Burning Man Festival Attracts Upscale RVers
The giant Burning Man art festival, in its official manifesto, calls on attendees to exhibit “radical self-reliance” as they camp and frolic on the dry lakebed near Black Rock City, Nev., for a week every year.
“Radical self-reliance” are the bywords of the Burning Man art festival. But this year, some wealthy attendees are outsourcing the hard stuff — like driving in the RVs, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Burning Man’s mantra is so compelling that some 50,000 participants have gathered in this rustic setting for the 25th annual rite. But some bourgeois Burners are calling upon more than spiritual vibes to tap their inner self. They’ve got hired help.
Elon Musk, chief executive of electric-car maker Tesla Motors and co-founder of eBay Inc.’s PayPal unit, is among those eschewing the tent life. He is paying for an elaborate compound consisting of eight recreational vehicles and trailers stocked with food, linens, groceries and other essentials for himself and his friends and family, say employees of the outfitter, Classic Adventures RV.
Burning Man is like any other community, with “a lower class, a middle class, an upper class,” says Dane Johnson, a Classic manager, standing outside the Musk compound. “We cater to the upper. People with money do not wish to stay in a tent.”
Festival celebrants bike and walk through the dusty streets of Black Rock City, a temporary desert community borne of a self-reliant ethos.
Elsewhere on the desert grounds, Burners wear bikini tops, leather chaps, stilts, goggles—and sometimes nothing at all. They rely on canned food for meals, sleep in the open field under the stars and use portable toilets. Limbs flail at dance-till-dawn parties. People are expected to share and to give gifts to one another. Money is banned. Sort of.
Classic is one of the festival’s few approved vendors. It charges $5,500 to $10,000 per RV for its Camp Classic Concierge packages like Musk’s. At Musk’s RV enclave, the help empties septic tanks, brings water and makes sure the vehicles’ electricity, refrigeration, air conditioning, televisions, DVD players and other systems are ship shape. The staff also stocked the campers with Diet Coke, Gatorade and Cruzan rum.
Anyone bring marshmallows? Just another typical Burning Man night in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
Musk, through his assistant, confirms he hired an RV service but declines to give details or say how much he is paying.
Burning Man used to be a desert tent city with a do-it-yourself ethos. But its growth — and the increasing wealth of many of its attendees — has seen an influx of cash. “Commerce around Burning Man has evolved and it’s a complicated dance,” says Steven T. Jones, author of “The Tribes of Burning Man.”
San Francisco caterer Gastronaut is one of many marketers targeting the Burning haute crowd. “People have less and less time to be radically self-reliant,” says head chef Nathan Keller, whose gourmet feasts-to-go include beef bourguignon and posole. The tab: $20 to $50 per meal, which feeds five.
For those who bristle at making the long pilgrimage to the desert by car, there is flytoburningman.com. Run by Centurion Flight Services, it picks up travelers in the San Francisco area and deposits them on a makeshift air strip here. The cost to avoid dusty roads: $825 per seat in a five-person Cessna, or $4,325 for the whole plane.
Hairdressers are cashing in, too. Stylist Tiffani Harper of Vallejo, Calif., said three customers responded to her online braids-for-Burning Man ad. She charged $70 to $140.
Even in this anything-goes atmosphere, some Burners chafe at the seeming excess. Several volunteers, who said festival rules prohibited them from giving their names, disdain the full-service RV crowd and say that Black Rock Desert was chosen in part to encourage people to weather harsh conditions.
“They’re not being self-reliant when they’re paying someone,” says Eli Meyer, a 36-year-old longtime Burner from North Lake Tahoe, Calif., who is sleeping in a tent. Meyer, who is part of a Burning Man environmental group called Earth Guardians, said the RVs are also the worst way to attend an event that prides itself on being eco-friendly.
Burning Man started in 1986 when founder Larry Harvey torched a wooden stick figure one night on a San Francisco beach before a few people. Four years later, the crowd grew so big that organizers moved the event to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, about two hours’ drive north of Reno.
The earliest event grounds resembled more of a frontier than a city, with campsites loosely organized. Now “architects” build a circular grid for the temporary metropolis, dubbed Black Rock City, which also has a weeklong post office and de facto police force.
The festival remains famous for elaborate art projects — performances, sculptures and “mutant vehicles.” This year, automobiles in the form of cupcakes and yellow submarines roved the desert hard pan, braving the wind storms that force attendees to carry goggles and dust masks.
Not all of the art adheres to the festival’s DIY philosophy.
Chris Bently, a San Franciscan whose real-estate holdings include an apartment building on posh Nob Hill, this year paid a team of artists and metalworkers to build a car modeled after the “Nautilus” submarine from Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” said two people familiar with the project. Bently’s assistant said he was unavailable to comment.
Harvey, now chairman of the organization that runs Burning Man, says he has no problems with participants who pay for services. One of the 10 principles is “radical inclusion,” meaning everyone is welcome to attend, he says. He says he is spending this week in a camper, with food cooked for him, because he is 63 years old and it allows him to do his job more easily.
Some of Musk’s luxury-RV-dwelling camp neighbors say critics shouldn’t judge. Adam Stephenson, a 40-year-old marketing director for Symantec Corp., says that even though he is paying a premium for RV service, he put a lot of work into building a shade tent and buying costumes and supplies. And the RV isn’t the Ritz. “It’s not super easy,” he says. “The air conditioner is not on all the time.”