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How Burning Man Works

The Evolution
Some Burners celebrate life's milestones -- like marriage -- at the festival.
Some Burners celebrate life's milestones -- like marriage -- at the festival.
© Josh Edelson/ZUMA Press/Corbis

What began in 1986 as artful effigy among friends is now an annual escape from modern times for thousands of people. Black Rock City's population is that of a small town -- a small town where self-expression is a way of life, and physical "things" cost nothing. Except for ice. That runs a few bucks a bag.

Four years after that first fire, Burning Man's attendance had grown to 800, and the Man had grown to 40 feet (12 meters) [source: Burning Man]. That year, San Francisco authorities decided they weren't thrilled about such a huge fire on Baker Beach, so 1990's burning of the Man was moved about 350 miles (560 kilometers) northeast, to Black Rock Desert, which became the sole location for the festival the following year [source: Burning Man].

In 2012, 50,000 people descended on Black Rock Desert to live, for about a week, in a place that looks and feels very little like any other 21-century city. The week ends with the burning of a man the size of a small building. And while that symbolic culmination is the definitely main event, a kind of spiritual catharsis for many "Burners," the gathering is intended to be more than an effigy.

It is, for many who attend and certainly for founder Larry Harvey, a lifestyle choice. Ideally, that lifestyle at the very least trickles, but preferably thunders, into the other 51 weeks of the year, transforming "regular" life into something considered more meaningful than consumerism and ladder-climbing. Ideally, what happens in Black Rock City doesn't stay in Black Rock City at all.

And the city itself is something to behold -- proof, to many, that the Burning Man lifestyle can work in a very real way.