Pilgrimage to the playa: Every year Reno is epicenter for all things weird during Burning Man
Special to the Tribune
TAHOE MAGAZINEThis story was originally published in the winter edition of Tahoe Magazine.
Every year, in the final week of August, tens of thousands of people migrate from all corners of the globe to a 7-square-mile patch of white desert stretched in northwest Nevada.
There, roughly 100 miles north of Reno, a city blooms to life — Black Rock City — with a letter-grid road network, boisterous street life and bizarre makeshift architecture. These eccentric inhabitants — ranging from free-spirited bohemians to social media influencers to Silicon Valley elite — come to bend their minds, open their hearts, shed their clothes and incinerate a giant wooden effigy.
This is Burning Man.
“I just like the vibe and the people,” Michael Zunini, of Chile, told Tahoe Magazine while shopping in August for the annual counterculture event at Junkee Clothing Exchange in Reno. “People are open-minded and have a lot of respect for everybody and are sharing ideas. A lot of people who think the same way — it’s like fish following the same stream.
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“And all of the art and music and being in the desolate desert is beautiful.”
Zunini, who’s made the annual pilgrimage to the playa seven years and counting with his wife and a camp of about 30 people, said his time on the Black Rock Desert is a cleansing breath of fresh (albeit dusty) air; a welcome reprieve from the culture of his South American country.
“If you dress like this,” he added, tugging on his vest of the post-apocalyptic variety, “they look at you like you’re nuts. In Chile, they are very narrow-minded. It’s very conservative.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Jessica Rancourt has become attracted to Burning Man because the culture of Black Rock City aligns with her community in Hawaii.
Rancourt is a fire spinner in a group of about 50 performers that puts on a 30-minute choreographed piece on “Burn Night,” the Saturday night near the festival’s end when The Man is set ablaze. In all, she travels with some 200 people, pushing their stage, art cars and sculptures on a fleet of shipping containers across the North Pacific.
Rancourt, donning purple beaded hair underneath a shiny golden captain’s hat, lit up at the chance to gush about the event’s allure while perusing Junkee this past summer in Reno’s Midtown district.
“The environment and the experience and the culture and the creativity and the art and the burning — definitely the burning — and the funky stuff involved and the journey here,” she exhaled. “That’s what keeps bringing me back every year.”
DISCOVERING ONE’S TRUE PATH
Rancourt is not alone. Since the first event took place more than three decades ago in 1986 on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, Burning Man attendance has grown from 35 people watching an 8-foot tall Man burn to a vibrant community of 80,000 people witnessing a 100-foot Man consumed by fire.
Notably, the first Burning Man at Black Rock Desert took place in 1990, with a population of 350 and an effigy standing 40 feet tall.
Though he wasn’t at the first Burning Man in Northern Nevada, Reno resident Johnno Lazetich has seen his share of Burns — 18, to be exact — at Black Rock Desert.
“I call it my yearly pilgrimage to the holy land,” he smiled while seated outside Coffeebar in Reno’s Midtown. “No matter what’s going on in my life, I’ve just got to go.”
Pulling out of the everyday routine and away from the everyday distractions, Lazetich said, has helped him “discover his true path” while amid tens of thousands of likeminded people in the desert.
He added: “By the end of Burning Man, you know what you should be focusing on in life.”
For Lazetich, that main focus is a nonprofit he was inspired to start by way of his famed art car, “The Golden Gate Bridge,” which he’s built and operated in Black Rock City since 2008. Along with serving as a tribute to the San Francisco landmark, the art car’s bridge, adorned with glowing LEDs, serves as a mobile sound stage for a DJ (of convenient note: Lazetich is a professional DJ).
In 2018, Lazetich unveiled an expanded version of his car, “Golden Gate 2.0,” which measures 60 feet long and 30 feet tall, doubling its original size and tripling its capacity for hop-on Burners, he said. And it was last year when his art car led him on a charitable path off the playa with the launch of the Golden Gate Project.
Lazetich decided he wanted to bring his massive art car to children’s hospitals and host “silent” disco dance and bingo parties. Patients in their hospital rooms, he envisioned, would wear Bluetooth headphones playing their favorite jams while he called out bingo numbers for prizes.
When Lazeitch told people at Burning Man his newfound intentions for the art car, word spread like wildfire. Before he knew it, Burners from Stanford Children’s Health and UC Davis Children’s Hospital, among others, were approaching him with interest.
“It was crazy. I get teared up just thinking about it,” said Lazetich, wiping tears from his face. “Every day we were hugging people and crying. You know you’re living your truth when people start manifesting your dream for you.”
Currently, Lazetich said he’s blueprinting a 2020 tour to children’s hospitals all over the world.
THE WORLD’S MOST CREATIVE SANDBOX
Meanwhile, for the collection of innovative artists who make the annual trek to Black Rock City, the 7 square miles of playa dust-laden desert is a giant blank canvas.
All told, Burning Man is home to hundreds of the most wildly creative, inclusive and interactive art in the world. Hundreds of massive, intricate sculptures are planted on the white sand — surrealistic robots, delightful dragons and futuristic spaceships, to name a few. One could imagine, with a bird’s eye-view, they were looking down on the most immaculate collection of toys in the most expansive sandbox.
“That’s one of the special things about Burning Man,” said Megan Miller, Burning Man’s director of communications. “All of the art is welcome, that’s why it ranges so much in scale. It’s arguably the largest arts event in the world and everyone is welcome to share their art.”
The Burning Man Arts department gives out about $1.3 million in Black Rock City Honoraria grants to artists who apply for funding, Miller said. For the 2019 event alone this past year — the art theme for which was “Metamorphoses” — the department selected roughly 70 artists for funding out of 340 proposals.
One of those artists is mosaic sculptor Peter Hazel, of Reno, who spent four months creating “Niloticus,” a climbable 41-foot-long crocodile made of glass and handmade mosaic tiles of greens, blues and purples.
“I’ve been doing a lot of water creatures out there at Burning Man because it’s like a big beach and lends itself to aquatic animals,” said Hazel, who’s also built a 40-foot-tall jellyfish, a 15-foot-tall manta ray and a giant octopus. The latter, Hazel said, put him on the map as a Burning Man artist in 2016.
Which begs the question, what does it feel like to make an artistic splash on the playa?
“You get a taste of what it’s like to be a rock star for a week,” Hazel said. “People really admire and appreciate what we do out there. The accolades are endless. People gift you stuff, they light up when they meet you … you never get that feeling anywhere else.”
Jessica Levine, a metal sculptor from South Lake Tahoe, is well aware of this. As a three-time Honoraria grant recipient, Levine not only goes to Burning Man to showcase her art, she goes to be inspired.
“When I first went to Burning Man, it totally opened my realm, totally expanded my mind and expanded my ideas of what art could be,” said Levine, whose 2019 piece, “Internal Exposure,” included an 11-foot-tall steel head with kaleidoscope eyes, encompassed by three 15-foot-tall flower petals that rotated on bearings. “This is an art world I want to be a part of. This is where people are really pushing boundaries on what is possible. It’s a place where people can bring their ideas into this physical reality.”
THE STATE OF THE BURN
For decades, more and more boundary-pushing artists and Burners, from both near and far, have been funneling to Burning Man. Quite simply, the annual event celebrating arts and inclusiveness has grown into an international phenomenon. Yet, for the first time in years, the future of Burning Man in northeastern Nevada is somewhat hazy.
In June 2019, the federal Bureau of Land Management published Burning Man’s final environmental impact statement, mapping out the event’s guidelines under a new 10-year permit.
The report revealed that the annual event must stay capped at 80,000 people, despite Burning Man organizers’ proposal to boost that number to 100,000.
BLM spokesperson Rudy Evenson told Tahoe Magazine that the attendance cap could grow to 100,000 in the future. However, “The BLM and Burning Man Project would have to agree on some mitigations that would deal with some of the issues that have been identified with the growth and size (of Burning Man),” he said.
One of the major issues is trash. Though Burning Man’s “Leave No Trace” philosophy is closely followed on the desert playa, there’s a long history of weary Burners dumping trash along roadways and in Northern Nevada towns — most notably, in nearby Gerlach — after leaving Black Rock City.
In fact, BLM officials informed event organizers two summers ago that they left too much trash behind after the 2018 event. Illustrating their point, officials said one of the areas inspected had seven times more litter than land managers allow for the event, according to a Reno Gazette Journal report. Burning Man vehemently opposed the reporting in that story, however, doubling down on the event’s commitment to Leave No Trace.
“One of the things we’re really focused on right now is getting all of our participants to really understand the gravity of managing their trash after the event,” Burning Man’s Miller told Tahoe Magazine prior to the 2019 event.
After all, the BLM in its report proposed that Burning Man incorporate commercial-sized trash bins on the playa. Burning Man organizers pushed back, saying they would “provide incentives for participants to transport and dump waste on-site, rather than be responsible for containing and removing such materials from the region.”
In response, BLM said it would impose the mitigation only if it is needed to address unresolved issues.
“BLM and the Burning Man Project are going to monitor the trash problem as we go,” Evenson said. “And both sides are going to try to come up with solutions — they may or may not include dumpsters.”
BLM is also looking at possibly hiring a private security firm to screen all vehicles, vendors, contractors, staff and volunteers upon entry to Black Rock City.
“This proposal is one of our gravest concerns,” the Burning Man Project said on its website. “This proposal from BLM represents a massive shift from Burning Man’s 30-year history running our own operations. It also subjects a peaceable gathering of people to searches without probable cause other than a desire to attend Burning Man.”
Evenson told Tahoe Magazine that security screenings — not searches — are “being looked at” as a possibility for 2020. He did not, however, have any further information on the nature of the screenings or the contracted security firm.
At the 2019 Burning Man, 58 people from six countries and 10 states were arrested, according to media reports. Most of the charges were for drug possession.
Burning Man artist Hazel, for one, feels security screenings at Burning Man would be “ridiculous” and tarnish the vibe of what makes Black Rock City an annual sanctuary for 80,000 people from all over the world — from Chile to Hawaii to Reno-Tahoe.
“I don’t do drugs, I don’t even smoke weed,” Hazel said. “But, if someone wants to go and take some magic mushrooms and run around naked in the desert … who cares? That’s the place to do it.”
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