An Oral History of Burning Man

For its 35th anniversary issue, Outside asked me to interview the instigators of the Burning Man festival, an irresistible opportunity to return to the San Francisco of my twenties, while also reckoning with what you can’t — and probably shouldn’t ever try — to fully recover. Came closest as I ever have to bonking on deadline, an anxiety attack that required breathing exercises, lying still, and, sometime around 3 a.m., the administration of mocha chip ice cream. Attribute this freakout in part to trying to capture it ALL; it was inevitable I’d miss stuff and that was how I felt when I first filed a 14,000 word draft. I found I was unable to synthesize so much raw material. And I do mean raw. (The still untold story of Burning Man is all the personal relationships it has torched, as well as forged.) And I wanted very much to balance conflict between the founders in the mid-90s with the less sensational, but equally remarkable work by the women who saved, rebuilt, and grew the festival. In the end, I was rescued as so many of us have been by the inimitable Alex Heard.

But so, was it better in the early years?

To answer this most frequently asked question: There are certain elements that I missed as the festival blew up, a soak in the Fly Hot Springs chief among them. A highlight from my first three three years on the playa, these springs were too fragile and unsafe for larger numbers of drug-addled campers. In general, though, I like Geoff Dyer’s answer. “By the time I went, in 1999, a lot of people were already lamenting that it wasn’t the anarchic free-for-all that it had been,” he said. “I stopped going myself in 2005, but I feel very sure that the people who started going in 2006 were as absolutely wonderstruck as I was.”

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