The annual weeklong Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada was hit hard this year with heavy rain and mud, forcing some festival-goers to pivot. But the rains didn't dampen everyone's enjoyment of the event. The 35th Burning Man, scheduled from Aug. 27 to Sept. 4, hosted an estimated 73,000 people to celebrate community art, counterculture and free expression.

GBH host Henry Santoro interviewed a Brookline couple who were at this year's festival. The interview below is slightly edited for clarity.

Henry Santoro: You didn't head right to the playa. You stayed in Las Vegas for a couple or three extra days. Why?

Eve Harris: We got a little bit delayed getting from Las Vegas to Reno, because of the original hurricane that came by a couple of weeks ago. The reason that we were out there so long is that we go out at the opening of the gate, because our camp builds art. And so, we were going to be on playa five or six days before the actual gate opened to the public, because we were part of a camp that builds an art piece on the playa. Does that make sense?

Santoro: Yes it does. Everything that you brought in was like in a big U-Haul box truck, is that right?

Harris: Yes. And that's typically what everyone [does] who is camping, because there is always a camp lead that has to bring in their facilities. In our case, we were bringing in art, we were bringing food, we're bringing in alcohol. That's why we have the big art, the big box truck. Other camps bring it because they don't have a place to store their shade structures or their kitchen supplies or things of that sort. So that's why they bring in the big box trucks.

Santoro: You and your husband are veteran Burning Man people. Have you ever seen anything like what you saw at this event?

Harris: No. I understand the last time it rained was 2014 and it lasted for about 8 hours and closed the gate. And that was it. And this is really, from what I've been told, kind of unprecedented in terms of the amount of rainfall that just continued for days. And this was my fourth time at Burning Man in Black Rock City. And my husband’s seventh.

A woman models garbage bag pants as she stands in the rain-soaked and muddy playa at Burning Man with chairs and tents behind her.
Courtesy of Eve Harris

Santoro: The wet playa looks like wet concrete.

Harris: It does. What happens is it's a dry lakebed and it floods in the winter. So everybody has seen pictures of it at some point with rain on it, or water on it. When the water hits the dust, it turns to cement. And so there was a panic moment for a couple of hours where people were like, "OK, we can't move." And if you walk, it'll stick to your shoes. If you drive because you are part of an art car, your car will get stuck. If you try to get out, you're going to get stuck.

And the other panic was, do we have what we need to survive in the desert? Because we didn't know how long this is going to last. But there are ten principles of Burning Man, and one of those is radical self-reliance. So, our camp and many others have the amount of food they needed. They had the amount of water they needed. And we just need to figure out how to get around camp, so we could all survive.

We keep seeing all these sensationalized news reports: "Oh, they're stuck." Yes, I think there were 73,000 or 80,000 people in the desert. But I would guess that 90% of everybody had enough food and water to survive a couple of days.

Santoro: And the beauty of Burning Man is that everybody is of pretty much the same mentality. So, you're all there ready and willing to take care of each other, whoever needs it, right?

Six photos showing Burning Man attendees humorously modeling trash bags on their feet and legs to protect from the mud.
Festival-goers show off their plastic bag fashions to deal with the mud.
Courtesy of Eve Harris

Harris: That's exactly it. What we found is that rather than having this be an apocalyptic experience, it just built the community even stronger. People were saying, "If you need water, we have extra water." And we figured out how to set up toilets if the porta potties were overflowing [but] we didn't find that to be the case.

So, everybody kind of did their own thing and built a community as you needed to, to help anybody else out. But honestly, no one came to us for water. No one came to us for food. We got there on the 20th of August. I think we're supposed to be there on the 22nd. We arrive on the 23rd. The gate was supposed to open Saturday night, the 26th. We've been on playa for quite some time by the time this happens.

Santoro: At what time did you and your husband decide "We’ve got to get the hell out of here"?

Harris: It was never that experience. We had a planned bus ticket out of there on Saturday morning. That didn't happen.

So, on Sunday, the bus company sent us a note saying they were going to try to get us out on Sunday. We went to the bus station. We heard the briefing: You had to walk a mile and three-quarters out to the road to catch the bus. And they weren't sure if they were going to have a bus to San Francisco, where our flight was leaving from. So, we went back to our camp. We packed up our bags. We figured out how we were going to take care of most of our luggage. We were sending it to New Mexico, and we were about to head down to our tent, and it started to rain again. And we just said, "We’re not doing it." It didn't seem safe to walk another two miles in the pouring rain — it was freezing cold rain — and we decided not to do it.

And then we tried again yesterday morning. We were at the bus station at 6:30 a.m. And the bus to San Francisco … we were on the third bus out at 11:55 and it was normal conditions. The playa had dried up.

IMG_7148 (1).jpeg
A bunny with attitude from an artist from China appears at Burning Man. After the rain, someone put trash bags on its feet.
Courtesy of Eve Harris

Santoro: Has this soured you on Burning Man at all?

Harris: No, Henry. It was the most beautiful experience. I think that if anything, it built the community even stronger.

Those people who tried to get out early and didn't heed the orders of the organization got stuck. There were plenty of cars, plenty of RVs that were stuck in the mud, and they will be there until someone digs them out.

We felt that it just built our community even more. The things that we experience in a couple of days that we were stand in place and shut down, were magical. The conversations we had with campers were great. We went to a porn spelling bee. The music was still blaring, parties were still happening. This is our community. It's an actual beautiful community and the art was still there. Saturday we walked almost to the man, and just walked around and saw the art that was there, saw some rainbows. It was it was quite nice.

Santoro: Eve Harris, thank you so much.

Harris: Thank you very much. As I say, Burning Man is one of the most fun experiences you can have as an adult, period.