The Mel Gibson Appreciation Society
A huge dome welded with steel overhangs a large sand pit. Above it hangs a neon light in the desert darkness bearing the legend The Thunderdome. The structure is entirely covered in people clinging to the bars and hanging from the metal gridwork that allows them to see the interior below. Many looked like they have not washed or shaved in days and have a ragged, crusty look, colored by glow sticks and fluorescent clothing and the occasional beaded dreadlock. They look eagerly into the pit below, lit from time to time by the periodic camera flash. They cheer and jeer as two gladiators below bounce from bungee harnesses, whacking each other across the head with bats while a witchlike referee with tall staff and ragged skirt officiates. All you need is a Tina Turner soundtrack and you would be forgiven for thinking you’re an extra in a Mad Max movie.
The venue is the Burning Man festival, the famous gathering of New Age ravers and radical thinkers in a desolate desert spot 100 miles (161km) from Reno in Northern Nevada. Here a temporary city of 50,000 hedonistic souls gathers once a year for a week of enlightened debauchery. Massive art installations, theme camps, techno parties, and incessant drumming take place in a C-shaped city at the center of which is a 40-foot (12m) effigy, the burning man that will be torched as the festival comes to an end. Colorful mutant cars roar around the playa, throwing flames and exciting mirth with some appearing as giant motorized muffins and an eight-legged mechanical spider.
The origins of the festival come from some annual San Francisco beach bonfires in the 1980s, and it has morphed into one of the biggest counter-culture events in North America. While some criticize that it has lost its free, non-commercial ethics (ticket prices are now $300), it still bans all merchandising and the only things you can buy on-site are coffee, soda, and ice. The rest you must bring yourself and gifting is encouraged where participants exchange items in brotherly love. Take the on-site Irish bar, for example, called Paddy Mirage, that dispenses free beer. There is a Sobriety Checkpoint, where sexy female police officers check you are drunk enough, and if not will judiciously pass you a cocktail.
Yet all charity stops within the Thunderdome arena as two fighters face off to a baying crowd. Anybody can participate—in fact, the ethos of Burning Man is you must participate in some of the many events. The rather scary Thunderdome banshee referee issues the rules to each volunteer:
“One, I am always right. Two, stop and start when told, and three, don’t bitch.”
“You’ve got it.” —CO’M
When to go: Burning Man begins on the last Mon of Aug and runs for 8 days.
Reno (118 miles/190km).
There are no hotels in Black Rock City. You must bring your own tent, car, or campervan.