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West Coast Swamp Stuck in Playa Mud at Burning Man

West Coast Swamp Stuck in Playa Mud at Burning Man

Lesson learned: when it comes to radical self-reliance, listen to the authorities.

It’s a curious fork in the road. Regular Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical of authorities making the right decisions when a natural disaster strikes. But when it rained a little at the Burning Man 2023 festival, technocrat elites—perversely—had their faith in competent government response reinforced.

In 2005, as hurricane Katrina was approaching New Orleans, the city’s government didn’t use its fleet of school buses to evacuate the low income residents, sheltering them at the Superdome arena. More than 1800 residents died, most of them in flooding. Lesson learned: be self-sufficient.

One hundred and fifteen people died and 66 are still missing in this year’s Maui fire when the local authorities instructed residents to stay put and blocked off the road. Lesson learned: the government doesn’t always have the correct response. I can add many other disasters, like Uvalde and East Palestine where the government fumbled its response.

What Katrina, Maui, Palestine, Uvalde have in common is not the geographic location or race of the victims but the fact that they were the middle class and the poor.

Contrast it to the Burning Man on which people spend thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars to attend: 16% of the 2022 guests came from the households with income above $300,000. Over 40% were earning between $100,000 and $300,000. One of the Burners reveling in this year’s crowd was the former Solicitor General of the United States Neal Katyal. As a creature of the DC swamp, he’s a bit of a geographic exception among the Burners, most whom are comprised of California tech elites. We are talking about post-Obama era establishment types in their low middle age, some of them quite prominent, traveling to the desert for the rave of their lifetime. If they still call them raves.

Ideologically, Burning Man free spirits are what one expects. The outdoor event, which was cancelled during the COVID closures, now has an internal “anti-racist” task force. This year, they burned a Ukrainian-themed effigy from which swastikas fell and then acrobats cartwheeled onto the stage to juggle the swastikas. Okay, I made up the part about the acrobats. And the swastikas. But that’s the general feel of this self-indulgent spectacle.

Naturally, some plebs and rightwingers had a schadenfreude moment when the West Coast swamp got stuck in the damp dirt. This is the rare monsoon year, so it drizzled some in the Nevada desert. Because even a small bit of rain on the floor of the dried out ancient lake where the event is staged creates sticky mud, the few miles leading to the state-maintained road became impossible to cross in regular road vehicles.

This kind of challenge is what brought Burners to the desert to begin with. The professional class in attendance has no need for organized religion, but still desire ritual in their lives. That’s where Burning Man comes handy—the Neo-pagan ceremony, originally held on a San Francisco beach on the summer solstice, was long ago moved to Labor Day. It roughly coincides with the new financial and school year, perfectly fitting the emotional cum spiritual needs of post-modern urbanites.

As with all rites, it’s held in a liminal space, away from ordinary day-to-day existence. Organizers scouted a space that is not only secluded but that can’t sustain life. Playa, or the soil in the Black Rock City amphitheater is so abiotic, attendees have to wash it off with vinegar, the household liquid often used to kill greenery and small insects.

The layering of ghastly symbolism is a part of the mythos of the drug-fueled week-long apocalypse-themed party. When the pagan ritual of death and rebirth wraps up, high society pilgrims return home and get messianic about art installations they’d seen and the atmosphere—impressed with the way fellow Burners spontaneously took care of each other and their “radical self-reliance.”

By “radical self-reliance” they mean planning food and shelter for ten days in advance and cooking in the communal kitchen. Then they resume their regular activities of writing algorithms and dreaming up fifteen-minute cities.

Of course there is nothing spontaneous or magical about festival attendees getting along. In the liminal space, where traditional hierarchies are collapsed, they live under the auspices of the masters of ceremony.

The business of organizing large outdoor events has come a long way since Woodstock when hippies broke into the fenced off area without bothering to pay, and tens of thousands miraculously avoided electrocution when it rained on improperly grounded equipment.

It takes a year of hard work of the San Francisco non-profit Burning Man Project to put together the “spontaneous” art party—not to mention the involvement of local and state government agencies. Burning Man is a successfully marketed product delivered not by spontaneity, art, and communal spirit, but by the foresight of small business and limited government.

This year, alarmed by the slight rainfall, local authorities announced a shelter in place order and closed the gates and the airport, trapping the 70,000 partiers in the desert. A number of frightened souls walked out on foot, abandoning their campers in the goop. Some others rushed to drive through the wet playa and got stuck. But that was just a few people and they likely came to regret their decision.

There were early reports of theft and “a little bit” of Lords of the Flies behavior. Portapotties were overflowing, and a forty-year-old man died from unrelated causes. All of it suggests that civilization is fragile and things can get out of hand even during a meticulously organized event.

Most of the attendees followed instructions and made sure not to splash in the playa mud. After a few days of media hype and close monitoring by government agencies on all levels, the ground dried off. The namesake ‘man’ was set ablaze as planned, and Burners went home on time.

Lesson learned: when it comes to radical self-reliance, listen to the authorities.

Unlike, for instance, the residents of East Palestine, they never experienced a true environmental emergency that was discounted by the feds. Burners lived through a mild annoyance in a rare weather event and feel they earned bragging rights: for the rest of their lives they will be telling the tales of the wet playa.

I am preemptively defensive about the future whining about the “global heating” that, in the Neo-pagan imagination, brought that calamity on the festival. They will, of course, request that the government “do something” about it.

But most of all, I fear that our technocratic elites, after spending a week playacting anarchy in a setting enabled by the capitalist system, will come out with the idea that the big government knows best. Then they will use their institutional power to enable the government to regulate our lives and to replace the elements of society that work.

[Featured image via YouTube]


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scooterjay | September 17, 2023 at 8:05 pm

You mean to tell me the Jeeps with rows of ducks on the dash couldn’t drive through sticky mud?
The horror!

jimincalif | September 17, 2023 at 9:40 pm

An excellent analysis of this pagan ritual, nailed it 100%. Thank you.

Couldn’t happen to a better bunch of losers

How can we lure more there?

CommoChief | September 17, 2023 at 10:25 pm

‘When it comes to radical self reliance listen to the authorities.’ Does that include Covid? How about the mostly peaceful BLM riots? Honestly I don’t understand this sentence when you provided examples of the abject failures of the ‘authorities’; the N.O. Mayor during Katrina being a prime one.

    henrybowman in reply to CommoChief. | September 18, 2023 at 12:24 am

    In my personal experience, I fear this is more the exception than the rule when reading material from this specific reporter. Her style is unlike any others’ here, and at least my own comprehension labors because of it.

Adventuring the “Black Rock Desert National Conservation Area and Wilderness” is a very rewarding experience, just plan the trip to avoid Burning Man. It’s a bucket list worthy destination.

Sunsets are phenomenal. Telescope observation is excellent; light pollution is nonexistent. Model rocket clubs rally there and launch large, sophisticated rockets. A friend built a black powder mountain cannon that fires golf balls and tests it there – probably not a legal thing to do.

The playa is a catchment basin, arroyo flash floods from the parallel mountain ranges drain directly into the playa. Thunderstorms are common; moist air over the Sierra-Cascade crest meet the very dry high plains air and then rain squalls roll across the region. It’s effect is beautiful, and makes for excellent photography.

The playa goes from lake, to slick, snotty mud, through to a sticky clay that grabs hold of everything.

The porta potty bill for this gigs is HUGE. I did this as a side biz and about half my income was over 5 weekends a year.

I spoke to one of the guys who services around Sturgis and that week or so is 80% of his year.

It is perilous- sometimes the events go bankrupt and run out on the bill. A Fyre Festival type event stiffed him for about a hundred grand once.

not_a_lawyer | September 18, 2023 at 3:47 am

As an avid camper, I feel I should chime in here. For full disclosure, I have been to Burning Man twice, both times over 15 years ago.

Burning Man is held on a dry lake bed in a hydrological basin, which means there is nowhere for the water to drain. It just evaporates, leaving all non-water molecules in the dirt. The dirt is not like the dirt in your typical back yard.

It is extremely fine ground; the dirt particles are probably 1/1000 the diameter of your typical dirt particles. Furthermore, there is a significant proportion of clay in it. It is also a chemical base, or alkaline, which is a skin and eye irritant.

When it gets wet, it is not like the mud in your back yard. If you walk five yards in muddy dry-lake bed you are pretty much done. There are five pounds of sticky mud on each shoe that is very difficult to remove, and you have no pressurized water to spray it off.

As to the notion that the Burners are jerks for leaving trash and abandoned vehicles on the playa, yes, that is unfortunate, but you have to understand the difficulties these people were going through. The people that left vehicles on the playa obviously determined that the cost of extricating them exceeded their value as personal transport.

While I understand that is not a valid excuse to leave trash around, I do not believe it to be a huge burden on the Burning Man administration; after everything dries out, a fleet of tow-trucks can drive up from Reno and take ownership of the abandoned vehicles. Many of them are campers and trucks with non-trivial resale value. It was probably like a gold mine to them.

As for trash removal, the Burning Man administration does that anyway, by force of law. If they failed to maintain a pristine environment in the Black Rock Desert, they would never be allowed to acquire the permits necessary to hold a subsequent event. The ‘non-profit’ organization is not some bunch of do-gooders. They stumbled upon a serious fount of money and are cashing in. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

The cost of getting a professional trash crew, complete with a few hundred full-size dumpsters, after the lake bed has dried out, is far lower than the sum total cost of the campers trying to drag out their trash bags when the playa is muddy and barely passable.

The Burning Man event should of course include trash dumpsters to allow participants to get rid of their trash. Typhus, dysentery, Cholera, diarrhea, can all come about in the absence of trash removal. I think this has been known since ancient times.

As a final paragraph, I will never go to a Burning Man event again. It is not because of the daunting physical environment nor the leftist hippie attitude there; it is because of the incessant loud music being played. 24 hours/day for ten days at volume 10 is too much for me. If you go, bring earmuffs.


    healthguyfsu in reply to not_a_lawyer. | September 18, 2023 at 12:32 pm

    Blaring loud music all day is definitely getting in touch with the earth and not bringing in technology or anything.

    The whole thing is stupid. Yes, there are niche benefits but they capitalize on stupidity and folly. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s not pretend like it’s a noble endeavor or anyone returning is worth listening to about their “transformative” drug-fueled experiences.

    By the way, it is my understanding that those abandoned vehicles can’t just be resold on the whim if the owners still have a title. So basically, they can wait for someone else to collect their vehicle then come back screaming about muh propertah any time their lazy ass wants.

      not_a_lawyer in reply to healthguyfsu. | September 18, 2023 at 9:03 pm

      Regarding abandoned vehicles. Burning Man is held in NV, I am in CA, so I do not know the laws specifically in NV.

      In CA, if a tow truck company tows your abandoned vehicle, you can show title and pay a fee to the tow-ers in excess of several thousand dollars. About 15 years ago, it was something like $60/day; it is probably something like $100/day now, with a minimum one-month of storage fees.

      If you do nothing, the towing company files with the DMV for ownership. The AG makes an effort to track you down to inform you of the pending transfer of title.

      At that point, you are looking at many thousands of dollars to reclaim your property. After some interval, the AG allows the DMV to transfer the title to the tow company.


scooterjay | September 18, 2023 at 5:50 am

Burning Man…so 1998.

No longer my cup of tea.

When is the John Galt festival at Wyatt’s Torch?

Lucifer Morningstar | September 18, 2023 at 9:03 am

>>Lesson learned: the government doesn’t always have the correct response.<<

Government never has the correct response. And it’s the citizens that suffer for it. Disgusting but true.

Madeleine Kearns over at National Review wrote a good piece on the Burning Man scene. Her article is entitled “Fools in the Desert: The False Gods of Burning Man.” Sept. 10, 2023. I recommend it.

Steven Brizel | September 18, 2023 at 2:32 pm

Burning Msn is paganism for the woke elite

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