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Burning Man was WAY Better Than What the News Portrayed

Updated: Sep 11, 2023 11:14
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As we waded through the mud toward our camp, my campmate’s ham radio suddenly experienced an overabundance of activity. It was a bit hard for me to hear the exact words but a woman’s voice broke through and said something that stopped us in our tracks, “There are reports of a death potentially from electrocution? Can you confirm this?*” A reply came lightning fast, “can you stop reporting rumors?”

You know a situation has hit the national news when reporters have infiltrated the amateur communication networks at Burning Man in an attempt to extract information from those ‘on the ground’. Truth is, the limited information that was being sent out by the officials of Burning Man had some reporters desperate to get any new information they could find out to the world.

Cars that got stuck in the mud were pretty common – this one became an “art car”

Over 70,000 people were reported as “stranded” at Burning Man This Past Weekend

What precisely occurred, and what led to its coverage on the national stage – and not about the amazing art?! When over 70,000 individuals found themselves essentially “stranded” at a festival due to heavy rainfall that created conditions unsuitable for driving, it naturally became a headline-making story. But then the news spread with rumors tied to it and people wrote about rich kids being stranded, fake death reports, untrue accounts of the event being “shut down” and exaggerations about the conditions those of us attendees had to deal with.

One of the reasons I love writing for Broke-Ass Stuart is that I’m not beholden to a large corporation to spread the news as fast as possible or to get the sensationalized headline that will get the most clicks out into the world. We can tell you the real story and I don’t need to twist the truth in order to sell more ads. But if you’re curious about what happened there I can share what I personally saw and experienced. That being said, keep in mind that what I saw and what I experienced is only one view of the event.

Some had it pretty rough and some just took a nap

Here are some Burning Man 2023 Myths and Realities

It’s TRUE: some people did not come fully prepared:

Our campmate met two girls who had been sleeping in part of our village. These two girls confessed that they came to Burning Man with NO FOOD and NO SHELTER?! We gave them some extra food we had and asked them to come back if they were unable to find shelter later in the day. I had also heard of one person worried because they hadn’t brought medication to last a few extra days. One person we camped near wasn’t sure their car could make it home OK under normal conditions, let alone any type of mud. There were all sorts of people with all sorts of reasons to worry about the weather we were experiencing. Even with the rain the week before Burning Man officially started, many didn’t expect the rain we ended up with so it was pretty understandable when you saw some weren’t fully prepared. 

“Lincoln Bear” happily sitting in mud by Mr and Mrs Ferguson

It’s FALSE, that we were completely stranded

I saw one report where the headline read “Escape from Burning Man” as if you were imprisoned. You could leave on foot if you wanted but it was pretty unsafe to do so and not entirely necessary, in my opinion. I’m sure you read reports that celebrities walked away from Burning Man… such as Diplo and Chris Rock hitched rides from the road away from Burning Man. Diplo wanted to make a show he had in DC and didn’t want to risk missing it.

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Anyone could leave on foot but it isn’t a safe way to exit and we were encouraged to hunker down within our camps until the conditions got better. Some did try to exit quickly in their car, not realizing the mud would act like quicksand, and their cars were stuck in the mud pretty quickly.

Spirits were actually pretty high!

It’s TRUE, the mud was a complete mess

Burning Man is built upon an ancient lakebed (Lake Lahontan) this lakebed is a semi-acidic silt base which many joke is basically crushed up fish guts. In all seriousness, the silt is smaller than a grain of sand but acts a little like clay in that when wet it can create a consistency very much like sour cream or if you’re familiar with it – it’s similar to what potter’s use, slip. In other words, it’s very very creamy, slippery and it builds up on itself when you try to walk on it. Small amounts of water create the slippery mud very quickly and conditions made it pretty challenging to travel around in it.

The mud looks majestic when not covered in stuff – photographer unknown

It’s FALSE that we were asked to clean the Porta-Potties

At least no one I talked to mentioned this. In fact, the bathrooms near us were regularly cleaned and I saw them clean things out just before the rain created the famed muddy conditions. I know some people who opted to help out by pulling some mud which had built up out of the bathrooms but the people I know who went to help out weren’t told to do it.

It’s TRUE that we were encouraged to share resources

Since we could be “stuck in the mud” for longer than 24 hours, it was important that we share resources if we had them. Some people may have only packed enough food for a few days and were staying longer than expected and some people, like the woman I mentioned above, didn’t bring anything. One of the principles of Burning Man is “radial self-reliance” but yet another is “communal effort” which encourages us to work together as a community.

As with most years, the abandoned bikes were the biggest source of MOOP (Matter out of place)

It’s FALSE that it was the worst year ever at Burning Man

This true/false might be a bit subjective, but for most of us, the muddy mess served as a challenge that we successfully conquered. We had to fully embrace the principles I mentioned earlier and make the most of the rainy day. During the heaviest rain, some of us wisely used the time to rest, especially after the days of fun that led up to the downpour. My tent ended up with a massive puddle in the middle of it, but my campmate graciously offered me shelter, ensuring I didn’t have to endure a damp sleeping situation alone. Together, we prioritized safety and warmth, sharing hearty meals and finding humor in the quirky outfits we assembled for our muddy outings. We discovered the joy in our situation and grew closer as a community.

Undoubtedly, it wasn’t an easy time, but this isn’t why most people attend Burning Man. We go there to challenge ourselves, test our spirits, learn, and grow. Just as some people conquer Mount Everest, others venture into the wilderness to explore their inner selves. The adversity we faced may deter some from returning next year, but the essence of Burning Man remains unchanged.

Interestingly, the rain and mud reduced the usual dust, encouraging more people to roam and connect. I vividly recall an instance while I was heading to check on a friend. I saw an older woman with a cane wading through the mud, engaging in an endearing conversation with a younger guy trailing behind her, talking about how they were both from Oregon. It was a beautiful testament to people coming together and getting to know one another.

Even some adorable art cars got a little stuck – although, not sure if this was stuck from the mud or not

It’s TRUE that information was limited

It certainly depended on your personal circumstances, but it’s undeniable that numerous rumors were circulating, making it challenging to ascertain the truth. Within BRC, only a handful of locations offered public Wi-Fi, which many people utilized to read the news and/or get information from Burning Man’s various online sources. Fortunately, our camp had access to a ham radio, enabling us to communicate with other camps across the city and share the information we received from officials. However, it’s important to acknowledge that not all camps had the same resources at their disposal.

It was evident that the information provided by Burning Man Officials online was quite limited and I’m sure they had their reasons – especially when you want to give people accurate information and the weather was shifting on its own hourly. At some points we weren’t sure if we would have rain both Saturday and Sunday.

When possible, information was also shared via the local radio station, Burning Man Information Radio (94.5 FM). You’d often hear the radio station being played across the city as you walked by camps and many times it was talking about sharing resources but often repeated information.

Part of “The Ursas” by Jen Lewin which we featured in “AMAZING ART STRUCTURES BEING BUILT AT BURNING MAN 2023

Will People Come Back to Burning Man in 2024?

People have various reasons for returning to Burning Man, and a weather event alone isn’t likely to deter someone from coming back. Perhaps the expenses of attending, timing issues, or unmet expectations could be the reasons for not returning. Yes, it wasn’t an easy year – but it never is. For me, the event was pretty “ordinary” in some ways – not sensationalized… just, a pretty good time! For others, it was harder and please do comment and share your perspective. How did you feel about the lack of communication or the unknowns we all faced? Did you end up stuck in a bad spot or was it the time of your life?

Most people I’ve talked to about whether they will come back in 2024 have said that this year was one of their favorites. Despite the adversity, many embraced the principles of community and shared resources. Things slowed down “like old times” and people connected in new ways. One friend of mine had told me earlier in the week that Burning Man had gone from a giving society where everyone gave to each other freely… to having more “takers” than ever before. After the mud, he came to me and said… “It has felt more like the Burning Man I remember than ever before”. People gave more freely, they helped each other out, they bonded over a shared experience that leveled the playing field in some ways. 

When I left for Burning Man, I had this grand plan to document the event’s changes, especially since I hadn’t attended since 2008. Ironically, due to the weather event, I found many similarities to the past. More individuals strolled about, and the pace of life slowed down. Gone were the days of people racing past on bikes; instead, conversations flourished as we connected as campmates while weathering the storm. We gathered around bonfires, exchanging our top tips for navigating the muddy terrain.

In the end, the muddy situation served as a unique challenge that attendees overcame, strengthening their sense of community and purpose at Burning Man.

Editor’s note: It pains me that we have to talk about rumors before we can really talk about the rad things. However, I’m going to say that this year’s art at Burning Man was some of the BEST art I’ve ever seen. We gave you a sneak at some of it in a previous article. I don’t want the beauty and the amazingness of the art to be overshadowed by the wackiness of a weather event. Expect some art highlights in an upcoming article from me to come very soon including some local behind-the-scenes art tours! It’s exciting stuff!!

*The reporter was from Reuters and I wish I had written down her exact quote but I paraphrased here. There was a death at Burning Man that has been reported. This person passed due to something completely unrelated to the mud and weather.

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Katy Atchison

Katy Atchison

Katy is a professional smiling machine raised in The Bay Area since the age of 3. While other kids were attending summer camp & soccer practice, she was raised selling wares at craft shows with her working artist parents and spent vacations in a small 1920s Montana log cabin. This has all given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing texture of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Currently a blend of all that is The Bay Area - she's a web designer at a tech-company, artist and DIY teacher.