Planning an offbeat wedding? As far as tolerant locations go, you can’t get much better than Black Rock City. The Burning Man festival will swell to a record of 60,000 participants this year, placing Black Rock City among the dozen biggest Nevada cities for the single summer week the festival is open. If you and your sweetie are self-proclaimed “Burners,” the idea of a Burning Man wedding has probably already flitted across your mind. Strap on your safety goggles, however; Burning Man weddings can be as intense and vivid as a flamethrower blast, and they need to be handled just as carefully.
A No Limits Wedding Day
The best thing about being married at a wild desert arts festival is that anything goes. Really. Anything. From riding down the aisle on the back of a wheeled zebra-unicorn to reciting your vows atop a 100 foot aluminum robot, Burning Man offers you the opportunity to have any wedding you want. The possibilities are downright staggering. Whether you want an intimate, sincere ceremony in a gently-glowing chapel under a full moon, or you want to zoom around the desert on a skull-shaped motorcycle while feeding spoonfuls of wedding cake to passers-by, there is room for your style in Black Rock City.
What is Burning Man, exactly? If you’re inviting relatives that haven’t attended before, you’ll probably find yourself struggling to answer this question more than once. (If you’re asking this question yourself, you should probably attend a few times before attempting something complicated like planning a wedding there.) Black Rock City starts as a completely barren desert and slowly builds to a thriving city as more and more participants arrive, bringing infrastructure, shelter, and all kinds of art with them.
The city disappears a week later as people leave, scouring the desert for any overlooked scrap of trash that would betray their presence. Living conditions range from haphazard, single-person tents pitched here and there to elaborate, bustling “theme camps” and “villages” that offer services, classes, or entertainment to anyone who stops by. There is no dress code. There are only thin suggestions of building codes. There is only one important rule: be self-sufficient. Well, two rules: Also, be kind.
Keep in mind that Burner society differs from regular society in one very crucial way: there are no vendors. There is no buying and selling allowed within the city–not even trading. Instead, Burning Man relies solely upon a “gift economy.” This means that you should arrive with generosity in mind. (You don’t have to stock up on plastic trinkets. In fact, Burners’ environmental ethic frowns upon disposable items. Instead, give people gifts of items they’ll actually need, like fresh fruit, camping supplies and your valuable time and skills.) Unlike regular business transactions, the people you receive gifts from won’t necessarily be the people you give gifts to; but after a week of generosity flowing in all directions, everyone will come out happy.
When planning your Burning Man wedding, don’t forget to leave room for impromptu additions. Part of what makes the festival so unique is the exciting possibility of spontaneous creative combustion. Maybe you had planned on having your ceremony in a pink, fuzzy dome, but on your way there you pass the soaring archways of a driftwood temple and decide that it captures your love story even better. One bride had her car break down on the way to her ceremony, only to catch a ride with a group who turned out to be professional wedding photographers. Her ceremony was captured in gorgeous detail.
Inviting Non-Burner Friends and Family
Like any destination wedding in a foreign place, planning a ceremony in Black Rock City comes with a set of new rules, customs, and societal norms. If you’re inviting friends and family who haven’t yet attended the event, you’ll have to thoroughly educate them on what to expect.
The most crucial part is preparing your guests for the physical challenge. Don’t be fooled by the rainbow lights and party atmosphere. Burning Man takes place in an extreme desert where the only shade is provided by structures that the attendees build themselves. The dry, cracked ground is severely alkali, leading to cracked and blistered feet if precautions (like vinegar foot baths) aren’t taken. Unpredictable dust storms can carry whole tents away and turn the air literally opaque for days. There’s no food or water except what you bring for yourself. The only bathrooms are cramped port-o-potties that are too rarely emptied.
Not exactly fertile ground for romance, right? However, if your guests know what to expect ahead of time, they will arrive properly attired with goggles, masks, boots, and water. They will be ready to enjoy the finer points of what the extreme climate makes possible. Don’t accept any excuses; Burning Man is enjoyed by people of all ages, from couples celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary to children still in the womb. Many camps place an emphasis on being wheelchair-friendly, too.
As harsh as the physical climate may sound, the social climate is often the most challenging part for wedding guests who haven’t attended Burning Man before. As their envoy to an unfamiliar world, it’s up to you to prepare them for what they’re about to experience. Conservative relatives may especially have a problem with the clothing-optional aspect of Black Rock City society. Unlike equally-prevalent alcohol and loud music, both of which your more sensitive guests can avoid, nudity can be found in every area of Burning Man–even the kid-friendly areas. The best way to soften the shock for your guests is to lead by example and not make a big deal over it. After all, the nudity you’re likely to encounter isn’t the stuff of movies. It’s just normal people going about their day, sans clothing. After the first day, it won’t even seem that remarkable.
Night and day at Burning Man are as different as, well, night and day. Daytime offers more structured and family-friendly events, such as dance classes, yoga, sock puppet workshops, or classes on making hula hoops. You can treat daytime like you’re at a fancy resort if you’d like, skipping over offerings like “how to give stellar lap dances” and heading straight for the camp that’s giving out manicures, haircuts, and mud masques. The best part of Burning Man is that it’s like the Internet–it’s easy to stumble across something outside of your comfort zone, but ultimately your experience is entirely formed by what you seek.
Nighttime offers more loud music and flashing lights, which may be a good time to bid your quieter relatives adieu and hit some of the dance camps for a bachelor/bachelorette vibe. Guests seeking a quieter evening can walk out to the edge of the city and enjoy the colorful view under a sky full of stars.
Holding a wedding at Burning Man is similar to holding a destination wedding at an island resort–not only is it a wedding ceremony and honeymoon vacation rolled into one, but your guests will not be bored. From exercise to art to music to discussion to relaxation, there are activities for every area of interest and activity level going on 24 hours a day. You won’t have to worry about entertaining anyone. As long as your guests show up with a friendly smile, they will walk away with dozens of new friends, and some new skills too.
If you’ll be inviting small children, their parents will need to come fully prepared. Most kids love Burning Man–after all, it’s like a circus that never stops. There are still real-world considerations, though, like traffic safety, using enough sun block, and working out a plan in case a child gets lost. (The last is remarkably less alarming than it sounds, since Burner culture is very community-oriented and the child will likely be escorted back to camp if he or she can describe it.) There are Burning Man rangers with walkie-talkies patrolling day and night to answer questions and help out.
With the extreme environment and long travel time, many of your invitees may be unable to attend. Black Rock City does not have Internet or cellular phone service, except for some spotty attempts generated by fellow attendees, which can make teleconferencing difficult. You may wish to throw a second wedding celebration once you return home (and after you enjoy your first hot shower) to make sure that everyone is able to take part.
Legal Concerns in Nevada
Many Burning Man couples wish to have a friend officiate the wedding. This is legal in Nevada as long as the friend lives in Nevada and is ordained through a church that the state recognizes (the most popular “Internet ordaining” option, the Universal Life Church, does qualify). Friends who live out-of-state can still officiate the wedding, but they will need to write to the Pershing County Clerk for permission on a case-by-case basis. This process usually takes a few weeks, so start early.
If you’re looking for an officiant who’s already legal in the state’s eyes and who also knows Burning Man culture, there’s no better place to look than in the festival itself. Many camps have volunteer officiants who bring their professional expertise to the event as a gift for their fellow attendees. You can put out a call for officiants through Burning Man Internet forums and email lists before you arrive if you don’t want to leave such an important decision for the days before your wedding.
As excited as you may be to pack your bridal bunny suit or tin foil tuxedo, don’t forget the legal necessities. Stop by the Pershing County Clerk’s office on the way to the festival and pick up a marriage license (these can be issued on the spot, though you’ll have to arrive during weekday office hours). Don’t forget your legal ID and $60 in cash. You’ll also need to know your officiant’s real name (believe it or not, “King DustyBuns” doesn’t look great on official paperwork). After the marriage license is signed by your officiant and two witnesses, the officiant will send it to the County Recorder’s office and your union will be official.
Burning Man has an infinite supply of picturesque spots for wedding ceremonies, but some are more popular than others. Among the most popular are the Man (the giant, person-shaped structure at the center of Black Rock City) and the Temple (the intricate, beautiful structure where people write sincere hopes, dreams, and messages to lost loved ones on the walls). These locations are first-come, first-served, so plan on showing up early in case there is another wedding going on when you arrive.
Have your heart set on a certain piece of artwork for your ceremony site? It’s always a good idea to check with the artist or the camp managers to make sure that you’re planning your wedding for a time that won’t conflict with other planned events. You don’t want to arrive only to find out that the artwork is scheduled to be burned six minutes later. (This happens pretty frequently towards the end of the week.)
Try to start your ceremony earlier than 6:30 in the evening if you want to take good photos before dusk. After the sun sets, the particles of dust in the air (even on clear nights) make flash photography look like it’s taking place in a snowstorm. As with any other time at the festival, you’ll still need to ask permission before snapping photos of people, and your photos will only be legal for personal use after the event–never commercial use.
A Wedding Like No Other
The single most important principle of Burning Man culture is self-sufficiency. This is great news for your wedding. Self-sufficient people are low-drama. If things go wrong, Burners know how to roll with the punches, apply some duct tape, and make it work. Unlike the average wedding guest at a country club, a Burner will arrive to your wedding asking how he or she can help. With a community of loving, helpful folks like that, your wedding will be every bit as beautiful as you could hope–even if there’s a dust storm or two.
Lisa is a special needs teacher and a hugger. She always makes time for everyone and lightens up everybody’s lives with her presence. When she is not chasing her students around the yard, she finds time to write about what she truly loves, and you guessed it, its people and relationships.