Burning Man Is Always a Challenge, but Burners Like Me Know This Time Is Different

Every time I go to Burning Man, there comes a moment when I ask myself, “Why did I choose this blazing, grueling workation when I could be back home, or on the beach?” By the end of the event, the answer is always clear — because there is nothing like it, anywhere on Earth.

The past two years, I’ve asked myself that question more times than in all the years before. I can see Burning Man — a gathering of more than 70,000 people in a sere and beautiful northwestern Nevada desert full of art and music and foolishness and delight — headed for the climate emergency’s cliff edge. It may not move, it may not end, but it will change.

Then again, so will everything else.

This year started off as one for the history books. My wife and I arrived Aug. 25, two days before the official opening, to perfect weather: hardly a gust of wind, good temperatures and a “playa” — the dry lake bed of fine, alkaline dust where Burning Man takes place — that was hard-packed and the air free from the usual choking particulates. I know that theconditions were thanks to rare storms that hit the week before we started work on our public art and theme camps to welcome the rest of the participants.

Obviously, the weather at the ending was also one for the history books — for very different reasons. Not only did we get more heavy rains, compounding rarity upon rarity, but they arrived at the worst possible time, near the end of the event, when everyone’s supplies of food, water and fuel were low.

The storm turned the playa’s microscopic dust into a bedeviling clay that mired everything in clinging mud. Just walking was a challenge: The mud stuck to your shoes and turned your feet into tragicomic irregular spheres that grew heavier with each step. Worse, all this movement churned up the playa, marring the surface and creating pockmarks that retained water, slowing the drying out and stranding attendees for longer.

Though such rainstorms are all but unheard-of, harsh weather at Burning Man is absolutely normal. I’ve been caught in at least one white-out dust storm every year. This is how the playa teaches patience. Whatever pleasurable thing you find yourself doing is every bit as fun as the thing you were planning to do, so enjoy it.

This is how the playa teaches solidarity. The ultrafine dust infiltrates every bearing of every machine. The gusting winds blow over shelters and tear reinforced grommets. Your goggles break and the blowing, burning dust gets into your eyes. You help your neighbors. Your neighbors help you. The “radical self-reliance” of Burning Man isn’t the final word — it is counterpart to the event’s “radical inclusion.”

And Burning Man attracts some of the most resourceful, competent, imaginative people you’re likely to meet. Our small camp had no fewer than four MacGyvers: people who can do carpentry, plumbing and electrical work, as well as generator and small-engine maintenance and repair, network administration and first aid. (We also had two M.D.s.)

So when the rains hit, everyone started figuring out contingencies and then contingencies for those contingencies. We duct-taped gallon Ziploc bags around our stocking feet (wet playa mud doesn’t stick to the slick plastic) or just went about in socks (ditto, though protracted contact with the alkaline mud causes painful skin reactions). We checked in with our neighbors, improvised ways to deal with water pooling on our flat shade-structure roofs and heated up our most perishable leftovers (14-hour slow-cooked pulled pork).

All the things we’d expected to do were canceled. Time to find something to enjoy that would be every bit as great as our canceled plans and enjoy it. A camp like mine, where a few dozen friends have gathered for a quarter-century, was the best place imaginable to get stuck in the mud.

In keeping with this year’s “Animalia” theme, some of my campmates had devised an “interspecies wedding” service, where participants filled in a Mad Libs-style questionnaire in whiteboard marker, creating wedding vows. We provided veils and headbands festooned with animal ears and stood couples under our beautiful light-up metal gate and performed a silly service, with the pair performing animal courting rituals to specification. (For example, if you chose “mouse,” we asked you to improvise the distinctive, high-pitched song that mice use to attract a mate.)

We performed many weddings during the week, and the tempo actually picked up after the rains started. Couples stopped in, enjoyed a muddy wedding and moved on.

But the rains continued. It was cold. Our shelters leaked and water came up through the floors. We fought back with more inclusivity and resourcefulness: We hung stuff up to dry, got tarps under our beds, lifted things into vehicles or under shelters. We checked in on our neighbors. We used some of our fuel to play dance music out of the LED Zeppelin art-car’s excellent speakers. We danced. So did the bag-footed people on their way to the rapidly filling port-a-potties. When we turned off the music, our across-the-street neighbors switched on their sound. The dancing continued.

But making the best of a bad situation doesn’t make it good. I left the playa late on Saturday. Two of my campmates were quite sick, and one of them had a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Medics told us we should go if we could to keep beds available for sicker people. I offered to help with the driving. My wife stayed behind to get our car home and to help with the all-hands, intensive leave-no-trace sweep of the site for even the smallest bit of MOOP (“Matter Out of Place”) that is the last thing we do before leaving every year. The roads and the gate have reopened, and my wife was heading out Tuesday, joining the “exodus” queue that is long even by Burning Man standards, with the usual three days’ worth of departures crammed into one.

Two consecutive years of brutal weather — one ferociously hot, one miserably wet — has many burners (including me) rethinking our attendance. It’s hard enough to prepare for all the contingencies of a hot, dry desert. Throw in water and mud and the contingencies multiply into towering, demoralizing heaps.

Burning Man started off as a small midsummer gathering on a San Francisco beach — but it spoke to something, and the crowds grew and grew, until the informal event turned into this 70,000-person annual desert camp-out. The Black Rock Desert is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the contrast between the harsh environment and the art, food, dancing and fun made it an unforgettable, uniquely wonderful experience. After last year’s brutal conditions, that texture grew too rough for many of us, and there was lots of talk about whether the event would move again — whether the Black Rock Desert had tipped from “nearly totally unsuitable for human habitation” to “unsurvivable.” It won’t be the last place we lose.

The world is getting more and more unpredictable. Nothing is going according to plan. When the heavy weather hits, you’ve got to hunker down, share your snacks and pass around your flask, take care of one another, and find a way to enjoy the thing you must do, because the thing you wanted to do was just canceled. Again.

We’re all going to have to learn some MacGyver skills. We’re all going to have to cultivate patience and solidarity. And the organizers? They’re going to have to figure out how to keep the port-a-potties clear, because radical self-reliance and radical inclusion go only so far.

Cory Doctorow is the author of the newsletter Pluralistic.net and of “The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation.”

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