Back to Burning Man

Three local Playa enthusiasts on why they return to Black Rock Desert year after year

Deborah Coughlin holds a trinket from Burning Man 2014.

Deborah Coughlin holds a trinket from Burning Man 2014.

Photo by kate gonzales

What would Burning Man be if not for those who gather at the Playa?

The artists who create large-scale works made more lasting through Instagram shares, and those who craft and distribute tiny trinkets to exchange on the journey. The DJs providing party sounds in large music tents and those serenading their camp through a scorching afternoon on an acoustic guitar.

In 1986, the first man burned beside the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. There, Burning Man founders Jerry James and the late Larry Harvey built a human effigy, which they took to Baker Beach to set ablaze. Since then, it has grown from a couple dozen spectators to an eight-day spectacle that draws about 70,000 people to the Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles outside of Reno. This year it takes place Sunday, August 26 through Monday, September 3.

Based around the 10 Principles, which include “radical self-reliance,” “communal effort” and “radical self-expression” the event forces participants, known as Burners, to leave consumerism in the dust. Organizers and volunteers build a temporary city, Black Rock City, in the middle of the desert. Instead of exchanging money for an item or experience, a Burner may offer another item in exchange—art, toilet paper, water or a poem. Many people go as part of a camp, a team of people who pool supplies and work together to survive the desert’s harsh environment.

Of those tens of thousands who bring their own individual magic to Black Rock City, pieces of that mosaic of personality, talent and raw emotion come from Sacramento. Following are just a few of their stories.

The volunteer

Maybe it’s the climate. Or the drugs. A lack of food or water, or a boundary crossed in an already strained relationship. Perhaps it’s some unpleasant combination of these triggers. Whatever the reason, if you’re in crisis mode at Burning Man, you better hope to stumble upon Deborah Coughlin.

“People are basically confronted with all kinds of out-of-comfort-zone situations,” Coughlin says. “You may not know how you’re going to react.”

As a volunteer Black Rock Ranger, Coughlin is skilled in maintaining basic safety and conflict management. With a background in psychology and a career with a nonprofit that serves the housing needs of people with mental illness, her professional skills serve her on the Playa.

“My work in mental health has helped with being at Burning Man and helping others adjust to this real almost out-of-body kind of experience,” she says.

Since Coughlin traveled from Chicago for her first Burn with her husband in 1998, plenty has changed. There were a fraction of the visitors back then, and it was only an extended weekend before it became the current week-plus affair. It was the Wild West days of Burning Man, with fewer regulations that Coughlin acknowledges were eventually needed to ensure safety at the growing festival.

“Anything went,” she says. “In those early days, the imagination went wild with some of the stuff they were able to do.”

As she sits at a coffee shop just blocks from her East Sacramento home, Coughlin recalls one vivid memory: a makeshift totem outside of a BDSM-themed camp.

“They had a real-life pig head that they had on this stake, and throughout the whole three days it was just rotting there,” Coughlin says, laughing. “Not exactly my thing, but OK.”

Burning Man has always been an adult playground, where people could strip away societal norms in favor of connecting with their inner-child, or their inner-weirdo.

“Being able to have that healthy release I think is really important for peoples’ well-being,” she says.

Coughlin has attended Burning Man eight of the last 20 years. While living in Chicago, she volunteered with local Burner groups even in the years she didn’t make the trek because she and her husband were raising kids. They returned after their youngest graduated high school in 2009, when, like many in the Burning Man community, they began to volunteer at the Playa.

“It’s a culture that promotes volunteerism and giving back,” Coughlin says, adding that one of the event’s 10 principles is civic responsibility.

In 2015, Coughlin took a hiatus after she was diagnosed with cancer. She returned in 2017. Holding a lock of hair she cut to prepare for treatment, the bracelets she wore in the hospital and her last pack of smokes, she went to the Temple to let it all go.

“People put their heart and soul and sorrows into the Temple for release,” Coughlin says. “My intention was that I was going to release all the crap from the cancer and the baggage into the Temple.”

It was crowded the day she visited, but she found a private space next to a young man. They acknowledged one another’s struggling without any explanation.

“We hugged each other,” she remembers. “Never exchanged names. We sat with each other in absolute silence for about half an hour, just holding space with each other.”

“It’s those kinds of transient connections that are the most profound for me at Burning Man. I’ve engaged in really deep convos with people who I would never normally have met,” she says, “and oftentimes, will never meet again.”

The tinkerer

In 2015, Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov brought “Love” to the Playa. The large sculpture showed two children standing, facing one another with hands outreached. They are housed within two transparent adults, clearly pained as they sit back-to-back with lowered heads. It’s a memorable image, even for non-Burners; the kind of awe-inspiring art the Playa is famous for.

But in the Burner community, creative expression comes in countless forms and is cherished even when it doesn’t make for a picture-perfect social media post. Ingenuity is required to coordinate and build a camp, survive in the desert and contribute to the community at Black Rock City. Sometimes, that ingenuity comes in the form of trash art.

“There’s art everywhere—the decorations at the camps, in your bike, in your clothing,” says Ed Fletcher, a long-time Burner.

Initially, he wasn’t sure if the desert event was for him, but after some online research he reluctantly joined a group of Burners a decade ago with his friend Angela Gentry. Now, he’s embraced experimentation, collaboration and design.

“I immediately felt compelled to come back and do it right and do it better,” he says of that first adventure, and he’s been immersed in the culture since.

He was recently elected president of Sacramento Valley Spark, a local art-advocating Burner group, and has a hand in several regional groups and meet-ups dedicated to Burning Man.

“I didn’t start off thinking I would be one of those people,” he says, but it has been the experience of a lifetime. “I have more fun at Burning Man than I have anywhere else.”

The bones of past Burning Man projects can be found in Fletcher’s backyard. A jumbled lamp of CDs and old aluminum strips of a Coors can that once served as the north star to wayward camp members is prominently displayed on the fence of his Colonial Heights home. Two orange buckets with the makings of a swamp cooler sit on the dry grass near a stereo he once built.

“Burning Man should be as much about trash art as it is about fine art,” Fletcher said in a recent Facebook video, where he showed off his attempt to convert an old mountain bike to an e-bike.

Using an e-bike conversion kit, he tried to transform the mountain bike using a motorized tire on the front of the bike, a power control box, heavy battery and throttle. It didn’t quite work. Tires fell off and the battery was too heavy and inconvenient to have on the bike.

His dad was an engineer, and while Fletcher says he didn’t inherit that gene, he does enjoy experimenting to make his camp, GYST (Get Your Shit Together), function stronger.

“Burning Man over the years inspired me to try different projects,” he explained in the video. “This is sort of the evolution of it.”

Fletcher says he’s not disappointed that the pink, furry mountain bike was weighed down by the e-bike tire. Instead, he’s going to try the conversion on a tricycle before he heads to Black Rock City.

That’s part of the beauty of Burning Man—to adapt and persist in the face of a challenge.

“Keep trying, keep doing new things and keep re-inventing yourself,” he says.

The storytellers

It may be a slight exaggeration to say that Burning Man saved Noah Wilkinson’s life, but it’s one he would make. He was 21, depressed over the state of the world as he became more aware of politics. Then he lucked into a ticket to a festival he knew nothing about.

“In my early 20s, I could not see a good path for myself in the world,” he says. “Burning Man sort of pulled me out of a pretty deep despair and alienation.”

Today, he co-hosts the podcast Accuracy Third, which shares lived Playa experiences and lessons from Burners themselves. He was inspired by the collaboration and joy of the Burners he met.

The weather in 1999 was extreme. Hot days and cold nights were the backdrop for Wilkinson’s new found hope in humanity.

“I got to see people frolic through a challenge,” he remembers. “Burning Man really showed me that even within the rotting corpse of late-stage capitalism, people can … do just wonderful things for each other, for no other reason than the delight of doing for others.”

He’s gone back to Black Rock City every year since, and says the atmosphere has made him want to be a better person.

“I’m so moved by the artistic side that I felt a little ashamed I couldn’t contribute in that sense,” he says. He picked up volunteer duties, like coming early to set up the city and serving as a Black Rock Ranger. In May 2013, Wilkinson was inspired by Kevin Smith, writer and the silent half of the Jay & Silent Bob duo. Smith had a tour stop in Portland, where Wilkinson lived at the time, and gave the audience an assignment.

“He instructed all of us to go home and sometime in the next year record a podcast,” Wilkinson says. “I knew instantly what I wanted to do.”

The idea for Accuracy Third, an oral history of Burning Man, was born. Wilkinson (who goes by Rex on the podcast), along with co-hosts Beth Hersh and Damien Chacona, aka “D-Day,” launched the podcast in April 2016. Now, regular episodes feature Burner interviews from January to September. The most recent episode discussed consent, a topic Hersh says she’s passionate about.

“The kind of consent stuff that comes up at Burning Man can be very specific to Burning Man,” she says. Like the story of a man who agreed to be shocked with a Taser in exchange for bacon.

Discussions around consent have been commonplace for Hersh, who patronized a BDSM club as a young adult. The podcast episode includes portions of consent talks Hersh has given at Burning Man volunteer trainings, as well as past podcast guests discussing good and bad examples of consent situations. Creating a culture of consent on and off the Playa is difficult, she says.

“Even those of us who really don’t want to trample on each others’ consent don’t have a good model,” Hersh says. “Mostly I’m asking people to step up and try to pay attention to themselves. It sounds simple but it’s a really big ask.”

After the Burn, Accuracy Third will post a recap episode before breaking for the season, but not before throwing themselves a curve ball. This year, the team has based some of its Burning Man schedule around listener suggestions. They’re all taking a tribal screaming class. Hersh is running a naked mile. In his 20th year at Burning Man, Wilkinson says he’s still finding new sources of light in the experience.

“A large part of the reason we make this podcast is because it is so challenging to paint for somebody a picture of what Burning Man is and why it’s beautiful and magical and exquisite,” he says. “The only way we could think to really do this effectively is by painting it with as many brushes as we can.”