August 2023. My boyfriend got to the Playa four days before me. He said everything would be taken care of before I got there. There would be bicycles, there would be acid, there would be MDMA, there would be NXE, and some other drugs whose acronyms I can’t remember. There would be birthday-cake-flavored protein bars, protein drinks, zero-sugar electrolyte powder, and plenty of tinned fish and water. We were going to meet his gene dealer. I just had to bring the tent.

He assured me, over a series of rapid-fire texts as he approached the cyberpunk city where his phone would drop dead, how much fun we were going to have. I reminded him I was cynical about hippies, the rhetoric of liberation, environmentalists taking airplanes, camping, deep breathing, polyamory, and group activities in general. I also didn’t really like the outdoors. He told me it would be fine. I just had to bring the tent and jump on a plane to Reno.

Drifting in and out of sleep on a small charter plane operated by an entity called the BxA, I overheard a guy talking about how he’s adapting ketamine therapy for outer space. Once the concentric circles in the desert came into focus, everyone around me started passing out psilocybin chocolate.

The seven passengers unboarded and a woman with clown paint on her face appeared. She was holding a clipboard. “Welcome home,” she said, asking for our “default-world” names. We all started to grab our luggage, but the clown lady said we had to wait.

At the Burning Man airport—a canopy bolstered up against the mythical Playa sand—I waited in line to pay a $50 “air-landing fee.” I spotted my boyfriend’s colleague behind the wood railing. Next to him was someone in disguise, wearing a bandana and sunglasses. I guessed, since he started jumping up and down when he saw me, that it must be my boyfriend. We had been apart for three weeks, and I was keen to pass my bags to somebody. But the clowns were really taking their time, trying to find the ticket with my name on it in their online registry.

“They had me recite a Burning Man principle—‘radical self-reliance.’”

I dragged the bag toward him, but more clowns stopped me. They had me recite a Burning Man principle—“radical self-reliance,” I said, passing the bag. Then they had me lie in the sand, sweep my arms and legs against the Playa dust, and finally hit a gong with a hammer. This was how they took your virginity, and introduced you to Mother.

A few hours later, we were biking around the Playa. Elaborate structures were scattered around the desert. We passed a group of people building a tree of white and blue cubes lit up with fluorescent LEDs. It seemed like a lot of work for something that would last six days, but my boyfriend seemed dazzled by the whole thing, sitting up in his bike and looking behind periodically, ushering me into a new world and checking to see if I was smiling….

We stopped at the tree—just to stare at it. “Isn’t it cool?” he asked, in a tone of total sincerity. After three days of helping build our camp, he’d been indoctrinated.

I started to think this Burning Man trip was going to bring up irreconcilable differences: While we share a general openness to experience, I thought, he yearns for the sincerity of experience unmediated, whereas I am after the experience for how I can later make use of it. The pressure at Burning Man to submit yourself to the immediacy of the moment was already rubbing me the wrong way. I wondered out loud if we should break up. My boyfriend reminded me we had another six days there, sleeping together in the tent I’d brought.


There are 1,500 themed camps at Burning Man. They give the festival color, organizing the collective talents of individuals into a commodity that can be redistributed by way of a gift economy. Some throw orgies, some invite you to write letters to your father, others host sensual wrestling parties or workshops on the five secrets to communicating with lovers. In exchange for paying dues and doing chores like cooking and cleaning, you enjoy the comforts of communal living—a shower, internet, people you could ask for anything you inevitably forgot as a first-time “burner.”

We were staying at Soft Landing, a camp with a tea-and-psychedelics theme that aimed to provide “a comfortable setting for visionary discussion and tea service amongst the mayhem of Black Rock City.” We ended up there because of my boyfriend’s co-worker, “Junction,” who had gone to Burning Man the previous year and discovered, outside of his default-world life as an executive of a web 3.0 company, a second life as a tea server.

Founded by Annie Oak—a journalist who had gotten involved with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit known for its research on the therapeutic use of MDMA—Soft Landing was full of would-be countercultural types who found themselves confined by knowledge work in the present-day Bay Area: accountants who moonlit as polyamorists, rationalist science-fiction writers who liked to wear fursuits, computer programmers who took psychedelics to wrap their brains around the machines better—all mingling with veteran Gen-X burners who’d been going to the festival since the early aughts.

I couldn’t help but feel my boyfriend’s work friends, who pathologically called everything “based,” would be out of place. Furry suits, nonconforming sexual identities, and affirmations of acceptance are usually considered “cringe” within the vision of the world disseminated from 4chan across right-wing Twitter and beyond. But when I arrived, everyone seemed to be getting along, walking around wearing rainbow T-shirts, trading stories about how using DMT had skyrocketed their technical performance at work and led them to dig into the works of Plato.

Under the communal shade, my boyfriend—who now went by “Module”—was talking to a man with a furry cap allegedly being recruited by MAPS to work on some protein he believes is critical for psychedelic effect. “You’re really ahead of the curve,” I heard the man with a furry cap say to my boyfriend. I sat down on Module’s lap, and I thought I felt the furry glare.

“Nice ass!” the MAPS furry yelled at the woman cooking breakfast in a thong in front of us. She looked back, jiggled, and returned her attention to the eggs sizzling on the communal hotplates.

Later that day, all 150 of us gathered under the Big Tent to make the transition from Build Week to the start of the festival. In front of the room, “Tryp,” a big man with a bucket hat, explained Soft Landing’s principles. Tryp was camp lead, and also Mayor for the Day—but in the spirit of “decentralized leadership,” the following day this would all change. I was sitting with Module in the corner, as the Strike Leads, Build Leads, Tea House Leads, and Acculturation Leads all stood up and introduced themselves, one after another.

Tryp talked about Soft Landing’s founding and its commitment to creating a space where everyone is comfortable, attributing the special sense of community to the “censor responsibility” of the sponsorship model. Camp founder Annie wasn’t at Burning Man this year. Tryp said she was off “in the mountains somewhere.” I heard his voice crack. “I think she needed a break after last year.”

The acknowledgements began. “I’d just like to thank Indira for being my sponsor, and Amygdala for being such an amazing neighbor.” “It’s my first burn, and I’m just really happy to be here.” “I’d just like to thank the Strike crew from last year. Often that work goes unacknowledged, you know, since most of us leave before it’s finished….” Before long, they’d been thanking each other for 45 minutes.

“I heard Junction accuse me of ‘longhousing’ Module for the fifth time.”

After the meeting, I heard Junction accuse me of “longhousing” Module for the fifth time since I got there. I saw him out of the window in my tent, which peered into the smoking den—where it had been suggested that the smokers cloister, to protect all the people with sensitive lungs who chose to camp for a week in the desert. He was now explaining the longhouse to Flower, a 76-year-old veteran burner who walked around camp drinking gin out of a mug with a copy of her driver’s license on it, in case anyone ID’d her.

“Flower, your generation decided to abolish traditional gender roles, entirely forgetting that there is an innate drift for men to fall into,” he was saying. Flower blinked and took a sip of gin. “But Ruby’s innate drift is to create a cozy house with a dog, a stove, and kids. And Module rejects this innately, because he wants to conquer, and go on adventures. And that is why Ruby is trying to longhouse him.” Junction put out his cigarette in an Altoid tin.

That night, another one of Module’s colleagues arrived with a 10-strip of acid. The sun went down, and we started adorning our bicycles with neon pink and orange wire. Inside our tent, Module put on a one-piece suit with zippers all over that made him look like he thought he’s Arnold Schwarzennegger in The Terminator. Junction, Module, and I put the acid in our mouths and headed out. Under the communal shade, the veteran burners were playing a game, taking turns closing their eyes and feeding dried fruit to one another.

“Do you have plenty of water?” asked one of them. “Remember to quack to keep track of each other,” said another. They tilted their heads to the side and waved. “Have fun, make bad decisions,” their voices carried in a high-pitched unison as we started to bike away. I was in a bad mood—one of the veteran burners said I broke the virgin rule when I said no to her offering of dried fruit.

“Here they are, talking about consent on one hand, and making you feel like a bad person if you express any limitation or preference,” I said. “What if my radical self-expression is being rigid? What if I experience the most immediacy reshaping my lived experience into a meticulously composed narrative of my own creation?” We were biking through a sound garden full of mechanized flowers that sang when you stroked them.

I thought it would be interesting if the polylactic acid daisies rose up a few feet, blossomed to reveal fangs, and started attacking. Instead, they oscillated between various shades of pastel purple and green depending on the speed at which you walked by them.

I whispered into Module’s ear, “Shouldn’t this art be, like, more posthuman?” Module glared, but he had changed his tune on this Burning Man thing slightly, somewhere between me arriving and the acknowledgements meeting.

“Look, I was only psy-oping myself into liking everything so I could stomach the mundane drudgery of building,” he’d said earlier. “It was puppeteering, sure, but it was bottom-up, not top-down. Like, incentivizing.”

We were looking at a hedgehog installation, filled with photographs of Ukrainian DJs and directors who fought against the Russian invasion.

“Am I too easily impressed?” Module asked, but he wasn’t asking me, he was looking up at the sky and running the numbers on 24 years of being alive. The acid was starting to hit him, and it made him spin around and around and make sharp turns on his bike. The rest of the night he kept talking to the stars about Markov blankets and the dissolution of the inside and outside.

I went to bed early, listening to the sound of people fill up balloons with nitrous oxide on either side of me: Module and Junction on one side, a pair of newly engaged lesbians on the other, until they looked over and decide they should all gather in the Smoking Lounge and do the balloons together. Ah, nitrous, the dental-chair anesthetic, which takes you from your folding chair in Black Rock to viewing the Earth from outer space and briefly simulates death, until everyone lands, you’re back to your folding chair again, and everyone looks at each other with awe on their face until someone says, “Let’s do it again.”


At sunset, on a bit of ketamine and a little GHB, I was biking around the Playa with a pair of antlers with fake flowers perched around my head, and I started to get it. You go out into the desert and the universe starts sending you messages. Your intuition comes to the surface. Whether you head to the Temple to pay your respects to the dead or stare at an art car shaped like an octopus blasting pyrotechnics, you feel as though you’re having a unique aesthetic experience. You leave when you feel like it. Time is cyclical, home is the Playa. And maybe you’re imagining it, but once you put on the antlers, it seems like everyone’s smiles get brighter.

“One word of advice—don’t get lost in the queue,” a Google programmer had told me when I was boarding the plane. “I’ve had the most amazing experiences here when I was on my way to some DJ set and ended up stuck, looking up at the moon.” On your way to a happy hour at the intersection of 20:30 and Dingbat, the dust starts to blow—you head back to the tea house to take shelter. You end up talking to a psychic who tells you that you are the lunar moon, you are a vessel on a mission to balance polarizing forces in the world. You thank the elements for derailing you. You go back to your tent and write down: I am the lunar moon.

But the environment felt hostile to transcription. Everyone bragged that their phones were dead; I felt like I was killing the vibe whenever I retreated to write in my tent. Because you’re not really supposed to be processing what’s happening—“not here, not yet.” Still, I was a little bit bothered that no one seemed to be properly documenting this thing. There were AI-safety researchers, real-estate agents, physicians, DJs, and lawyers who’d all come here to listen to electronic music and jump up and down on a trampoline jellyfish in a desert where the only thing that can survive are tiny little shrimp most genetically similar to the weird pets you got as a kid that bloomed when you put them in water. But after doing a little bit of MDMA, the compulsion to note what’s wrong with everyone starts to melt away. Inside my head I heard all these sarcastic observations, and then they suddenly seemed so unnecessary….

I turned my eye to the situation in front of me, in the spirit of immediacy. Module had taken more GHB than I had. We were on our way to a camp where they were supposed to be giving out grilled cheese when a giant stack of plastic water cubes confronted us. The cubes kept going and going, one on top of another, 50 feet up, like a Black Rock City skyscraper. It wasn’t clear whether the cubes were another art installation, intended to be interactive, or if they were a core part of Burning Man’s infrastructure. There was no sign saying, “Don’t Touch This.”

Module’s intuition was talking. He dropped his bike and reached up for the metal wire on the first cube. The ketamine paranoia was infecting me. On top of the water cubes, I looked down, looked out, scanned 360 degrees, but everywhere it was desert and mountain, like The Truman Show, the same green screen in every direction. I could make out purple lights, octopi holding fire in their arms, and tiny people, climbing up and down various art cars.

That night we did more GHB. We were going to get horny and say yes to everything. I’d talked Module into it: We were going to go to the orgy.

“BOOTY WORSHIP,” a camp sign read. A bouncer invited us into a burlesque show.

“Are you a tits or ass guy?” I asked Module, already regretting the words once I said them.

“Some secret third thing.”

Above us, a larger crowd perched in little cages. Men wearing giant fur vests standing with women I imagined to be their wives in the real world. The women didn’t seem upset but, like the dancers about to go on stage, were in leather and scantily dressed. It was cold.

“Do you all love BOOTIES?” the announcer shouted into her mic, sauntering around in heels. I recognized her—I’d served tea to her the night before. The people in the cages started cheering. I watched Module turn to the side and pull out the ketamine saline.

“We never made it to the orgy.”

“Now, some rules: no recording, unless you have the dancer’s consent,” the announcer yelled. “And remember, ALL BOOTIES ARE BEAUTIFUL!” The dancers got on stage and started twerking to Cardi, and all of a sudden, a wave of sadness rushed over me. It had something to do with the announcer trying to place rails around the primal impulses of sexuality, while encouraging us to bare our teeth like animals. I got up and went to the portable toilet. I sat on the ground below the hand sanitizer pole trying to get a grip, and then broke down crying uncontrollably. People kept coming up and asking if I was okay, assuming I was having a bad trip or something. But I wasn’t tripping. My ketamine tolerance was pretty high at this point, and the GHB wasn’t making me horny. It was that the default world was seeping in, and it was in conflict with itself, and no one was saying anything.

We never made it to the orgy. The next day it started raining.


It turned out Module had paid some $4,000 so he could take me to the desert to do drugs and pill me on motherhood. “How do you feel about having children?” he asked when we were coming down from our first MDMA trip in the Soft Landing tea tent. He said we could get all our work done by the time we were 27 and homeschool our kids. I looked over at him in the Terminator suit, and suddenly, I had this overwhelming urge to replicate him. I woke up the next day with no hangover from the MDMA, wondering, “Are children, like, little pieces of art?” Suddenly, I wanted one.

We got up late on the Day the Rain Came, the great torrent that turned the desert into mud, stranding countless burners and making national headlines. And now, a few feet in front of me, he was carrying both our bikes through the Dionysian mud, because the sand was too thick to bike through, and my bike, covered in mud, was too heavy for me to pick up. When we arrived back at Soft Landing, having taken refuge in a little dog-themed hut, suddenly everyone was saying this was going to be a climate disaster.

So we were sheltering in the tea tent in the desert in the pouring rain, when, around five, a veteran burner came over and said, “Look, I know you’re all really warm and cozy. But the rain isn’t stopping, it’s actually going harder, and a lot of your tents are going down, and we don’t know when the Man is going to burn or even when we’re going to get out of here.” He paused. “So I’m going to need you all to grab your squish and move to the bigger tent.”

There were about 70 of us in the big tent, which over the course of the week had been holding psychedelic salons on altered states of consciousness. It wasn’t until I started seeing socks hanging from the wire holding up the canopy that I realized we were sort of like refugees. I found myself drawing little embryos in my notebook. I couldn’t have been happier.

“I couldn’t rule out the possibility that this was all some elaborate psy-op.”

I don’t know if the desert’s infertility fed my contrarian tendencies, or if it was frustrating for me to see so much horniness every which way void of any mission or even a physical direction, or if it was the feeling that the carnivalesque display of kink and furry suits here seemed symptomatic of living at a moment in-between-time, when many people have rendered themselves impotent in the face of so many choices. The obsession with building a social identity out of niche sexual preferences seemed to me like a bourgeois distraction, a refusal to face the fear of not being able to produce anything for the next generation. I couldn’t rule out the possibility that this was all some elaborate psy-op Module planned with his gene dealer; I didn’t care.

Around 9:30, our camp lead Tryp came over to me and Module. We had claimed a prime piece of territory near the middle of the Refugee Tent where the mud hadn’t seeped in yet, next to a pole against which we could lean our pillows. Tryp was wearing a one-piece suit that made him look like a bunny rabbit and, on his face, a mischievous smile. He crouched down with his bunny tail sticking out and whispered, “I have an amazing idea.” He opened up the palm of his hand to reveal 15 MDMA capsules.

An hour later, we were all sitting on the Persian rugs on the floor, with the mud seeping in around us, stating our intentions again. On one side of the pole, there were me and Module, and on the other, a giant cuddle puddle, where everyone was wearing furry suits and sharing pretzels. I turned around to ask Tryp about his polyamory practice, but then zoned out. It wasn’t Tryp—it was just that…

Our children are going to have the most beautiful eyes, they’re going to crawl on the floor…. We’re going to build an LLM to teach them about nature, and they’re going to be so creative and adaptable from having survived so many hurricanes, floods, and other varieties of climate disaster while they were toddlers…

I drifted off into the pleasant cozy bask of the future.… I’m at Burning Man, I remembered. I looked around our tent. A man with a furry hat was eating our remaining pork rinds, while holding up to my boyfriend’s right foot a vibrating foot massager. I looked around for the nitrous and canister and started blowing up balloons to distribute to the furries huddling around each other for warmth in the cuddle puddle.


The day after the Man burned, we picked up our trash and joined the exodus—Flower, Junction, Module, and me. We stopped to drop all our trash at a garbage dump two miles out, coughing up the $10-per-bag dumping fee. Module started to ash his cigarette into an Altoid can, but Junction stopped him. “We don’t have to do that here.”

We all stayed at the same hotel in Reno, inside a casino. We walked down a red carpet in the skyway from the parking garage, Module in front of me carrying Flower’s bags and wearing the antlers. Looking for the check-in desk, Module and Junction got distracted by a slot room where you could smoke inside. I was watching them load money into these giant red boxes when I started to feel a ringing in my ears. My boyfriend won $100, and we went up to our hotel room, which was covered in mirrors.

Without leaving the casino air conditioning, we were buffeted by dinner options, Japanese and Italian, all surrounding a copper fountain. About halfway through my steak, I started to think I couldn’t hear.

We went back to the hotel room, and my boyfriend had me tilt my head to either side. Holding a basin of water, he cleaned the dust out of my ears.

“I liked us better when we were refugees,” the girl with the ear infection said to the man in the mirror.

The next day, we dropped off Flower at the airport, packed up our bike lights and costumes, and took them to a storage locker for next year.

Ruby Sutton is a writer from Minnesota.

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