by Michael Dees
Sitting in an open sided tent with several newfound friends, we hear the dreaded words from across the 275 Plaza, “Dust storm coming!” We all look up and see that the mountains to the west have disappeared. Almost as if by magic, faces all around me have been transformed into a sea of dust masks and goggles. Even people seemingly with no visible means of concealing such devices on their persons are suddenly equipped for whatever the desert has to throw at them
It’s nearing sundown, so Bill heads directly across the playa at top speed to start our dinner. I’m pulling Tessa C. Horse, so have to ride much slower to keep from breaking her flapping wings off – one wing has already suffered from my exuberant pedaling and amateur welding skills.
I don my protective gear and strike out toward The Man. The city is in the shape of a giant “C”, with the statue in dead center, and my camp is exactly opposite from my present location. Within a minute that landmark is no longer visible, nor is anything else more then five feet in front of me. The blindness and disorientation is worse than in any snowstorm whiteout I’ve ever encountered. My eyes and lungs are well protected, so I perceive no real danger, and decide to extract the most from this encounter with nature.
I continue pedaling in what seems like a straight course to The Man. After a few minutes I hear sounds dead ahead, and people start appearing in my small bubble of visibility. I ask one of these apparitions where we are. “Two-fifty and Esplanade,” he calls back. I have made nearly a complete U-turn and am only 25 degrees further around the inner circle than where I started. I again head out toward what my internal compass tells me is the center of the playa. Three more times I discover the wind has turned me back, advancing me only 15 or 20 degrees around the city. Visibility is now up to 15 feet, and I can sense more shadows around me. A bikini clad woman trudges by with only her hands to protect her from the choking cloud. I offer her a spare dust mask I carry for just such an occasion, and am rewarded with the upper half of a grateful chalky smile and a heart felt, though muffled, “Thank you.”
A little further into this wonderland of dust I hear the faint beating of a drum. Is this some lone minstrel lost in the storm and calling to his mates? Is he using his instrument like a foghorn in the mist to keep from being run over by blinded bicyclists like myself? Drawing closer I realize it’s a lively tune he’s playing for the pure joy of it. Evidently I’m not the only one attracted by his music – a half dozen people are happily dancing around him, and others are joining in as they are drawn to this circle of life in the middle of utter desolation. No one seems to care that they can barely see those opposite them in the ring – they’re just happy to celebrate life anywhere and in any way that they can.
I’m again reminded that there are no islands in this Floating World, but a continuous network of bridges connecting all of us in ever changing patterns and groupings. The bridges here demand no emotional or monetary toll of those wishing to use them, but the travelers gladly contribute their talents to enhance the enjoyment of those around them.
I continue my trek, wondering what other amazements this storm has to offer. I don’t have to travel far to find out. Here in front of me, in the middle of a desert are two young ladies casually sitting on an overstuffed sofa – one dressed as a belly dancer, the other as a mermaid, compete with shells covering strategic parts of her body. Both are wearing elaborately decorated and bejeweled dust masks and ski goggles as if these are a normal part of their daily wardrobe. A detached wheel leans against the front of the couch, conjuring up the image of two ladies waiting in their disabled car for the auto club to come and rescue them. After talking with them and inspecting their living room furniture, this image turns out to be very close to the truth. This is a motorized love seat that threw a wheel and was abandoned by its owner while he retrieved some supplies from his camp. The ladies had chanced upon this meager haven from the wind and decided to wait out the storm in relative comfort rather than fighting their way through it. When the owner returned with his tools, old crumpled straw hat, and dust caked face, the image of a back country shade tree mechanic assisting stranded motorists came sharply to view.
Even the ladies’ sedentary resolve didn’t deprive them of the wonders to be found in a Burning Man dust storm. As we talked, a large white figure emerged from the murk – a man well over six feet tall wearing a long, flowing wedding gown, a half-face respirator, and ski goggles. He stood with his train billowing in front of a huge fabric art display mimicking the dress’ action, looking like an ad for Bride’s Magazine on the planet Dune.
Visibility is variable now as the wind depletes one source of buff colored ammunition, and then quickly finds another supply to throw at us. In a brief moment of clarity I can see Pod Village in the distance, and am able to regain my bearings toward home. To my left is a man dressed only in a respirator, ski goggles, tennis shoes, and the suit he was wearing at birth. Pedaling a little further, I can feel the storm waning a bit and am almost sorry to see it go.
I ask myself, “What other unique experiences could I enjoy from this unbridled burst of nature, so unavailable anywhere else in my world?” Three minutes later a sight never before seen on this planet makes its dramatic appearance – a naked man riding a bicycle pulling a seahorse with one flapping wing across a wind whipped prehistoric lake bed. Funny how I had never before noticed that spring wire protruding from the seat of my bike.
When I arrive back at camp Bill can’t (or doesn’t want to) believe his eyes, and stands there laughing his head off. “Why?” he asks between snorts. “For the hell of it!” I reply. Covered with a uniform layer of fine dust, he says I look like I’ve been in a talcum powder fight and came out the loser.
I can confidently say I have extracted all I could from this heaven sent dust storm. I started this journey across the playa as a spectator on a bicycle inconvenienced and blinded by the weather. Through my brief glimpses of improbable reality in the belly of the storm I saw joy where there should have been desperation. I saw beauty where one would expect only sun-cracked earth. I experienced the inner warmth of helping someone in need. I saw people reveling in the harshness rather than cursing the skies. And I learned once again that happiness in living comes from enjoying and learning from the journey no matter where it takes you. Attitude is everything!
Emerging from this baptism by dust, I felt like a full-fledged citizen of Black Rock City, and open to anything my stay here might teach me. I’m reminded of the words of the great philosopher and songwriter Roger Miller – “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo heard, but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.”
The wind that brought us this dust storm has one more surprise in store. Its higher strata have nudged some welcome clouds between the sun and Black Rock City. While enjoying the coolness, the first thunderclap takes everyone by surprise, likely thinking someone has fired off one of the many propane canons usually reserved for roistering on the open playa. But it’s real this time. As the leading edge of the rain makes its way across the city I can hear a continuous roar of thankful screams, like waders in the shallow waters of a gently sloping beach rejoicing when a wave lifts them in turn on its way to the shore. I see people standing outside with their arms wide and faces to the sky, hoping for a shower long and hard enough to wash at least the top layer of playa from their dust covered bodies. What we get instead is just enough to coagulate the uniform coating into a semi-regular pattern of splotches, which would later become the universal identifier of burners’ cars as they made their trek back home. But even this short cloudburst is just enough to cleanse the air in preparation for the brilliant golds, oranges and reds that fill the western sky as the sun offers up its last gifts of the day. Eating our dinner of half-pound hamburgers and baked beans while sitting in the van, the open double doors frame the sunset like a canvas done by an artist who has squeezed too much paint onto his pallet and feels obligated to use it all up. I feel this whole sequence of weather must have been choreographed just for me, and I am truly grateful to the director.