The Uproxx 2023 Fall Travel Hot List is live! Visit here for the full experience!
The skyscraper-sized sheet of dust barreling across the playa as I danced at Titanic’s End—an enormous mobile DJ stage made to look like an electric iceberg—was my first indication that serious weather was descending on Burning Man. An apocalyptic dust cloud rolling across the Black Rock Desert, in remote northwestern Nevada, is nothing especially noteworthy, but this one felt different. The cloud seemed unusually massive. And fast-moving. Strangest of all, later that Friday it was joined by an unprecedented amount of rain—two to three month’s worth in a mere 24 hours.
The deluge carried with it a separate phenomenon that is very much precedented: laughably overblown media reports about the scale of the crisis.
Outlets across the globe depicted a truly catastrophic event. Torrential rains had flooded Burning Man, leaving 70,000-plus burners trapped in a barren wilderness by an impassable sea of mud. Emergency and resupply vehicles couldn’t get in and revelers couldn’t get out. Organizers had spread the word to “shelter in place” (the headline writers loved that one) and conserve precious drinking water and food. One article blared “President Biden Has Been Briefed on Burning Man Chaos.” Predictably, schadenfreude echoed across social media (right on cue, at least one TikToker compared the situation to the calamitous Fyre Festival). At the mercy of the unrelenting indifference of nature, the news cycle painted a precarious future for burners—supplies would dwindle, waste from unserviceable Porta-Potties would overflow into the muddied pathways, and this desert gathering of free spirits, art weirdos, and wooks (and the uber-wealthy) would descend into chaos. Or worse.
This ominous state of affairs was unknown to those of us behind Burning Man’s shuttered gates. As the wind whipped dust into white curtains so thick they periodically obscured mutant vehicles and art installations that are usually lit up like the sun, and the rain turned the dust into muck so dense and sticky that cars and bicycles were rendered useless and even walking became a tremendous challenge, we did what one does when the weather gets weird at Burning Man: put on our goggles, checked on our friends, and kept dancing.
This is not to say that the situation wasn’t serious. Unprecedented rain really had made the roads impassable, trapping us in and service vehicles out, and word really had gone around to shelter in place and conserve resources. If the situation persisted for long it could become very dangerous in a hurry. And the gate closure wrought havoc on many a schedule—I needed to catch a flight with extreme urgency on very important business, yet as Monday dawned my car and my person remained stuck on Black Rock City’s untraversable streets. But, as is too often the case when disaster strikes, the scene on the ground bore little resemblance to the frantic tenor of the news.
“The real crisis is what shoes do you wear in this crisis?” whinged Erin Kindt, playa name Destiny, an Australian at her fourth burn. “How do I dance in these ten-inch moon boots? The mud is so sticky, I’m taking the playa with me.”
Cell service and wifi are very hard to find at Burning Man, but as the weekend wore on, and messages from friends and loved ones began to trickle in, the reality being presented to the world outside finally reached those of us inside. In came the texts and DMs and Snaps and reels.
My aunt got hourly updates as my mom frantically tried to reach me. One burner, a CEO who asked to be referred to only by his playa name, had been hush hush about his attendance at the event, but one of his employees who knew let it slip when his concern overcame him and he messaged the company-wide group chat to ask after the boss’s welfare.
“Was I not clear that I didn’t want it broadcast that I’m here?” said Golden Dong on the phone to the employee, his voice inflected with all the forced patience he could muster as his girlfriend, dressed as a purple bear, served the three of us early morning Micheladas. “Usually, I live in a fish bowl. I’m allowed to have a private life”
As the gravity of the situation came into focus Friday afternoon and the shelter-in-place order went around, a magnificent double rainbow arched horizon to horizon across the playa. With the rainbow in the distance, I serenaded a sleepy camp with a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” while spraying bubbles in the breeze. Black Rock City grew quiet for a while, as burners took stock of their predicament and battened down the proverbial hatches, implementing a rationing regime for water and ice, finding shelter in RVs for those with flooded tents, and so forth. But it wasn’t long before the endless thump of EDM that is the unceasing soundtrack to Burning Man started back up. Bikes now unrideable, Burners hit the town on foot, and the festivities kicked back into gear.
Determined not to let a little humanitarian disaster spoil his birthday, burner Ryan Hurd, playa name Fuego, set out in spandex and wrestling boots, his face bejeweled, to dance down muddy streets from camp to camp until well past dawn on Sunday with his friends and a bottle of Dom Perignon. Deluge or no deluge, Hurd was determined to see burners finish what they’d started.
“We came here to burn the man,” he said, “and we’re going to stay here until they burn the man.”
One of the disc jockeys on the BRC radio station captured the general mood after a listener contacted the show to complain that they seemed to be having a party on the air instead of confronting what was a very serious, very dangerous situation.
Yes, it is serious, the disc jockey granted, and we’re diligently taking steps to address these nontrivial challenges.
“But we’re burners,” he added. “We’re going to celebrate the rain.”
Radical self-reliance is one of the core pillars of the Burning Man ethos, and seeing to the welfare of the humans stuck on the playa remained foremost in the archetypal burner mind. But, as Destiny neé Erin Kindt illustrated rather nicely, throughout the crisis, survival was far from the only concern coursing through Black Rock City.
“What if we have to stay here for three more days?” she said. “Are we gonna run out of flash tattoos?”