Twelve years ago, in a spot buried somewhere in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock desert, a new airport appeared on official aviation charts. There was no building, no air traffic control tower or tarmacked runway, just a windsock flapping in the breeze.
Most of the time, anyone travelling across the dried-up lake bed would drive straight through airport 88NV without even knowing it was there. But for 13 days every August, the Black Rock City Municipal Airport “rises from the dust”, ushering thousands of wealthy festival-goers into the desert for an extended dose of pure hedonism.
Last year, over 2,000 private flights landed, carrying revellers bound for nine days of partying in a pop-up metropolis; this year, anyone who can cobble together the funds is desperately trying to charter a plane out of there. For two days, they were stuck in the mud with no route in or out.
Burning Man — known as a kind of dusty Davos, so thick is the festival with tech executives and billionaires these days — is currently under water. 70,000 people were stranded and thousands of cars stuck after flash floods turned the normally rock hard mud into sludge.
Police are investigating the death of one attendee, with organisers asking so-called “Burners” to shelter in place, only allowing emergency vehicles to enter the site.
When you get a particularly muddy year at Glastonbury, people simply pack up their tent and hotfoot it out of Somerset on the nearest coach. But when you’re in the middle of the desert and the ground has turned to quicksand, options are limited. A $60,000 private plane might suddenly sound appealing.
“We got so many calls last night,” says Fikrat Rafikov, founder of Jet Finder, a private jet company based in Dubai. They had been booked to land four flights at the festival this year, with clients ranging from Israeli businessmen to what Rafikov describes as “techie people”. By Saturday, they were inundated with calls from festival-goers willing to pay any price to hitch a lift out of the mud bath.
“We had around 50 requests last night to take people out,” says Rafikov. “They were willing to pay. Of course we would never say no to money, but there is no way we could land there at the moment.”
Money can buy an awful lot of things, it seems, apart from a functioning runway when that runway suddenly resembles wet cement. “We have to wait until it dries. This airport isn’t a regular airport. It’s created for the festival and then it’s demolished, there’s nothing left after. […] I think we need to wait for at least two days until everything dries out,” adds Rafikov.
It doesn’t matter how famous you are, then, or how many companies you have floated on the stock exchange. If you want to get out of Burning Man, you’re going to have to walk.
It worked for the American comedian Chris Rock and DJ Diplo. The pair trekked through six miles of mud looking for a passing motorist to take pity on them, which a fan eventually did, spotting them on a road on the outskirts of the festival site. “A fan offered Chris Rock and I a ride out of Burning Man in the back of a pickup,” the DJ told his Instagram followers. “I legit walked the side of the road for hours with my thumb out cuz I have a show in DC tonight and didn’t want to let y’all down.
“Also shout out to this guy for making the smart purchase of a truck not knowing it was for this exact moment.”
Others are staying put at the beleaguered festival, waiting for the sun to bake the wet mud of the ‘Playa’ and allow them to drive out. Mark Fromson, a photographer who is on his “fifth Burn”, got stuck a mile from his camp when the rains came down. “You just sink in, it’s kind of like quicksand,” he says, speaking on the phone from his RV.
“We were stranded in a camp for about three hours. They were very welcoming. They fed us and kept us comfortable and gave us warm clothes, which was great. But then we decided that we had to make a move before it got dark to try to get back to our camp so that we could sleep comfortably in our RV.
“We made the [journey], which is about a mile or so in the mud. We had to remove our shoes and socks and walk barefoot because that was the only way you could really make any progress.”
People have been getting the majority of their information from the festival radio station, says Fromson, where warnings to conserve food and water and stay dry are being disseminated across the site. Some have been making “the six mile hike”, but anyone with a car or motorhome has to wait as the road out remains unusable. “Any vehicle will get stuck and bikes just pick up mud. Your shoes get very, very heavy, they get caked with three or four inches of mud. But if you’re going barefoot or have plastic bags around your feet then you really are OK.”
Fromson, 54, and his partner Adriana were able to make it back to their RV after the rain; others were “not so lucky”. “[They] were stranded in different camps, or potentially just had a tent out here and maybe not the most appropriate clothing.
“Apparently the biggest threat to the festival-goers was hypothermia. That was what everybody was worried about, [the risk of hypothermia] if you’re wet and the temperatures drop in the evening.”
There is a certain irony about a desert festival mired in rain. More so when you consider that, at an event which claims to be all about living outside of civilisation, embracing counter culture and sticking two fingers up to capitalism (you can’t pay for anything on site with money, but can only barter and trade), your best hope of seeing out a few days in the swamp is a gas guzzling RV complete with a fridge-freezer and a nice warm bed.
“Burning Man is always meant to be a protest against consumerism,” says Andy Murray-Watson, founder of Brixton Gin, who went to the festival in 2011, flying to San Francisco, hiring a car and driving to the desert with a tent in the boot. Even then, he says, there were growing numbers of people taking a notably luxe approach to counter culture. “You were aware that there were people there doing it very differently.”
For some, Burning Man has never quite been able to square being both an alternative festival and an event with an enormous annual carbon footprint. Each Burning Man generates about 100,000 tonnes of carbon from the transportation to and from the site to the generators that keep air conditioners going during the festival.
“Today, in the midst of a climate emergency, there is a real cognitive disconnect for an event that purports to be about all those things but actually is doing no favours to the environment,” says Murray-Watson. “The fact that you’ve got 70,000 people up to their knees in mud in what is supposed to be a desert – it’s just the perfect symbolism for that disconnect really.”
It all points to the idea that Burning Man has an increasingly confused image in 2023. Founded on a beach in San Francisco in 1986, it was once just a small party organised by artist Larry Harvey, who co-founded the festival and built (and burned) the first Man. In the 37 years since, it has evolved from being a pop-up community of artists, pagans and freethinkers who build a desert city from scratch, party in it and then remove it without leaving a trace, into something else entirely.
Silicon Valley types now see Burning Man as a good networking opportunity; celebrities and influencers view it as the event of the summer — a chance to be seen and photographed at an exclusive desert rave and tag all the brands that sponsor you.
With the influx of Instagrammers, actors (Susan Sarandon is said to be a fan) and CEOs (Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have been spotted there over the years) came, as you might expect, the luxury packages. In the noughties, an exclusive section of the site known as Billionaire’s Row popped up, with air conditioned yurts, cleaning staff and private chefs on tap.
“My clients fly in,” Keven Lee, a Los Angeles-based private chef, told The New York Post in 2018. “They are the elite: celebrities, billionaires, sports stars, developers, you name it. They trust me to take care of them 24/7.”
2019 saw a crackdown on the luxury offerings (known as ‘turn-key camps’), which hardcore Burners felt had begun to threaten the founding principles of the festival — namely, “self- reliance”. Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell said she was “stunned” by the growing “commodification and exploitation of Black Rock City and Burning Man culture”.
“Whether it’s commercial photo shoots, product placements, or Instagram posts thanking ‘friends’ for a useful item, attendees including fashion models and social media ‘influencers’ are wearing and tagging brands in their Playa photos. This means they are using Black Rock City to increase their popularity, to appeal to customers and sell more stuff.”
These days, if you come across what looks to be a “turn-key camp” on site, you are “encouraged to rat them out”, says Fromson. “No one wants that here. But every year there are a few that sneak in and do it under the radar and you would never know they were doing that.”
The chances are the clientele may not own up to taking the luxe route either. “It’s embarrassing [to say] ‘I went and did the rich people thing there,’ “ says one former Burner, who was reluctant to give an account of how the one per cent do Burning Man. “Like yeah, I did the ‘plug-and-play’ camp. No thanks.”
The American journalist Emily Witt wrote about her experience of the festival in 2013: “No wonder people hate Burning Man, I thought, when I pictured it as a cynic might: rich people on vacation breaking rules that everyone else would be made to suffer for not obeying.”
For regulars like Fromson, from Vancouver, Burning Man is still “an experiment in self-reliance and creating a city that is formed around the ten principles that Burning Man espouses”. It might have a large carbon footprint, but “it’s the biggest Leave No Trace event in the world”. “Everybody is conscious to try to do the best they can to limit the impact on the environment out here.”
For others, it has lost its authenticity, becoming a kind of desert playground for the wealthy. This thesis knocking about the internet perhaps puts it best: “Burning Man answers the question ‘what if the most annoying roommate you ever had went out to the desert with other people’s most annoying roommate to have what they considered a good time?’.”
For the people who are sticking it out in the mud, though, this is all part of the adventure. “We are coping just fine,” says Lisa Iva, an artist living in LA, who is on her sixth Burning Man. “[We’re] using some bags around our feet or rubber boots. We expect to be able to leave Monday or Tuesday, depending on how fast the Playa [dries]. People are walking around, there are parties.”
“It’ll dry out within half a day in the direct sunshine,” says Fromson, cheerfully. “There’s no big worry here unless you have somewhere you need to be.”
If you’re in Silicon Valley this week, don’t be surprised if it seems like a ghost town. People might be working from home, or they might simply be stuck in the mud in the middle of the Nevada desert, waiting for the sun to come out.