Burning Man Offers ‘Transformation’ to Festivalgoer Despite Floods: 'It Was Extremely Harsh' (Exclusive)

Known as a no-holds-barred celebration of art and music, the popular festival is also a place for individual exploration

<p>Alexi Helligar</p>

Alexi Helligar

Halfway through the rainstorms sweeping across Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, a double rainbow appeared.

For Alexi Helligar, a 58-year-old tech professional from Toronto, it was the “most beautiful rainbow” he had ever seen.

“It appeared to say at the end of every storm, every difficulty is an opportunity for you to see beauty and for you to rejuvenate and to come alive again,” he says.

The unexpected sight arrived days into this year’s Burning Man, which saw torrential rain flood and muddy the vast expanse of Black Rock City, the festival’s makeshift community of tents, vehicles and art installations. The extreme weather temporarily stranded thousands of festivalgoers, or "burners," with celebrities like Diplo and Chris Rock eventually hitching rides out of the festival on a pickup truck.

<p>Alexi Helligar</p>

Alexi Helligar

Related: Thousands Stuck at Burning Man Due to Extreme Rain Told to ‘Conserve Food, Water and Fuel’

But more loyal festivalgoers like Helligar stuck it out. For the tech professional, Burning Man offers the “potential for personal transformation.” There is, of course, the more wild side to Burning Man that the festival has become well-known for: the parties, drugs, music and oversized art installations. But to longtime “burners,” that’s not what the event is about.

One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is “radical self-reliance,” and in that spirit most revelers haul their own water and food in for the week, bartering with others for items they may need. This year, Helligar spent nearly $3,000 on airfare and essentials, including clothing for staying warm on nights when the temperatures dipped into the 40s and 50s.

“If we wanted easy vacations, there are thousands of options,” he explains. “These are people who are privileged people. They can vacation wherever they want. There’s a desire to serve each other, and to give each other an amazing time, in a very harsh environment.”

<p>Alexi Helligar</p>

Alexi Helligar

Many “burners” choose to share their experience with others and participate in “camps.” For his fourth year at Burning Man, Helligar stayed with Dark Heart, a 50-person camp that encourages to explore the “darker areas of their personality,” according to Helligar.

Related: Princess Stephanie of Monaco's Daughter Escapes Burning Man as Rain Dampens Event: 'We're Out'

This year's torrential rain may have dampened Diplo and Rock's spirits, but Helligar says he and his fellow Dark Heart campers largely laughed off the severe weather when that rainbow finally beckoned.

"The whole camp went out into the playa and took pictures," he recalls. "We laughed. We realized at that point that everything's going to be fine."

The end of every Burning Man is marked with the ceremonial torching of a temple, an ornate structure built by a group of festivalgoers where people place photos and other memorabilia of lost loves, and deceased friends and family.

<p>Alexi Helligar</p>

Alexi Helligar

Because of this year’s heavy rain, many festivalgoers extended their time in the desert, rationing their food and supplies; the Burning Man Project, the organization behind the festival, also offered additional resources.

But for Helligar, the unexpected weather and delays made little difference. He still plans on revisiting Black Rock City next year, rain or shine.

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“It was extremely harsh to deal with those weather conditions,” admits Helligar. “But the reason why you go to Burn is you expect difficulty in the environment. It's not going to Disneyland or an amusement park. You're going there, you're going to build your camp, you're going to program your activities and you're going to do it in an environment that's trying to kill you every step of the way.”

“The people who come to just experience the parties and the spectacle, that's fine. That's part of it,” he adds. “But the core people understand what Burning Man is about. They understand it is about the community and about overcoming obstacles. That’s what they come for.”

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