Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Back from Burning Man

This year will be remembered as the year of the dust storms. And not just the year someone burned the man on Monday night.

Thursday morning I finally got some favorable winds, and took my kite out onto the playa. I had a great time getting passers by to stop and fly it for a while, many flying a kite again for this first time in decades. I had many great interactions with other fine folk. Very much what I had been looking for.

K and I hit a yoga class around 2 PM, which let out around 3. We were at the 3 o'clock position in the city. As we packed up, the wind picked up. Dust blew. And then the wind really picked up.

We both said "Oh shit" and made the fateful choice to try to cross the playa to our camp on the 8 o'clock axis instead of stick to the city, which would have meant a longer trip home. We followed the lamp posts which lined the 3 to 9 axis of the playa. The wind was thankfully at our backs, but switching to goggles was soon required. At its worst, we couldn't see the lamp posts until they were 4 feet away. Many folks had done the smart thing and stopped where they were and took shelter by their bikes. Most were calling out to make noise, as people could be heard long before they could be seen. It became unsafe to remain on bikes, as the wind was blowing us along faster than we could see what was coming in front of us.

Both of us had little skin exposed, but where it was, the dust and small rocks stung during strong gusts. Playa exfoliation.

At many points, we had to just keep walking forwards, hoping we weren't veering too strongly given the visual homogeneity before us, hoping to find the next set of lamp posts before we got off track.

Upon reaching the other side, we stopped to help a camp hold down their shade structure, which the wind was threatening to carry away.

When we finally got back to our camp, it was a disaster.

We had foolishly left the windows on the tent open, and the fine dust had easily penetrated all the screens. Our tent's design made it terrible in a dust storm, as the rain fly served to funnel the dust laden air straight into the windows. Every exposed surface in the tent, including the air mattress, the sheets, scattered clothing, open bags, lanterns, lights, batteries was coated in dust as if a 30 pound bag of playa flour had blown up in our tent.

Outside the tent, matters were worse. The wind was threatening to tear down the tarps we had strung between shade structures to amplify our shaded space. All our gear outside the tent, including our food and cooking supplies, were also coated in dust. Most of the food was in sealed containers and packaging, but it was still an unholy mess. The air mattress we had left under the shade structure was also coated in dust.

The poor tent design made it easy for the wind to grab and yank. It was coming unstaked in several places. I grabbed my hammer and extra stakes, and re-connected the tent with the ground. I also had to cut line in places where I had tied the tarp to the tent, and allow some parts of the tent to blow free. Resistance was futile.

When the winds finally died down, around 7, everyone and everything was utterly filthy. K's usually raven hair was a grey, matted dust mop. My white long sleeve white T was light brown streaked with darker brown where the dehydrated mud in the air had made contact with unevaporated sweat.

I had been looking forward to going out that night. But all I could do then was eat vacuum packed dinner in my tent with K and my brother and start to fall asleep. I was dusty and miserable.

In Black Rock City, during mid and late morning, water trucks cruise the city streets casting a fine flow of water onto the top layer of dust to turn it back to mud, which the sun then turns to a crust of dried mud in a matter of minutes, which keeps the dust down. I had seen folks run naked after the trucks in search of a free shower last year. I found it amusing, but a bit desperate. While their bodies get clean, their feet become caked in fresh playa mud. It didn't seem to me that they were any cleaner after chasing the truck.

But on Friday morning, I had only two words form my camp: Water Truck.

The trucks tend to signal their approach by a regular "toot toot" of their horns. Who can blame the drivers for summoning naked chicks to chase them?

I heard the truck, stripped to my shorts (the same dusty shorts I had worn during the storm) and looked for the truck. When we caught sight of it, the rest of my camp (all naked) joined me jogging behind the truck, furiously scrubbing the dust into mud and diluting it with the water cascading over our heads. Run run scrub rub run rub run squeegee run.

I felt human again.

I dressed and had my day, taking photos.

Then again, this time around 5, another storm. Winds. Dust so thick I literally walked in a circle and didn't realize it until i cam upon the same corner twice.

I made my way back to camp, and along the way lost my hat, then recovered it in a camp that was continuing its full on late afternoon party. I got back to camp.

Today, the tent had been sealed. Yet there was still a new coating of dust on everything. You can't keep out the playa. I cut down the tarps again, made sure nothing was going to blow away. The wind kept up. The dust kept coming.

I grabbed my mug and headed for the party.

They had a keg of Prohibiton Ale (a barley wine - rare and amazing) from 21st Amendment brewery in SF. It was fantastic and cold.

I brought some of it back to camp for K. She arrived, and then we all headed over to the party. We met people, we brought chips to share and drank exotic beer. In a dust storm.

Thursday, I hated the dust storm. I didn't want everything covered in dust. I wanted to go out and be with beautiful burners and to not worry about myself or my camp. I was so tired from the fretting and so broken by the unpleasantness, I didn't go out on Thursday night. The playa had beaten me.

Friday, I realized the everything is impermanent. On the playa, what once was clean will soon be dusty. The only variable is how dusty it'll be and in what time frame. Yet also, what is filthy can become clean. The water trucks come, the winds die down, the day's heat subsides. I had been operating under the illusion of control. I had thought that, through careful planning and running a tight ship, I could somehow make the trip what I wanted it to be.

But I cannot control a desert, no matter how hard I try. It came to me sitting in the party camp, drinking beer: We the citizens of Black Rock City are the alpine flowers of the desert. We blossom when the opportunity arises, because we can. But we don't expect ideal blooming conditions all the time. In fact, we prepare to be buried under hostile conditions for most of our existence. But when the moment comes, we bloom and are beautiful, even though all that time and energy will have been spent for just a fleeting moment of splendor. The fleeting splendor really is worth it all.

Last year, Black Rock City taught me that whatever I am, it's beautiful and that the only person who keeps me from expressing it is me. This year, the desert taught me that sometimes it's better to be a feather than a rock, that control is an illusion, and that energy spent trying to make the illusion real can be better spent enjoying what is real.

After the second dust storm, this is the real that we got. Full double rainbow. By the time I got my camera, the second was fading. You can still see it if you look closely.