Dust on the Playa

In the buildup to Burning Man, there are things one anticipates with joy and others one does not. The certainty of dust storms is not high on the ‘joy list’. Worse is the certainty that some of those dust storms will occur when the afternoon heat makes hiding out in a cramped vehicle incredibly unpleasant – claustrophobic and dripping with sweat. Worst of all is the knowledge that sometimes one will be out in Deep Playa with little textile covering and having left goggles and facemask back in camp.

Camp?  Oh yes, hey camp camp, where are you?!?  In a full on dust storm, frame of reference vanishes.  And there you are, hunkered down, curled up into a little ball on the ground, getting sandblasted, waiting out the whiteout.  But though you dread the day when you find yourself so trapped and helpless, that is the day that something changes inside you.

My day of reckoning came at my second Burning Man on the afternoon of the Critical T’ts Parade.  This is a massively popular event when many of the female Burners bicycle out to The Man, then around the playa in a long, semi-clad line.  Along the parade route is an enthusiastic crowd, largely made up of the males who don’t have the appropriate equipment to be riding.

After a circuit of the main playa, the riders eventually reach an endpoint where a party has been set up.  This location is typically at the inner edge of Deep Playa so quite far from any substantial shelter.  And the fact that everyone arrives by bike means that there is a huge pileup of bicycles outside the party area, making finding your ride again a bit challenging.

On this particular afternoon the dust storm held off until most of the parade riders had reached the end point.  Sometimes the winds start up gradually and the warning blasts allow a return to camp.  Sometimes it comes to nothing. There are some localized whirlwinds and whiteouts, intermittent and fairly brief, and eventually it all settles down.

That was not the case on this afternoon.  When I first noticed the dust being whipped up to the south, I decided that I was done anyway, ready to roll.  I went and located my bicycle among the many hundreds parked nearby and started for home.  I was underway for perhaps five minutes when the storm hit.  The next forty five minutes were spent crouched down on the playa, presenting as little skin surface as possible, with face protected.

When one ventures out, at first one goes well prepared with a light jacket, a face mask or bandana, goggles, and various lights for person and bike in case of an after dark return. I suppose some people are always prepared, but each time I leave camp, I seem to take a little bit less. Hey man, it looks just fiiine out there, don’t it? Well I’ve put on my sunscreen and I’ve got my hat. Got my water. Heck, I’m outta here.

I know that the dust gods are watching for just this kind of carelessness.

So there I was with not even a proper t-shirt to pull up over my mouth and nose. Sheesh. Maybe thirty minutes into this a figure came wandering out of the dust. As far as I could tell, he was headed totally the wrong way if he was seeking shelter. Suddenly I had company, offering vodka. Well nice enough I guess, except that I was content as I was, and who wants to open their mouth for much of any reason at such a time – to chat or to drink. He seemed to feel safer, or found, with another human there. Why? So we could die out there together?

Every so often I’d peek up at the sky to see whether the storm was lessening. Finally I decided that storm or no, I was going to get on my way. I suppose the favor my unexpected companion did me was to nudge me onward.

Now, which way to set off? The last thing I needed was to be wandering in blind circles. In the distance I could hear the thumping of the techno beat. The sources of this can be varied – at night mobile raves can be literally anywhere on the playa, different every night and moving besides, but in the daytime the loudest music will be coming from either 2 o’clock and Esplanade, or Esplanade and 10 o’clock. And at least I did know that the party where I had been was on the 10 o’clock (north) side of the playa, and that my home was at 7:30. So I headed for the noise.

The music gradually grew louder and eventually I reached the source. Once I was on an actual street again, it was fairly easy.

Tasseograph - Trash Tea House Temple 2007

Two days later I got caught out again. This time at least I had a shirt but other than that I wasn’t much better prepared. Live and learn? Well eventually but not quite yet.

I had been at the temple and had walked out a bit from there to see a tipped cow art car when the dust that had been threatening suddenly whipped up into a blinding storm. For awhile I cowered in the sparse shelter of the cow then decided that there might be a little more protection at the temple so worked my way back there. After an hour or so of hiding out, I decided that this storm was going nowhere so basically repeated what I’d done the two days before.

At least this time I was starting from a known point. I was familiar enough with the layout of the temple to have a rough idea of the direction I needed to travel. Eventually I found the stanchions marking nine o’clock which are hung with lanterns every night. These pathways run from The Man in the center of the clock face out to the Esplanade at 3, 6, 9 o’clock. From there it was easy enough to follow 9 o’clock into town and then home.

My first year Burning Man there was not a single white out – the only year about which I can say that. But the odd thing is that these ‘Trials by Dust’ took away the fears and built my confidence. I had encountered the Devil and survived.

Playing ball at Center Camp during a dust storm - note facemasks

The year following I had a completely different attitude about it all. Caught in camp by a long lasting storm, I put on goggles and face mask and went out bicycling in it. Though you don’t want to venture out to Deep Playa, as long as you stay in town it’s not so bad. Just part of the whole package. As I ride along through the dust I realize how facing up to the difficulties changes you into someone stronger. Will I miss the dust this year? Funny thing, but I think I will.

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