Burning Man 2022: How Life Imitated Art

I have a new metaphor for the way Burning Man changes.

For the last 10-ish years, I’ve been a part of the team at BMIR that is on the air while the Man burns. I started out as a color commentator, and then gradually became the broadcast host as other members of the team departed. Eventually I was the only member of that original group left — everybody else had something better to do.

The last person on that broadcast crew, besides me, who’d been involved the whole time was my friend Polaris. I loved broadcasting with him: he’s sharp, funny, extremely talented on air, and we have a great rapport. But in 2019, he wasn’t there. He bowed out. I never found out why.

The show went on anyway — I brought in another friend, we had a great time, did a great show. But I missed my last touchpoint to the old crew, to the way things had been. When I saw Polaris on playa this year, I mentioned to him that I’d be hosting the Man Burn broadcast again, and said I hoped he’d come back.

Polaris’ son watching the Man Burn, 2022 (Photo by Polaris)

“I can’t do that anymore,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked. It was a question I should have asked him years ago, but here we were, seeing each other for the first time since.

“Because my son is now old enough that he can get something out of watching the Man Burn up close,” Polaris said, “and then we can go around together and look at all the art. That’s what I want to be doing now.”

And there it is. That’s change at Burning Man. And it’s sad for me that I don’t get to do something fun with my friend anymore, but he and his son get so much out of it. It’s different, but it’s not in any way a loss. Polaris didn’t lose the mission or sell out: he recognized that he is a different person now, in a different stage of life. He did the right thing.

Which brings me to Burning Man 2022, and the profound ways in which it was profoundly (the same as ever) different.

*   *   *

Everyone’s Burn is not just different, but different in deeply personal ways. The more potent our experiences of the desert city we co-create, the more unique and individual they become. But in my eyes, 2022 was the Burn that had many grizzled veteran Burners shaking their heads and wondering “Wait, what is this?” and then: “Can I still do this? At all?”

Even for an experience that is always profoundly individuated, this Burn was different.

It started with the physical environment, which if you weren’t there was every bit as brutal as you’ve heard. The heat made once-routine activities difficult or even impossible. Day-long whiteouts not only shut down the Gate and made travel virtually impossible in the city for long periods, but winds gusting up to 50mph devastated camps.

The combination of heat and dust meant that many of us could not Burn the way we were used to doing. This created an odd dichotomy between the new Burners and the veteran Burners. Time after time, I would observe new Burners with bright eyes exclaiming how amazing and magical this experience was, while the veteran Burners (myself included) kept struggling because we had an idea of how we were supposed to be doing this, and we couldn’t do that anymore. Our lived expectations confounded us.

Fire-lit sign in “The Art Park” by Olivia Steele, 2022 (Photo by Amber Skelley)

But it wasn’t just the external conditions: Burning Man is an intensely personal experience, which is why it tends to create so many existential crises. Life imitates art, and we bring all our art to this. Many veteran Burners were struggling not just because the conditions were different but because we are now different. After three years of plague and apocalypse, we are different people — often in ways we do not yet understand. And those differences changed everything about our Burning Man experience, turning something loved into something unfamiliar.

Something that we had to re-familiarize ourselves with if we were to move forward. And that’s always a weird, uncomfortable process.

We had to discover, under the most intense pressure, who we were here, now — in spite of our expectations. Which is a way of more deeply discovering: who have we become? How do we not know ourselves?

Stormy night out at The Man, 2022 (Photo by Jamen Percy)

For myself, this was a Burn where I had to learn to cut back — and learn that if I wouldn’t do it willingly, the desert would do it for me. I missed a wedding. I missed a memorial for a friend’s son, not because I didn’t want or intend to be there, but because I was trying to do everything and so collapsed too soon.

And yet, despite my attempt to do everything, this was also my quietest Burn. My least performative Burn. I’m used to starting wars and creating strange public experiences … but this time I didn’t. Yes, I had some magical art projects out there, but I barely showed them to anyone. Only if the moment seemed absolutely right did I ask, “Would you like to try an art experience?” And each time it was a powerful and lovely moment of connection, but I almost never did it.

I sang very little, too. I don’t know why. The magic out there was still real, compelling, and strong as ever. It was just a lot softer for me, in part because I was no longer shouting for attention. The magical moments came through, but many were so personal that I don’t want to talk about them — or I don’t even know how.

This was Burning Man as I’d never known it, and it was mostly the same but I was a stranger to myself.

Yet it happened. And many of us, near the end of two damn weeks out there in hell, felt the difference. We adjusted. We discovered how to Burn as the people we are now, and in so doing learned a great deal about who we now are. By the last weekend, many of us had been able to drop our expectations of ourselves and inhabit the people we actually were here in this magical environment, and that changed everything.

This was my hardest Burn, without question. It was also probably my worst Burn, from most conventional standards. But this strange, quiet, brutal Burn gave me many delights and a whole hell of a lot of powerful insights that I am profoundly grateful for. Indeed, for all that it was my “worst” Burn, it might also be the Burn that evokes the most gratitude in me. It’s a strange paradox, but that’s what we create out there.

I didn’t really know how to process that, and I still don’t, but I’m sitting with it. And of course I’m grateful. I spent two weeks in hell, and I’m nothing but grateful.

*   *   *

The 2019 Man Burn broadcast, hosted by myself and Hot Damn and our board operator Jex, was a cascade of frivolity. We laughed constantly, told jokes, made fun of ourselves and Black Rock City as we came closer to a moment of awe and splendor. It was exemplified by a conversation we had in which I said that the theme songs to my Burn that year had been Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the introduction to the Saturday morning kids’ show “The Gummy Bears.” I was challenged to sing the Gummy Bears theme song right there, live on the radio. So I did. And just as I came to the lilting chorus, the studio door slammed open and a complete stranger rushed in and sang it with me. Amazing.

The 2022 Man Burn broadcast had a completely different tone. I had to be on the board, because our board operator had tested positive for COVID on Friday evening and was isolating for the rest of the Burn. Hot Damn was still there, but instead of putting out a monument to frivolity, our tone was much more serious, more contemplative: think NPR as produced on the last day of the school year by an adjunct professor of Philosophy and a mathematician with a wicked sense of irony.

We laughed, but we asked a lot more serious question: what the hell just happened? Why was it so difficult? What had we been missing out by not having this for the past three years? Why did this still matter?

I hadn’t meant for the broadcast to be a more somber one, but it happened, I did it. It was completely different from any Man Burn broadcast we’d done before. Since then I’ve received a lot of messages from people who heard it saying yes — yes, that was the right tone. Yes, it needed to be different — not because we were trying to make it different but because it was different, and acknowledging that made everything better. Made it, paradoxically, more like itself.

Some things in life become less like themselves the more you hold on to them, and more like themselves when you let them grow.

If I go back again, I’ll have to do it differently. I can no longer camp in these hard conditions the way I used to. Beware: Black Rock City is less benign than it ever has been. But it is also full of grace, and I have been so lucky and so blessed. And that’s Burning Man.

Cover image of “Re:Emergence” by ArtBuilds, 2022 (Photo by Gurps Chawla)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

56 Comments on “Burning Man 2022: How Life Imitated Art

  • Marnee says:

    Wow Caveat, thank you. So much of this post resonates for me, especially~
    “It started with the physical environment, which if you weren’t there was every bit as brutal as you’ve heard. The heat made once-routine activities difficult or even impossible.”
    Many of the routine activities for me were visiting friends in camps, carrying out shenanigans, and seeing and interacting with art. Or really anything in the afternoons other than meetings. So many meetings…

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  • Kris Dreessen says:

    Thank you for this. I appreciate reading it.

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  • Dennis says:

    Thanks for sharing the no-so-sparkly parts Your worst Burn is still probably better than a week anywhere else… people can work on getting you a trailer maybe?

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  • Fancypants says:

    Thanks for this. Once again you find language for things I can only see through a lens, darkly.

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  • Eric Mar says:

    Thank you Benjamin! BMIR helped connect me to the playa during my 6 year hiatus until I returned this year for my longest and hardest burn. Luckily my campmates (AirPusher) helped sustain me during the most vicious storms and apocalyptic days. Like Polaris, my 2022 experience gave me a better acceptance of change & how the extreme conditions (and the ongoing pandemic) strained my aging body and mind. We had several Covid+ campmates at the burn, but are still caring for and watching out for each other, even after our art car was badly damaged in a storm and mangled on the way back to the Bay Area. I had a really hard time too, but it brought me much closer to the amazing, crazy, brilliant & fun-loving camp. ❤️BMIR/miss Lost Tom (La Porte) and so many others.

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  • Ty Eckley says:

    Well said primo. Truth peeks through your prose. The wheel turns and we are not yet dust. I think a 21 gun salute should go out to all the brave souls who hunger for more in life and brave the challenges of Black Rock City to find it. We are so lucky to feel these pains because our lives are now so much richer for those triumphs, failures, and crazy expense. I’m going to sleep now. Typing has exhausted me. Maybe next week I will be more recovered. Maybe next week the laundry will finally be finished too.

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  • Lux Aeterna says:

    The environment was harsh. Supposedly, it was 194 degrees, but it felt more like 115. So it was a very scaled-back burn; I focused on my volunteer shifts and seeing a few friends. I also had the pleasure of actually seeing Caveat himself at the commissary, which was like seeing a movie star for me! I don’t regret anything, but I do hope it’s a little cooler next year.

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  • Burner, Hot and Dusty-as-Hell says:

    Until I read your piece, I felt like I was the only person who was having the experiences you described. In almost every way it was different out there and very difficult. I too, had some deep and wonderful conversations that made up for (most) of the extraordinarily difficult conditions. I’m so grateful for those connected moments. Sadly, I’m not sure if I can or WANT to do this again. Besides my personal physical difficulties, I’m ashamed and heartbroken to see my contribution to the climate crisis by being in at least one of those “seen from space” lines of cars entering or leaving the playa. I don’t know the answer but we can’t continue doing it this way. I fervently hope someone will create a solution well before our 2030 carbon-neutral goal.

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  • Halcyon says:

    Damn. I am feeling you.

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  • The Hustler says:

    It was good running into you as always. I sensed you were in a different place. I figured you were processing a burden of some sort or possibly Black Rock City was doing it for you, or to you. Polaris seemed to be less jovial than normal, Munney was … well, Munney. Flip took the year off last minute. I know a few new people this year and they totally raged while the rest of us prepared for storms and heat.

    This was a tough burn indeed. I mourned the loss of my oldest friend instead of sharing Burning Man photos and stories, among other things. My usual staff work seemed to be not quite right like a tape copy of a tape copy (that metaphor does’t work as well in a digital world).

    Black Rock City was immediately familiar but also unfamiliar and new. It’s like I had to relearn everything but in a different language (I like to joke that “mein deutsch ist totaler Quatsch”).

    My wife joined me this year, which was fun. We also rented a van to get to BRC but also to use as an impromptu sleeping shelter. This was the first year I wasn’t in a tent and it was magical.

    At one point I got lost in deep playa in a dust storm that seemed to have a worse dust storm inside of it, some of the hardest and cruelest headwinds I think I ever rode through. In that beige, formless abyss I happened upon the Black Rock Train Station (or something like that) which was mind-blowing. I had an interesting albeit brief conversation in that reprieve from the dust before getting lost again on my way back to the city.

    I also burned differently than previous years. I wanted some redemption for 2019 and I found it a million times over this year. While that was a good feeling, it seemed like the whole event was over in about 12 minutes.

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  • geomom says:

    You put your finger on something I was feeling too. Are some of us really fading out? It hit me that I was so busy with the theme camp … again … that I didn’t see much art or visit many other camps … again. I understand how your buddy Polaris just wanted to experience the burn with his son as – gasp! – a spectator. Next year, I will restrict myself to a “Tea with Grandma” popup for an hour or two a day, and go see art and visit people at other camps. I was impressed this year by how much heart and soul our neighboring camps put into their themes and events, showing me that younger/newer folks are happy to take up the mantle with fresh ideas and energy. I do think 2022 showed that Burning Man is still vibrant and viable, and – still uses fire! Thanks to your lovely pink self for all the ideas and enthusiasm you spread – they are apparently contagious.

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  • Simply So says:

    thank you for translating my feeling about 2022 : it was definitely the hardest (and fucked up, and quiet) burn I’ve got to experience but I cannot say it was the worst .. whatever the burn took away the playa gave it back in some weird different way <3 I hope to see & read more of you

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  • Pia Harvey says:

    Well said! Larry would be extremely proud of your profound comments. As you said, it has changed since we frolicked on Bakers Beach in 1986 dancing around on a stick man buried in the sand trying to keep warm

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  • jim Foster says:

    In some ways I agree that this was a different kind of burn but for different reasons. First, I turned 81 there and old age continues to make its statement. My balance is shit so riding a bike over the moguls of compacted dust can be a challenge. I only made it to the playa once with three kindly ladies who had an art car golf cart. Naturally my damned iPhone was low on battery so my images there were few. For the most part my gut issue kept me near the portapotties. Don’t get old…

    That being said it was still a great experience despite those issues because I had a chance to meet and interact with a couple of hundred burners because we were offering free books to passers by. What an amazing group they were. Curious, intelligent, friendly and open minded not to mention in some cases stunningly beautiful. Conversations often diverted to topics that had nothing to do with books the heat and dust being prime topics. Despite that we had people looking and taking books during the worst of it.

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  • Matt says:

    This hit home, it was my second big burn but my 6th burn in total, so not exactly a vet but I felt the same or very similar experience and have been questioning myself since I got back. Thanks for this article :)

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  • Blake says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I read this once and immediately read it again out loud for my partner. We both loved it, and it perfectly captures the way I feel going through my own life right now.

    I’d love to hear the BMIR shows off-playa. Are there any recordings posted online?

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  • Yes says:

    My experience this year aligns in many ways with yours. An excellent Burn as it always is. But different and certainly more personal to myself and the interactions with others. Bubbled up things which need to be acknowledged in my own space. Tons of love was shared!

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  • Dan Millard says:

    What a deep, soulful thing you’ve shared! Never been there, but I know the feeling of the alien familiar in my own life.

    Well said. Well felt.

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  • Bubbles says:

    “Some things in life become less like themselves the more you hold on to them, and more like themselves when you let them grow.”

    I resonate with that so much this year. Thank you for your words, Caveat!

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  • Thomas ( the Bishop ) Andrejko says:

    My Burn was Great . Because I made the best out of every situation. It was the first Burn that I made alone , which had its challenges all by itself. I also made the journey with vision in only one eye, because I had undergone two surgeries this year to restore my vision. And I am still recovering from the latest one. That didn’t stop me from making the drive from Phoenix. On Tuesday I was overwhelmed by the heat. I replenished my body with water, electrolytes ,rest and positive mental attitude. Wednesday I was completely restored. I had a fantastic time even with the dust storms. I decided to just enjoy everything and I achieved nothing but a great time and experience. I was excited to hear earlier on that the oldest person at Burning Man was 90. That alone gave me encouragement and brightened up my spirit. My take away was , it’s up to you. Make it what you want it to be . Nothing is going to ruin day. There is a silver lining in everything, just look for it.

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  • Jed says:

    If this is “Climate Change Burning Man” then it will require different preparation. We were also flattened by the heat. Our camp was on the 2:00 side of the city around 3:45. The sun was barreling in all afternoon The ground temperature reached 125 degrees. It was nearly impossible to build our camp. We decided to work at night. Tear down on Sunday was even worse. We talked for hours after the burn about the heat and “if” we were to return to BRC, we had to scrap our entire camp and re-design everything for faster setup, lighter weight and include mister systems and fans. This was our 19th Burn and the most difficult of all. The Org should be considering moving the date of the burn later into the fall if this weather is permanent.

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  • Dennis says:

    Glad to have seen you. Thanks for you insights on the good and the horrible of BM this year, Maybe we can work on getting you more comfortable accommodations

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  • Joanna Priestley says:

    Holy moly Caveat! This is so poetic, beautiful and profound. It completely captures my experience of frustration, confusion, exhaustion, letting go and finding magic this year too. Thank you so much for this!

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  • Cason says:

    It was great. Thank you.

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  • MissConcept says:

    Your perspective is so comforting and whole. My mind needed a hug and a deep breath, and you jut gave it to me. Thank you!

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  • jake bunny says:

    I have a new metaphor also – it’s a vacuum cleaner.

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  • Tim says:

    Good article!! Am trying to find name of the art piece in that first picture that is untitled. Thanks!!

    There was evidence of folks attempting to ride their bikes through that one.

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  • Nancy Jo Pucci says:

    Beautifully written and lived

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  • Michael Marlin says:

    Great piece man from a “ foolosopher” to a philosopher—- mahalo nui loa

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  • Dennis says:

    Thanks for the story. It was a tough year for many for many reasons. Hope we can find a way to make it more comfortable next time.

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  • LadyBee says:

    “less benign than ever, but also full of grace” -beautifullly stated, my friend.

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  • Amy Sue Hayes says:

    Wow-I likewise found this Burn to be difficult-you mailed it in such an eloquent way!

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  • H D says:

    “If” you go back again??? Having doubts? Maybe a topic for a future essay?

    17 year veteran and 70 year old staffer here. Yes clearly the feel of the place changed far more than I could have imagined. The generational torch has been passed in our camp. A majority of camp members of my generation did not show. The leadership is in new younger hands. It was difficult at first , but as the two weeks went by I learned to appreciate the changes.

    I did sense that the event’s organizational gears were ever so slightly rusty. And yes, many fellow veterans agreed that this year was one of the hottest, with the most white out episodes in many years. Misery and discomfort? That’s Burning Man.

    All of that said, this old-timer is looking forward to next year.

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    • MV says:

      I had a very similar experience to yours… seeing the passing of the torch. It’s on me now to decide how to handle this, how to gracefully see the future in the door and let go of the things I’ve held up for so long now. Thank you for giving my feelings words.

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  • Cuddles says:

    Thank you Caveat Magister❤️

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  • Becky says:

    Absolutely beautiful, you had me tearing up. I would have sung the Gummy Bears with you had I been there! Interesting how the experience is changing so rapidly, I guess nothing will escape global warming in the end, but it makes it more of an endurance test to be proud you overcame in many ways. I hope you’re adjusting to life off playa.

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  • Dustin says:

    Well said. It’s called getting older. But this time it happened in a three year jump instead of a little bit each year. Did you not mention that on purpose? We don’t have the physical, mental, and emotional reserves we did 20 years ago – and that is going to affect how we burn. There will always be beautiful magical moments, of course, but us old curmudgeons have to come to terms with time. That’s ok. That’s life. Like you, I am questioning returning and wondering what radical shift in how I approach the desert is needed to fuel another burn. New camp? Art project? RV? More volunteering? Maybe I just need a break.

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  • Dr. Ra says:

    Spot on, at least for me. I’ve been dreaming now- things I did emerging from a dusty Lethe with almost-buried beauty.

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  • MO says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Thank you

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  • Shenanigans says:

    I’ve seen posts and complaints of a tough year and people upset with the heat and wind but I’m just happy we were all back in the playa after the last two years off. I’m happy it wasn’t raining like my first year 14 years ago, and was happy I wasn’t in line overnight like has happened many years in the last. It’a never going to be perfect but at least we were able to come back home.

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  • Kitten says:

    Thank You for your clarity. 2019 was my 7th and last Burn and there was something dramatically different about it. The harshness of the heat and weather that Burn, was in a way that I had no armor for. Combined with the weight of so many personal issues, it left me stunted. “Something” had changed out there, although you wouldn’t know it by the younger and new members of our Camp. The magic is always out there, I learned years before just how personal the Burn could be. In 2019 my entire focus that year, was to just wait for the heat to go, the night to come, then alone I would go out. The discomfort with myself, and the environment made me feel alone in Camp, but in best company when entirely alone out in the deep Playa. My friends went out this year. None of them seemed to experience what I did in ’19, or didn’t pay it any mind. Lo’ when they got back this year, the stories could have been mine from three years before. It’s different now out there, profoundly different both outside and inside.

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  • Nourah / Cuddly Bird Mama says:

    Thank you for this, it resonated so much! I couldn’t put into words what I was experiencing and this kinda helped me process. I know I love burning man, I recognise the magic on the Playa but this year was rough and left me feeling confused. Do I still fit it? Does this experience still give me the same thing? What the hell was that?

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  • King Richard says:

    Somebody mentioned a 2030 Carbon
    Neutral Goal‍. My first burn in 08 was
    about 40,000 burners. 2019 was
    70,000 & this year 80,000? So how
    much hypocritical carbon is generated
    by an 8 hour traffic Jam 8 lanes wide?
    Or a HUGE pyrotechnic Burning Man?
    Or Temple? I’m curious to see how this
    all plays out in future burns of
    100,000+burners, or more? If 2030 is
    the goal, ya better start rethinking the
    whole damn thing now. Or, maybe just
    say frik it & let the Fossil Fuels Burn

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  • PeaceLove says:

    Nailed it. This was my 9th burn, first in 5 years, and by far my most difficult burn physically, emotionally & spiritually. I feel like I had a “lost” week in Black Rock City. Didn’t see much art, seemed like I barely wandered, tough situations all around. I felt like a burnt out sparkle pony. Oh well, “You get the burn you need” and all that.

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  • Guy Showhawk says:

    Fuck. Yes.
    I’ve written about this burn in heartfelt paragraphs and got lovely feedback but personally felt I just was not expressing what I was trying to get out. And here you went and nailed it.
    Thank you. I can now share and say THIS, he got it AND put it into the right words.
    Thanks stranger.

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  • Training Wheels says:

    Beautifully written and resonates more than you’ll ever know

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  • Mama G says:

    Thank you so much for this!!
    I had soo many mixed feelings coming out of this burn, and part of was feeling guilty for not having the best burn after not going for 4 years.
    But you literally found the perfect way and words to describe it and clarifying many things for me.
    You have no idea how much clarity you just gave me….. thank you!
    And reading everyone’s comments too almost brought me tears, I’m not alone and it good to know that what I’m feeling is very normal and ok.
    Again, thank you!!

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  • Flowerbabe says:

    Reading this yes absolutely how I felt thank you for putting it into word’s, im obviously still processing it all such a different burn for me while parts we’re extremely hard there were times of pure joy out there,with a quieter observation of thing’s than previous burns

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  • Dr. Bungee says:

    On Friday of build week, I had a physical and mental breakdown. My (almost) 69 year old body could not take the exertion I tried to push it through. I started whining about not being able to do the things I’ve always done, and cried myself into a deep dark hole. My campmates, who are half my age, including my son and nephews, talked me off the ledge, and we got back to work. Later in the week, during our camp award ceromony, I received an award for best breakdown. My “medal” had a number for 1-800-HELP.
    I’m very grateful for my younger campmates, and after bitching for many years about wanting to pass the torch, have finally given the camp lead to them. They absolutly killed it with their “Brodega” installation. I look forward to future burns where they are in charge, and I can sit back and be the wise old man, offering direction and pointing at what needs to be done.

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  • pom says:

    so relatable. thank you for sharing this, smìomehow makes me feel better about my own burn and the things i (didn’t) do.

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  • CeLe says:

    I’m caregiving, couldn’t make it. Thanks SO much for persisting. BMIR kept me sane back here in Tucson (where it was actually cooler than the Playa on at least one day….).

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  • Galactic Cowboy says:

    Thank you for that perspective, the irony being a virgin burner I actually loved whatever happened – the heat, dust storms (I greeted in Wednesday’s morning storm), whatever. Having nothing to compare to, I found it all magical – even the challenging bits – and could accept that as part of the dynamic. I hope as I return and become more involved (less partaking and more contributing) that I can retain my naïvete. Maybe the first time (as for many things) is always the best, but I’m hoping that every burn will be wonderful, even with its challenges…

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  • Kurt says:

    You felt what you felt, and thank you as always for the communication skills. When one burns as many times as you have, it must be hard to avoid pondering why, how and what if. This was lucky 13 for me (only) and I feel so home there that I can’t imagine not going, despite being well into my 6th decade. As others said here, aging will be more noticeable when skipping years. For what it’s worth, I “train” in advance for the Playa (walking, biking, eating smart, etc.) to increase the chances of a great experience. Also no ETOH there for me, though I barely default drink anyways. Just sayin’. Train in June and July, double your h20 on playa, and hope you make it again. You rock and are appreciated.

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