Fear and Loathing—and Pooping in a Plastic Bag—at Burning Man 2023
Flooding at the festival brought out the best and worst in attendees. Here's an eyewitness account.
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By now you probably know that Black Rock City, Nevada—the site of the annual Burning Man arts and music festival—turned into one gigantic mud puddle this past weekend. Perhaps you even leaned into the internet schadenfreude, knowing that some 70,000 burners—myself included—were stuck in the mud, and rejoiced in our misery. Yes, I’ve seen the memes. I’m a sometimes-burner who also enjoys making fun of my cohort. I get it. Even as I sat there in a cold, flooded tent I got it. So, as one of the thousands of people who were stuck there, let me give you an inside view of what went down.
I wasn’t even supposed to be there this year. I’ve been to Burning Man a half dozen times since 2005, but never two years in a row. I didn’t think it could get any rougher than last year, which was the hottest, dustiest year that anyone could remember. There had been a white-out dust storm on the day of the 2022 burn, and so we spent the whole day in our tents, in 100-degree heat, with all our vents closed, which turned them into ovens. It was the single most miserable day I’d ever experienced there, and I had no interest in repeating that in 2023.
But then, one by one, a bunch of close friends decided they were going. So, when I saw a ticket being sold for $140 (down from $575), I thought, what the hell, I’ll just go for two or three days. Plus, the weather was looking mild: highs in the 80s and lower 90s Fahrenheit, lows in the upper 40s, and clear skies every day.
The meteorologists who forecasted that can burn in hell.
My buddy Bill and I got in Wednesday, August 30, around noon, and everything was as good as we’d hoped. A few weeks prior, Tropical Storm Hilary had flooded Black Rock City. While that made for a rough few days for the crews setting up, it meant that the playa (i.e. the dry lake bed, which is made of a fine, alkaline dirt) was perfectly tamped down. There wasn’t a ton of dust flying around, and unlike last year there were no big sand traps just waiting to grab the wheels of your bike and take you down. My campmates and I were having a great time, and I was finally feeling like I was back in sync with the energy there.
Then it started to rain.
When we woke up late Friday morning it was cold and windy. I’d never felt temperatures that chilly during the daytime there. People around me, some of whom had attended dozens of times, agreed. It was eerie. A handful of friends left that morning to get back to their kids, disappointed that they had to leave early. We had no idea how quickly the roles would reverse. It started raining around noon, while a couple of us were out riding bikes. The wind picked up, too. We stopped into various bars to warm up, but once it started coming down harder we made the call to get back to camp and make sure our tents were all buttoned up. By that point the playa surface was becoming sticky and our bike tires were flinging lumps of mud into our thighs as we rode. (I was wearing golden booty-shorts, obviously).
My friends and I camp on the farthest edge of the city, in an area known as Walk-Ins, because you park your car on the last road and drag your stuff in as far as you want to go. It takes you longer to get to the action within the city, but it’s a lot quieter, and tents are nicely spread out. Once we got back there, five of us huddled in one tent and made cocktails while we waited for the storm–which hadn’t been in the forecast–to pass, as we were sure it would soon.
Hours went by, and the steady, driving rain continued. During the late summer the playa typically has a dry, cracked texture. Looking out of my friend’s tent I could see that those cracks had filled in with water and deep puddles had formed. News came through via FM radio that organizers had issued a do-not-drive order, and that people were being asked to shelter in place. The ground had never fully dried after Hilary, and now it was completely saturated again. I stepped out to check on my tent, and my shoes sank several inches into the wet clay. With every step my shoes accumulated more mud. I had planned to pack up and leave the next morning, but it quickly became clear that that would not be happening. Suddenly, this was an ordeal, but we were treated to one of the most epic double rainbows I’ve ever seen.
Inside my tent, there were puddles of standing water at all six corners. I was using a first-generation ShiftPod, which I had included in Outside’s Burning Man Gear Guide back in 2016. Other friends in my camp had second and third generation Shiftpods, and evidently the company had improved the waterproofing, because their floors were damp but there were no puddles. I spent the next couple of hours trying to move items out of harm’s way. My inflatable bed was the only thing that wasn’t soaked, and so eventually I curled up and went to sleep, but not before taking a few photos of the outside world. It looked like my crew’s tents were floating on the surface of a lake, reflections and all.
On Saturday morning I spent several hours using my one towel to sop up pools of water. The ground under my tent was so soft that I left footprints on the floor with every step. My suitcase full of clothes had been sitting in a puddle that I didn’t know existed, so I had no dry socks, shirts, or underwear. My power supply (an old Goal Zero Yeti 400) had blown its inverter before it even started raining, so I couldn’t charge my phone. It didn’t matter, though, because I had no reception, and while someone from my little camp had brought a Starlink satellite internet system, his generator had shorted out in the rain and he hadn’t been able to fix it yet. I tried to hang my clothes from the rafters in my tent to dry out, but they never did.
The mood in camp was a bit glum. News buzzed over a radio that the roads were all closed and we would likely be stuck until Tuesday or Wednesday. Fortunately, we all had extra food and water to share, so we weren’t in any danger. It was just inconvenient and uncomfortable. Gradually, the sun poked through the clouds and we started hearing music coming from the city. We decided to go out on foot and make the long, sticky walk to the Esplanade, which you might think of as Burning Man’s Main Street.
You know how disasters can bring people together? Those few hours had that feeling—they were magical. Everybody was on foot, instead of bikes, so people were taking the time to talk with others more than usual. Strangers hugged. Everybody checked in on each other, all of the camp bars were up and running, and my friends and I grabbed cocktails along the way. A crane lifted people in a basket high into the sky so they could survey the scene. There were muddy, heavy-footed dance parties all over the city. It was a real love-fest. Mostly.
While disasters can bring out the best in people, they can bring out the worst, too. We kept walking by scenes with people yelling at each other. Some were getting dangerously drunk. The porta potties couldn’t be emptied or cleaned, and many were already up to the rim with feces. One of the urinal porta potties was already overflowing with piss. That kind of thing will make people edgy.
There are always rumors at Burning Man, most of them lighthearted gossip, but some serious ones began to circulate—like the debunked story that there was an Ebola outbreak on the playa. Unfortunately, someone at the event did die, and though nobody knew the details, the rumor was that they had been electrocuted because of the water.
That night, it started raining again, so everybody retreated to their tents. Sunday morning, I woke up to the sounds of yelling and car engines. Despite the shelter-in-place order, some people were making a break for it, and others were pissed. An SUV drove through to a chorus of boos, and then RVs started passing by, tearing up the roads and the open playa. Some ignored the five-mile-per-hour speed limit and blasted through the mud, fishtailing and coming within feet of people’s tents. Now people were furious.
Various camps starting hurling baseball-sized balls of mud at the vehicles. One guy started chasing cars with a hammer, another with a shovel. One man screamed, “I fucking hope you get cancer!” at every car that drove by, all day long. He tried to pull a bike off the back of someone’s car, which nearly led to a fistfight. Two neighbors got into a shoving match when one tried to leave, and one called the cops on the other, accusing him of assault while also telling the officer he phoned that he was going to get a weapon if they didn’t show up fast. At another point, ten police cars sped by us with sirens blaring. When they came back through a little while later they asked us if we had heard any gunshots. We hadn’t.
Some of my campmates took advantage of a small weather window on Sunday and got out safely just before another rainstorm hit and turned the desert back into glue. As I waited out the storm in my tent, I took stock of the situation. I had plenty of food, but I only had a few gallons of drinking water. Not dire, but not great. My feet had been consistently wet for several days, so I was mildly concerned about trench-foot, but the more immediate problem was the bathroom. Penis-havers such as myself have an easy enough time peeing in a water jug and packing it out, but pooping amid the flood required some calculating. Biking was impossible, and walking through the mud made each shoe weight about five pounds. The closest Porta-Potties were a 15-minute trudge away, and they were almost certainly overflowing. So, I improvised. Grateful for once that I didn’t have a tent-mate, I popped a squat and crapped into a plastic CVS bag, tied it up real well, and tossed it into my garbage. Just like that, Burning Man 2023 no longer felt like just some “counter-culture festival” anymore. We began to wonder if FEMA or the National Guard was going to show up.
It seemed like the party was over, but I was still conflicted about leaving. On one hand, I was confident that I could escape. My Honda CR-V had all-wheel drive and all-terrain tires. I was already parked at the very edge of the city, so I wouldn’t have to drive through it. I’d also be one less person trying to leave in the so-called “exodus,” where all of the many city streets of Black Rock City eventually bottleneck into just one lane. If I could get out, and do it safely, wasn’t that one less car in the way of all the others?
On the other hand, I knew I’d feel like an asshole if I left. After all, I’m single, with no kids waiting for me back home, and I had enough supplies for another few days. Wasn’t it in the spirit of the festival to wait until the official all-clear? If I left at that moment, could I ever look “real burners” in the eye again?
As the sun started to set Sunday evening, the surface looked decent, and two of my camp mates and I decided to attempt an escape. They were in a two-wheel drive U-Haul van, and I estimated their chances of making it at 50/50. I figured I could tow them if they got stuck, but my motives weren’t purely altruistic. I was ready to go.
We dismantled our tents quickly. Peeling the floor off the surface of the playa required massive effort, and tons of mud stuck to it. The sun had just dipped behind the mountains, and the wind was whipping at us as yet another storm front moved in. I cursed the weather man once again.
We drove slowly through the edge of the Walk-In area, keeping well-clear of any tents, and hunting for the firmest possible ground. Some people gave us thumbs downs as we drove by, others smiled and waved. I must have passed more than a hundred stuck vehicles along the way, which gave me flashbacks to artists’ renderings of mammoths caught in the La Brea Tar Pits long ago. The U-Haul fishtailed wildly in front of me and I also began to slide but my wheels held. We forded a final, flowing creek of mud, and then at last we were out. Friendly volunteers directed traffic to the main road with flashlights, so our exit wasn’t quite as nefarious as we feared.
As our adrenaline subsided, the survivor’s guilt set in. We felt like shit, not just for leaving our friends, but for flouting the rules to get out ahead of the masses. I imagined the hate mail I would receive if I wrote about it. I made it home to Los Angeles at 3 A.M. and the rest of my campmates would make it out the next morning. At 2:34 P.M. on Monday afternoon, the Burning Man organization announced via Twitter and radio that the driving ban had been lifted. It took some burners eight hours to reach the main gate. Organizers asked people to wait until Tuesday if they could, to help relieve the traffic. At least I wasn’t adding to that chaos. I thought about the friendly faces still there, offering to help anybody who needed it. I thought about the screaming men with hammers.
Ultimately, I had an amazing time, but I now find myself wondering if I’ll ever return. In the 37 years that Burning Man has been around (and the 32 years that it’s been in the Black Rock Desert) it has never flooded this badly during the event itself. 2022 had been the hottest Burning Man. Maybe the changing climate has just made things too unpredictable—and the copious burning of fossil fuels at the event did not help. Our camp neighbor Dave from Eugene, Oregon, who had been to over 20 burns said, “Honestly, I think this could be the last one. 70,000 people unable to get out, overflowing shitters. It’s enough of a disaster that I could see the BLM just refusing to grant the permit again.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened.
And yet, on Monday morning I woke up, pulled everything out of my car, and started hosing down my gear. I let my tent dry in the driveway all day, before I folded it up and put it away so it could be ready for next year. Or maybe the year after. Just in case.