Navigation is simple: Head for signs of life. First up is the ticket-taker sitting in his pickup truck. It's $40 at the "door," but we -- me; my wife, Carla; and our friends Mike and Patrick -- have economized by buying our tickets ahead of time for $35 each. In the distance -- maybe two, maybe 10 miles across the mirage-lined hardpan -- is our final destination this blistering Friday afternoon: a cluster of tents crouching beneath an enormous sky that makes up Black Rock, the anarchic community created for the paganistic ritual of the Burning Man.
Perhaps because it is the 10th Burning Man, or maybe because word of the annual Labor Day weekend celebration is finally spreading, this year's bacchanal flambe in the high desert north of Reno is a nonpareil orgy of fire and destruction, attracting 4,000 souls, the biggest crowd to date.
It's been a long summer, and all of us are ready for a chance to slough off our scaly, civilized, urban skins and wallow naked in the unblinking Nevada sun. Especially Patrick, who watched a three-year relationship wither in a late spring frost.
After a Mad Max scramble over the unforgiving soil, we pitch our tents northwest of the Man, then set out to explore Black Rock, which, despite this year's record crowd, doesn't seemed cramped. The camp sprawls for a mile across the playa. With so much space to spare, the occupants of Black Rock seem to have found the ideal degree of separation: about 15 yards. Each campsite is encircled by its own little swath of wasteland, wide enough for a dozen naked guys on mountain bikes to pedal comfortably abreast.
Burning Man was founded back in 1986, when San Franciscan Larry Harvey, a landscape architect by trade, toted a 7-foot wooden man down onto Baker Beach and torched it. The canonical history says Harvey burned his first Man to break out of a two-year funk he found himself in after a heavy relationship shattered, a story Harvey derides now as "too reductionist."
"It wasn't about the intentions," he explains, "but the immediate response."
"People came running," Harvey laughs. A woman held the Man's hand as he burned; a half-naked hippy sang songs. Harvey repeated the act the next year, and the next. The crowds grew larger.
In 1990, with the Man grown to 40 feet and the crowd a thousand strong, the cops shut down the burn, leaving Harvey with the task of explaining to the throng that the party had been doused (one of the disappointed revelers tried to strangle him).
The next year, Harvey, with the help of the artful anarchists of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, loaded up the Burning Man and moved the party-cum-ritual to the badlands of Nevada.
The semiotics of the Burning Man, whatever they may be, are thrown into stark relief by the surreal, Euclidian space it inhabits. Black Rock Desert is the largest, flattest expanse of nothing in North America -- the kind of place were they dig up mastodon bones and set land-speed records.
The honeycombed tent city orbits a central ring of the more ornate theme camps: Tiki Camp, where, for a modest donation (a cigarette will do), they mix tropical drinks; McSatan's, the fast-food franchise from hell, "Over 5 Billion Souls," the sign says; Art Car Camp, featuring autos from across the country, all bedecked with thrift-store trinkets; and the New York City Playground, built by the Brooklyn-based Crux Productions.
Crux's camp is meant to be a slice of the Big Apple. Participants are invited to fight their way past a cop, a prostitute, and a panhandler; clamber aboard a subway train (a bungee swing suspended between twin scaffolds); and sail uptown.
In the center of the plaza sits a 15-watt pirate radio transmitter -- the voice of Black Rock: Radio Free Burning Man. Designed and built by Gordon Burke in Sunnyvale, the entire prefab station was trucked into Black Rock on Wednesday. Radio Free Burning Man broadcasts music and announcements all weekend, signing off only for the occasional thunderstorm ("So we don't all die in here," one announcer explained).
And dying is always a possibility in the Black Rock Desert. There are no amenities here; in fact, this place is startling for what it lacks. Food, water, shelter -- you bring them with you. To Harvey, this sort of blanched-bones survival makes for an interesting lesson in community, what he calls "culture on the hoof."
"The function of that space," Harvey says of the formidable environs, "leaves people in charge of their own survival. At the same time, the Black Rock Desert makes everyone a participant."
Friday night, Mike and I walk to the edge of Black Rock and join in a game of fireball, a sort of high-octane desert rugby. It's not long before the sight of a flaming ball being tossed around in the blackness draws a gallery of whooping spectators. We play four hair-singeing quarters by the light of the ball. Understandably, the shirts beat the skins.
After breakfast on Saturday, we wander Black Rock, taking pictures and talking to the celebrants. In the center plaza we drink Bitches Brew, offered by a woman named Andrea. When asked what effect the spicy lemon-and-ginger concoction has, she laughs, "You better have a condom."
A woman in a short, diaphanous negligee, her body painted white so that she looks like a Greek statue come to life, moves through the crowd, graciously feeding people grapes. On top of an old ambulance, two seminude women pose gracefully for a knot of admiring photographers.
That some have come to Burning Man to watch and some to participate is evident. But the line between the two is often blurred. When a caravan of nomadic dancers clangs into the center of camp to the jangle of finger cymbals and tambourines, the milling spectators join in their ululation.