Here's What Really Happened at Burning Man 2023 | Miami New Times


This Year's Burning Man Was Not the National Disaster Everyone Made It Out to Be

Social media wanted to hear that we were starving and turning on each other at Burning Man — but in reality it was a celebration of humanity and kinship.
Burning Man wasn't the chaotic mess people and the media made it out to be.
Burning Man wasn't the chaotic mess people and the media made it out to be. Photo by Kat Bein
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"If you all died...the world would not end."

That's a comment by TikTok user Lyt Kevin on a video I posted on Sunday, September 3, checking in from Burning Man 2023. I was standing on the playa — a seven-square-mile stretch of dried-up ancient lake bed whose usually dusty surface had been transformed into a giant mud pit — showcasing the overcast sky and noting the light rain that threatened to postpone the nominal burning of the man by one more day.

Kevin's not wrong.

If all 73,000 of us had died in Black Rock City, Nevada, global commerce would continue. Most Americans would still have to go to work come Monday, and seemingly, most would have had a nice piece of throwaway conversation to cling to. "Hey, did you hear all those shitty influencers, rich assholes, and smelly hippies died at Burning Man this year? That's what they get for heading into the middle of nowhere and pretending to be homeless for a week. Hahaha, losers. The worst of humanity! I'm glad they're all dead."

One of the biggest takeaways from my first trip to Burning Man was that the outside world wanted us to suffer. Strangers wanted to hear that we were starving, turning on each other, shitting all over the playa, and destroying the land on which we'd chosen to senselessly party. The world wanted us to have Ebola, to be struck down by some vengeful Old Testament-style God for getting naked and having sex with Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg in the notorious Orgy Dome.

Basically, they wanted to confirm that they were better than the attendees for not being at Burning Man.
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Despite what this sign says, there was plenty of water in Black Rock City.
Photo by Kat Bein
In truth? The scene at Burning Man 2023 was more like the ending to How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Sure, the streets of the city had turned to a sticky goo no e-bike could traverse. Power had been shut down throughout my camp to ensure no one else got electrocuted. Men started peeing in bottles while folks of all genders relied on self-tended poop buckets. Half the art on the playa was no longer glowing, Diplo and Chris Rock had fled the scene, and word on the street was we might not be able to leave until as early as Tuesday or as late as Thursday.

And yet, after a couple of diligent hours spent taking stock and planning plans, all the Whos of Whoville crept out from soggy tents and stood hand in hand. We all sang a song that didn't sound sad. Why, in fact, the sound that sounded even sounded glad.

Because maybe Burning Man isn't privileged libtards galore. Maybe Burning Man means a little bit more?

Look. I'll be honest. I went into Burning Man skeptical as hell.

"It's funny because one of the 10 Principles is decommodification," I told a friend as I triple-checked the fourth Burning Man packing list someone shared. "There's no use for money on the playa. Like, the bars just give you drinks, and you can shop for clothes and take whatever you want from the pop-up boutiques, but that's only because we front-loaded all our costs with thousands of dollars to play a pretend game of 'we don't need money' for a week."

As a veteran raver who's spent 15 years covering the music industry, I don't trust a whole lot of PLUR (peace, love, unity, and respect) messaging. Altruism is more often than not a marketing ploy that breaks down faster than a security fence at Electric Zoo 2023 (oooh, got 'em!), and I fully expected Burners to be a group of folks that preach a lofty game of "radical inclusion" and "civic responsibility" mainly as a means to do a bunch of drugs in the dessert and have a good time.
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The rain and mud brought out the best of Burning Man attendees.
Photo by Kat Bein
In that way, the rainstorm that officially turned this year's Burning Man into a national disaster was the best thing that could have happened for my Burn because it gave the citizens of Black Rock City a chance to prove me wrong.

During my seven-day stay, I saw a beautiful celebration of humanity, mortality, kinship, selflessness, hedonism, art, and vision. I came to the playa expecting the same old song and dance, but I left with a fire in my heart to tell the world that, no, it's not a bunch of rich assholes playing homeless, and yes, it is actually that much fun, mud and all.

"People made the best out of it, and that's what a lot of the media doesn't understand," says Bill Le, a Miami DJ who performs under the name Galactic Effect. "Everyone wants to be that person on Twitter that does the 140-character hot take on why Burning Man is destroying the environment while Elon Musk is having orgies and fascism," he continues. "It really is none of that. It's a city, and as in any city, some people are rich, and some people are poor."

This year marked Le's sixth trip to Burning Man, and he posted on Instagram that it might be his favorite.

"What I really liked was the camaraderie," he says. "People were teaching each other how to adapt to the mud. Friday was tough, but Saturday was awesome. It kind of filtered the — it sounds pretentious, like 'real Burners' versus 'fake Burners,' but a lot of the Burners were embracing the chaos of it. That, to me, is what made it more Burning Man than anything. People tried to twist it in the media like it was Fyre Fest, but it's the opposite. We had a ball, everyone shared, and everyone helped each other's car get out. We had enough food for at least a month between the entire playa. It was an overabundance."

Le's not exaggerating. When my camp (shout out Frothville! Let's Name It Next Year!) came together in a huddle to chat worst-case scenarios and action strategies, a quick inventory of everyone's stores showed more food and water than would ever be needed.
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"Burning Man is a way of life. It's a place where like-minded people come together and live through the principles in a community that we built," says Karla Croqueta.
Photo by Karla Croqueta
Some folks' tents were flooded beyond repair, and my RV took in three ladies who would have otherwise slept in their car. We held a quick dry-clothing drive for anyone in need, created a "struggle bus" bulletin board in the community kitchen where everyone could list what they needed or had extras of, and by the time the sun went down, everyone was back to snorting K on a makeshift dance floor.

"First of all, we go to the middle of the desert prepared to die, literally." That from Miami drag staple Karla Croqueta, who also came to Burning Man 2023 a virgin. "We were laughing on day three of the rain because one of our campmates got a little bit of service and was like, 'Oh my God, look at this on CNN!'"

Even after ten years of hearing her best friend and Gender Blender event cofounder Carlos talk about Burning Man, Croqueta was floored by the joyous parade that the real thing brought into her life.

She camped with In Dust We Trust, a group with 21 years of playa experience that included toddlers, 70-year-olds, and everything in between. The camp participates in the Radical Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (R.I.D.E.) program, which works to ensure a more diverse group of people get to experience Burning Man (the 2022 Black Rock City census showed 80.5 percent of the citizens identified as white), and many of the campers pooled funds to help less privileged folk get to Black Rock this year.

The established camps at Burning Man all come with a theme. Once on the playa, In Dust We Trust offered snow cones and a lingerie boutique to anyone who passed by.

"The idea is 'cool off and feel hot,'" Croqueta says. "When I first joined, I thought it was kind of stupid, like, Oh, this was some way for creepy old men to watch women get into lingerie, but it really was a whole body-positive movement. People would come up to me and be like, 'I've never felt sexy in my life. I want to wear lingerie for my partner, but I don't feel comfortable,' and here comes me, this fucking fat, queer, hairy individual fully being me, even out in the default world. I'm just encouraging people to live their authentic lives, and I can't tell you how many times I cried in the one eight-hour shift that I worked at the boutique."
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Karla Croqueta camped with In Dust We Trust, a group with 21 years of playa experience.
Photo by Karla Croqueta
When the rains hit, Croqueta's entire camp mobilized to dry her tent and belongings before she'd even asked. They worked with their neighbors to cook delicious meals, then took that food on bicycles to everyone nearby who might be in need. They created a movie theater with someone's portable projector and screened Edward Scissorhands under their shaded structure, and everything was ultimately okay.

"Burners aren't as douchey as people like to make it seem, even though we can't shut the fuck up about Burning Man all year, and maybe that's people think that," Le says, "but it's because life is fucking shitty, and we want to convince everyone that you gotta experience it. No matter how much you research or pry into it, you're not going to understand until you smell that desert dust that gets in your eye and meet strangers. I think everyone needs to experience it probably once — or twice. I would say twice."

"Burning Man is a way of life," Croqueta says. "It's a place where like-minded people come together and live through the principles in a community we built.There is so much hate toward that community for no reason. It's the same way people don't like queer people, the same way there's Islamophobia. All of this shit exists because of a lack of information. You don't like Burning Man because you don't know what Burning Man is about. If you knew what it was about, you might be a little bit more inclined to go or just respected for what it is."

Burning Man is a sort of cultural black box. Whatever you think you've heard about it is hearsay, and thanks to the culture of trolling within the community, some of the stuff you've heard from actual Burners might be there just to freak you out.

You can't truly understand Burning Man unless you've biked through a sandstorm on four hours of sleep or shared in the exhausted euphoria that comes from watching a 75-foot effigy explode alongside 73,000 of your closest strangers, the only people in the world who know what it's like to smile and struggle in alkaline mud, dancing from day to night into day again until all sense of time becomes meaningless, and you finally understand that life is not beautiful despite its finality but because of it; that its beauty blossoms brightest when you share simple truths with other living creatures and make something greater than the sum of its parts, then watch it burn.

Eh, fuck it. Who am I kidding? Burning Man sucks. It's over. Don't come.
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