Guy W. Farmer: A Burning Man critic decides to see the event for himself

I paid a visit to Burning Man with Appeal colleague Sam Bauman last Tuesday and finally came face-to-face with some of the people I've been tormenting in print for more than 10 years. Also, I promised my friend Sam that I wouldn't refer to the event as a "naked drug festival" this year, so I won't.

Burning Man is a surprisingly sophisticated multi-million-dollar extravaganza held in the Black Rock Desert National Conservation Area near Gerlach. Assuming a conservative attendance estimate of 45,000 at $300 per head, the festival's Bay Area organizers will gross approximately $13.5 million this year. From that amount they will reimburse their landlords, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), for a million dollars worth of administrative and policing expenses and also pay BLM 3 percent of gross receipts, another $400,000 " a significant financial windfall for a cash-strapped federal agency that manages more than 85 percent of Nevada's undeveloped lands.

Black Rock City, LLC, the San Francisco-based organization that puts on Burning Man, hires staff to administer various functions for the temporary residents of the medium-sized city (only slightly smaller than Carson City) that springs up in the Nevada desert every summer during the week-long observance. I was favorably impressed by the massive operation's logistics. Sam and I cleared a checkpoint a couple of miles from city center and went on to an encounter with colorfully dressed " or partially dressed " "greeters." Our greeter was a nice young lady who gave me a hug and subjected me to the Hula Hoop test, which I failed. Nevertheless, they let us in and we were off to the "Media Mecca," where journalists hang out.

Black Rock City itself is a 5-square-mile semi-circular maze of nearly 50 miles of streets and 183 traffic intersections with Center Camp and The Man, who burned last night, in the middle of things. Surrounding Center Camp are hundreds of small camping and RV sites. Given the thick layer of dust that covers everyone and everything out there, I'd rather be in an RV. To say that the Burners were grimy last Tuesday would be an understatement; they must be downright repellent by now following last night's burn. Porta-potties abound but showers are in short supply.

Three members of the Burners' slick media team " Executive Project Manager Ray Allen, a San Francisco attorney; Dan O'Day, an Incline Village computer consultant; and our personal guide, Josh, a bright and personable young man who goes by "Libertine" out on the playa " organized a tour for us. It was Tutu Tuesday so Josh wore a lovely pink tutu with creative neckwear and spiky hair topped with three candles. I hope he didn't decide to light the candles last night in homage to The Man. Josh had a keen eye for the ladies so I wish him well on that score, too.

Drugs and Kids

I have long had two main objections to Burning Man: (1) the widespread use and abuse of illegal drugs on public lands and (2) the presence of young children at an X-rated event. Despite reassurances from Burners and BLM officials, I still think the ready availability of, and tolerance for, illegal drugs is a main reason why thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens spend $300 each to bake for four or five days in the desert sun. They say it's because they're deeply committed to "radical self-reliance" and/or "radical self-expression," but I think they're deep into exhibitionism and radical self-indulgence, motivated by sex, drugs, rock-and-roll and psychedelic art.

Moreover, I'm offended by the presence of children at an adults-only bacchanal. We visited Kidsville, where children hang out during the festival. Although we observed several happy kids with their parents, I was shocked to see a totally nude middle-aged man wandering around in public near some children who were jumping on a trampoline. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I think that's just plain wrong. Although Burner parents claim they can protect their children from such displays, that's virtually impossible when the kids are constantly bombarded by sexual images and nudity, including topless women of all ages and sizes.

BLM's Roger Forschan, the top federal official on the scene, readily acknowledged personal concerns about children and illegal drugs and told us that he wouldn't bring his own children to Burning Man. I heartily concur when I think about my sweet, innocent 4-year-old twin grandsons, who just visited me in Carson. Forschan added that law enforcement officers issued about 300 citations at Burning Man last year, about half of them for drugs. Sheriff's deputies said that illegal drug use usually occurs in private and that large quantities of drugs are rarely encountered. Nevertheless, the largest LSD bust in Nevada history took place at Burning Man about 10 years ago, and several Bay Area drug traffickers were arrested.

REMSA officials told us they expect to evacuate more than 50 distressed Burners by air and ground during the week-long event. Evacuees are supposed to pay associated costs, but I wonder if they do. Medical personnel said they treated 4,500 Burners on site last year, most of them for heat-related issues, although I suspect that drugs and/or alcohol were involved in many of those medical emergencies.

Bottom line: I enjoyed my visit to Burning Man last Tuesday and won't ever write another word about it if they move the event to private property " preferably to California, where it belongs " and leave the kids at home. Although I'm still a critic, the Burners were gracious hosts and I thank them for their hospitality.

Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, has been denouncing Burning Man since he began writing this column in 1996.


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