Photo submitted – Deena Bak & Larry Michon of Diamond Mountain Mining Ltd. were at Burning Man as first-timers.

By Denise Gregorka

By now, most people have become familiar with the Burning Man Festival because of the recent wild weather, which has recently held up thousands of people in the Nevada desert. Deena Bak of Little Falls was there and recounted her experience from this year’s Burning Man.

What is Burning Man

Burning Man 2023 was a week-long gathering in the Black Rock Desert in Pershing County, Nevada. The 35th Burning Man event took place from August 27th to September 4th. An estimated 73,000 people attended this year. This experimental arts festival builds a city of 70,000+ people in the middle of Nevada’s desert once a year. The event is guided by ten stated principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.

This season, the attendees were challenged by close to an inch of rain. The rain created a sticky mud that caused organizers to announce a stay-in-place order. While emergency vehicles were still able to move, bathrooms were unable to be serviced, ice was rationed, and many people’s belongings were damaged.

I asked Deena what attracted her to Burning Man. She stated, “I heard about the event about ten years ago, and I’ve always been drawn to artistic experiences for the free-spirited. It sounded like the ultimate adventure to me. I think I was attracted by all of the big art installations and especially the costumes. I am a Leo, and I love playing dress-up. I love the idea that you can be whoever you want to be at Burning Man with no questions asked. It is an environment of acceptance and non-judgment.”

Deena and her fiance, Larry, drove cross-country from Little Falls, NY, to Nevada, which was quite a journey by itself.

They arrived at Burning Man very early in the morning on Monday, August 28th, and were happy to have timed it to not have to wait in a large line like many of the entrants did

The Gift

There is no commercial buying or selling, and the crowd is encouraged to barter or give away items in order to preserve the spirit of gifting. The community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. Burning Man encourages radical self-reliance, allowing the individual to discover, exercise, and rely on their inner resources. Deena and Larry knew just what they could share with people. They are the owners of Diamond Mountain Mining here in Little Falls and mine Herkimer Diamonds from their land. They also have live gem shows showcasing gems from all over the world. Deena stated, “Everybody brings the fun. Everything is put on by the people, for the people. It’s incredibly participatory. They say there are no observers at Burning Man. There’s no such thing as a passive observer.” Deena and Larry were part of a theme camp which was named “Solar Powered Snow Cones.” She stated, “We served snow cones to everybody on the playa every afternoon.”

Deena with her crystal cart

Deena, with her crystal cart

She added, “Our personal gift to the playa was a Crystal Cart. I love crystals, and we have no shortage of them, so we basically made a little lemonade stand that would tuck into my friend’s wagon. We had a banner on top that said “But of Quartz” because puns are very popular in the world of Burning Man. I thought the crystals would last us for days, but they were gone in an hour and a half. A crowd of people gathered around. It was honestly one of my favorite parts of the Burn. You know the saying that ‘when you give, the giver receives a gift.’ It was a joy seeing the recipient’s faces light up. It made many people happy, and it brought me a lot of joy. I had so much fun interacting with everybody. That cart was so much fun.”

Entertainment

There was non-stop music, color, and enjoyment coming from all around the camps.

The DJ, Diplo, who was on the news as one of the people who walked out of Burning Man with Chris Rock, was camped close to her in the “Looner’s Camp.” On Friday morning, Deena woke up to an opal sky. A crowd near-by was watching a hot-air balloon and listening to music. She looked around to find the DJ and then saw that it was Diplo in the balloon basket. He had his whole sound system set up in the balloon. Deena watched him perform. He came down and greeted everyone.

Before things got muddy, DJ Diplo performed from a hot air balloon and woke up Burning Man 2023 festival goers at sunrise on Friday. Courtesy of Looners Camp

Before things got muddy, DJ Diplo performed from a hot air balloon and woke up Burning Man 2023 festivalgoers at sunrise on Friday.
Courtesy of Looners Camp

The Rain

Deena and Larry planned to watch the Man burn on Saturday night and then go home on Sunday morning.

She stated, “The rain started Friday night, and we stayed sequestered in our RV and tried to sleep through most of it. We couldn’t go anywhere. We didn’t have any negative emotions. It was more like acceptance and surrender. I was a little anxious that I would miss the Man Burn. At first, I didn’t realize how long the delay would be, and then it stretched on. I was thinking, ‘This is going to affect our RV return, my pet’s care at home, and my business.'” They accepted that they had to stay put and could hear that the party kept going.

They could hear music going late into the morning hours during the rain.

As far as getting around, that was the problem. Deena said, “In Burning Man, you have to ride a bike. It is incredibly vast, and it is a super big city! Without a bike, you can’t really do too much. The bikes couldn’t get through the mud. It was so sticky you would literally sink. Your tires would sink right in. We were stuck in place. You could walk, but your boots would pick up all the mud. It was super sticky and would build up 4″ thick on the bottom of your boots. One of the funny things was watching people develop their footwear as the rain went on. I tried to tape plastic bags around my calves. We saw two people walking by, and I said, ‘They look like pros.’ They told us, ‘The key is: sock, bag, shoe sock.’ The sock on the outside gave them traction in the mud. People used every combination you could think of. It was just hilarious watching people slide around. The footwear was quite entertaining.”

Deena and Larry wearing plastic bags

Deena and Larry wearing plastic bags

I was curious if they observed any uneasiness with the people around them. Deena stated, “I can’t speak to the totality of the experience. I am sure many people had a bad time if they weren’t prepared, if their tent flooded, or if they ran out of food and weren’t planning to stay two extra days. Many of us were very well-stocked and provisionally prepared. The general attitude that I saw was just community and care. I watched a camp take down one of their structures, and they did it ‘fireman brigade style. The whole camp lined up, probably seventy-five people, and they took the pieces of the dome apart and transported them across the mud with everyone standing in a line. Teamwork. Other people in our camp got together and made sure that anybody with a tent that may be wet had an RV to go to and that everybody had enough water. I didn’t see a ton of anxiety, at least where I was. Everyone was taking care of one another and in good spirits.”

The Exodus

Leaving Burning Man was its own experience. Deena recalled, “We started exodus early on Monday and finally got to the line around noon. You don’t just leave Burning Man. They call it ‘exodus’ for a reason. There were about nine lanes of traffic that had to be funneled to a two-lane paved road. The party continued in line. People were dancing on their RVs. It probably took us about nine and a half hours to get to the line. As we were leaving, we were just getting to the place where we could see where the paved road was starting, and we could see ‘the Man Burn’ off in the distance.”

Deena was a little disappointed that they had to leave and didn’t get to see the Man burn close-up.

I asked if she felt like she was cheated out of a “normal” Burning man experience. She stated, ” What is a normal Burning Man? I think a lot of the veterans were saying that this was their favorite burn ever because the mud forced people to go back to the ten principles. It wasn’t just a party where you could show up, have a good time and leave. It really forces you to check on your neighbor, be self-reliant, problem-solve, surrender to what is, and realize that you are not in control. A lot of people said that this was the best Burning Man they ever had. I have nothing to compare it to. I feel that I have to go back. I would anyway because I had such a great time, but I have to see the Man burn. I could see myself going every five years.

Reflection

Deena stated that she felt like she was in another dimension. “When people talk about Burning Man, there’s a lot of resistance to calling it a festival. It’s more of a social experiment. It’s a temporary community. It’s an art piece. It’s a city. It’s ephemeral. It’s a culture. It’s an alternate way of doing life. What if we took care of one another? What if there was no money? What if we cared about the environment? What if we had a gifting economy? What if you could be yourself with no judgment? What would that world look like? It was a beautiful place to be. It was akin to visiting another country, or even like visiting another planet.”

Lasting Impressions

Deena feels that the Burning Man experience has made her a better person. She summed up her feelings: “Life is short, and it is what you make of it. Don’t wait for life to happen. Go out and do it. The principle of immediacy is something I took away from Burning Man. Don’t wait for later. When is later? You might not get later. Do it now. If you have an idea, don’t wait for someone else to make it happen; No one is coming to do it. You should do it. For me, I believe Burning Man is the greatest party on earth because you can do what you want. Whatever makes you passionate about life…people bring it there. It’s 80,000 passionate and engaged individuals bringing what they love to one place for a temporary amount of time, and that was so magical. It reminded me that wherever you are in the world, you are responsible for creating that magic. We are here to help one another, and we are here to make each other’s experiences better. The whole thing was exhausting and exhilarating, and there was a lot of beautiful learning.”

I so enjoyed hearing Deena’s account of her experiences at Burning Man and the philosophy that she shared.

May we all adopt a more caring heart for one another and apply it daily.


Denise Gregorka

Denise Gregorka

Denise Gregorka is a longtime Little Falls resident who has a love for the city’s people & history.

She is married to Craig, who is a Little Falls native, retired photographer & former business owner.

Denise has done costume collaboration for Broadway and off-Broadway theatre for 18+ years and has also been an antique/collectibles dealer for over 25 years.

She is not a professional writer but is compelled to hear and share the “background story” from engaging Little Falls residents.

If you’d like to reach out to Denise about a story idea, you can email her at gork4444@gmail.com.