Every year at the end of August, parts of the East Bay start to empty out; people go on unexplained, mysterious vacations they may seem reluctant to discuss.
If you don't go, there's a good chance that you know somebody who does, or maybe know someone who knows someone, just a few degrees of separation from what may be the biggest festival in the world: Burning Man.
For some, it's a huge outdoor art show. For others, it's a chance to get away from their normal professional lives -- 68 percent either have a bachelor's degree or higher -- and run wild. Burning Man is rowdy, often bawdy, and for many it's a chance to exhibit behavior that would be totally inappropriate and unacceptable anywhere else. People come from as far away as Europe, the Middle East and Hawaii for the event, and while most are in their 20s and 30s, it's not unusual to encounter a septo- or octogenarian, and there's a kids camp as well.
Nudity, drugs and alcohol abound, although many Californians don't realize that they're subject to Nevada's harsher penalties for marijuana and that driving an art car around the desert (known as the playa) while intoxicated can get them a DUI and an overnight trip to the local jail.
That doesn't mean everyone there does drugs. There are at least four sober camps at Burning Man and a fair number of people who choose to not partake for other reasons.
Even the participants have a hard time explaining what Burning Man is.
"It's so hard," said Kaley Oldani -- known as Phoenix on the playa -- a 2005 California High graduate who attends with her father. "There's something for everyone at Burning Man and it just depends on the kind of person you are. If you're an artist there's all kinds of art, there's fire for people who are into fire art, and there's the community aspect: You're in a small little city. You set up camp and get to know your neighbors."
It may be easier to explain Burning Man, simply referred to as the burn by most, by what it isn't. The Burning Man website explains that it's not: a pagan event; a modern Woodstock; a hippie festival; based on "The Wicker Man" (a 60s-are thriller featuring Edward Woodward), or an apocalyptic anarchist party, although there are some aspects of each at the event.
Contrary to popular myth, Burning Man wasn't founded when Larry Harvey -- the man who is single-handedly responsible for it -- burned a statue on a San Francisco beach more than 25 years ago that represented himself, his broken heart or his ex-girlfriend.
All that begs the question of what Burning Man actually is. There's an element of William Golding's novel "Lord of the Flies," with its theme of civilization versus savagery/order versus chaos. There's Burning Man's gift economy; bartering or selling items isn't allowed, except for ice and coffee sold by the Burning Man organization itself (although admittedly, there must be some exchange of goods for services when it comes to the buying and selling of illegal substances).
"Just not handling money for an entire week," said Suzi Grishpul, who graduated from Cal High in 2006, "it's a really awesome feeling, to just put that aside."
Burning Man didn't start out that way when Harvey and 20 friends burned an eight-foot statue on San Francisco's Baker Beach in 1986. It wasn't even called Burning Man until 1988, when the crowd had grown to 200 or so and the man had grown to 30 feet. Trouble from law enforcement forced the burn to the desert in 1990, and the burn -- but not the party that preceded it -- moved to Labor Day weekend. By that time, the man was 40 feet tall and the event attracted 800 people.
Harvey has never been afraid of recreating the burn and what it means. Burning Man legend about those first years in the Nevada desert, the event included guns and explosives, which are now forbidden. The gift economy, art and the notion of radical independence grew over time, as did the population, which now comes to nearly 50,000 people, making the Burning Man site, Black Rock City, the third largest city in Nevada once a year.
Radical independence was summed up simply by Oldani.
"You've got to be smart and take care of yourself," she said. That means bringing everything needed to survive a week in the desert, where the high altitude brings temperatures can top 100 degrees daytimes, then plummet to the low 40s at night. The ticket price includes admission only.
Water, food, costumes, swag and everything else required to survive must be brought in. Nothing grows on the playa. There are no animals, insects or even plants, and the Burning Man survival guide includes in its lengthy list of "must haves" a mask and goggles for the frequent dust storms and whiteouts that can kick up in minutes and last for hours.
"It looks to be an extremely dusty year this year, with little rain in the Bay Area, there's less in the desert. I'm hearing reports of brown outs where the sun is totally blocked by dust," said one burner who asked to be identified as Owl. "There are also a lot of new people on the playa and that could mean new sets of problems with people who have no familiarity with how dangerous it can be in a white out."
Owl said he stayed up late and spent a considerable amount of money on new gear, such as a thick jumpsuit, specifically meant to block the dust.
Which brings up the notion of radical interdependence. Participants -- which is what attendees are called by the Burning Man organization -- who find themselves lost in a storm walk into the nearest camp, which can provide shelter while the lost help the camp from blowing away.
"My first year, I was supposed to meet up with people who were bringing in water, so I didn't bring any myself," said one participant who asked not to be named. "I mentioned it at a camp and within 15 minutes, I had enough water donated to me to last the week."
While some people choose to go nude for parts of the week when it's not too cold, costumes are very much a part of the Burning Man experience, and can range from simple outfits "gifted" by a group that operates the Black Rock Boutique to elaborate garments that can take weeks or even months to prepare.
"I love to do costumes. I love glitter and jewels and color," Oldani said, adding Burning Man "lets me do my creative side."
Theme camps are also a big part of the experience. Groups of every type offer the opportunity to participate in everything from the carnal to the sublime to the bizarre: Strip poker at the Filthy Gentleman's Club (one of the mildest carnal experiences available), massage, reiki and yoga at HeeBeeGeeBee Healers and mutilated Barbie dolls at Barbie Death Camp & Wine Bistro.
Jon Ciampi of San Ramon was part of Sunrise Coffee Camp, which shares "from sunrise until our pots run dry."
That's just one of the many camps that offer free food or, in many cases, free liquor.
Music never ends at Burning Man, with everything from live rock to DJs spinning everything from old school funk and classic rock to techno and dubstep, a relatively new form of music that incorporates drum and bass beats and reggae influenced sounds. The survival guide suggests earplugs for people who want to get some sleep.
Art and art grants have become part of Burning Man's prime missions, and a big draw for some.
"It's such a creative area there and I wish I could put forth that creative energy all the time," said Grispul. "When I'm at Burning Man, it's like the world's biggest art galley… I wish I could be stimulated that much every day in my life."
In addition to the huge art installations on the playa, there are slews of art cars and "mutant vehicles," some of which ferry people around Black Rock City and are popular places to watch the man burn.
There are typically three big burns at Burning Man. On Friday night, there's usually a burn that changes from year to year and is centered on Burning Man's theme for the year. In 2010, for example, the theme was Metropolis, and a large structure resembling a skyline was torched. This year's theme is Fertility 2.0 and burners are encouraged to contemplate "the tendency of any being or living system to create abundant life."
Saturday night brings the main burn, the man, and the design of that structure changes yearly as well. The event begins with drummers and fire spinners as the crowd gathers and moves into a huge fireworks display. The man generally takes some time to light, but when it starts, the structure burns with an intensity that can leave the participants sweaty and hot 50 yards away.
Sunday night is the temple burn, and all though the week, items are dropped off there to be burned: photos of loved ones, issues they're having a hard time letting go.
"The burning of the temple, that's a spiritual thing," Oldani explained. "People write on the walls in messages to their loved ones, they're letting go of stuff."
Oldani said touring the temple during the week, she came across a diary left by another woman.
"She obviously wanted it to burn, Oldani said, adding that parts of the diary brought her to tears. "I knew her but I didn't know her. I felt like I met someone but never knew her. … Seeing the smoke go up, it looked like souls escaping the fire."
Getting people into and out of Black Rock City is a chore. The city lies outside Gerlach, Nev., about three-and-a-half hours outside Reno. The road to Gerlach is a simple two-lane road, with traffic backups that can run for miles, as cars, RVs and trucks loaded with equipment make their way to and from the burn.
Burning Man is a leave no trace event. Members of each camp are charged with cleaning up MOOP (Matter Out Of Place), a job that can last for hours.
"It's a pack in, pack out event," Oldani explained. "It's such an innovative concept -- it's not easy, but people do it."
Both Oldani and Grishpul said they brought something back from the burns they attended.
"Questioning my openness to different types of people," Grishpul said. "I'm pretty easy to get along with but sometimes we build up these walls and that gets totally knocked aside.
"Burning Man is just fun and hedonistic, and that's ok," she continued, adding "Burning Man is not everything."
Tickets run from $210 to $320, depending on when they're bought, and many hopeful burners clog the organization's phone lines to get those cheap tickets when they go on sale in January.
This year's burn brought a rash of ticket issues due to the Burning Man Organization's new ticket lottery system.
"There were fears about tickets for veteran burners this year, but seems to be resolved…many people who could not attend sold theirs at the lowest possible price," Owl said.
But tickets may be the least of burner's fears this year as Pershing County officials attempt to impose steep fee increases and regulation of behavior at the event. The Burning Man organization is now suing the county though Burning Man happens on federal land, not Pershing County land -- claiming it "imposed new, unnecessary, unlawful, and potentially ruinous fees on BRC, threatening BRC's ability to conduct Burning Man 2013 and going forward."
With close to 50,000 people at Black Rock City for the burn, dressed in every kind of outfit imaginable, one question begs to be answered: Are they rebellious or simply conforming in unconformity?