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Where the Wild Things Are

The idea that one can do drugs, barter for goods and live out fantasies in a controlled environment (ie: the Nevada desert) for a short time before rejoining society makes Burning Man appealing to all kinds of folks.

At the end of every summer, upward of 30,000 revelers gather at Burning Man in the remote Nevada desert for a week. They parade around in bizarre costumes, listen to loud music, slather one another in body paint, set things on fire and generally cut loose.

Except that at this festival, running riot has lots of rules: Pick up after yourself. No buying and selling. Community participation, whether it's creating a cupcake-on-wheels costume or offering massages to fellow attendees, is strongly encouraged; standing around gawking is frowned upon. Some certainly indulge in sex and drugs, but that's kept discreet. In other words, this encampment of sunburned freaks is a lot more orderly—and much less dangerous—than an average Raiders home game.

Why do people who gather for a collective experience of ecstatic release create so many restrictions? The appeal of Burning Man, unlike Mardi Gras or Times Square on New Year's Eve, may be that it offers controlled self-loss. Habitues can unleash impulses and fantasies, while enmeshed in a social structure that protects them. "The danger does not do you in," says John Portmann, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, who has written about raves and other walks on the wild side in Bad for Us: The Lure of Self-Harm . "You can plan to lose control, and you get the control back."

Traveling to a remote location also provides security. Just as with religious pilgrimages, the transcendent experience is well-defined, and the pathway back to normal life built-in. The week eventually ends; you collect your trash, wash off the glitter and go home.