The annual large-scale, off-the-grid festival, Burning Man, held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is a hub for thousands seeking a unique and experimental experience. However, this year’s gathering saw an unexpected twist, as torrential rain turned the dry desert into a distinctively slippery surface, putting the reveler’s resilience to the test.
Among the festival attendees were a couple from Canada, seasoned participants in the Burning Man culture. Patrick Gravelle and his wife Elsa who have, over the past four years, experienced different-sized festivals in Sweden, Canada, and now Nevada, the U.S. Gravelle, a resident of Golden, B.C., expressed his enthusiasm for the festival’s unpredictable nature. “If you’re gonna go to Burning Man in the desert, you have to be ready for an adventure,” he stated.
Coming to the festival for the fifth time, Gravelle recalls the first five days being “magical”, complete with the typical desert charms of dust and sun. The announcement of rain was received with an open mind, as he thought it would keep the ubiquitous dust at bay. However, Friday’s downpour led to the emergence of thick, sticky mud that hindered mobility, turning walking and biking into challenging tasks. But the Burners soon found creative ways to keep mud out of their shoes and went about their day.
Not everyone found the muddy terrain humorous though. A poster on the Burning Man Project’s Facebook page, termed the muddy mixture as an “non-removable alkaline paste” rather than mere mud, expressing their displeasure over the situation.
Many attendees, referred to as burners, arrived prepared with limited supplies and built a temporary city resplendent with themed camps, decorated art cars, and guerrilla theatrics. Among these was ‘the Viking Bar’ – a camp run by Gravelle and his wife, which provided a sanctuary for the disarrayed burners and a testament to the festival’s gift-giving culture. Even during the tumultuous rainy days, the bar offered free beer and hot soup, serving as a haven for festivalgoers.
In the face of challenges, such as accessing the toilet due to the festival’s restricted services caused by the rain, Gravelle reflected, “the conditions were ultimately part of the experience”. When the rain subsided and the ground began to return to its dry state, the attendees, true to the spirit of Burning Man, converted the mud into a canvas for art installations and sculptures. However, despite the adversity, the festival was not without a tragedy. A fatality was reported, but the organizers clarified that it was not weather-related.
Among the first-time attendees was Lawrence Yang, a family doctor from Surrey, B.C. Part of a geology-themed camp, Yang had planned to leave before the festival concluded but had to stay back due to adverse weather warnings from the organizers. When he and his travel partner eventually dared to leave, their treacherous journey through the slippery campsite terrain felt “like Mad Max in the mud,” according to Yang.
Unlike his compatriots who complied with the festival structure, Yang sought permission to leave early, enduring resistance from other campers who accused him of ruining the road. Maneuvering through the terrain was a formidable task, with several cars stuck in the mud. Despite the numerous challenges and a 40-minute long drive, Yang managed to make it out successfully; in contrast, Gravelle’s departure took nearly four hours due to heavy traffic on Tuesday.
Despite a daunting festival experience marked by resilience, good humor, and the unwavering sense of community, some festival participants are returning to clean up the aftermath. The area closure for Burning Man is planned for 66 days each year, allowing sufficient time to build the temporary city and also for post festival clean up. As such, the spirit of the burners continues to glow, embracing the unexpected and turning challenges into elements of a unique experience.