Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Burning Man 21: The First Windstorm

After pedalling slowly past Amazing Larry's Dominoes, and getting a swift kick in my ass for thinking I was all that, things are pretty dim. I have to presume I biked back to camp and crashed, but the next thing I remember is the wind picking up.

As soon as it did, Ethan began to get jittery. He was by far the most desert-savvy of us all (I, in contrast, was more concerned with keeping dust out of my MRE), and he was also living underneath a big parachute with what in retrospect was a laughable frame. He and Cosmo began to nervously stow things, recheck guylines, and fiddle with a ground sheet for their (big) tent. I ate my MRE and tried not to think too hard.

After several minutes of just sort of toying with us, the wind began to create minor dust devils out in the streets, and started throwing around small pebbles of dirt. This got my attention--which is good, because five minutes later all four of us were hanging on to Ethan's 'chute for dear life.

In hindsight, this is probably what keeps me liking these fellows. It's all well and good to huddle in your tent and make sure your own personal stuff doesn't get blown away (and lots of stuff got blown away that day)--it's another to stand out there and get your eyeballs sandblasted out in order to make sure something that's a part of your camp, but not precisely yours, doesn't fly off and land somewhere up in Idaho. Or even worse, still in the event zone, where BLM people can find it. There was no hesitation on anyone's part.

Unfortunately, the cubes weren't up to the struggle, either. They'd been staked down pretty well, but the joints were handmade, and they came apart. Which was actually a pretty good idea on Dan's part: make 'em so they come apart instead of shattering...he just had no way to anticipate the stresses that those things would be under. So, shortly after the parachute became a windsock, the cubes began to disintegrate. I spent some time running back and forth, trying to keep all the cubes intact, or at least in the camp, with pretty good success on the latter part. I moved back to help with the parachute, just about the time everyone realized that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to attach the parachute directly to Ethan's tent, which shortly began to rattle like it was about to take off as well.

My shade structure was only slightly less liable to become a projectile, and that only because it was downwind of the parachute, which was taking the brunt of a genuinely scary event. Everything was coming apart. You could hear huge, ominous flapping sounds from Center Camp, but the dust was too bad to see it (all of 50 feet away). All around us were muffled crashing noises as things fell over or were blown into other things. We held on for dear life.

Out of the dust, in the lee of the building next to us, came Josh. Apparently completely unaware of the dust storm (the wind had to have been 50mph), and also just as blissfully ignoring the fact that we were fighting for our lives (or at least, for our stuff, without which we would have had a pretty miserable life for the rest of the week), Big J ambles up (in a hawaiian print skirt and shirt and tie, no less), and offers us...popsicles.

I don't remember what I said to him, but I'm sure I was probably a bit harsh on his ancestry and cognitive abilities. He's forgiven me, I reckon, but I've always wondered what was going through his head at the time. I mean, even IF you could ignore the raging maelstrom that threatened to engulf the entire EVENT--even if you could ignore the fact that Cosmo was being lifted off the ground by his part of the parachute, and even if you just happened to miss the complete and total devastation of everything bigger than a 2 man tent that wasn't made of wooden or metal beams...plainly, everyone's hands were full. Never mind that playa dust on popsicles isn't very tasty at all.

After Josh beat a hasty retreat (presumably to help in a failed attempt to salvage the Ishkabibble shade structure), I think all of us just stood and looked at each other in wonderment. I even think the wind cut out for a second, so we could ponder the utter madness of the situation. Popsicles?

Eventually, the wind subsided. The parachute structure was useless, and every one of us was petrified of leaving it out where the wind could get to it, anyway.

My structure was still in pretty good shape, mostly by dint of being behind the parachute and of being heavy canvas. We moved most of the stuff in there, then turned our attention to the cubes.

At first, I thought we'd lost them after all. But that couldn't be--I actually nailed down most of the struts with stakes during a slight break in the storm. In fact, they were drifted over with white playa dust.

The wind was still fucking with us--every time I tried to put one of those suckers up, the wind would knock it down, or at least threaten to tear it apart. We tried for most of the day to salvage the thing, and finally caught a break an hour or two before dark. The cubes were bedraggled-the scrim had frayed from the wind in a couple of places, and everything was covered in dust and dirt (including me). We were exhausted, but had high hopes for the evening.

The Ishkabibble folk apparently did too--they'd been engaged most of the afternoon by fighting with their shade structure (and, I think, each other), which was ultimately fruitless. They stowed the remains, and invited us to dinner.

About midway through dinner, the wind came up and blew everything down again. I worked on it with sporadic assistance--mostly people that felt sorry for me out there in the storm by myself, but none of them lasted very long. It was stupid of me to be out there; I could barely see what I was doing, because of dust and darkness, and it was apparent to everyone who tried to help that the cubes were Well and Truly Fucked--the corners were stretched a little bit, so any sort of pressure would get them working loose. The scrim, like the parachute, acted like a sail, effectively pulling it apart in anything over a light breeze.

After dark, I gave up. Our camp was about 2/3 of its former grandeur. My hair was still sticking up in a blue helix, but the lights had gone out, and we were all dejected. Worse, I climbed onto the RV later that night, and couldn't find any landmarks from the night before--the huge strobe-lit dome was gone, and the Psychedelic Windmill was a pile of metal struts surrounded by bearded guys shaking their fists at the heavens. Later that night, a party of us went out to survey the damage, but I slept.


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