A big fire is planned, but it won't be your typical Labor Day barbecue.

More than 10,000 free spirits are descending on the Black Rock Desert 120 miles north of here for the Burning Man Festival, a counterculture weekend culminating Sunday night with the actual burning of a 50-foot wooden effigy in the middle of a large, communal tent city."The man is up. The city is big. It is beautiful," said a volunteer who identified herself on the telephone Thursday as Jewelz, "just another worker bee."

Nobody is really sure what the burning of the statue means. But it seems to fit in at the psychedelic celebration of art, music, anarchy, nudity and general drunkenness that began 13 years ago as a California beach party.

"I think it means different things to different people. Getting away from daily life is the main point," said Terina McCraw, a student at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"It represents freedom. You just let yourself go," UNR student Brad Bachman said.

A strong contingent of San Francisco Bay Area residents are among the artists, musicians, would-be hippies and other curiosity-seekers who make the trek to the desolate moonscape of a desert near Gerlach, Nev.

They camp, beat drums, do drugs and dance at pagan fire rituals among the wide variety of avant-garde art exhibits and theme villages.

Clothing is very much optional. Interaction and expression are en-cour-aged.

"This is the largest expanse of flat land in North America. There is nothing here," said Larry Harvey, the Burning Man founder and San Francisco Bay Area artist.

"In all that nothingness, you can create your own reality," he said Thursday. He calls it "outsider art."

There are sculptures such as the 30-foot tall copper water-sprouting "One Tree" and the "Nebulous Entity," not to mention "Burning Manilow."

The latter is featured nightly at the Lounge Lizard Cabaret where performance artists torch pictures of pop star Barry Manilow while playing his hits, like "Mandy" and "Copacabana."

The ritual began in 1986 when Harvey built a man representing his girlfriend's new love and burned it on California's Baker Beach. The event was moved to Nevada's Black Rock Desert in 1990 as the annual bonfire drew increasingly larger numbers of people.

The 200 media outlets that have shelled out $100 each for advance tickets this year include reporters from as far away as France, Japan and Brazil.

"It's a worldwide deal now," said Evil Pippi, Burning Man media spokesperson.

In recent years, the event has been criticized by some who say the entry fee is too much and the commercialism too great.

The Reno News & Review, an alternative tabloid, ran a cover story this week entitled, "The Selling of Burning Man." It asked, "Has this free-spirited romp in the Nevada desert become too corporate?"

No commercial products are allowed inside, but just outside the gates and offered for sale on an Internet Web site are Burning Man videos, T-shirts, caps and posters.

"People want a cap, they want a shirt - you know, it's only human nature," Harvey explained.

"The people who say the event has become too commercial are mostly people who have never been there," said Eric Baron, owner of a Reno record store, The Melting Pot.

"It's a rare exception for people to express themselves without bound-aries in their daily lives," he said.