Dancers at the "Burning Man" festival create patterns with fireworks in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada on Sept. 6, 1998.
Mike Nelson—AFP/Getty Images
By Lily Rothman
August 30, 2015

Nearly three decades after the inaugural Burning Man festival, the massive gathering in the desert is still tricky to explain. The event, which runs this year from Aug. 30-Sep. 7, now attracts politicians and pop starsbut what exactly is it and how did it start?

In 2000, TIME’s Joel Stein went straight to the source for an answer, interviewing Larry Harvey, the man who lit the spark:

Harvey, a San Francisco bohemian, started the tradition 14 years ago as a punk-pagan celebration on a San Francisco beach and moved it to a lifeless desert northeast of Reno in 1990 when the S.F. beach patrol kicked him off. Since then, he has nurtured his festival into a lengthy ritual that this Labor Day attracted 30,000 campers to its mix of art, raves, nudity and spirituality. In the process, much has changed. Harvey has driven out some of his original anarchy-loving partners, instituted streets and rules (no guns), and now controls much of the art through $250,000 in grants. He is the director of a limited-liability corporation that oversees the festival’s $4 million annual budget. He is the mayor of the wildest city the West has ever seen.

Larry Harvey may be the first truly pragmatic utopian. “The problem with utopias is that they are based on some theory of human nature,” he says, as he is joined on his couch by a topless woman, a punk called Chicken John and a transvestite glam rock star named Adrian Roberts. “Static utopias based on a priori notions are doomed to failure.” Surprisingly, utopias where you have to bring your own toilet paper work just fine.

As for the effigy after which the festival is named, which seems to get bigger every year? The size isn’t really the point. “That first man was just 8 ft. tall, and it was enough,” Harvey told TIME. “Something bigger than they are–that’s all people need. It’s at least enough to inspire a leap of faith.”

Read the full story from 1997, here in the TIME Vault: The Man Behind Burning Man

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