Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Baptism by Dust

The drive to Black Rock from Reno was powerful.

Crossing the Indian reservation, I saw a native crossing guard. Not a face I see in SF.

The landscape itself is a warning that humans have no business here. Nevada highway 447 runs through a valley between eroding mountain ridges, next to an extinct lake bed. It looks like Napa valley after nuclear holocaust. Same geographic structure. No life.

Well, some life. Scrubby brush plants that look barely alive.

We were in an organic caravan of fellow pilgrims. Only one reason so many folk with out of state plates and tons of shit in and on their cars are driving this route this week. At the time, I had mixed feelings about being among so many people. I wanted attendance to make me unique. By the end of the week, I'd feel differently.

I was thrilled to hit the playa. I had read the rules about driving slowly so as not to create a lot of dust. I was about to learn why these rules are in place.

Playa dust is legendary. I was told about packing things in plastic bags, that the dust gets everywhere, that it's caustic.

As we waited to get processed, a fellow rower noticed my plates and struck up a chat. He walked beside me while I drove. Turns out we went to the same undergrad school. He's thinking of rowing for my old club in Boston.

Waiting in the queue of other cars at the gate with my windows down, I noticed some dust entering the car. "Oh! Playa dust! Cool!"

My, it hadn't taken it long to get into the car and lightly adjust the hue of my car's dashboard. Playa dust is a very light brown, finer than baking powder. It's light, yet, upon contact with moisture, becomes sticky and slick. As a solid, it's a powder. As a liquid, it's mud.

(The Playa: dried lakebed, source of all dust. )

After some confusion about the correct process for getting my ticket, and after much waiting in line, I arrived at the gates. I received my initial instructions. About the gate I noticed several people in various forms of dress and undress, all with goggles and masks and hats.

As the greeter finished his spiel, the wind picked up. And the world became invisible.

(notice the dashboard color change from the prior picture)

So much dust in the air that it was like the thickest fog or heaviest snowstorm I had ever seen.

Protocol in such conditions is not to drive anywhere. The guy at the gate led me through and over to the side of the road to some cones to wait out the white out.

After a few minutes, I could see again, and, now that K had found me, led the way to our camp.

(notice the air is still dusty compared with photo #1)

Once there, conditions hadn't gotten much better. High winds kept whipping up dust, such that, to be outside, I had to wear my protective chem lab goggles over my cooler yet less effective goggles to really keep the dust out of my eyes. And even with the dust mask, I was breathing it.

We managed to find places for our cars, and to set up tents.

In just a few hours, the wind had died and the temperature had gone from the low 90's to the low 50's.

I noticed I didn't need my mask any more. Or the goggles.

As the week wore on, it turns out that we had arrived at the dustiest moment in the week. And spent much time with our car doors open and windows down during that time. The inside of my car is so filthy that I cannot drive it without looking like I rolled around on the ground for a half hour. And I like to wear darker colors, at least in the pants department. First thing to do on Saturday: Get the car washed.