“You don’t get the burn you want; you get the burn you need,” a burner friend told me this when I told him I was headed to Black Rock City for the first time.
We drove into the dusty desert last Sunday, our bags packed with outfits, baby wipes, dust masks and sunblock for our weeklong escapade to Black Rock City. I was ready to surrender, to let go of my phone and internet connection and daily concerns about whether I’d make a story deadline or if the trains were running on time into Manhattan.
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The first four days were everything I expected: an incredible makeshift city built for a week in the middle of nowhere dotted with magical art installations; sparkle ponies and tech bros; famous DJs and dizzying, mesmerizing lights. I had come to have fun and party and Burning Man was happy to provide. I was in bliss, spending my days biking around with friends, checking out the vibe at different camps, meeting artists who’d spent all year to produce a piece so people could enjoy it for one week, before they burned it to the ground. Most nights I danced until sunrise and came back to camp to sit around the fire pit and drop into deep conversation with new friends and campmates. The things I thought would bother me (baby wipe showers and questionable sanitation in the porta potties) didn’t bother me at all. And over a few days I thought I got it. I was happily covered in playa dust along with 70,000 other people who came to co-create one of the greatest parties in the world.
Thursday night after Diplo’s set, news of rain clouded the playa glow.
I woke up early on Friday to prepare my gift for my camp: a Turkish breakfast. Once I was done serving, I wanted to take one last stroll before the rain and head out. The weather report said a drizzle was coming around 4 p.m. and it would be over after a few hours. There was concern in the camp — especially from burners who’d been in Black Rock City during prior rainy mudflats — but the general consensus was that there would be a wet 24 hours and then the sun and wind would dry the playa up and we’d all get back to it.
When it rains at Burning Man everything has to stop. Cars and bikes can’t drive in it. In prior years they’ve closed the gates for entry for days at a time to let the playa dry and return to normal. So I went out into the streets of BRC — some named for the positions on a clock, and others named after fabulous animals from mythology and folklore this year, like Afanc, Bigfoot, and Chupacabra — which were less frantic than they had been the days before. Burners were more focused on waterproofing their tents, music equipment and art cars with trash bags and tarps, securing them with bungee cords to hold items that can fly away.
Then it started raining. An hour into my journey, heavy winds and rain forced me to make multiple stops trying to come back to my camp. I was welcomed, offered food and water at each stop, making new connections as I rode. By the time I made it to the corner of 4:45 and Encantado, about five blocks from our camp, my bike wheels stopped turning and I had to go on foot. The playa dust — basically powdered clay — was turning sludgy and sticky with the rain. My boots were caked with heavy mud that would weigh me down and refused to come off.
I made it back to camp, but the situation was dire: our common area under the shade structure was pummeled in rain. At some point in the middle of the night, it became clear that weather reports had been wrong and we were going to get lot more rain than expected. When we woke up, we found most of our camp structure collapsed from the heavy rain. Our $1,500 shiftpod, a hexagonal silver tent specifically designed for Burning Man, was flooded. Like most people, my husband and I were able to take shelter in other people’s RVs. Our neighbors made us hotdogs while we cleaned the bent poles of our shade structure and wet carpets. By sunset we could see some lights and hear music again. We were stuck in the mud but the party did not stop. Camps were still serving food and drinks, keeping the joy alive.
While we were sitting around our camp’s firepit, we saw eight police cars racing through the muddy streets as fast as they could. Shortly after, I heard from a well connected burner that there were incidents of domestic violence, loothing, fights, and gun shots. People who had service told us of news reports of ebola and concerns about a cholera outbreak. (Neither ended up being true.) But at the same time, we also saw weddings, artists making sculptures with the clay, and people from neighboring camps bringing each other food and water. A group of volunteers cleaned the muddy porta potty floors with shovels. One of the last interactions I had with another burner before we left camp was a neighbor coming over to check on us and make sure we had what we needed. Comradery did not stop at the gates either: RVs and cars were waiting to pick up hitchhikers at the gate, offering them rides to Reno.
The rain was an inconvenience, but in Black Rock City, people show up for each other, and that was on full display. I saw a woman crash her bike and a half-dozen people sprint out of their camps to take care of her. I gave and was given delicious food from strangers who genuinely just wanted to nourish a fellow human being. It’s a place where more than anything people go to take care of each other and be human together. An experiment in instant community that in many ways feels more real than the real world. All the rain really did was muck up the roads. The Burners got through just fine.
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