Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Burning Man 2004: Anatomy of Dust

You can't imagine how bad the weather can get out on the playa--it's hot as hell during the day (Monday was especially bad this year), cold at night (I'm talking forties, yo), and wind storms can come up with no warning at all.

The heat you expect, and deal with. There's all sorts of gear and techniques to keep your body from overheating (cold beer being one of my favorites, although it's hardly recommended), and while more people get ambulanced out for heat exhaustion than anything else, it's the sort of thing that comes immediately to mind when you're talking about camping in the desert.

I never get used to the cold, though. In 2000, we completely spaced on how cold it was going to be, and thus did my hair up in this 18" tall blue helix, complete with elwire, without putting a freakin' shirt on me first. I thought I was going to freeze to death, even when Todd gave me a button-up shirt. I spent most of the week wearing a freakin' quilt, as a result, and swore I'd come back better prepared.

I never do. I do OK when I'm out walking around, but always freeze when I try and sleep...basically I'm OK with clothing, but awful with bedding. Even in 2002, when I had a girl in "bed" with me, it was cold as hell.

But the worst is dust, because there's nothing you can do about it. Dust devils are ubiquitous on the playa, but they're just a sort of reminder that you're always a few minutes away from being crushed like a bug under a massive windstorm. The playa is toying with you, in other words.

The whole site is located on a dry lakebed, as I think I've mentioned, which is surrounded by mountains. In effect, you're setting up your camp in a large trough, or funnel, and there's no place for the wind (and dust) to go except over you. Also, recall that the playa is truly awesome in size (some estimates are as high as 800 square miles, although I don't remember where I heard that, and don't know if I believe it or not), and we're nowhere near the beginning of it, so the wind has literally miles and miles of dust to pick up and carry with it.

You may have seen pictures of dust storms in the Dust Bowl era...it's a bit like that, only white. If you're lucky, you see it coming (or if you're really lucky, someone in camp is paying attention to weather forecasts), and you can take some precautions.

But you can't avoid it. Winds regularly reach 50mph or above, and anything that's not nailed down is GONE. This is another reason why the entire event is surrounded by a construction fence, called the trash fence--lots of stuff collects there, instead of blowing out into the deep playa. One of my friends likes to walk the trash fence, or part of it, in the mornings. He says there's always a bag or two of pot that someone didn't secure in their camp, stuck in the fence.

But like Josh said, it's beautiful if you're prepared. Goggles are a necessity, and I like to have a bandanna or mask to keep my sinuses from getting fucked up, but once that's taken care of, all there is to do is just walk in something approaching a white fog. The wind howls, you can't see more than a foot or two in front of you, and you feel totally isolated, even if you're with someone.

This year, we were in a terrible dust storm as we approached the Temple. Camps were getting nailed left and right, in fact, our own camp had sustained some damage (the vinyl cover to one of the domes lost a few panels, efficiently repaired by someone other than me, which was very nice)...but we walked out to the Temple anyway. This is how it's best to approach it, I think. In 2001 I didn't see it until it was about to burn...we were in whiteout conditions for the better part of an hour, so I didn't actually see the structure until, quite suddenly, the wind died and the dust parted like a curtain. The night went from white to black, and a few seconds later orange and red and yellow as the massive wooden temple erupted in fire and sparks.

This year, my first glimpse was through a dust storm in daylight. It was much taller this year than in years past, and seeing its spire suddenly appear out of a cloud of dust made my heart skip a beat. Covered in playa dust, with a complete stranger by my side, I was proud of what we'd done--not just Image Node, but the whole fucking community, coming from literally around the world to make something beautiful, for a week--and then burn it down.


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