With half a foot of mud stuck to the bottom of my Wellies, a plastic, pink Dollar Store tablecloth tied around my head to keep rain out of my eyes, and a faux bear fur keeping me warm with the help of the tutu I’d been wearing all day and the Goodwill Gucci-ish joggers I put on to protect my legs from the wind, I walked through the neighborhoods of our fast-made city with my campmates turned friends who were dressed as a watermelon pickle, a cheetah penguin, and a sloth. We danced while we trudged along and slipped and slid and laughed while the rain came down, making it impossible for us to escape this city. Good thing our minds weren’t on leaving, but on continuing the adventure we came to Black Rock City with Camp Morning Wood to have. Until the first rainfall, we were experiencing the burn we wanted. The rain ushered in the burn we needed.
As I grew taller and my fur grew heavier, I thought about this year’s theme — Animalia. As a man who stores quotes, I remembered Fakeer Ishavardas’, “I’ve known humans, and I know beasts. The beast is better. It is unpretentious.” I remembered Carl Sagan’s “Like it or not, we humans are bound up with our fellows, and with the other plants and animals all over the world. Our lives are intertwined.” I thought about the group of animals calamity turned into cousins on the Playa, and I smiled because looking at them — at the at buck naked man holding his bicycle high as we herded down untouched road, at the zebra-striped barefoot woman fetching her leopard print boots from Nanna’s Kitchen to the deserted dance floor at Glam Cocks — I knew they were a good flock to be stuck with.
We are burners, as if our outfits and dusty knees didn’t give it away, and we understood that despite the many challenges the rain and mud would bring — weather conditions no tarot deck or oracle on the Playa predicted — all events moving forward would remain as incredible and memorable as they possibly could if we relied on 3 of Burning Man’s 10 principles: Radical Self-reliance, Communal Effort, and Gifting.
Burning Man, with all its colors, dust storms that make smoke machines jealous, costumes, bright lights, fire dancers, orgy domes, art cars pumping out lyric-less music, and sleeplessness, looks like a fantastic dreamland from the outside because on the inside, that’s exactly what it is, but even in some dreams, we must show up prepared. Radical Self-reliance as a principle requires attendees, or at least attempts to, to show up entirely self-sufficient. Burners who read, new burners who talk to old burners, and old burners whose memories haven’t faded with their brain cells know to show up with everything they need to survive and thrive, from medicine to food and fruit snacks and apple sauce and water to shelter and essential supplies like wipes for removing dust and grocery store bags just in case the porta potties are just a bit too far. We show up for what we hope is an entirely perfect experience, but we come prepared for the imperfect. Radical Self-reliance is necessary. Self-sufficiency fosters a deep sense of empowerment and resourcefulness, making every challenge, including the 112-degree weather of 2022, the whiteouts, the storms, and the ankle-deep mud a part of the adventure. These challenges, instead of dampening my spirit, became opportunities for me to demonstrate my self-reliance, further intensifying the sense of euphoria I left home for again this year.
Radical Self-reliance is crucial, but it does not mean isolation. Communal Effort is pivotal to the experience. There is a magic that happens when Burners and our communal synergy redesigns the desert into the vibrant and dynamic city we cruise through with not enough eyes. We become a community. We are fed, given water, hugged, loved on, applauded, helped up after falling from our bikes, and walked home when needed. We become what I tell everyone who asks why I love Burning Man — the near-perfect society we all deserve. A society that spreads a kindness many of us have only seen in that dust. We become a society that collaborates not only on building phantasmagorical art, but in the lifting of the artists who brought the pieces to us. In the face of adversity, this community bonds even stronger, helping one another navigate not only the challenges we share, but also individual challenges. When the road to the gate and toward the exit closed, we instantly found a common challenge, but as the seconds passed, individual challenges appeared. Parents needed to reach their children and their babysitters, dog walkers needed to be called, medications needed to be secured, warmer living spaces needed to be found and built, grief counselors became essential, and closer, cleaner toilets were needed. I watched Burners express these needs and I watched as Burners came together to help each other, most of us complete strangers to one another. Anxieties and fears eased, some slowly, some immediately, and the shared experiences of conquering them along with the unpredictable elements created a collective oasis that added to the joy, creating unforgettable memories.
It wasn’t all joyous. The music wasn’t always playing. We stood still for a while, holding the hands of those who needed physical touch. Those were moments of deep grief and pain and regret. Those were moments we stretched the written principle to fit around the community that welcomed us upon arrival, the community we built, and the folks we welcomed and embraced. We protected the social network.
A Burner’s love language is gift giving. This year, my watermelon pickle friend, Jasmine, gave me a new Playa name after I pulled out what may have been my 72nd cup of apple sauce to offer up to anyone who was hungry. Captain Linus Hook, in a spectacular bar speech at Camp Morning Wood in 2022 named me Ground, but I will now also answer to Motts. Burners give the best gifts, knowing gifting adds to the culture of generosity and reciprocity. I was gifted a beautiful bracelet with a stingray made from buffalo bone after telling an Australian couple how much I love water creatures. I gave a hug to a man in the Temple. He was there to honor his son who recently died. These are gifts, and in the face of the challenging weather we refused to let spoil our good time, this principle took on added significance. Unexpected acts of kindness, whether it was sharing shelter, food, warm clothing, plastic bags, or socks became more prevalent. The joy of giving and receiving amidst adversity not only reinforced the sense of community and connection, but it gave me the energy I needed to play and laugh in the mud.
On the corner of 7:45 and E, just an 45 minutes after the rain started, I stood at Spanky’s camp, staring down at my phone, full of gratitude for the people at the camp who allowed us all to use their Wi-Fi to make necessary arrangements with folks in the default world, also letting those folks know we weren’t as bad off as the news reporters needed us to be for the clicks they wanted. The texts came in from family and friends on the outside, far more afraid than any of us were on the inside. “Are you okay? Afraid? Don’t die out there,” one text read. Another said “see, that’s what I don’t go to shit like that,” and I laughed at them both, knowing my adventure still had miles and days and people and camps to go before it was over. I couldn’t write everyone back immediately, but the most intense friends needed to know that Burning Man’s transformative atmosphere persisted even in the face of mud, rain, and what some might call catastrophic weather.
Radical Self-reliance, Communal Effort, and Gifting served as the bedrock of my enduring euphoria and I know they do the same for many of my fellow Burners turned cousins. While the reports continued coming, while the rumors of Ebola made their rounds, and while the influencers quickly packed their beautiful bags and the cute dogs they snuck in and wondered why no one warned them these kinds of things could happen to them only to be stuck in the mud moments later in front of a closed gate in what they thought was a 4WD vehicle, us Burners embraced the challenges, forged deeper connections, and did everything we could to maintain the integrity of Burning Man despite the adversities of dear old Mother Nature. It was fun, it was hard, it was dirty, some cried, it was beautiful, and the good people did what good people do. It was Burning Man.
I am no longer jealous of those folks who stood on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in 1969 for Sly and the Family Stone, Ravi Shankar, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the others. I’m already reading stories written about this year’s Burners wrapped in blankets with lovers and strangers, watching propane and the Chapel of Babel burn while Symphony №11 in D Major, Andante played close enough, making the moment even bigger.
The sun came out and we howled and I remembered Walt Whitman. “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable. I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”