After 10 years of trekking to Nevada's Burning Man festival, Badlander co-owner Chris Henry has his list of essentials locked in: Camelback, hat, lip balm, beef jerky, extra rolling papers (for cigarettes). Henry learned a valuable lesson his first time in the festival's Black Rock City, when he failed to bring a proper dust mask and goggles: "When it's misery out there," he says, "it's intense misery."
Burning Man's popularity among art fanatics and counterculturalists has skyrocketed over its 20-year life. This week, more than 50,000 people will gather in Black Rock Desert, among them a growing contingent of Missoulians.
As "profound and mind-blowing" as Burning Man can be, Henry says, the success or failure of the festival experience lies in adequate preparation. The organizers with Black Rock City LLC, the company behind Burning Man, have gone so far as to offer a first timer's survival guide. Tips include hydrating regularly (one of the festival's mottos is "pee clear") and leaving behind the girlfriend who "goes into convulsions when she can't find a place to plug in her blow dryer."
Eventually, however, "Burners" typically develop their own system based on personal experiences and observation of other festival regulars. Tent stakes don't work in the desert, Henry says, so rebar with a candy-cane loop has become standard technology. Some camps boast homemade evaporation systems for gray water. "It's like a DIY engineer's wet dream," he says.
One local businessman and six-year veteran of Burning Man, who asked to remain anonymous, listed his personal priorities as water, shade and transportation—"everything else you can fumble through," he says.
But Burning Man's biggest danger doesn't necessarily lie in the alkali desert dust. After seven days of constant exposure to the bounds of "human creative potential," Henry says, returning to the default world "bums you out." Burners call it decompression sickness. To counteract the effect, Henry has taken to exporting his experience to the Badlander conceptually.
"Having a place that like-minded people can get together and socialize and meet each other and create social capital—I was hyper-aware of all of that when I started looking for a venue years ago," Henry says. "Burning Man really spelled it out for me."