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Maria Kaltenbach and veteran Burner Marlon Williams visit an art installation at the 2023 Burning Man festival. (Photo provided)

Hartwick Resident Reflects on Muddy, Fulfilling Burning Man

By WRILEY NELSON
PERSHING COUNTY, NV

The 2023 Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert became international news after heavy rainfall caused flash flooding and stranded thousands of vehicles in thick, sticky alkaline mud.

Among the attendees was first-time Burner and Cooperstown-area dental hygienist Maria Kaltenbach, who shared her story of an exciting week only moderately dampened by bad weather.

The festival, the 35th annual Burning Man, drew more than 70,000 people to a dry lakebed in northwest Nevada from Sunday, August 27 to Monday, September 4. Burning Man is dedicated to art, community, self-expression, and self-reliance; attendees must bring their own food, water, and supplies, and offer workshops or attractions to other participants. Despite its original reputation as the peak of counterculture, many have criticized the festival in recent years as it has ballooned in size and become a destination for wealthy celebrities and tech entrepreneurs. Still, it maintains a wide range of participants and activities.

Kaltenbach was invited to attend after donating a kidney to a festival organizer.

“I never had any intention of going to something like this, but it was a gift from my recipient,” she recalled. “It was his tenth year going, and he said, ‘this is something I want to gift to you. This is my community, my people.’ I wanted to honor that by going this year.”

She stayed in a camp of about 45 people that has been established for 17 years. Each camp is self-sufficient with its supplies and offers some kind of event, workshop or hospitality to other Burners who visit. Unlike many of the simpler camps, this one offered cold-water showers in addition to two meals a day.

The temporary metropolis of Black Rock City is laid out as a huge semicircle with a diameter of about three miles. Directions are given in terms of a clock face, with the eponymous flammable effigy in the center. Many events and speeches take place in the center of the camp, with art installations scattered around the “playa,” the area opposite the camp. Music venues are distributed around the city. Farther from the center, Black Rock City sprawls in a suburban collection of camps ranging from simple tents to extravagant glamping setups with luxurious amenities.

“Veteran Burners will tell you the festival is a social experiment,” Kaltenbach said. “It’s a whole city put up and taken down in a matter of weeks. People who haven’t been will tell you it’s about the drugs and the sex, but I’ve never felt safer. Once you’re past that gate, people dress how they want; you’ll see everything from nudity to regular streetwear.”

Attendees participate in workshops offered by each camping group, such as meditation, yoga or exercise classes and spiritual workshops. Nearly all the offerings are free and open; they are considered offerings to the festival spirit of community and mutual understanding. Kaltenbach showed off the festival app, which featured a detailed map of the campsites and venues and their respective events.

“All the videos I took, no matter where I was, had music in the background,” she said. “It’s everywhere, mostly electronic and house music.”

Kaltenbach flew into Reno and took a dedicated bus to the festival. There are occasional shuttles around the site but most people travel by foot, bicycle or e-bike. Despite the harrowing stories that made it into the news, Kaltenbach said her own experience was not bad. She was delayed by only a few hours by the mud and resulting 10-lane traffic jam because she intended to leave on Monday anyway. Earlier departures were delayed by days. However, she lost a pair of shoes to the muck and spent much of the last days wandering around the camp picking up litter left behind by evacuees.

“The man didn’t burn until Monday night, so I missed that, unfortunately,” she said. “The temple didn’t burn until Tuesday. But we had tickets for a 10 a.m. bus and got out without incident.”

Kaltenbach enjoyed the festival, but noted that many old-timer attendees commented on the changing culture of Burning Man.

“I met a veteran who was on her 24th or 25th year,” she recalled. “She said that the festival has grown exponentially from only about 600 people her first year and that the culture has changed a great deal since alcohol was introduced. There’s been an increase in rape and fights, a lot more violence, that wasn’t there when it was just psychedelics.”

Despite this somber note, Kaltenbach said she would be interested in attending again.

“It was quite humbling to do this, and it felt very connective,” she said. “You meet people who are complete strangers to you and in a matter of hours, they become fast friends. It’s hard to get a sense of how that was without being a part of it.”

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