All of that money changes hands outside of Burning Man's gates, for the festival itself is a cashless economy. Dollars lose their value and are replaced by the spirit of "radical self-reliance, radical self-expression and art," as the website declares. It's all about gifting—donating goods and services, knowing that others will do the same. For Cleek and a team of five mechanics, that means setting up a bike tent on the desert floor, known as the playa, and repairing chains, brakes and whatever else needs fixing, all at no cost.
Cleek calls it a "labor of love." Long-time burners often speak of it in spiritual terms. The lovefest dates to 1986, when artist Larry Harvey and a friend somewhat spontaneously built and burned an 8-foot-tall figure on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Four years later, as local authorities grew uncomfortable with the gathering masses and the burning object, the festival moved northeast to the desert. From a free event with a few hundred people in the early 1990s, Burning Man has become, for a week each year, a mid-sized city, with attendees paying $380 to join the fun. Google co-founder Larry Page, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and Zappos leader Tony Hsieh are among the high-profile techy burners.
They travel by all means imaginable. Over 100 planes are expected to land at Burning Man's makeshift airport. Roundtrip flights out of Reno cost around $600 from companies including Advantage Flight Solutions and Black Rock Air, with Burning Man charging an additional $40 for people arriving by air. The Burner Express bus will haul more than 5,200 riders from Reno and San Francisco, up from 2,000 in 2013, Graham said. That's at least partly due to Burning Man's public effort to reduce traffic on the two-lane highway that leads to Black Rock City.
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The RV business, seemingly created for Burning Man, is as hot as the summer sand. Twin brothers Tim and Steve Waldren are among the beneficiaries. They own a dealership in Reno called Paramount RV, started by their parents in 1977. The brothers took over in 2005 and expanded from RV repairs into rentals in 2011, as demand soared from burners who preferred the luxury of showers, beds and air conditioning to the open desert and temperatures that often hit the 90s during the day, before sometimes dipping into the 40s at night, not to mention the constant dust and occasional hail storms.
While this is their fourth year catering to the festival, the Waldrens are themselves making the trek for the first time this year as part of an art collective that's traveling by trolly, the kind that shuttles tourists around San Francisco. Of course, they'll be sleeping in an air-conditioned motorhome.
"The perception has been that it's a full-on rock and roll party," said Tim Waldren. "That perception is changing. You talk to good-hearted, good-souled people that go. It's time to experience it."
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Paramount has a fleet of 12 RVs, all booked for the festival, and has plans to expand. Units rent for about $500 a night, double the rate for the rest of the year. The repair shop also benefits from the many RVs that have to drive through Reno from San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Broken refrigerators and sputtering air conditioners are no way to start a Burn.
For the extremely well-to-do, luxury motorhomes can run into the five digits. El Monte RV, which rents vehicles nationwide, was listing bus-style RVs that sleep six for over $12,000 from Aug. 24 to Sept. 1 from its Reno location. The same unit a month later goes for less than $2,000. Burning Man's Graham said they've heard anecdotally for the last several years that almost every RV in Northern California and Nevada is rented for the week leading up to Labor Day, coinciding with the festival. Paramount sold out in early 2014 and has been getting calls continuously since.
A couple miles from the Waldrens' dealership, Ciaran O'Brien, an architect from London, is hanging out at the Generator, a community art space where groups of burners erect their installations before transporting them to the desert. O'Brien is a second-year burner and enters with big plans. Along with an international team of 10 specialists, he'll be constructing a 25-foot-tall, 4-ton pyramid with an aurora borealis lighting vibe, the end result of a two-year project and over $60,000 of invested capital, mostly from grants and a successful Kickstarter campaign.
"We designed this over dinner one night two years ago and said we should take this to the Burn," O'Brien said. "And we did. It's quite emotional."
Were this any other event, O'Brien would likely be in a mild panic. The installation was shipped from London in three crates and should arrive any day, though he can't be sure. And the RV that O'Brien was originally supposed to pick up from a dealership 13 miles from the festival entrance has been rerouted because of logistical problems. It's now meeting him at the Motel 6 in Reno in the next day or so, at least that's what he hopes. Because it's Burning Man, O'Brien is taking it all in stride.