Sock, bag, sock: That’s the unlikely mantra that got me through Burning Man 2023, when heavy rains stranded tens of thousands of us in the Nevada desert. This was my sixth time going to this not-quite music festival, not-quite outdoor art exposition, not-quite social experiment (it’s all of that and more). I help lead a “theme camp,” which means I organize a group of campers and we build a shared space that all Burners can enjoy.
I left for the desert onAug. 19, scrambling to get out of L.A. before Hurricane Hilary arrived. I met up with my other leads that night in Reno, about three hours southwest of Black Rock City, where Burning Man is held. When we arrived on playa on Aug. 23, the nights were crisp and the days were a good 15 degrees cooler than they were last year. The winds were mild, the dust almost nonexistent. The first few days of the festival were an absolute dream.
I’m grateful for all the connections I formed then, because they were about to be tested by a Burn experience unlike any we’ve had before.
The evening of Aug. 31, we’d heard rumors that some rain was expected. Rumors are about the only thing you have to go on once Burning Man is in full swing, because cellphone service is hard to find and impossible to maintain. To prepare for the weather on Friday, we secured our shade structures and reinforced our tents and tarps. Then we headed out to party.
Hours later I was wandering the open playa with a friend when a wall of dust rolled over the Santa Rosa mountain range heading right for us. We huddled under a “tree” made up of LED light boxes that created a shimmering rainbow and pulled on our masks and goggles — standard gear for Burners because of the normal desert dust.
After an hour or so, when it became clear enough to see The Man — the enormous art structure that serves as the center of Burning Man until he’s consumed in flame in the final days of the festival — we started walking back to camp. I was exhausted from days of building and partying and went to my tent and collapsed.
When I woke up hours later, I heard rain on the roof of my tent. The sides were being jostled as my co-lead secured another tarp on top. “Don’t come out,” she shouted. “People’s bikes are getting stuck. It’s hilarious. Just keep sleeping.” I did.
When I woke up again, the rain was coming down harder. I stepped out of my tent onto ground that had turned to mud that caked around my boots. Our camp had gotten a few vinyl “Cocktails!” banners for free from people who cleaned up after Coachella. Now, we used them to form a walkable path to our shared kitchen.
Outside our camp, abandoned bikes were stuck in packed mud. The festival’s ever-present neon lights reflected off scattered pools of dusty water, creating a surreal undersea feeling. We used a megaphone to offer food to Burners trudging through the rain to their camps.
The next day, Saturday, showers came off and on. Every sunken footprint created new walls of mud that pocked the festival’s desert “streets.” As one of the few people ultimately responsible for getting all our campers — and all our stuff — out in just a few days, I started feeling a crushing anxiety. So, in true Burning Man style, I had wine instead of coffee and joined my campers to heckle passers-by from our shared fire.
We also shared our ad-hoc survival discovery: sock, bag, sock. Sock on the foot to keep it warm, plastic bag over sock to keep it dry, and a sock pulled over the plastic bag to give you traction on the mud. Shoes bogged you down — socks let you skip over the mud. All credit to my campers, who developed the method together while I slept. Spreading the word far and wide was typical of the ingenuity and community found every year at Burning Man.
When the rain finally stopped that evening, it was clear that The Man wouldn’t burn as planned. So, as night fell, we found some still-dry plywood and crafted our own effigy to sacrifice.
On Sunday, I woke up to shouts and cheers. The roads were dry enough for sanitation crews to access and empty the portable toilets across the street from our camp. We were saved from using the trash-bag-lined bucket I’d placed in our camp’s shower. But the radios tuned to the Burning Man station warned us not to try driving out. Scared campers had tried and their cars were getting stuck. Like many Burners, we’d brought plenty of extra food, drinks and clothes, so we weren’t in a rush.
Finally, Monday morning, the sun came out and stayed. We had to spend an extra day at the Burn, and I’d had to collect myself through a few dark nights of the soul. But on Tuesday morning we shut the door of the U-Haul and drove off the playa, back to civilization and a thousand Burning Man jokes. I don’t mind. This year reminded me why I go in the first place — not to relax, but to be tested. And found.
Sarah Enni is an author and is a story editor and producer for the “Scamfluencers” podcast.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.