Over the past two weeks since my return from Burning Man, I’ve found myself fielding an array of concerned inquiries from friends, family, and total strangers alike. Everyone and their mother seems to have caught the hilariously overinflated headlines: “State of emergency – Humanitarian Crisis – Ebola Outbreak!” (Yes, someone actually published that.) There was a litany of articles and reports about the storm-stricken conditions that turned this year’s Burn on its head and left tens of thousands “stranded” in the northern Nevada desert. The problem is, that almost all of the early reports came from the outside looking in. Mainstream media outlets love to lead with disaster (“if it bleeds, it leads”) and have no shame about leveraging hyperbole and omission for clicks.
While it is true that the unseasonal heavy rainfall wreaked havoc on the physical landscape of the Black Rock Desert and threw a sizable wrench in the works for literally everyone in attendance, the spirit of the event remained largely unbroken (as Uproxx previously profiled) and, if anything, the immense challenges brought about some of the best human to human connection and interpersonal care ever to arise from the fabled dust.
Before getting into the boots-on-the-ground recounting and my personal reflections from this year’s Burn, I shall venture to give readers a teaspoon of context. It is more than fair to say that Burning Man is as widely misunderstood as it is alluring to those who have never undertaken the wild and wondrous pilgrimage to “The Playa” — our amorous nickname for the vast dry lake bed where Burning Man is held. While the recent increase in attendance of notable celebrities and pictures of wild outfits and raging parties paint a predominant picture, much like the Met Gala, what happens on the inside has exponentially more substance to it than the Getty images and IG posts reveal.
As the late Ram Dass so eloquently put it “To him who has had the experience no explanation is necessary, to him who has not, none is possible.” Still, this writer shall do his best to take a swing.
Burning Man is a completely unique cultural experiment. Yes, it is a ticketed event, but though often written up and referred to as the Burning Man Festival, it is actually run by a nonprofit organization named the Burning Man Project whose goal is the celebration of art and proliferation of culture, not capitalism. Though they may arise in the same conversation and seem similar from afar, when you look under the hood, Burning Man and festivals like Coachella or EDC have little to nothing in common. Yes, some of the world’s biggest DJs do show up and play for the masses, but you’re not buying a ticket to a show, and none of the artists, whether musical, visual, or otherwise get paid for their attendance and participation.
None of them. Not a cent. Not even Diplo.
Sure, you can dance to his music as he spins on a neon submarine at sunset (and I did this year), but you can also watch a classical philharmonic orchestra playing Beethoven and Bach or catch a bluegrass band at a country-style bar serving home-distilled moonshine. Yes, you could spend your day in the infamous orgy dome engaged in the wildest perversion imaginable (I never have), but you can also spend your days doing yoga, sitting in traditional tea ceremonies, or listening to TED-style talks delivered by high-profile global thought leaders from every sector (and sure, probably a few douches).
The point being, there is literally something for everyone, at all times, day and night. Burning Man is a celebration of the entire scope of human existence and expression, not just a drug-fueled party for the weirdos of the world to convene and cut loose. Although… let’s be honest… it is that too.
To say that it was business as usual at Burning Man before the rain is ludicrous. This was my eighth year in attendance since 2013 and no two Burns have ever been remotely the same. How could they be? The temporary and ephemeral nature of Burning Man is a cornerstone of what makes it so special. Every year, nearly eighty thousand people converge from all corners of the globe and create a temporary city in one of the most austere and uninhabitable places on earth. Before The Burn, there is quite literally nothing out there. We bring every piece of material needed to build our personal shelters, our camps, massive communal structures, and intricate art installations, only to either break them down and pack them out or burn them to the ground. When we leave, we Leave No Trace (one of the 10 core principles by which we conduct ourselves in the dust). I’ll admit that there has been some recent and perhaps valid scrutiny here, but I’ll also note that teams of volunteers literally stay for weeks after the official end of the event, walking arm in arm to pick up every last fallen sequin and discarded bottle cap that may have blown astray. You can check in on playa restoration digitally — try it!
All this to say, no Burn is ever the same.
This year, for the first time since I co-founded my current camp in 2015, much to our dismay we were placed near the far outer edge of the city. Yes, it is a fully functional city. We’ve even got a post office that will deliver your mail! In years past we’d been as close in as A but we’ve spent the past several years in the sweet spot between B & E. (For context, the streets of the city ripple outward from the center by letter, from A to K). This year we were all the way out at I, as in “I don’t know what we did to deserve this.” My co-founder and I definitely had some initial gripes about being relegated to the boonies as it makes for a laboriously long ride home after a full night of partying; however, our new address in the burbs proved to be a massive blessing in disguise.
So let’s get to the rain, shall we?
On Thursday, my dearest dusty campmates and I were in not-so-rare form. The combination of substances in our systems was curated to perfection and the overall energy of the whole city seemed to be in perfect harmony with our high. Just before sunset, we mounted up and rode our bikes out in a pack through a whiteout dust storm to catch Diplo’s set on that aforementioned magical submarine. As seems to always happen, I found at least another dozen friends from other camps on the dance floor and the first drops of the coming deluge kissed our faces as we danced away the daylight and welcomed the darkness.
It was mild weather. Negligible even. If anything, the few small sprinkles throughout the night felt refreshing as we slid from one dance floor to the next. We knew there were reports of rain coming on Friday, but most of us had experienced a little drizzle on the playa in previous years. It had only ever given us a few hours pause. As far as we were concerned there was nothing to worry about, so we kept it going until the wee hours and finally said our goodnights around the campfire just before dawn.
When I awoke Friday afternoon just after 2 p.m., three RVs from our camp had already rolled out. No surprise there. They weren’t trying to beat the storm. This was just their premeditated departure. Parents getting home to their kids. Husbands going home to their wives. My RV mate for the week and I had intended on leaving Friday as well, so I made coffee and began to pack us up. Then it started. As we were loading the last of our things the heavens opened up and the sky dumped all over our planned early exodus.
The rain started coming down so fast and hard that I was soaked in a matter of minutes. The ground beneath my feet went from hard-packed to a thick and sticky clay that clung to my boots and quickly accumulated to the point that I stood at least an inch taller. There was no question about it, driving out in these rapidly degrading conditions was not an option. So — following the hard-earned wisdom I’ve integrated after a decade of attending Burning Man — I surrendered to what is rather than fighting foolishly for what was or what I hoped to be.
We were staying to ride out the storm. Like it or not.
This brings me to the first important point that begs to be made about the consciousness of the Burner community and why we thrived through the experience of the most challenging conditions to date. Everyone who’s ever spent more than a couple of days at Burning Man knows that even the best-laid plans will often fall apart out there and the most magical moments lie around every corner when you learn to roll with the punches. There’s an adaptability mindset that most people in the “default world” (the Burner term for normal life outside Black Rock City) simply do not possess. We flow rather than fight the current. To appropriately follow the liquid metaphor I refer to the famous and oft-truncated Bruce Lee quote — “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it.”
So, we flowed with the flood. There were still plenty of people left in our camp and those of us present at the onset of the full downpour all piled into one RV and made proverbial lemonade out of the situation. The owner of the RV made hot tea and bone broth for everyone. We all contributed something from our individual provision stashes and created a buffet that actually turned into a multiple-course hot dinner. We ate and drank and told stories. Packed in like soggy sardines, we sighed deeply as one, knowing that the coming days would bring unknown challenges but that as long as we had each other, we’d be fine.
In the midst of our patchwork peace, Mike, the brother of our RV refugee host flung open the door. Drenched to the bone and caked in mud he exclaimed “I can’t remember the last time I was this miserable!” He’d been out in the open playa when the rain hit and his e-bike simply ceased to handle the thickening terrain. He’d dragged the 70lb bike nearly a mile back into the city and left it on the inner ring near Esplanade before trudging the remainder of the way home. Oooof! This was the first account of really difficulty we’d gotten. We welcomed him into the warmth and with the help of a hot meal and a cold cocktail his energy quickly rose to meet ours.
Still, we couldn’t help but begin to wonder as to the whereabouts and wellness of our other campmates not present at our little sardine party. Our minds and our conversation drifted into conjecture about the state of the city at large. Mike is a big dude. If he was having a rough go of it, there was no telling how bad it could get for others.
Eventually, things cleared up a bit and we decided to trek out and survey the streets for ourselves. It was eerily quiet. The once flat-packed ground was now a thick oatmeal at best. In the more heavily trafficked areas, it was a veritable swamp of ankle-deep clay. Clay is the word. Let me be clear, this was no ordinary mud. The alkaline dust of the Black Rock lake bed doesn’t behave like dirt when wet. This clay was thick enough to make pottery and elaborate sculptures, which many eventually did. Still, we trudged our way a few avenues inward and eventually found a small airplane-themed bar that was playing music and hosting the few folks brave enough to venture out from the safety of their camps. This was Friday night the Burn, usually the single most active and wild night of the week! Had they been present, you could have literally heard crickets chirping.
Before long the majority of our crew decided to turn back and hunker down for the night. Somehow, with renewed vigor, Mike and I opted to carry on and not succumb to the gloom. As we ventured deeper in toward the center of the city the roads became more treacherous with each passing street. Somewhere around D, we encountered a moored art car with less than a dozen people dancing. It wasn’t the vibe.
Onward and inward we pushed. Our energy and optimism waning with every strenuous step.
Finally, we reached Esplanade, the innermost ring of the giant crescent we’ve all seen in aerial shots. To say it was a haunting sight is grossly insufficient. Looking out at the open playa, usually a buzzing hive of frenetic energy and infinite potential, there was nothing moving. Not a single art car. Not a single bike. Most staggering of all, The Man himself was dark. That never happens.
The Man is the central beacon by which every burner navigates the night. He’s our Orion and Big Dipper in one. The literal mascot of the movement. Until he disappears in a flaming ball of cathartic glory on Saturday night, The Man is damn near the one thing you can always count on. And he wasn’t there.
Then, in contrast to the desolation that lay before us, two blocks over to our left we spotted clear signs of hope. Fires still raging. Bodies in motion. A beat beckoning us to come closer. As we made our way to the flaming oasis, the full picture filled me with overwhelming joy and more importantly, hope.
There were probably 50 wildlings gathered around in full raucous revelry. At least a dozen were naked and covered in the muddy clay from head to toe, having turned our mutual obstacle into an impromptu adornment. They danced circles around the fire, each step plowing further down into muck that reached up to mid-calf at its deepest point. Two bartenders poured drinks directly into people’s open mouths like a scene from spring break in a Mexican resort town. The DJ left us craving a little more skill and finesse in his transitions, but nobody really cared. All that mattered was that in the midst of the newly minted ghost town, the few and the fearless refused to give in to despair and dim down.
I’ve seen just about every shade of wild shit at Burning Man, (short of the aforementioned orgy dome that is), but something about this moment was different. It was savage. It was defiant. It was completely unhinged and cohesive all at once. There was a knowing in each one of us that we were there for far more than our own entertainment and experience. That night, we were the torchbearers for all of our brothers and sisters huddled in their shelters wondering what would become of our storm-battered city. That night, we were The Man.
Saturday revealed all of our true colors. Back at our camp, the 50’ x 70’ communal lounge we’d built had collapsed in the night. The conduit piping that framed our shade structure had been ripped up and bent like a handful of plastic straws. Our collection of couches and rugs we’d continually accumulated year after year were all soaked through beyond salvation. Basically, ⅔ of our shit was ruined, and we were not alone. The storm had completely ravaged many of the smaller and mid-sized camps and still done its share of damage to even the biggest structures in the city. BMIR, the official independent radio station of Burning Man announced that the gates to the event had been locked down and there was a no-driving order issued to prevent further damage to the terrain.
We were indeed being instructed to “shelter in place.” Crisis management language if I’d ever heard it.
Shit had suddenly gotten real; nonetheless, my crew didn’t bitch, moan or blink. We packed up both wreckage and remnants alike with an uncanny efficiency. Normally the process of breaking down our camp is a slow and much belabored burden. Somehow the utter chaos gave us a sense of purpose and urgency that made it all fly by. Our teamwork was seamless. In just a few hours we’d cleaned and packed up nearly 90% of our shit and a sense of calm predominated in spite of the material losses and inherent question of “WTF now?!” in the back of all our minds.
Stripped down to only the essentials, we lit an afternoon fire and once again created a buffet of both snacks and libations. As we lounged and laughed, we began to welcome others in need of respite. Two weary firefighters came trudging down our street and we offered them cold beers and tangerines. They sat down to rest and told us stories from across the city. There were a few injuries and incidents of shitty attitudes but they mostly spoke in admiration of the resilience and goodwill exhibited all around. It seemed that everyone was rising to the challenge that Mother Nature had set before us. As the sun dropped behind the mountains and the evening crept over us, we had a literal visit from Santa Claus. An older burner with a snow-white beard wearing the classic Santa suit and gold-rimmed circular spectacles came and sat with us for the better part of an hour. We fed him cookies and the ladies of our crew took pictures on his lap as they made their wishes for the remainder of the burn. I
t was comical and jovial. Frankly, it was wholesome.
This is the picture of the muddy mayhem that the mass media failed to report. People caring for people. Acts of service and compassion with no agenda. Humor through hardship. We didn’t descend into an episode of The Walking Dead with warring bands guarding our battered encampments from scavenging raiders. If anything, we all opened our hearts and our homes up even wider than before. I’ve heard multiple stories of camps adopting those who couldn’t make it home in the peak of the storm and offering them a warm meal and bed for the night. Though we all brought limited resources to sustain us through a finite period of time which was now being stretched indefinitely, everyone seemed to be willing to give more. We weren’t hoarding in fear. We were sharing with love and compassion knowing that we were all in it together. This is the spirit of Burning Man that keeps me and tens of thousands of others coming back year after year.
The ostensible climax of every Burning Man is literally the burning of The Man. Every Saturday night circa 9 pm, every art car, every bike, and every dusty soul on the playa gathers around in the very center of the city to form a giant circle and watch as our namesake effigy is engulfed in a massive pyre packed with explosives and fireworks. It’s a cacophonous, cathartic clusterfuck that symbolizes the release of our collective hopes, dreams, intentions, and efforts for this hallowed week in the wild. On this Saturday night, for the first time in the history of Burning Man, The Man would not burn. The playa was thrashed. The necessary precautions for such a massive pyrotechnic display were rendered untenable.
Did it stop us from celebrating as if the great fire was raging? Absolutely not.
My campmates and I once again braved the slog through the streets and though still noticeably less boisterous than usual, the city was very much alive. Having worked through the day to clean up and re-establish our footing on the literal and metaphoric unstable ground beneath us, we were reinvigorated and doubly determined not to let this Saturday night be spent in woe. We found our way to multiple neighborhood parties where everyone was in a celebratory high vibe. We danced with every bit of abandon that we would have offered up to the burning of The Man. Maybe more. This night was a triumph over adversity beyond anything we could have conceived. There’s a long-standing axiom that “You’ve gotta earn your burn.”
Well, giant checkmark to that!
The following morning, the sky was dry. There were reports of another storm on the horizon but it was still a few hours out. Despite BMIR still broadcasting reports that the gates were closed, my travel companion and I decided to make a break for it. The fact is, they wanted people out, they just didn’t want the chaos of a mad rush through the mud and all the potential dangers that would have entailed should they officially give the green light. We were already packed and after a few quick but deep hugs to our crew, we took our chances and pulled away from camp.
This is where our initially begrudged placement on the outer ring became a true blessing. The roads of the city were still far from solid but being in one of the lesser trafficked sectors, we still had plenty of traction. Had we been just a few short blocks deeper into the city, the conditions would have been impossible. We made it from our camp to the paved highway practically without stopping. Having waited in bumper-to-bumper congestion for up to 12 hours to get out in years past, I could not believe the ease of our escape. As we drove, we saw dozens of our fellow burners trekking out on foot with only a backpack and a heart full of hope.
One of our campmates had decided to hoof it out hours earlier to ensure he was back in LA for an important meeting on Tuesday. We ended up picking him up at a gas station only a few short miles down the road.
For the first several hours of our long drive home, the rain returned with a fury, possibly harder than the torrent that had initially hit Friday afternoon. There was no way to tell exactly what path the storm would take and we couldn’t help but wonder if our friends still on the playa were getting pummeled ever deeper into the clay crisis. Still, there was no sense of worry or despair for their or the rest of Black Rock City’s wellbeing. We’d seen firsthand the proof in the murky pudding that the Radical Self Reliance, Civic Responsibility, Communal Effort, and the rest of the 10 Principles of Burning Man had proven to be far more than lip service. They were the collective backbone by which we all stood upright and faced down the fray. We laughed about the idea that even the plug-n-play camps (camps that provide accommodations, meals, and other amenities for a hefty price tag, allowing those burners with deeper pockets to offset personal logistics and be far more luxuriously dependent) were getting a taste of “the real Burn” and would have to literally and figuratively get their hands dirty.
Whether bare bones burner or billionaire, everyone was subject to similar challenges and would inevitably emerge changed by the clay crucible. No one was exempt from the lessons wrought by the rain this year. As well it should be.
As I typed the final words of the first draft of this reflection on a Thursday evening, days after the official end of the event, I personally knew several people still out on the playa making the most of it long past their expected return plan. As I have watched my dusty friends from over the years returning to their city lives and posting their own reflections via social media, one theme seems to resonate across the board. This year was not cataclysmic but rather it was sacred, because it showed us what we are truly made of: Irrational optimism, uncanny ingenuity, unbreakable resilience, and unconditional love.
Yes, the final days of this year’s Burning Man presented us with innumerable obstacles; nonetheless, we endured through it all and seized even greater triumphs than we could have ever conceived possible. We are a community that exemplifies the best characteristics of humanity and when the going gets tough and the dust turns to mud, we’ve proven that we neither falter nor fold, we only dig deeper and call forth a better and stronger version of ourselves, together. No surprise. That’s just what burners do. We thrive in chaos. We shine through even the darkest of nights. We give life everything we’ve got and life itself gives it right back tenfold.
That’s the real Playa magic. It’s the soul of the people. We are all The Man, forever burning bright.