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SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Starting on Monday tens of thousands of people will descend on a great expanse of Nevada desert to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Burning Man, a gathering of free spirits, artists, entrepreneurs -- and anyone else who managed to get a ticket.
Several thousand more would-be participants will have to wait until next year, as 2011 marks another historic milestone: the first time the event has ever sold out, said Burning Man communications manager Andie Grace.
According to an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management, the event is permitted an average of only 50,000 people per day, Grace said.
The theme of this year's festival, "Rites of Passage," is an appropriate one as it also previews a change in the structure of the California-based Black Rock City, L.L.C., which runs the event, from a for-profit organization to a not-for-profit that will continue to promote the festival's ideology throughout the year.
"It's a logical extension of what happens here, and of taking our principles into our own communities," said Grace, referring to 10 principles including civic responsibility, communal effort, and being noncommercial and based on giving.
Through the group's not-for-profit outreach, Burning Man will become "a state of being that exists all the time," Grace said.
That state of being has beckoned its devotees, mostly through word of mouth (organizers do no self-promotion or advertising), into the Black Rock Desert in increasing numbers for more than two decades.
They travel like pilgrims from faraway lands ready to confront the possibility of dust storms, extreme temperatures, and drenching rainstorms in order to live for one week in a self-made and participatory community that bases itself on acceptance, self-reliance, self-expression and creativity.
There is nothing to buy on the remote expanse of sand about 120 miles north of Reno, save precious coffee and bags of ice, and few rules beyond protecting health and safety, and active participation in the ever-evolving community formation.
Though the event has grown each year, it's those principals that keep people like 52-year-old Michael Marin coming back for more.
"It is such a blessed relief to be accepted on your own terms without expectations to be anything else," he said.
Marin, a retired financial investment banker and airplane enthusiast from Arizona, has attended the event since 2003, when he came across an aviation listserv discussing logistics of flying an airplane into the makeshift festival airport.
"The quality of exchanges and knowledge of information really impressed me."
He was also impressed by the noncommercial nature of the festival that pushed people "past bartering and into a gift economy", a sense of giving that would spread exponentially throughout the community, he said.
"Soon you end up with 50,000 people trying to pay it forward," he said, referring to individuals feeling so appreciative they in turn do a good deed for someone else.
For Hannah Hoel, it was the art that inspired her to attend Burning Man for the first time in 2008. Living in New Mexico, Hoel, 27, heard from friends that it was a creative gathering with a lot of astounding artwork.
"I really needed a creative outlet, so I went," she said. Her first experience, however, was jarring and left her lonely and anxious for several days, no doubt aided by a massive dust storm upon her arrival. "It wasn't a great first day."
But the art did indeed persist, and two years later, she is ready to go again, and to bring her boyfriend, Eden Kark.
The festival may be noncommercial once inside, but money and supply and demand are involved when it comes to tickets. Kark, 44 and a doctor of Oriental medicine, waited until the last moment to buy his ticket, only to find the event had sold out.
Given that he and Hoel had already rented an RV for the week, to the tune of $2,200, not having a ticket wasn't an option, he said.
"If I was going to go, I was going to go in comfort, but now I needed to find a ticket."
Kark and Hoel trolled websites for days trying to locate an extra ticket, encountering scalpers hawking tickets for prices substantially above the original value.
Official ticket prices range from $210 and rise to $360 as the event nears. Kark settled on a $450 ticket; a bargain, considering the possible loss at hand.
Burning Man didn't always have an RV renting crowd, an airport, or a surge of 50,000 people to contend with. It began in 1986 on a beach in California when Larry Harvey, now 63, and friend Jerry James decided to burn an 8-foot effigy built in honor of summer solstice.
By 1990 the burn was moved into the remote and barren Black Rock Desert, where the event has accumulated an increasing number of participants every year.
The number of activities has also increased and according to this year's list includes anything from cooking classes to dances; face painting and rollerblading; yoga courses and Bocce Ball tournaments.
There's a pancake house, 12-step groups, legal advice and snuggle puddles; kite flying, language exchange, a bike shop (transport around the desert is by bicycle only, unless one has an art car permit), and a family-friendly area.
All of this culminates on Saturday, with the burning of a 50-foot-tall effigy of a man.
The mushrooming crowds are a logistical feat to manage, requiring 35 full-time and eight part-time staff; and thousands of volunteers who each year design and create a city complete with street names and numbers, a postal service, a central gathering tent, and porta-potties for thousands.
Notable is the lack of any garbage bins. It's part of the self-reliance principle and strict policy that whatever one brings in one must also take out.
The few rules leave plenty of room for creativity, seen in people's daily costumes as well as in art installations, often massive in size, that dot the desert basin.
The art this year includes an enormous installation by Jim Bowers -- a 15-year "burner," as veterans call themselves -- said to be the world's largest timepiece.
The clock, made of lasers and designed by a "dream team" of UC Berkeley physicists and scientists, will have a 3-and-1/4 mile circumference and a diameter of 1.27 miles, said Bowers.
Bowers, 55, has been working on the $50,000 art project for the entire year, and has incorporated 4x6 foot paintings in each of 12 towers, painted by 67 different artists.
Reflecting on the event's 25-year anniversary, he said, "It's not any better, it's not any worse. It's just different."
He has seen change in the growing percentage of spectators versus participants. Where the entire community once would participate, "now it's 80 percent spectator and 20 percent doer or artist, where we entertain the rest," Bowers said.
"It's okay, because my work has evolved. I started out making a wire blinking hat and now I'm building a piece of art that takes up the entire festival."
Editing by Jerry Norton