My miserable, euphoric, muddy escape from Burning Man – DIGIWIZ CENTRAL

My miserable, euphoric, muddy escape from Burning Man

Despite the food rationing, the mandatory pee bottles, and the malfunctioning infrastructure, Burners scraped the dirt off their shoes and got down.

Arantza Pena Popo/Insider

Around three o’clock in the morning on Sunday, as I sipped golden milk and watched a chess game besides a geodesic dome where revelers danced shoulder-to-shoulder beneath a propane jet shooting constant waves of flame, not long after an intimidatingly high-energy stranger had power-washed my friends and I’s buttocks to the rhythm of thumping techno, I came to a conclusion: Burning Man wasn’t completely ruined.

The previous night, heavy rain had transformed the weeklong event’s normally dusty environs into a muddy quagmire. Cell reception was non-existent, and rumors on the ground came in thick and fast. 

The roads were impossible to drive on, and a sheriff-enforced lockdown would keep us in the sludge for days after our intended departure, some said. FEMA was being called in to run disaster response — or was it the National Guard that was airdropping supplies? There was an Ebola outbreak. No, scratch that, E.coli, and all 70,000-odd attendees were being secretly quarantined. Social media was having a field day turning Burning Man into the epicenter of schadenfreude and misinformation, the few people who managed to connect to the internet reported.

The reality of Burning Man was not quite so dire. Despite the food rationing, the mandatory pee bottles, and the malfunctioning infrastructure, Burners, as they call themselves, scraped the dirt off their shoes and got down. Late night raves were thrown. Gifts were given. Joy was shared. Some guests even got married. 

Still, the quasi-apocalyptic revelry came with a price. Not only was there the exorbitant entry fees and additional costs (and labor, and logistics) of building and maintaining a temporary city in the Nevada high desert, the flooding risked significant environmental damage to the event’s pristine ecological setting. Litter and detritus spread across several square miles, submerged in muck — leaving a daunting job for the cleaning crews. 

2023 was my first year at Burning Man. It was an extraordinary time, both euphoric and truly miserable. I came away from it with memories, mud on my face, and a question: At what point does the spectacle stop being worth the cost?

I’d wanted to go to Burning Man for years. What were they doing out there?

Emerging out of the San Francisco art scene in the early nineties, Burning Man is an annual campout-slash-rave-slash-art-exhibition-slash-ephemeral-city that blooms and disappears in the Black Rock Desert, a bleak and inhospitable lake bed in northern Nevada. Originally a haven for performing artists, musicians, and those seeking alternative community, it has in more recent years become associated with, and purportedly corrupted by, Silicon Valley techies, influencers, and the rich. Even before this new guard arrived, it had a reputation for apocalyptic cosplay — with the setting known for its frequent alkaline dust storms, alternately freezing and scalding temperatures, and general hostility to almost all kinds of plant and animal life. I wanted to see that all for myself. The alleged cultural clash. The large-scale art installations. The commitment to a decommodified “gifting” philosophy, in which no money is allowed to change hands. And, yeah, the sheer hedonism of a weeklong bacchanal in the desert. 

In 2023, it felt like the stars finally aligned. 

I arrived on Wednesday, August 30, and over my first two days I had a delightful time.  Moments after checking in, an affable stranger tried to pour mescal down my throat as I erected my tent. We hopped on a shimmering two-story “art car” (basically, a modified double-decker bus decked out with lights all over its exterior and a thumping sound system), and rode it out to the central playa, a sea of lights and sounds stretching out before us. There were heaving dance-parties along the central street. Attendees strewn in LEDs and glowing wires for visibility against the night, an endless swarm of technicolor fireflies. And in the center of it all, the Man, a huge wooden effigy waiting to be ritually burned on Saturday night.

Burning Man was an uncomplicated delight — until the rains started.

JULIE JAMMOT/AFP via Getty Images

I biked deep into the desert to check out some of the vast sculptures dotting the landscape: Train stations, monsters, butterflies, and genitalia. I was fed pie and “Betty Water” — a drink of uncertain origins and undeniable strength — by four drunk and bawdy waitresses all named Betty. I found an art car shaped like a tall sailing ship that could actually sail the desert winds. I was gifted clothes, books, meals, and trinkets by total strangers, and marveled at the novelty of an economic experiment divorced from commerce. 

Then on Friday night, the rain came, and our camp turned into a swamp. 

Within hours, the camp generator failed, and the fridges turned off. The water systems for washing up and showering broke down. The mud was ankle-deep in spots, alternately suctioning shoes right off your feet or lethally slippery. The roads were immediately impassable, Somme-like bogs. 

Our tents were beneath a shade structure — metal poles and tarpaulin roofing — to protect them from the desert sun. Suddenly we had to push the water off the sides every 15 minutes before it pooled and made the entire structure collapse on us. As we patrolled the camp, some campmates huddled in the kitchen around a bluetooth speaker, wrapped in fur coats and trading drinks and stimulants, trying to make the most of it. 

The next morning, as the rain abated, we surveyed the damage. The mud clumped together instantly, turning shoes into increasingly heavy and unwieldy platform boots with each step. Some opted to wear plastic bags instead, or just go barefoot in the muck. It was clear we were stuck here for days, and the event organizers instructed attendees to start urinating in bottles to conserve space in the porta-potties. Our camp began rationing meals. Friends preemptively popped anti-diarrheal Imodium tablets. 

And then there was the potential environmental damage. Far from civilization, the empty lake bed in the remote reaches of Northern Nevada makes the event’s signature creativity and generosity feel magical — but also makes the risk of ecological impacts far higher. Attendees religiously patrol the site for “moop” (Matter Out Of Place — any litter, detritus, or human waste), and crews spend weeks every year combing the site for any signs of Burning Man’s impact on our burning planet.

 

We found two lovers getting married, and joined them for their first dance. 

This year, the restoration crew has its work cut out for it. In the aftermath of the rain, moop was everywhere. The porta-potties were surrounded by a halo of shredded toilet paper that clung to shoes. Flip-flops, bikes, clothes, scraps and other unidentifiable human-generated products were mashed into the ground, buried by up to a foot of fast-hardening brown ooze. Tarpaulins were shedding brightly-colored millimeter sized particulates into the standing water. Entire tents were abandoned by fleeing visitors.

We picked up the moop we spotted; it didn’t even scratch the surface. The detritus that remains behind is at risk of becoming a sedimentary testament to humanity’s damage to the environment — even as human-caused climate change makes extreme weather events like Black Rock City’s deluge of 2023 all the more likely in future.

Even before the floods, there was an uncomfortable tension to Burning Man. 

The event preaches “radical inclusion” as one of its ten core guiding principles, and its uniqueness comes as a decommodified space where everything is free and participants will trip over themselves in their efforts to give you gifts and make your burn wonderful. But in practice, there are extraordinary hurdles to entry: Between tickets ($595 for general admission), additional costs for vehicle passes, camp dues, food, water, survival equipment, goods to participate in the gifting economy, and so on, a trip to Burning Man can easily stretch to thousands of dollars. There’s also the logistical burden of figuring out what you need, how to physically survive in the remote desert for a week, connecting to a camp that can host you, and making your way there. It’s a privileged event at the best of times, and now we were paying all this time and money to shelter in our tents. 

After spending a grim Saturday morning huddled in our tents, cranking a hand-powered radio for scraps of news on the festival’s informational radio station, we decided to explore. Burning Man was diminished, but not extinguished. Art cars had either retreated to their home camps or become stuck in place where they’d been caught by the storm. Bikes were unusable. But the mud was passable — sometimes just barely — on foot. Over the next two days, between rain showers, we wandered from bar to camp to dance floor. 

The mud diminished Burning Man, but it didn’t extinguish the event’s spirit.

JULIE JAMMOT/AFP via Getty Images

We visited the Temple, a somber site of remembrance where people leave mementos to deceased friends, family members, lovers, and pets. We had wine and cheese at a friend’s camp. We chilled at a M*A*S*H-themed tent-bar, where an aging stoner educated us on the finer points of different martini styles as reruns of the seventies sitcom played on a projector in the background.We watched fire-dancers practice their craft and learned to juggle (badly) on their dancefloor. We found two lovers getting married, and joined them for their first dance. 

Twitter was full of titillating jokes about Burning Man’s abrupt collapse into chaos, and the delicious schadenfreude of rich elites having a miserable time in the desert. But this wasn’t entirely the case. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in the New York Times, the idea that disasters breed Lord of The Flies-like anarchy and violence has been proven  false throughout history. Tufekci predicted, correctly: “I would venture that many of the thousands trapped in the Nevada mud are mostly banding together, sharing shelter, food and water.”

Some Black Rock City citizens understandably checked out, and decided that the party was officially over for them. They stayed in their tents, or attempted to drive out through the swamp (not always successfully), or hitchhiked back to civilization. But for many others, there was a zen, thoroughly Burner attitude: When life gives you a road full of impassable mud, you might as well use it to make DIY sculptures of penises.

Some burners love the “difficult burns,” the years defined by adversity — whether that’s extreme heat, icy nights, constant dust storms, or 2023’s flooding. They say it brings out the best in the community, tests people’s commitment to the event, and helps them grow. But it comes at a high cost — both financially, and to a fragile desert ecology. 

Over the last five years, I’ve had my fair share of survival-mode situations while backpacking and hiking around the American West. In 2020, we had to hike out twenty-plus miles to escape from the Creek Fire. In Ansel Adams Wilderness, a friend once had a seizure and had to be evacuated by helicopter from the trail. The bone-cold two-day rainstorm while we tried to hike the Teton Crest Trail. Lightning, bears, rattlesnakes, and so on. All that is to say: I love “Type 2 Fun,” and pushing myself to my limit. And Burning Man’s experience was extraordinary in a way many of its haters simply don’t grasp. But it’ll take me a while to decide if I need to do it again any time soon. Despite some burners’ efforts to minimize accurate media reporting on the event as “clickbait,” it was a rough time. Toilets were full to the brim with feces, parents were stranded with their children, tents were flooded out, vital systems broke down. 

On Monday morning, the sun came out. The exit wasn’t officially “open” yet, but the official radio station advised that vehicles with four-wheel drive were able to leave, days sooner than we’d first feared. The temporary river that previously blocked the way out had abated. I spent a couple hours helping strike camp, did a last sweep for more moop, and hopped in the car.

Stalled out, gummed-up vehicles dotted the exit route, but it was passable. Three hours of slow-moving traffic later, I hit tarmac. Trash bags abandoned by fleeing burners littered the sides of the roads near the event. I got home later that evening, and watched the twice-delayed Man burn on YouTube, freshly showered and lying in bed.

Rob Price is a senior correspondent for Insider, and writes features and investigations about the technology industry. His Signal number is +1 650-636-6268 and his email is [email protected].

Read the original article on Business Insider
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