Torrential rains turned this year’s Burning Man into a mucky mess, stranding 70,000 people in the remote Nevada desert. I called Jack Murphy, one of numerous Stockton residents stuck there.
Murphy, 69, was attending Burning Man for the first time. He, like everyone, had expected a scorching, dusty week of eye-popping art installations, cosplay and events on the white, bone-dry desert flats 80 miles northeast of Reno. Topped, of course, by the climactic burning of the colossal Man sculpture.
Instead, a freak storm dropped a year’s worth of rain.
“The roads are closed now,” Murphy said when we spoke on Sunday. “We couldn’t leave if we wanted to.”
It deluged for 36 hours. In and around Black Rock, Burning Man’s temporary city, the desert soil turned to mud the consistency of wet cement. Driving became impossible. Vehicles got stuck, blocking Black Rock’s roads. Trucks could not get in to drain porta-potties, which overflowed.
Murphy awoke to a tent full of water. Outside, huge clumps of sticky mud stuck to his boots. “I tried walking a few steps in it and it was pretty ridiculous,” he said. “Your feet weighed like 10 pounds.”
Organizers closed roads and gates. They forbade driving. Some who disobeyed got mired axle-deep out on the “playa,” burners’ name for the desert. Many events were canceled or postponed.
People were advised to hunker down, conserve food and water, and use five-gallon buckets for bathrooms. Also, to prepare to stay longer than planned.
It was a fiasco, but not dire. Many, if not all, Burning Man attendees brace for “radical self-reliance” when they off-road into the hostile desert for the 9-day event. By day it’s usually 100+ degrees. There’s no electrical grid, no running water, no stores or restaurants that accept money — you either bring it all yourself or barter for it there.
Or burners with communal spirit give it to you. “We’ve got a camp next door, they give advice,” Murphy said. “They also do free grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ve been eating a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches.”
Any good advice? “I didn’t ask for any.”
Murphy’s group brought a well-stocked freezer, a generator, and an RV with a bathroom. They got by. Though Murphy admitted, “I prepared for the heat. I didn’t prepare for the rain.”
As for walking, Black Rock media advised pedestrians to wrap their feet in large plastic bags. “Another thing the radio station recommended, put socks over your shoes, and that worked out pretty well.”
Despite the drenching, thousands of mud-covered people continued their revelry, Murphy said. “I tell you what, it did not stop the people from partying. The music was going all night.”
Others sat out the weather in tents or RVs. Not what they paid $575 for.
People who wanted out had to slog five miles through mud to County Road 34 and hitchhike. “If you do this make sure you have water and the strength …” organizers warned.
Murphy’s group brought construction materials and, before the rains, built Mother Prism’s Madhouse. Open to all, it featured monsters, scary clowns, and an electric chair with a man disguised as a dummy. He leaped up and scared people.
In patches of decent weather, Murphy took in art installations. These included a “butt-activated jellyfish,” a giant bison sculpture with a house in its torso, a “Bench of Bending Thoughts,” and the Black Rock City Supreme Court: “Anyone can take the gavel and adjudicate over any issue or idea that comes up in the moment.”
“Lots of naked men and women,” added Murphy, who enjoyed a Bluegrass concert, visited “the temple,” another edifice scheduled to burn, and saw a naked bike group.
Murphy wandered into a Reiki class where, “The guy had us start off by holding a piece of bacon in our hand, reflecting on the bacon for two minutes, then eating the bacon.” The instructor decried animal slaughter. “I felt so guilty eating that piece of bacon. I may think about reducing my meat consumption.”
Murphy hiked the playa, the vast, flat plain outside Black Rock, a place of metaphysical isolation and desert energy. There, meditation told him to let go of certain things in his past.
On Monday the sun came out. The ground began to harden. Organizers lifted the driving ban around 2 pm. An epic 10-lane “Exodus” of departing burners began.
“People are packing up and leaving,” Murphy said, when we spoke again on Monday. Traffic crawled toward a two-lane county road. Estimated wait time was eight hours. Departees passed many cars stuck in the mud, awaiting distant tow trucks. They may be waiting still.
Most, including Murphy, hung in there to see the rescheduled 9 p.m. burning of the Man. An atavistic spectacle preceded by 15 minutes of fireworks.
“It was awesome, man,” Murphy said.
He summed up his experience: “The rain sucked. The sun’s wonderful.”
Would he go again? “The jury’s out on that one. Right now, I’d have to say probably not.”
But that soul-searching on the playa, the letting go of old resentments, made it almost worthwhile.
“If I’ve released that and it doesn’t come back, that’s a win, regardless of the conditions.”
Columnist Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. His views do not represent those of Stocktonia management and staff. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: email@example.com.