Reports coming out of this year’s Burning Man painted a desperate picture. Heavy rains soaked the desert, turning the playa clay into a cement-like substance. Burners Diplo and Chris Rock walked miles to find a fan with a truck strong enough to drive out. President Joe Biden even declared a national emergency on the site, as 70,000 fans were trapped in Black Rock City, Nevada, with no means to escape.
However, as Burners left the Black Rock Playa and reconnected with the outside world, many told a story quite at odds with the accepted narrative. Rather than suffering, cold and wet, many reported the event was as magical as ever. Influencers began to infiltrate Burning Man in recent years but the storms returned it to its roots: neighbors helped one another and shared in the communal spirit of the festival. It became more spontaneous.
“I think the media conversation fueled a lot of the concern that the few Burners who did try to escape ended up having, getting wind of the verbiage that was being used,” Cody Chapman, an agent at Was- serman Music, says. “Thousands were trapped and talking about apocalyptic people with cannibalism and Ebola. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. But with those sorts of words being thrown around, it scared some of the more fair-weather Burners and actually caused them to try to go against the better judgment of the organizers who said, ‘Don’t try to leave, shelter in place.’ Which sounds aggressive, but really was a way of saying, ‘Don’t get in your car or RV and try to drive out.’ It was only the people who tried to escape who ended up having some sort of terrible experience.”
Saam Gabbay, a photographer and frequent Burner, returned to the festival for the first time in over a decade. He explains that if this had been someone’s first year at Burning Man, they’d be blown away, “but there’s a really dramatic difference between what it used to be and what it is now.”
“[In the early years,] there was this improvisational wildness that for many people was appealing,” Gabbay says. “We went from fire to LEDs, marquee acts, sound systems got more powerful. There are now turnkey camps where you pay $100,000 and you just fly in and your RV is stacked. [Back then] everything was handmade and created by the people.”
When the storms came in, festivalgoers couldn’t ride their bikes anywhere. Black Rock City became a walking town, with attendees covering their shoes and socks with plastic bags in order to get through the mud.
“It was this palpable community feel because it was difficult to go long distances,” Chapman says. “People would go to camps nearby and check how they were doing, how they were partying. And they were having fun and finding their way through this weird moment. It was an awesome way to connect with people.”
However, some fans needed to connect with the outside world for essentials. Some planned to leave the festival early and didn’t pack enough equipment to last them through sheltering in place.
“That was the beginning of this really interesting exchange where one of the camps upended up their Starlink, because they knew that people had to get ahold of things,” Gabbay says. “We had people around us that needed medicine. We had people that needed to be in contact with kids that were sick.”
Gabbay himself needed to get medicine to last through several days. While he walked around various camps to try and connect with someone who could help him get ahold of what was needed, a woman nearby offered the exact dosage.
“There’s this thing in Burning Man, which is the Playa provides,” Gabbay says.
While this was his first year attending, Chapman found no surprise in Burners’ ingenuity.
“These are the people built for these sorts of things and this environment.”
By the end of the festival, the burn went on as planned and those who remained came together.
“Everyone felt like they really earned the burn,” Chapman says. “When the Man burned, everyone who stayed found their way. Nothing was easy, but that’s what this event is built on. It’s built in an inhospitable environment where people are forced to find creative ways to do things that should be impossible in this area.”