CROSSING THE RUBICON OF THE DUST STORM

CROSSING THE RUBICON OF THE DUST STORM

Yes, right around the middle of the day on Saturday the wind begins to blow hard. There has been plenty of warning, frankly, and at first the sun is still shining and spirits are high but those that have been around for Monday’s dust storms have a sense that things aregoing to get more interesting (and they are quick to tell the rest of us).

Reluctantly, I get up, say goodbye to my gracious students at Camp Shaloha, and hobble back to the Post Office. By then, the wind is blowing pretty hard, and my campmates are scrambling around trying to secure the façade and the carports that together make up the permanent part of our camp (the physical layout of our camp was really great, by the way – I’ll try to get some pictures out – in addition to six postal windows that backed into two big carport/tents, one with kitchen facilities and the other with seats and tables, we also had this large kick-ass, beautifully furnished chill space). I chip in as best I can to try to secure the façade, and then realize that I had better check on my tent.

A few things about my tent that are perhaps worth mentioning here:
• I had hastily put my tent up the first night I arrived, with help from Adam and Tania and Margaret, and in my haste, I had not taken the time to pound in the rebar stakes that I had so thoughtfully brought with me
• Instead, I had thrown in everything I brought with me including bags, costumes, toiletries, shoes, lights, batteries, and food. Of this, the food had been the heaviest stuff but we had used most of it the night before on the chili project
• As I have mentioned earlier, it is by this time a complete disaster (frankly, I’ve had a hell of a time finding things all week – for example, Adam’s car keys are still at large somewhere in the midst of the piles of stuff).

My tent is dancing around. Not too fast, and not too far, but definitely dancing. At this point, the wind is blowing really, really hard and though we are not in a white-out yet it is clear that we are heading that way. The prospect of finding my rebar, locating a sledgehammer, and pounding in the stakes does not seem very likely. There is only one thing to be done, and I have no choice but to do it.

I lie down in the tent to weight it down and wait it out.

For three or more hours, I lie there in my sleeping bag, drifting in and out of slumber and watching the top of my tent shake and the dust flying inside and out. At first it is not so bad – hell, I need the sleep anyway – but slowly the craziness of the whole damn week starts to make its presence felt upon me. I am slightly delirious, surrounded by random stacks of random dust-covered crap, with no idea when the dust storm will stop and what will happen when it does. As afternoon turns into early evening, my “plans” to meet Big Cock, Jewel, and Shoe Girl at the Blue Light District at 4:00 pm are revealed to be a complete joke (once again, the lesson: who has a schedule at Burning Man? What could you have been thinking?!).

In the end, nevertheless, this tiny shred of a personal plan is the only thing that keeps me from totally plunging into mental oblivion. Sometime after 6:00 pm, roughly at the height of the dust storm, I summon all of my strength towards making a decision: I will get up, I will get dressed for the evening, and I will walk (on my already scarred and aching feet) to the BLD to meet my friends [better late than never, and hell, the night is young].

This of course is an easier decision to make than to execute upon…Not sure if the tent will stay down if I get up, I struggle to my feet, pack up a few hundred of my ubiquitous postcard gifts, put on Nate’s glorious black curly-haired wig, a purple shirt, my old white suit (what else for a whiteout), a pair of goggles, a dustmask, a dozen or so Burning Man necklaces, and the most comfortable shoes I can find. During these chaotic preparations, I straighten out my tent and even find Adam’s car keys!

And thus equipped, I bid adieu to a handful of my campmates and step forth into the 9:00 plaza, bound for 5:30 and D. At this point, we are in a total white-out, and my simple objective – to walk straight ahead onto Dart, which is the D road [all the streets are named after American cars this year, in keeping with the American Dream theme] – seems highly non-trivial. After walking maybe 30 yards (really, who can tell?), I am genuinely questioning my own sanity. Recalling the fine print on my Burning Man ticket that reads, and I quote verbatim, “The ticketholder/purchaser voluntarily assume (sic) all risk of property loss, personal injury, serious injury, or death, which may occur by attending Burning Man 2008,” I stop in the middle of this absurd sandstorm and think of my dear wife and my lovely daughter back at home, of my students and my colleagues and all of the people who I’ve known over the years and all of the things I still hope to accomplish in my lifetime, and of the harsh reality of this very, very risky situation,.

And then I keep walking.

The weather doesn’t improve, but remarkably start to get better. I stop frequently at some of the many camps where people are huddled around hanging out together and waiting out the storm. People give me glasses of punch, cans of beer, and other substances. A few times I stop and join small groups of people dancing in the midst of the dusty craziness, and every time I pass someone else on the road I hand them a gift postcard – and the greeting I give every stranger I meet at Burning Man (“thanks for being out here”) seems to take on a whole different level of meaning. Somewhere around 7:00 and D – and again, I am not making this up, I encounter a small crowd gathered around a live band who is singing songs from the firm THIS IS SPINAL TAP and join them in a rousing rendition of Big Bottoms. Along the way, I ask several people for directions, mostly just to validate that I’m still on track.

Mostly, I just keep on plodding. And eventually, nearly two hours after I’ve left the 9:00 plaza, I wander into the Blue Light District and locate Jewel standing with a small group under a shade structure near the center of camp. I have made it to my destination safely, and I nearly weep with joy and relief.

It is just after 8:00 pm, the wind is still blowing, and we still don’t know the answer to one basic question:

Will the Man burn tonight?

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