'm gonna do it, I want other people to be able to, also.'"

Ross says he owes it all to the organizers of Burning Man. They came up with the seed money to put his Big Rig Jig together.

The crew is all volunteers.

"I've never seen anything like it in the world," marveled Ross, "It's great to have such a strong, deep community of hard-working artists."

Photographer Leo Nash documented construction. He's photographed events at Burning Man for 13 years.

"I just wanted to tell the story of what the artists go through, the inspiration to conclusion. And just take that journey with them."

Nash's new book tells the tale, in black and white.

"You have this very beautiful soft light," Nash described. "This time of day is gorgeous. You know, after the sun goes down or before the sun comes up in the morning. You really get this real softness, like everything is painted with light."

Nash says it's the art at Burning Man that keeps things in perspective on the playa.

"The art is, I think, what saves it from being just a crazy party. It gives for everyone, a thread to follow through the event. It gives them something they're doing constantly, all day long. They're out looking at the art. Traveling on top of it, you know, in the art cars. I think it's good. It's almost like it's a party, but it's also, you know, culture."

"It's like going to a museum," Nash concluded, "It's a living museum."

But let's face it, no museum was ever like this. And after seven days of peace, love and art, the ritual of Burning Man finally reaches its climax.

"The thing about ritual is that it tells an essential lesson," Harvey said. "It tells you things are the same as they always were, continuity. The same as they always were, but different. Like your birthday."

Here are some links for further information:
Burning Man
Big Rig Jig
Skeedaddlehopper
Journey To The Flames
A. Leo Nash
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