By Maddalen Pasini and Jordan Gardner
There is Burning Man, and then there is the picture that the media paints of Burning Man.
A lot of people have put Burning Man in a box: a music festival; a tech bro convention; a celebrity runway show; and now this year, a muddy mess.
The best way we can put it is that Burning Man is a mirror. It is a different experience for each and every person who attends; it is whatever you decide to make it.
It started as a counterculture movement that is governed by its 10 principles: gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. These were tested more than ever this year when we were slammed with the unexpected “mud-pocalypse,” which has been well documented in the news and on social media—usually paired with an air of schadenfreude.
The biggest takeaway that we can both agree on is that the mud was ultimately an equalizer. No matter who you were, where you were staying, or what your setup was, you were stuck on the playa for a few days with some level of uncertainty—and you had to trek through the (literal and proverbial) muck to get anywhere.
The un-glamourous parts of Burning Man are definitely not something the general public is used to seeing on Instagram. While all the art, food, music, and gatherings were still going on, people were also proud to show the chaotic and dirty underbelly of what Burning Man is built on. This opened up a whole new perspective for people who have never been (which, unfortunately, many media outlets decided to turn into a negative story). The important thing to remember here is that there are always tough situations that need to be faced at Burning Man, whether it’s surviving a dust storm in the dark of the night, dealing with black water, or navigating strange washroom situations—they are just not advertised. Ultimately, Burning Man is about embracing the challenging moments just as much as the beautiful ones. The disconnection from reality, and the survivalism, are what really make it so special.
Burning Man is 70,000 peoples’ experiences, which are pieced together over a wide and unforgiving landscape. Here are ours.
To be frank, I never truly perceived a direct threat to my life during our time at the “Murn.”
I mean, yes: the heavens opened, drenching the playa, while most of us were only really prepared for the ubiquitous dust. However, what truly stood out was the remarkable response of the community. Amidst the downpour, everyone remained composed, exuding positivity, humor, and a willingness to assist one another.
Those who lost their tents sought refuge in the welcoming RVs of more fortunate individuals. We had a few refugees at my camp who became family as we shared provisions and camaraderie. I actually met more people during the muddy days than I did the rest of the week. It was quite possibly my favorite part of the burn, but it also wasn’t the whole experience—there was so much more to the week. I truly believe that the lack of control over the situation allowed people to really let go and be more present. Unexpectedly, the rain became a unifying force.
My friend Genevieve Medow-Jenkins, who created Secular Sabbath, has been going to Burning Man for a decade. She had this to say: “Ten years of Burning Man, and somehow, this has been a version of a favorite one yet. Magic is everywhere.”
It being my first time at Burning Man, I went in prepared for anything to happen and was met with many challenges—one of them, obviously, being the mud. When we woke up and a thick five-inch clay bath had replaced the playa floor, my reaction was not of panic—it was more just: here is another thing we have to overcome.
The Burning Man I had searched on Pinterest and Instagram for outfit inspiration was not at all the scenario I found myself in. We were told to ration our water and supplies, but we didn’t really need to; it was more of a precaution in case it continued to rain. That was the only fear-based thought I had: that we didn’t really have any idea when the rain would stop. The uncertainty travelled around our camp, and people began talking in line for dinner about plans of escape. I spoke to so many people I had never even seen before. We all rated each others’ garbage-bag-boot strategies (putting a garbage bag over your boot and then a sock over the bag was a pretty strong contender). There was so much going on all at once that when the mud came, we were actually able to breathe and take all of it in.
What baffled us was that the only story that seemed to come out of Burning Man was the mud. But there were so many other moments: struggles, hard lessons, beauty, magic, moments of pure joy and happiness, new friendships forged and old ones strengthened. The mud was just a part of the experience—it was not the whole experience.
When we returned home, we were met with a lot of resistance from people who had formed opinions about Burning Man based on articles they had read. But Burning Man taught us to drop any judgements, and to be open-minded to new experiences.
The reality of this Burning Man was a communion with the natural world that transcended human capabilities. The contagion here was positivity, and the best way to maintain it was by revelling in the rain. In those three days of confinement, there was no shortage of impromptu musical gatherings, food stands, mud sculptures, and displays of art. No concept or notion can ever serve as a genuine substitute for the richness of these firsthand encounters.
Maddalen Pasini is the Vancouver-based founder of YAWN: a psychedelic wellness and education movement devoted to the betterment of mental wellness and the evolution of consciousness. Jordan Gardner is a Kitsilano native and the founder of Staplstudio: a premium locally-made clothing label with a focus on machine-washable stretch silk.