In 1986, about 20 people gathered to watch an 8-foot-tall wooden man burn on a San Francisco beach, and Burning Man was born. This year, 53,000 people paid from $220 to more than $500 to attend the festival, now held in a remote corner of the Nevada desert and featuring “no plumbing, no food, no trash service, and almost nothing in the way of commercial entertainment.” Seth Stevenson had to wonder: “What was this cult of unshowered vegans, ecstasy-gobbling ravers, nerdy techies, and jet-setting art freaks?” So, he writes on Slate, he set out for Burning Man himself, to find out why in the world anyone would want to go.
He doesn’t quite figure out the answer, but he does come face to face with “the most bizarre, most visually stimulating environment I've ever seen,” featuring nudity, psychedelically painted cars, a full-scale Thunderdome complete with Nerf-wielding gladiators, and a giant metal octopus spewing fire. Unable to find their camp and the people who would shelter and feed them for the week, Stevenson and his photographer companion slept in their car and woke up looking “shellshocked.” Only then, after meeting a kind man bearing cinnamon buns who explains that Burning Man is “still the best place on Earth,” does the tide start to turn. Soon Stevenson was greeted with hugs at his camp. “I felt tranquil. At home. Ready at last to play my own part in this madness.”