A man in a bubblegum-pink crushed velvet suit and matching top hat stood along side a woman dressed like a gypsy in layers of colorful silks and linens, joyously waving to Jim and me as we rolled slowly to the checkpoint that emerged from the afternoon dust. We stopped the truck and our brightly clad greeters encouraged us to exit the vehicle for a proper welcome. We obeyed and were enthusiastically embraced by both of them with a warm, “Welcome Home!”
Here in Black Rock City, all citizens entering the gates are greeted with this same welcome. Once a year at the end of August, this city is lovingly constructed on 7-square miles of a dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert as a continually evolving experiment in community, art, and self-reliance. The dusty hub thrives for a week before its inhabitants burn many of its wooden structures and the city is dismantled, returning the desert to its pristine state. There truly is no place else like this ephemeral metropolis on earth.
We spent months preparing for our journey to this desert oasis. We devoted many weeks to confirm our camp layout, choose our costumes, and make lists of all items needed to survive a week in the desert with no shade and on nowhere to purchase items if we forgot them. We had to be totally self-reliant, bringing food, water, shelter, and clothing as well as deciding how we would contribute to the community. Aside from ice and coffee, you cannot purchase anything in the city. There is a tradition of gift giving within the community, with no exchange of money or bartering.
Black Rock City, Nevada is a magical place. It’s a blank canvas and its inhabitants provide the color and creativity as the city grows over the course of a week’s time. Freedom of expression is encouraged and community members have an agreement to allow each other to stretch personal boundaries, to experiment with one’s identity and with one’s creativity without judgment. I had the freedom as an adult to wear a purple tutu and combat boots for the first time in my life. I witnessed a man dressed and painted in silver from head to toe and a beautiful young woman who looked like a butterfly with her sheer wings fluttering in the afternoon breeze. The city is a place that reignites the sense of play that we all had as children and you are only limited by your own imagination.
It was common to step out of our tent in the late morning and hear the hypnotic rhythm of music, which became louder moment-by-moment. The music would quickly descend upon us and we would see some wondrous vehicle, dubbed an “art car,” that was outfitted to look like a yacht with revelers chatting and dancing on its deck or a car that looked like a magic carpet, with colorful passengers happily riding along as if they were flying three feet above the ground. These vehicles were two of many cars traveling the city as rolling forms of artwork and transportation. Art cars and bicycles are the only forms of transport allowed in the city of approximately 56,000 people in order to maintain safety. Bikes are the fastest and most flexible form of travel and we put ours to good use during the week.
One night, Jim suggested that we ride out towards the center of the city to take a look around. We came to a stop on the dusty earth and as I slowly scanned the horizon, I was surrounded by light and color and an amazing cacophony of music. I felt tears in my eyes and a smile erupt on my face, realizing that every bit of light, color, and sound had been brought here by someone to share with the rest of the city. Their motive wasn’t money or fame; the motive was to bring joy, to make people stop and ask questions—to delight and maybe to perplex. This city was created for the sheer purpose of sharing something beautiful with the community.
I was overwhelmed by a sense of complete freedom while standing in the dark, holding Jim’s hand as we absorbed the blinking lights and thumping music in the distance. Here was a place where we could all be anything we wanted to be, to bring our best, brightest, most creative selves to bear and encouraging us to be who we truly are. The voices of the greeters at the gate echoed in my ears, “Welcome Home.”
Kerri McManus is an educator, a writer, a musician, and a world traveler whose next great adventure will be on the road to Morocco and the Balearic Islands. Get in touch on Facebook.