Element 11, Utah's answer to Burning Man, launches in Box Elder County

Wednesday , July 12, 2017 - 5:00 AM

Starting today, a dusty, remote patch of Box Elder County in Utah’s far northwestern corner — home mostly to scorpions and jack rabbits — will become a mecca for musicians, free spirits and artistic expression.

“It’s a hippie, peace, love thing, really,” says Matt Housley, of Roy, who plans to be on hand.

As Element 11, an offshoot of Nevada’s annual Burning Man Festival, gets underway, the remote area west of the Great Salt Lake basin — called Stargazer Ranch — will also generate increased attention from local authorities. Box Elder County Fire Marshal Corey Barton said local fire and law enforcement officials will monitor Element 11, in cooperation with organizers, to make sure the outdoor arts festival, running through Sunday, unfolds without a hitch.

“They’re trying to be a pretty good partner with us, with the county,” Barton said.

Likewise, organizers — who will cover the cost of assistance from fire officials and the Box Elder Sheriff’s Office — are asking participants to look out for one another to head off potential missteps. Element 11, being held in Box Elder County for the third time, dates to the late 1990s and has drawn more than 1,000 people in its recent incarnations, from across Utah and beyond.

“Element 11 is no longer ‘under the radar,’ ” Stan Clawson, the Element 11 executive director, said in a Facebook post to participants.

He noted a pair of incidents at a previous Element 11 event in Box Elder County, including the drunk-driving arrest of a participant, and warned that more problems could risk the future of the event. Another participant at a prior Element 11 festival ran out of gas while driving in the remote area, south of the unincorporated community of Park Valley, and knocked on nearby doors looking for help, waking several residents, including a sheriff’s department official.

“Have fun, but do everything we can to ensure that none of us leaves the event in a police car, helicopter or ambulance,” Clawson wrote. Participants typically remain on-site in tents or recreational vehicles for the duration of the event, temporarily turning the desert locale into a small city.

Participants like Housley say the main draws at Element 11 are the camaraderie and artistic expression, through dance, music, sculptures, performance and more. A steadily increasing number have attended over the years — 1,354 in 2016, up from 1,277 in 2015 and 1,181 in 2014, judging by ticket sales reported by organizers. Clawson expects up to 1,400 this go-round.

“It’s a community of crazy artists and engineers and musicians. They go outside and create beautiful things,” said Housley, a deejay with Night Spin Kollective who plans to offer up music at the event. Afterward, the revelers frequently burn their creations.

Holding the event in such a remote location, says Tom Sobieski, of Salt Lake City, adds another dimension — dark, star-filled nights and a sense of isolation. For many years through 2014, Element 11 had been held at Bonneville Seabase near Grantsville, about 40 miles west of downtown Salt Lake City.

“You don’t really see light anywhere. That’s beautiful,” said Sobieski, who will be attending Element 11 for the seventh time.

What’s more, being so far from civilization helps reinforce one of the festival’s 10 guiding principles — “radical self-reliance,” that is, the ability of “the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” Housely described Stargazer Ranch as rugged, unforgiving terrain.

“It’s dusty desert. There’s a host of jack rabbits and scorpions and snakes,” he said.

Apart from art and self-expression, there’s drinking, partying and more at Element 11, one of several “regional burns” affiliated with Burning Man. The 2014 installment, the last year it was at Bonneville Seabase, was marked by the death of a participant who deliberately leaped into one of the huge bonfires that are hallmarks of the event.

According to reporting in the Salt Lake Tribune, the man, John Christopher Wallace, had taken mescaline, a psychedelic drug, earlier in the day. “He was bound and determined. He ran in,” said Housley, on hand that year.

Barton, though, said the Element 11 installments in Box Elder County have occurred without major disruption. “Actually, they’re very low-key, very easygoing events. They don’t make a mess like some of the other organizations that go through,” he said.

And culling from Element 11 annual reports after each festival, organizers seem to be trying to keep the focus on art, not partying. Element 11 last year generated $164,290.54 in income, mostly from ticket sales, and a big chunk of that, $29,570, went toward grants to artists, according to the 2016 report.

“Looking forward to 2015, we want to return to our roots. We are an ARTS festival, not a drug/drunk festival,” reads the report for 2014, following Wallace’s death.

Housley, the Roy man who will be attending for the sixth time, acknowledges the presence of alcohol and other substances. But the friendships created are among the biggest takeaways.

“The reality is, is that it’s a community and it’s kind of a big family,” he said. “There’s just so much to it on so many levels. It’s not just a big rager in the desert.”

Three bonfires are planned at this year’s Element 11, one each on Friday night, Saturday night and early Sunday morning, according to Barton.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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