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Carly Schwartz Headshot

The Desert Sells Out

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It's true. Burning Man has officially sold out.

My social networks exploded with the news last Monday. "Sell-out" puns abounded. Facebook forums sprouted. Asking prices for scalped tickets on eBay and Stubhub soared to the thousands. Incredulous burners offered prized possessions in exchange for the biggest prize of all, a secured spot on the playa. ("I'd like to trade positive vibes and an iPad," one poor soul in Downtown Oakland posted on Craigslist). Somewhere, a hippie lost his spirit animal.

In its 25 years in existence, tickets to the Greatest Festival On Earth have never run out. One of Burning Man's Ten Principles is Radical Inclusion. "Anyone may be a part of Burning Man," its official website promises. And this year, even half the DJs planning to perform won't be able to get in.

Maybe I'm just jealous because I can't go, but seriously, what the fuck is up with Burning Man?

My friends go crazy for it. All of San Francisco goes crazy for it. It started right here, on Baker Beach, after all. Now, tens of thousands of locals load up their RVs with tie-dyed unitards, granola bars, geodesic domes, toilet paper, handfuls of hallucinogens, maybe a stray burner or two they met online, and migrate to the Nevada desert every August. The city goes dark.

I suppose your typical middle-aged San Francisco drifter is the perfect candidate for a week of anarchy and revelations in a remote magical pop-up land. It's like summer camp, but for grown-ups.

Whenever my friends get back from Burning Man, they're glowing like they just won the lottery. (Or in their case, the currency-free gifting raffle). There are decompressions and sob sessions and group meditations. I was lucky enough to be part of one such gathering last year, during which an attendee gave a speech thanking everyone for a truly beautiful playa experience. "You are all my brothers and sisters," she announced, choking back tears as dubstep blared in the background. I have to admit, I felt a little left out.

As soon as the post-burn decompressions end, the pre-burn precompressions begin. There are meetings and conference calls, email threads and spreadsheets, happy hours and drum circles. Themes are hotly contested: Are we building a saloon or a waffle house? An LED installation or a healing garden? What's our intention? Entire weekends are blocked off to weld and paint and sew costumes and create. It's as big a commitment as planning a wedding or raising a small child, if you want it to be.

I recently stopped by the Commonwealth Club to hear Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey give his take on the event's evolution and discuss the new headquarters he's building in the Tenderloin's struggling Mid-Market area. The Club's usual bookish milieu transformed for the occasion. "This is a real festival marketplace!" a white-haired gentleman in a sequined cowboy hat told a dreadlocked pair selling flowy renaissance gowns and bedazzled leather corsets at the entrance. "If you could describe Burning Man in one word, what would it be?" someone had written on an easel by the stage. Among the responses: "Transforming." "Epic." "Community." "Home."

But spending a week at transforming-epic-community home doesn't come cheap. In addition to shelling out $350 for a ticket (or a couple bucks less, if you're proactive enough to snag the Early Bird deal), you must figure out how to sustain yourself for 168 hours in a fully self-sustained society. Will you rent an RV? Stock up on tent equipment? Is there a bike involved? How many gallons of water and boxes of condoms and sleeves of rice cakes will you need? Don't forget wardrobe and drug-related considerations. Not to mention the airfare, if you aren't lucky enough to live driving distance, or the gas money, if you are.

All that said, I actually have no idea what I'm talking about. "Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind," the Burning Man website warns.

In an effort to conjure some sort of understanding, I asked a few of my most loyal burner friends to tell me why the festival means so much to them. "Burning man is the future of popular culture," one said. "The playa is a world where you really can do whatever you want, a place where your neighbors are far more interesting than you ever dreamed possible," explained another. "Burning Man gives people the space and community to run wild with their imaginations," a third offered.

Sounds good to me. I'll see you in Black Rock next year -- if I manage to get my ticket in time.

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