For those who love it and still believe in its ideals, Burning Man has only one insurmountable problem: the calendar.
That is to say, Burning Man is only a concrete thing in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada one week out of the year. That leaves 51 weeks for Burners to maintain that sense of magic and community elsewhere.
Into that enormous void has rushed a number of smaller regional events across California and the West—Burning Man booster shots, you could call them—moments not only for Burner vets to reconnect with each other with stories and memories from the Playa, but for “virgins” (as never-been newbies are often called) to take a short rocket trip to outer space without going all the way to the moon.
One of the most venerable of the many Burning Man regional events is UnScruz (or, as it is often creatively spelled, “unSCruz”), Santa Cruz’s Burner community gathering, which takes place this year May 2-5 at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds outside Watsonville.
Santa Cruz accounts for an outsized contribution to Burning Man’s population each year, and that makes UnScruz a big deal each spring. This year, the regional event expands to four days for the first time and is expected to sell out its allotment of 1,500 tickets.
Amber Coutts is an 18-year Burning Man vet and now Burning Man’s Santa Cruz regional contact. She said that UnScruz has evolved from a short “decompression” gathering shortly after the main event in Black Rock City to a celebration in its own right that rivals the county fair in bringing visitors to the Fairgrounds.
“It really is like a slice of Burning Man,” she says. “It’s grown into this wonderful cultural thing in Santa Cruz. [In the beginning], it felt like people were showing up expecting to be entertained. But now it’s really grown into more of a Burning Man-style environment where everyone is looking for some way to participate. It’s pretty wonderful to see people take ownership of their theme camps and their participation.”
UnScruz is an opportunity for Burning Man communities to reconvene in a simulacrum of Black Rock City, with camps, large-scale art, effigy burning and a general sense of outside-the-mainstream celebration. It’s also a way for curious outsiders to take stock of what’s involved.
“It’s the shallow end of the pool for people before getting into the Burning Man water,” says Coutts. “I mean, we have flushing toilets at UnScruz, which is a huge thing—indoor plumbing is sacred. Burning Man teaches you that kind of perspective.”
Since its famously impromptu beginnings at Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986, Burning Man has grown and evolved into one of the world’s most influential cultural movements and, like all such success stories, its growing pains have led to a lot of soul searching among the faithful. In recent years, the event has attracted not only bigger crowds but more affluent participants as well, creating a class of “millionaire camps” that threatens Burning Man’s egalitarian ethic.
Coutts has staged her own protests against the class stratification at Burning Man. A few years, she and a friend infiltrated one of the exclusive camps: “We went right up to the bar and people were asking us, ‘Where are your wrist bands?’ There is a kind of element of exclusion that felt really bizarre, which is exceptionally detrimental to the whole ethos we have at Burning Man.”
It has become fashionable to lament Burning Man’s tilt toward Coachella-like mainstreaming. But, says Coutts, that dynamic will only accelerate if those who hold true to the community’s original ideals get discouraged and stop attending. “I always acknowledge the burn-out mentality where people get frustrated, ‘Oh, it was better last year, or 10 years ago, or 20 years ago,’” says Coutts. “But I also acknowledge that people need to come, and they need to acculturate others to give a crap and teach the Burning Man ways to make those people also care. Because, still, people who are the doers, makers and dreamers, being able to actualize those communities in that environment is very empowering.”
One way Coutts is still able to summon the power and magic of Burning Man is to participate in a ritual every year, in which virgins are taken blindfolded out along the edge of Black Rock City at night. The blindfold is taken away, and the moment when the newcomer experiences the vastness of the makeshift city in the desert is photographed.
“To take a picture of their faces as they witness for the first time a city created out of the dust,” she says, “it’s a magic moment. It’s in that moment of conversion. People have all these powerful insights, ideas and feelings. And you can watch it happen.”
UnScruz: Santa Cruz Burning Man Regional will be held Thursday through Sunday, May 2-5, at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, 2601 E. Lake Ave., Watsonville. Gate hours are Thursday noon-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tickets are $120, good for all four days and overnight tent camping. Children under 12 are free. No cash accepted at the gate. unscruz.org.