It was early Friday afternoon, right after my campmates and I exited a completely naked yet surprisingly chaste group shower organized by soap maker Dr. Bronner’s, when the rains started in Black Rock City, the temporary metropolis in the usually blazing hot Nevada desert where Burning Man takes place every summer.
Have you ever been pelted from above with Magic Foam and water shooting out of car wash–style cannons while soaping up and rinsing off with a few hundred strangers after five days of sweat, sand, and sunscreen?
I hadn’t. I’m 60 and a libertarian with a penchant for extreme experiences and mind-expanding chemicals, so you would think I’d have spent half of my life at the 37-year-old psychedelic Brigadoon that is Burning Man—a mystical village that emerges ex nihilo for a week or so in the run up to Labor Day and then disappears, like—well, magic foam. And this summer marked not only my first pelt from Dr. Bronner’s but also my first encounter with El Pulpo Magnifico (a gigantic mechanical fire-breathing octopus) and a tutorial in BDSM (hosted by a winningly low-key New Jersey refugee living in the Bay Area and teaching under the nom de Burn “Bad Boy”).
And oh, yeah: getting engaged to the love of my life in the middle of the desert just hours before it became a giant mud puddle. In keeping with Burning Man’s alternative vibe, my betrothed, Sarah Rose Siskind, got down on one knee at the far end of the event’s playa and asked me to marry her. The easiest question I’ve ever answered.
You don’t need to be chemically altered to be totally wowed by an endless procession of big and small art projects, performance pieces, and booming “sound camps” glowing and pulsing on an alkaline flat so bereft of life that it’s exceptionally rare even to spot a single insect. Most of the 70,000 attendees at Burning Man have little internet connection during their time on the playa, which adds a splendid disconnection from normal life.
At the end of the festival, everything is packed up, down to the last tent stake and rolling paper, with the goal of picking up all “matter out of place” or MOOP. Everything is permissible as long as it is consensual and leaves no trace.
As one of my campmates said, Burning Man is welcoming to all but not woke, an attitude sorely needed in the regular world. Often miscategorized as socialist because commerce is banned and gifting encouraged, the event is, in fact, the ultimate expression of a capitalist economy that throws off so much surplus wealth, it’s where tens of thousands of people can gather to create self-destructing artifacts. Burning Man takes place way up and beyond Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” and its function is to remind us all to be intentional and inspired rather than reactive and routine in our grind-it-out lives.
The total amount of precipitation was less than an inch. But that was more than enough to utterly transform these four square miles from the driest and dustiest place in America (think the surface of the moon, but with 90- to 100-degree temperatures and blinding sandstorms) into a massive puddle of mud that adhered to everything, especially shoes.
You couldn’t walk more than a few feet without clayish muck sucking at your footwear and then sticking to them, building up so fast it felt like you were balancing on top of bowling balls, slipping and sliding every which way like Lucille Ball on roller skates and a heroic dose of LSD. Only days before, I’d been bicycling through whiteout conditions—dust storms so violent and complete I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. Slowly, amid the haze, shapes formed as the wind receded and I’d find myself staring at a 30-foot mechanical Pegasus slowly flapping its wings, or a giant, talking tree made of blinking LED lights. Some 300 brave, crazy souls (including my fiancée) even chose to run a 31-mile ultramarathon in such conditions, starting before dawn and finishing as the sun climbed to the center of the sky, broiling everything in sight.
The mud-ocalypse meant that the titular climax of the weeklong event—the Saturday evening burning of “the Man” structure that towered out there in the desert—was delayed not once but twice. The ability to leave by car or truck was shut down for a spell and participants (there are famously “no spectators” at Burning Man) were told to party closer to home rather than range around the city checking out Thunderdome (a battle playground based on the 1985 Mad Max movie), Orgy Dome (based on 3,000 years of human excess), or the Triple D Diner (serving grilled cheese sandwiches and snappy patter based on post-war Americana).
Art cars—psychedelic pirate ships and railroad engines, Pac-Man ghosts, fire- and music-spitting mechanical octopuses, giant penises—were prohibited from roaming the streets. And we were all advised to conserve food, water, and toilet paper so that it would last however many extra days we might be stranded in a place with no resources other than what we brought in.
Because of the weather, the presence of VIPs, the death of a participant (likely due to a drug overdose), and an excruciatingly slow Labor Day weekend news cycle, Burning Man became a top-of-the-fold news story for a press hungry for content.
“Death Confirmed at Burning Man Festival as Rain Turns Desert to Mud,” blared a Wall Street Journal headline, which continued: “Thousands are stranded at the Nevada event, which attracts a mix of free spirits, artists, and Silicon Valley tech titans each year.”
I suppose that the rain, like the snow in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” fell upon the billionaires and the rest of us equally. But truth be told, I encountered no celebrities or VCs dressed up as furries or Road Warriors or whatever. I’m sure they were out there among the tents and RVs and shift pods, but they were hardly the center of attention even if some of them exited in grand fashion (Chris Rock and Diplo hitchhiked out). Burning Man is nothing if not a multiverse in which you choose your own adventure.
Observers took delight in the apparent dislocation. “It’s always been ridiculous to stage a drugged-out street festival for helpless city people in such a hostile climate,” tweeted Chaos Monkeys author Antonio García Martínez, sniffing, “I’ve been out on the ‘playa’ myself, alone in the middle of summer, and gone way deeper into Black Rock than any burner ever does. It’s a harsh environment that should be taken seriously, but one that anyone who’s gone properly offgrid can handle.”
But here’s the thing: there was no crisis in Black Rock City any more than there was Ebola. Those documenting from afar called it a crisis, but that was wishcasting, not reporting, because there is something frustrating about other people having a good time that brings out the Menckian puritan in all of us. The rain came down and mucked things up royally, but nobody starved or spontaneously combusted. Folks by and large stuck by the event’s “10 principles,” which include radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, civic responsibility, participation, and communal effort. We shared not only food and supplies and dry spaces but usually tough-to-come-by Wi-Fi and Starlink access so we could check in with loved ones and alter flights and travel plans.
My campmates and I decided to leave early on Monday and made it all of two feet before our U-Haul truck got stuck in the mud. We let the ground dry out for a few hours, got a mighty push from our neighbors, and were off. We were no longer clean from our Magic Foam shower and we were exhausted from the heat and the mud and a lack of sleep. But we were also absolutely energized by a complete break in the routine we abide by the other 51 weeks of the year, and the random, unguarded encounters we enjoyed with each other and total strangers.
I’ll be digging dust and mud out of my clothes and gear for weeks, if not months, to come, which will serve to remind me of my experience at Burning Man. Black Rock City isn’t a replacement for New York or San Francisco or wherever you call home, but it is a state of mind that’s worth visiting on a very regular basis, no matter the weather.
And for more smart takes on the news, become a Free Press subscriber today:
Also: We’re hosting our first live debate on September 13 at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles! Has the sexual revolution failed? Come argue about it and have a drink. We can’t wait to meet you in person. You can purchase tickets now at thefp.com/debates.