Sorry to have missed the rains of Burning Man 2023


No, not 2023 -- lighter rain with a great rainbow in 2007.

I went to Burning Man for 15 years, but stopped going. Of course I followed the events of the year of mud. It was curious to read all the mainstream press articles by people who clearly didn't understand the event at all. It's common for people to not understand it of course, and not surprising that it would be a big news story for 70,000 people to be "trapped" for a few days by anything. But I know from reading the accounts of my many friends there that it was no hellscape.

In fact, my first year on the Playa, in 1998, saw a soaking rain on Friday night. You could not walk 10 feet without getting stuck, all vehicle travel was shut down. We hunkered down but Saturday the sun returned and the lakebed dried out. Back then, the Man didn't burn until Sunday night, so it didn't interfere so much with people's plans. Indeed, it was an event to remember. Over the years there would be minor rains, though never a major rain on the key days. They came before the event, or after it, but everybody knew that some day a major rain would come at the worst time, interfering with the climactic burns or worst of all the exodus, when you try to squeeze most of the city down roads with the capacity for only about 1,000 cars/hour. 2023 had that, and it also had more rain than ever seen. That certainly put a major strain on everybody and the event, and did for many, seriously impair or ruin their experience. But so much that was written was based on myth.

No big surprise

The volume of rain was a surprise, but everybody with long experience knew this would come some day. The organizers had gamed it out and put a plan into action. Clearly some of those on the ground were not ready, or had gambled the risk was low (it was.) So many had tents not able to handle lots of rain and water on the ground. And every year, many come with firm plans to leave Sunday or Monday, to catch flights or get back to jobs and meetings, or to return rental RVs. That was a risk they took and it went bad. Not world ending, but sometimes costly. People with even a year of experience learn that things don't happen on time on the playa, especially when you leave.

Some who had a panic just walked out, which is impressive considering how hard it is to walk on that mud. Some tried to drive out. They were told not to try and only a few made it. Some will have left ruts on the playa that will be hard to repair or last for many years.

Very little danger

While people were reminded to conserve resources, the truth is most experienced burners come way over-prepared. I've never seen an exodus where camps weren't begging people to take their surplus food and other supplies. Nobody was going to starve or dehydrate. In a city founded on generosity, people opened their camps and vehicles to anybody in need. One reason people come to Burning Man is to get a chance to live in a city that is different. You will not find a place with a greater sense of giving and support for your neighbour than this one. This was the last place that would turn into a "lord of the flies" everyone-for-themselves situation. Certainly not over a bit of rain or a lot of rain.

Now, every year, about 1/3rd of the city are virgin burners, so you are going to expect a lot of people who aren't experienced and don't understand the ethos, so it is not some purified utopia. But it's going to be one of the more resilient places on Earth in handling this sort of situation.

There was tremendous schadenfreude

Public articles and memes were loaded with schadenfreude. There is an impression that the city is populated by billionaires having a party. There certainly are billionaires and "Tech bros" in the city, but they are a tiny fraction of the population and you would not want to paint their potential experience as the ordinary one. In fact, the organizers have been working hard to discourage the small number of "luxury" or "turnkey" camps. They are certainly not welcomed, though in a fairly free society, it is not practical to ban them either.

This class of folks are not coming to Burning Man as a playground for the rich. Quite the reverse, they can afford anything in life they want, but choose to go on a harsh camping experience to explore living another way, even if just for a week. Having had some prominence of my own in Silicon Valley society, I know more than my share of billionaires, and have even camped with some at Burning Man. One, whose name you definitely know, would live very spartanly at Burning Man, often just crashing different nights on the carpet of whatever camp he happened to find himself in. Others would indeed stay in nice RVs (just the same as many thousands of middle-class people also do) and some would be more extravagant.

It is true that it costs to come to Burning Man, though it's a similar cost to many other one-week trips, less than just about any overseas trip. And there are those who come on the cheap, though they commonly live a tent camping experience. Ticket prices have soared compared to the past, but still are less than just about any week-long adventure.

Burning Man is, in part, and experiment in a future, post-scarcity society where money plays very little role and people are valued for their creativity and contribution. Today, we don't live in that world, so it must be created artificially, by spending money from the real world to make it happen. Some may view that with the lens of "only the rich can afford to pretend they don't have money" but I think it's generally a good thing.

Yes, leaving it takes forever

Many headlines talked about the line to get out peaking at around 7 hours. In recent times, that's actually better than normal! It's one of the city's larger problems. When I heard about the 7 hour lines, I was shocked that it was that short. If you try to leave at the most popular times, you can expect this, and smarter folks know to delay their departure. In this case, more people were forced by deadlines to get out.

In addition, a fair number of people saw the weather forecast and decided to get out in advance, from what I can tell.

It's supposed to be harsh

Burning Man arrived in the Black Rock Desert after it got kicked off a San Francisco Beach in 1990. Cacophony Society members knew about the desert as a wide open place you could go wild and took the Burning Man founders along on a trip there, and the even stayed there (except for 1997 when it went to a smaller playa a few miles away.) It's a very harsh place, but the harshness has become one of the core characteristics of the event.

The harshness binds the community, as a common foe. The dust storms which happen every year are a pain, but also what unites us. If you're out and a dust storm comes, you go into whatever camp you are next to and they will welcome you and perhaps become friends. Fighting the elements creates memories and bonds. This rain did the same, even though it was too much for people.

The harshness also is deliberately a deterrent to attendance, even more than the ticket cost. You have to travel a very long distance to survive heat and dehydration and dust. Many don't do it. That makes sure everybody there really wants to be there. It greatly reduces the number of "tourists" just there for the "drug soaked orgy" they've heard about. If you really just wanted to hold a dance party or a drug-fueled orgy, this is the last place you would want to be. And there are lots of more convenient and less harsh dance parties to go to.

To be fair, there is no universal love of this principle. Indeed, the harshness is one of the things that stopped me from coming. 2022 was so hot and dry and full of Covid that many people decided to skip 2023.

So the headline "Burning Man, which is supposed to be harsh, was extra harsh this year" isn't so exciting.

For those who did skip 2023, many reacted with "I picked a good year to skip." But a fair number also had FOMO about missing what will become one of the core shared experiences of the decade to come. There may not be a "I survived the rains of 2023" T-shirt, but one will exist metaphorically. (In spite of the fact that I made 6 years of T-shirts for my camp, Burning Man T-shirts are not that much of a thing.)


Thanks, Brad, for the reasoned, experienced commentary.

This was my 13th, and it was actually a really good event this year! The number of friends and campmates who are declaring it the Best Burn Ever is pretty surprising, given the popular press about the event. Up until Friday, the weather was suspiciously mild, and I was beginning to be concerned I wouldn't be caught in a whiteout or some other harsh experience. But we were able to be out and about late into the nights without bundling up, and that is always nice.

Friday, or course, with the rain things took a turn, but not necessarily a *bad* turn, just one in a direction most of us hadn't seen before. I've been out there in minor rains before, but this was something very different. Saturday was a mess, but a weird, fun new mess to be figured out.

What people who haven't been to the burn don't realize is that every year we build what's effectively a giant disaster refugee camp. And this year, after the camp was built, "disaster" struck. We woke up Saturday morning, looked around, and said "Huh. That worked". Everyone was checked in on each other, and helped with any problems that needed to be sorted out. About the only "grave" issue to really be concerned about were dealing with the portos. Word went out city-wide: store your pee. Empty Gatorade bottles quickly were pulled out of our trash bins and saved for use.

Sunday was when we began to learn that the world had noticed. We began hearing stories about an impending humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Nevada desert. I could hear joking and laughter all around me, a big yoga class was going on at Hippocampus down the block, and my neighbors had vast quantities of bacon on the grill. The weather was perfect and EDM could be heard coming from all directions. Portos even started getting cleaned, albeit slowly and not city-wide. Humanitarian crisis? Where?

The only really serious issue that needed to be contended with was helping people with mobility issues or other health concerns. I didn't learn of any in my neighborhood, but BMIR (the main radio station) was filled with specific requests for assistance, and I hope they were all sufficiently fulfilled.

In the end, burners did what you would have expected them to do - rise to the challenge with humor and capability. It was a fun time, even at its most difficult, and it will definitely go down in burner history. For generations we'll be milking the war stories around assorted burn barrels.

Yes, the community is resilient. When I first read the media coverage, I knew immediately it was wrong. While I am sure there are lessons learned about what to do better next time -- more rainproofing for tents, an all-terrain portapotty drainer, better training in the survival guide about not making ruts, not leaving etc. when this happens -- the city did quite well even without that training and lessons.

The tents will be an interesting one. After all, an event like this is only going to happen every couple of decades. It's hard to get people to prep for things like that, to bring and set up what they need to stop water from getting in their tent in a place that is normally bone dry. I am betting that in the post mortem we will learn about some tricks that campers discovered that worked. Those with RVs of course did fine. It doesn't need to be something you set up in advance. Rain comes with a warning, and mega-rain as well. You do need to bring the gear with you and then install it when the forecast says. I wonder if you could bring sandbags and fill them with playa without damaging the surface in a way you can't repair?

Unfortunate as it is, for those who absolutely had to be out of the city by the weekend for flights/jobs/meetings/RV return probably should have just bugged out by Friday afternoon. Heartbreaking to miss the weekend (I missed it one year) but a choice people could make.

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