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Burning Man 2023: 5 People on Attending (and Escaping) This Year’s Festival Fiasco

Set in the midst of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Burning Man has always represented a test of will—not to mention survival—for its intrepid attendees, but 2023’s iteration of the weeklong arts and music festival was on a whole different level. Heavy rain turned much of Black Rock City into a muddy, slippery, obstacle-course-esque nightmare, with nearly all events being canceled on Friday, September 1 and festivalgoers forced to find their way home (or linger in the mud) as routes into and out of the area were shut down.

It’s easy to laugh at the Elon Musk–type tech bros who likely paid thousands for their Burning Man tickets only to be trapped in a veritable mudslide, but many—if not most—of this year’s attendees weren’t famous at all (with the glaring exception of Chris Rock and Diplo, who hitchhiked the hell out of there in what seems destined to become the plot of a big-budget buddy comedy) and still managed to have a great time. This week, Vogue spoke to five Burning Man attendees about the good, the bad, the ugly, and the muddy of this year’s festival.

Terrence Russell, three-time Burning Man attendee

I’m regularly camping and driving through the Mojave Desert, so most of my gear was adequately prepped for both heat and flooding. My tent was made to repel dust and water, my shoes were warm and waterproof, I packed plenty of food and water, and even though I honored the road closures, I happen to drive a beast of an off-roading Jeep (named BamBam). Aside from limiting the ability to explore the city—and creating a muddy mess outside my tent—the weather didn’t impact my quality of life too much.

The process of leaving the city—known as the exodus in the Burner community—wasn’t that complicated either. By Sunday afternoon, all the members of my camp had broken the driving ban and fled. Some got stuck mere blocks away in their RVs, others got lucky and wrote breathless accounts of their escape. Since I’d decided to honor the driving ban, this made me a playa orphan, which meant I needed to find a new camp to wait out the last bit of rain. A neighboring camp called The Bandlands took me in and let me store my gear until the roads opened Monday afternoon. It only takes a few hours of sunshine for the playa to become drivable, so there were virtually no driving hazards once I hit the road Monday evening. The initial lines to exit the city were long—but also very orderly. I was lucky enough to exit from a section of the city that wasn’t too bogged down by stranded RVs, so once I made it to the main exit line, everything was pretty straightforward. In total, my exodus took roughly six hours. There were plenty of highlights along the way; folks in line were relaxed, chatty, and sharing both stories and food. A lot of the city’s anxieties had already fled with the panicked RVs the day before. We even got to see the Man burn in all his pyrotechnic glory from our place in line. All in all: 10/10, would happily burn again.

Jordan Hellman, two-time Burning Man attendee

We realized that things were going in a different direction after we sought refuge from the rain in a bar across the city from where we were staying. At first, it was fun and an adventure. After about five hours of rain, my partner and I had to make a plan because it was getting dark and the temperature was dropping. The original plan of getting drunk and waiting it out was not going to work. We decided to ditch our bikes and make the long trek to the other side of the city, across the playa, with me in socks and my boyfriend barefoot. Shoes were an absolutely no-go, as they collect the mud and make it impossible to move. It was pretty intimidating at first, but once we got out there, it was less daunting and we made the best of the experience. It took about an hour and a half.

The level of distress that people outside of Burning Man seem to think we were in was just not accurate. We would wake up and walk around in the mud with socks or plastic bags and find pancakes and bacon or a Bloody Mary and meet new friends who were willing to help if we had any needs. My partner is a mailman at Black Rock City, and we even delivered a little bit of mail through the storm. To attend an event like this in the first place, you have to have a certain level of self-reliance, and this only showed us what we were capable of dealing with. We weren’t stranded, more just stuck at Burning Man for longer than we wanted or expected to be. It could have been so much worse.

Shahzad Ahsan, four-time Burning Man attendee

We build this incredibly special city on Mother Earth’s terms. This [year had] the most pleasant weather until the playa became sticky modeling clay. My camp, Las Brujas (the Witches), immediately began a smart rationing system and rallied the camp to clearly lay out the situation and keep spirits up. We ensured the hundred of us would have enough food, water, and fuel to last until Thursday, even though we expected to leave by Tuesday. Anyone who had space in a dry tent gave space to those whose tents flooded. Everyone then pitched in to break down camp early and keep us able to leave as soon as we could.

Typically Saturday night is when we burn the Man. It’s a 70,000-person party. Instead, we all stayed in our camps and had 7,000 small parties. And honestly? I preferred it! We have a giant axolotl-shaped art car that breathes fire and a giant healing dome we filled with music. My friend Jake played Motown and R&B, my friends Amy and Andy played an acoustic set, and my friend Lydia did a dance on a stripper pole shaped like a toothbrush. I had made 30 silk caftans for my camp, and people danced in them joyfully. Our community got stronger. Burning Man is about individual and communal resilience and joy. I’ll be back again.

Alina Greenberg, three-time Burning Man attendee

When the campers started spreading news of possible rain and thunder, I immediately knew things were about to get somewhat messy and turn into a muddy apocalyptic experience. The rain eliminated the possibility of returning home two days early to see my four kids. It also eliminated the option of using my e-bike, cruising around the playa of Black Rock Desert, and exploring different camps and art cars, which are mutant vehicles that are often turned into a DJ stage.

I quickly devised a plan to save my Burning Man experience by converting my combat boots into Balenciaga-esque garbage-bag booties held together with neon duct tape; they were not only practical but fashionable. My new booties allowed me to venture out, explore the neighboring camps, and support my DJ friend Julya Karma at a record nine-hour set at the Tierra Bomba camp. The moment we all surrendered to the mud burn, we reminded ourselves to keep our heads up, avoiding the mess surrounding our feet. We continued to connect, dance, laugh, and fist pump the night away with what turned out to be an epic and unforgettable burn. Our camp had visitors stranded from neighboring camps for more than 12 hours; we offered them a warm meal and a comfortable couch to nap on as they refueled. I bonded with my fellow campers more, deepened my trust in myself and my community, and leaned into the magical unknowns that exist each year at Burning Man.

Jordan Huelskamp, six-time Burning Man attendee

I want to take a second to try to accurately describe the mud. The playa dust is silt from the bottom of an ancient lake bed, so when it gets wet, it basically turns into a sticky, mucky, cement paste. As soon as your foot (or bike wheel) touches wet playa, it sticks and stays there. So take a few steps, and all of a sudden you’re teetering on three-inch platform mud heels. I arrived with an early-access pass on Saturday to help put the final touches on our camp, and looking back I’m grateful for that extra day in the sunshine. At Burning Man, I try to surrender to the experience and embrace unpredictability and serendipity, and the muck didn’t stop that. I witnessed some of the most hilarious and compassionate acts happening while we were doused in rainfall: mud wrestling, all-night muck dance parties, X-rated mud sculptures, treacherous muddy walkabouts to check in on neighbors and pour each other drinks. I had planned on roasting s’mores over the embers of the Man Burn and brought a ton of supplies, but when the Man Burn was postponed, I ended up passing out s’mores to neighbors on Saturday night over a pit we set up in our camp.



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