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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:

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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Write to Lily Rothman at

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