Nearly 75,000 attendees at this year’s Burning Man event were trapped in a major storm in the Nevada desert. With severe flooding, organizers were forced to restrict all traffic in and out of the event, and attendees were urged to shelter in place and conserve food, water, and other supplies.
Celebrities, DJs, and high-profile tech execs were all seen leaving the event on foot. Actor Chris Rock and DJ Diplo were picked up by fans who had a truck after hiking out nearly five miles, according to the DJ’s Twitter post.. Others left stranded were wearing plastic bags on their feet to walk through the thick, heavy mud as they rationed their supplies.
Once a year before Labor Day weekend, deep in the hot, windy desert on the edge of Nevada is Black Rock City, a barren place that exists for only nine days. The annual event known as Burning Man has more than 30 years of history. The dust-filled art festival and communal living experience is filled with incredible installations, fantastical events, and creative individuals known as “burners.
I spoke with longtime Burning Man photographer Scott London, who was on the ground throughout it all, for his take on what really happened. Outrageous rumors grew from an Ebola outbreak to cannibalism and anarchy, but London has the insider’s view on the resilience and celebration throughout it all. Chalk it up as another memorable experience on the Playa.
“We had prepared for bad weather. The Black Rock Desert is one of North America’s most inhospitable environments, subject to extreme temperatures, fierce winds, and choking dust storms. In 2022, we experienced our fair share of all three, and we knew this might be another hot and miserable year. But few of us expected rain, least of all rain that would continue on and off for days. In my 20 years of attending Burning Man, I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
“The event began with several days of gorgeous weather. Crowds gathered around massive art installations, converged in the deep Playa for sunrise dance parties, hung out at theme camps for lectures, yoga, improv, and live jazz, and rode around on outrageous mutant vehicles in the shape of metal dragons, honeybees, and fire- shooting octopuses. The “burn” was off to a beautiful start.”
“On Thursday, the winds kicked up, and the temperatures dropped. Dust swept across the playa, enveloping artworks like the Temple of the Heart — a magnificent installation by artist Ela Madej and architect Reed Finlay. Burners broke out the faux fur and dust masks but took it all in stride.”
“On Friday, the rain came. And it didn’t stop. Some of us remember a brief rainstorm in 2007 that ended with a radiant double rainbow. There was a brief downpour at the start of Burning Man 2014 that forced the organizers to close the gates temporarily. But these were brief downpours; in both cases, the playa quickly dried up when the skies cleared. This was something else. The rain came down in sheets, quickly turning the lakebed into a slippery soup. Vehicles got stuck, bikes seized up, and the mud sucked the boots right off people’s feet as they scrambled to get around on foot. The makeshift road in and out of the event was littered with stranded vehicles full of burners trying to get out. The news media seized on the story of 70,000 people marooned in the desert, but most of the accounts were pure sensationalism.”
“It’s true that the rains were unprecedented and that the mud created some major logistical challenges, especially for those with medical conditions, flights to catch, or jobs to get home to. But the accounts that we were stranded without food and supplies — or worse, that Ebola or e. coli was somehow spreading through the encampment were, if not ridiculous, wildly exaggerated.”
“One of Burning Man’s ‘10 principles’ is something we call ‘radical self-reliance.’ We come to Burning Man knowing that the conditions in the desert are often harsh and unpredictable, and we prepare accordingly. Two other principles are ‘communal effort’ and ‘civic responsibility.’ We band together and know how to take care of each other. Spirits were high, and small acts of kindness, caring, and generosity were evident everywhere I turned. Most of us seemed to take the rain for what it was: an inconvenience.”
“We hung out at camp, gathering in RVs and huddling under shade structures and awnings. We trudged out across the wet playa to admire the art installations or spend time at the temple. We gathered at sound camps and danced in the mud. And we shared laughs over the sensational headlines in the news. Some events were canceled or postponed, including the burning of the Man, but the party went on.”
As for when attendees will be able to leave, organizers said they were monitoring road conditions. The main exodus could begin as early as Monday afternoon which would result in a massive backlog of traffic trying to get out. Many attendees will likely elect to stay to watch the delayed Man burn on Monday night as well as the Chapel of Babel fire on Tuesday night.
For a look at the less muddy side of the event, make sure to check out Scott London’s beautiful Burning Man: Art on Fire, which is a collection of the best of Burning Man art and photography featuring amazing stories and interviews from “the world’s greatest celebration of artistic expression.” The book is a collaboration with writer Jennifer Raiser and includes a foreword by Burning Man’s CEO Marian Goodell, a preface by writer Will Chase and an afterword by artist Leo Villareal. It features over 250 brilliant photographs spanning nearly two decades.
The newly updated version offers text that has been comprehensively revised and more than half of the book’s photographs are new. It also includes a new epilogue about the growing importance of Burning Man art beyond the annual event in the Black Rock Desert, including major museum exhibits, public art in towns and cities, and now more than 100 regional Burning Man events worldwide.