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Cleansed by Mud: Burning Man, Lost and Found

Issue 282

Bad weather at the Burning Man festival brought 73,000 attendees to the brink of disaster

Nicholas Powers Sep 18, 2023

We stood at the edge of camp and looked at the coming storm. Mr. Fix-It and I heard radio reports about bucket-dumping rains headed to Burning Man. Above us, dark clouds curled into fists.

Trey, Mello and I circled the 100 foot long shade structure, a box-like fort of tarps, straps and bolts. We looked like sailors battening down the hatches of a ship. Rain needled our faces. Wind pawed the tarps. Soon, all 30 campers scrambled to secure tents, stack chairs and haul the kitchen under the main tarps. 

Lighting flashed like the sky was being ripped. Blinding rain made the earth into mud. We couldn’t see. Or walk. Trapped inside the shade structure, we all turned up the music. Aliyah and Drake, Afro-Deep House, we even sang old spirituals. It was like Noah had a House Party on the Ark. 

Deep into the night, cold and soaked, I looked at everyone. We sang and drank and danced. We strung lights. We teetered on ladders to drain the ceiling tarps that bulged with rain. We hugged and laughed. 

We “lost” Burning Man. And found it again. 

Mudageddon

Were the 73,000 attendees going to die en masse? Go full Lord of the Flies and gnaw on raw legs and arms? 

On Saturday, Sep. 2, tens of thousands of people at ­Burning Man stepped out of tattered camps, surveyed the muddy landscape and asked the same question. How the hell are we getting out? 

It turned out the rest of America asked too. CNN, BBC, the New York Post, Fox News ran Labor Day articles about Burning Man, the massive festival held each year in the Nevada desert. A palpable curiosity brimmed in the media. Were the 73,000 attendees going to die en masse? Go full Lord of the Flies and gnaw on raw legs and arms? 

One of the leads, Adrian aka Mr. Fix-It, a svelte ­engineer who designed the camp, told me the news. We laughed. What we felt was not panic or anger. Laughter peeled like rose petals from mouths. Burners waved to Burners shouting, “Fuck your Burn!” who smiled, gave the middle finger back and shouted, “Fuck yours, too!”

A dizzy, crazy, silly, drunk freedom intoxicated us. The thunderstorm freed us from the Burn. The rage-all-night Burn, the FOMO Burn, the ­Try-Everything-With-Everyone Burn that was a roulette wheel of LED lights, drugs, music and sex spinning faster and faster around the Man sculpture at the center until it was set ablaze on the final night of the gathering and burned down in a glorious crash of fire. That Burn was done. Washed away. 

The Burn now was survival. Until the gates opened, until the ground dried, we had to feed and care for each other. Ration food. Share propane to cook. We had to give, give, give.

Burning Man is a kaleidoscope of camps that combine into a city and now that city was on a cliff edge. Pushed by climate change. Pushed the great distance between us and outside help. At my camp, the leads met. Tray aka Bugzy and Mello did construction. Mello, a tall brotha, butter pecan skin and cherubic face. He switched from jokes to wisdom mid-sentence. Trey, mahogany-toned and Hollywood handsome, had a gentle authority. Heather aka Dr. Who, the organizer, herded newbies and vets to get their shit together and listen. And then me, the camp founder.  

We called a meeting and faced a circle of anxious faces. I told them my priority was to get everyone out. I told them I had been in disaster zones and worse than hunger or injury were the psychological wounds of being betrayed. I told them organize groups, fix the camp, prep for the next storm and as soon as the ground dried, get the fuck out of Dodge. 

New leads stepped from the circle; Jasmine, Dave, Tim, Matt, Two-Dicks and Ti-Ti. They enlisted people and in minutes the camp was an ant colony. Individuals formed chains that passed metal poles and wet tarp. In the call-and-response, in the muscles straining, a beautiful feeling rose into the sky. Trust. 

Trust sparked in a thousand gestures. Each time a heavy weight balanced between hands, trust. When medicine and electronics were secured, we felt trust. When we peeled soggy carpets from the mud, more trust. At the end of the day, we stood back and marveled. The camp was erect and ready for the rain sweeping up the Playa, the ancient lakebed that is home to Burning Man. 

When the rain came, we played poker and dominoes, drank Hennessy and tequila. We cornrowed hair. Sunflower put on a playlist. When “Hey Mr. DJ” by Zhane hit, heads flowed on the beat like buoys on the sea. When “That’s the Way Love Goes” by Janet Jackson hit, we leaned back like air dancer balloons in front of a store. It was a vibe.  

Other Burners saw our joy and came to join. I slipped away to my car. I took out a photo of my son. It would be days before I saw him. I had his sock and smelled it and was transported to Brooklyn, where I held him to my chest. I told him I missed him. Looking at the party going, I said to him that he had a new family.

Salvador Dali with Play-Doh

Testing the mush with my foot, it squished, and I knew it would be another day until we could leave.

We had to see what the deal was. Tim and I trod to the exit gate outside Burning Man. On the way, a Burner waved comically to stop, so we stopped and saw on the ground a “Human Snail Race.” Swimming in the mud, dressed as snails, a dozen Burners raced each other to a non-existent finish line. We laughed and laughed. 

Joy. Everywhere, joy. Tim and I got to the road leading out of Burning Man. It was a soggy mess. R.V.’s spun their wheels. In the distance, the drivers looked like tiny dolls next to a Hot Wheel truck, frozen in the act of pushing forever. 

We got back to camp, told everyone the news. A few had left already. Each one who got free was one less person to worry about. Testing the mush with my foot, it squished, and I knew it would be another day. 

I went to the porta-potties, most, caked with mud and shit piled like volcanoes. One was my favorite. A Burner re-made it as the Love Boat sitcom. The cast was on the wall and a ship’s steering wheel. A poster showed guest stars from the 70’s and 80’s. I loved those actors. When you closed the door, the Love Boat song played. 

Sitting on the toilet, I saw those actors like dust blown by time. Maybe it was the mud on the road or the mud on my hands. All of it temporary. Like this city. Like this life. I wanted to hear the Love Boat theme but it was broken. So, I sang it, loud. I sang for everyone who made it. I sang it for everyone who didn’t. 

Monday, Sep. 4 the sun blazed in the sky. Heat baked the mud but just its surface. One inch down was gooey. I heard engines vroom as Burners rushed to escape and RVs spun wheels. I tied plastic bags to my feet, ran to the Burning Man radio station, jumped on-air and yelled to chill, to practice Tantric Exodus. The DJ and his friend snickered and slapped their knees. I said to ask the road for consent; if it’s not an enthusiastic yes, then don’t go.

Exodus

Nicholas Powers (far left) with his camp mates at this year’s Burning Man festival.

I have no idea if it worked but after a full day of hot sun, the road hardened and cars rolled by easy. It was time. I hugged the few remaining campers. Some cried and said this Burn was the most meaningful in their life. Some thanked me. In the last moments, our eyes locked, and a profound love shot between us. 

I waited eight hours in the line of cars, trucks and R.V.’s leaving. I drove to Pyramid Lake, meditated under the stars and bathed in the cold waters at sunrise. I drove to Sacramento to catch a JetBlue flight to New York and peering out of the window, I felt the many faces I cared for lost in darkness below.  

The 737 touched down at JFK and I stumbled into the terminal and blinked as if landing on an alien planet. Clean travelers drank fresh coffee, ate fresh food and walked linoleum floors. It stunned me. I forgot how much abundance we live in. How much we take for granted.

I bought coffee and sat by a window. I could still see the thousands of Burners struggle in a sea of mud. In front of me, a jet filled with people soared into the sky. I didn’t know how to make sense of it. I looked at the coffee without drinking it. I held it for a long, long time.

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