Thursday began with a human tragedy in of all
places the 'Comfort and Joy' camp when camp members entered a
presumed empty large Moroccan tent in which housed a gym. The
first camp member had entered about 7 A.M., proceeding to work
out for a short time on some gym equipment housed inside. Nearby
a long mannequin like bundle hung from a rope, obscure in the
start of daylight. It looked like someone was playing a joke with
a dummy. One of the other arriving camp members looked more closely
and found to their horror the dead body of a young man who had
hung himself, and exclaimed something like 'Uh, ya know that guy's
dead, right?' This first unequivocal suicide (only counted by
the BM Organization if they die within the event boundaries, although
at least a couple have actually killed themselves there by fire
and scaffold diving) was that of a Fort Collins, Colorado resident
named Jermaine Barley, AKA 'Jerm', a DJ, artist and lover of Burning
Man. He may have felt terminally lonely and decided this was the
best place to die, which he accomplished perhaps an hour before
the first camp member entered the tent. Although I am a believer
in informed Suicide in appropriate situations, at age 22 such
a choice was tragically short sighted. Emergency personnel were
called and the tent was sealed off while a brief investigation
took place. The Black Rock City mental health Team sent grief
counselors to the tent to talk over things with the camp members.
His camp mates who also drove there from Colorado were concerned after he wandered off and never returned, and during the rest of the event they left messages on the community bulletin board and repeatedly visited medical tents, hearing nothing. Only when they returned home did they learn the fate of their companion. The news of the suicide was announced to the world, not by the Burning Man organization which generally shuns bad news but by the BLM, an agency arguably hostile to the event. This second bizarre story from Black Rock City also made the national news, and prompted the 'Fox news' attempt at a comedy program, 'Red Eye' to ignorantly ridicule the story.
The rope Jerm used to hang himself was given to David Best to be burned in his tall 'Temple Of Forgiveness' Sunday night. This would be the last of his celebrated temples erected as modern sacred spaces on the Playa. This Burning Man had another note of finality to it, the last year the quirky but biting alternate newspaper 'Piss Clear' would be published. Along with the vanishing of the black Rock Gazette previously this was a sad passing of another familiar feature of the event. the last issue had the headline 'So Long, And Thanks For All The Drugs'.
Thursday was the day our camp lost two of its
As I got out of my tent in the late morning, I was told Karen and Emily had decided to go home. For Karen especially the experience wasn't working out, partially from lack of sleep since arriving and partly the all pervading dust. I was sad that we would be losing some good company but at least they had a good taste of life at Black Rock City, some of which they enjoyed. They said their good-bys and started their car, backing at once into a large glass jug which had been placed behind a rear tire. Soon we determined the tire was OK, and all the glass we could see was picked up. They waved their good-bys again and drove off.
Gordon washed his bare feet in a small metal tub, which I dumped and cleaned in preparation for washing my hair. As my hands swished around the interior to clear the mud away a sharp pain stabbed into my left index finger, and I saw a small curved scimitar of glass about the size of a big toenail clipping imbedded deeply at the base of the fingernail. I grabbed the tweezers from my med kit and carefully pulled it out, satisfying myself that I had gotten all of it. My finger then bled copiously, leaving a trail at my feet for a short time before being bandaged. The pain soon thankfully faded into a bad memory.
Left: my tent pushed by the wind. Above: a self portrait wearing my dust gear.
As it turned out Karen and Emily had but a
merciful hint of the kind of conditions we were about to experience.
Perhaps an hour after they left, just enough time to clear the
Playa in the absence of a mass exodus, a major dust storm arrived
which in retrospect would surely have justified their decision.
It grew from intermittent gusts highlighting an steady brisk breeze
to the emergence of buffeting walls of air gathering great masses
of dust before them. I could see something of the approaching
'front' of dust towering over the domes and RVs. The usual pale
tan dust clouds were accompanied by dark gray plumes contrasty
enough to make me wonder if something was burning amid the dust.
I had initially decided to ride out this storm in my tent. The
entrance was partially zipped so an overall 'sky color' was cast
into the interior. As the storm picked up, the tent lurched and
bent alarmingly downwind, the turbulent air mass scouring my tent
and mylar cover with a shrill metallic rustle, and nearby poles
wailed as they defiantly sliced through the wind.
The lighting around us spilling into the tent shifted from the bluish sky color to the bright pale tan of traditional Playa 'white outs' I had already experienced. The ambient light then grew ominously darker and browner, prompting me to throw on my mask and goggles and check things out. Such sudden darkening usually happens within a huge and usually destructive dust devil. This was the dark inner storm I had glimpsed previously, not smoke but dirt dense enough to block out most sunlight. Dust clods were audibly being sprinkling across the tent. Our chairs were being tipped over and loose objects from parts unknown were gliding along the ground, only visible within about 20 feet due to the dust. The dominate sound I recall hearing through that of the wind on my ears was the fluttering of fabrics in the wind like so many flags.
I called to Michael in his tent to help secure things, while I folded and weighed down the chairs and tables. I then started repairing tears in my tents' mylar cover, fortunately limited in length by the ribs of plastic tape backing I had used since last year. A few video clips of the chaos were also obtained with a cheap solid state video camera which was more robust in such conditions than tape based devices. A modest sprinkling of rain came and went, briefly tapping on the flat shade structure.
For perhaps an hour this dust storm raged across the region, at times dense enough to make it look, in our already crowded area, that we could have been the only ones there. The shade structure emerged from this test of its integrity with flying colors, secure but coated with rain plastered playa dust. The clouds beyond the passing dust storm reared majestically, catching the remaining sunlight, signalling the close of act two of the drama nature had in store for this event. During the storm a large amount of dust had filtered in and settled down inside the tent, covering the interior with an even brown coating. From earlier experience I carefully bundled up the sheet I had laid over that I didn't want dusty and carried it outside to shake it off, leaving everything in the tent which was under the sheet pristine. Usually it would take all day to gather so much dust, rather than in a single hour. This was at about the time Tethered Aviation was to conduct its traditional kite flying display, but nature intervened in this opportunity.
In the evening the dust had long settled. People filled the streets and wandered among the wonders in the generally tranquil evening. Again I was impressed at how the vitality of the place was most apparent at night, where a sense of the mass energy, personal and electrical, of the event could be grasped while standing in the darkness surrounded by this astonishing spectacle. That night the rebuilt Man was erected, with the figure and the new green neon a near duplicate of the original which had been torched less than three days before. It was a gratifying sight, and one can only imagine the work lavished on making this happen.
The Great Dust Storm of Friday, August 31
On this last full day of the intact existence
of Black Rock City the three of us decided to push out to the
perimeter fence, on bikes only a modest investment of time. As
usual, Gordon tended to try to lose us in the distance. As we
headed out to more pristine looking stretches of Playa the wind
was raising local ground fog like patches of dust, which on a
bicycle one could readily dodge if you were keeping track of them.
As the orange plastic barrier fence widened from a distant line
on the horizon to the partition marking the 'edge of our world'
we gathered for a congratulatory toast of whiskey among ourselves,
taking a symbolic swallow apiece. (Significant alcohol consumption
is foolhardy out there) Gordon wanted to light up a joint there
but Michael and I warned him about the BLM thugs watching people
everywhere for that specific act. People at Burning man are under
nearly as much surveillance by them as inmates are in a prison
yard so sadly I concluded it was in our best interests to wait
for more private circumstances.
The wind steadily gained strength with scattered gusts driving widening ghostly masses of dust before them. Only part of the tent City was visible through broken walls of airborne powder. their shredded edges reminding me of the frayed boundaries of coastal fog in the Bay Area coastal hills. On the horizon to our South, over and beyond the distant Tent City, emerged a frighteningly vast turbulent wall of dust, churning and lunging forward like a magnified slow motion avalanche. I was to learn later that this storm had just subjected Reno to a violent cloudburst.
I took some final pictures of the advancing
storm front then put the cameras away and zipped up the bag. We
started back, with Gordon as usual speeding well ahead. The wall
of dust thus engulfed him as if he simply disappeared a few hundred
feet away, then half a minute later our surroundings also merged
with the dust and the wind. Powdery solid fog roared past us like
ghostly herds of panicked animals stampeding through each other.
The Sun swiftly dimmed to safe direct viewing intensity in the
light gray sky near it, with darker billows of dust clouds crossing
in front to erase the pale disk from view as I watched. The gusts
made bicycling impractical, so we dismounted and stood facing
the wind about 20 feet apart. The wind tore at us, making my cloths
flutter with a brisk vibration as they struggled to join the wind.
I estimated the wind speed as 60 miles per hour based on experience
in open cars, and one had to stand braced against it to avoid
feeling off balance.
The amount of dust around us dramatically grew more concentrated in a short time so as to turn the entire field of view into a medium brown featureless blur except for the ground a couple of yards around. Up to this point I had experienced this level of intensity in dust storms here before, out in the open as well as helping to keep a shade structure intact.
The fluttering wind noise was joined by the
dull spatter of clods of dirt hitting me, thudding against my
cloths and smacking against my clear plastic goggles. This meant
great amounts of stuff larger than dust was being carried off.
Despite the layers of sheet wound around my lower face I started
to cough at the dust. my eyes were stinging from powder whistling
through the little holes in the goggles and piling up inside.
I had to remove them, with my eyes mostly closed, and shake the
accumulated dust out being careful not to lose them. I grabbed
my water and emptied a little of it on my eyes, downwind, then
wiped them off and replaced the goggles under those conditions.
The nice thing about this dust is it's so fine you don't have
to worry about injury to the eyes, it takes to water and can be
readily washed out. I have to imagine woe to those with contact
lenses however! Drinking a little water helped clear my throat.
I remember thinking that now would be a good time to smoke a joint
undetected by the snoopy BLM! I wondered how my camp was doing
in our absence and how long it would be until I found out.
Facing the constant gale one could gain a sense of dense and less dense pockets of dust by the declining visibility turning to feet instead of yards and by the color of the featureless surroundings. The light level visibly dropped yet again and the overall color changed from a medium brown to a dark olive green, reminding me a little of the color of storm clouds filled with hail. The gale shrieked and tore at us, here and there dimly perceived scraps of debris bounced past.
The Playa serpents came to life around me. What had been linear dunes at my feet stretched, dissolved and re-emerged from the whistling streaky chaos as new dynamicly shifting dunes like something one would see in a time machine. Some faced the wind seemingly trying to assert themselves as a refuge for fleeing companions to gather behind, others raced along the cracked surface as darker streaks on the ground up to a yard wide wandering in swift lunging motions like giant ethereal pythons. Above, there was no trace of the Sun, only the vaguest sense of it being lighter above. The flying dirt clods changed to airborne mudballs flying nearly sideways through the air, spattering across my cloths and mask.
The wind chilled and carried less dust as the central down draft of the storm cell passed over us. The blank surroundings lightened and turned a pale blue, as if the overall light of the skies above was beginning to sift through the dust pall being driven downwards. The upper sky lightened and the wind gradually died down, to the point where we could shake out some of the dust and begin to walk our bikes in the bright fog towards the direction we presumed the city would be.
Eventually the outlines of the tops of the RVs dominating the outer city emerged, just as another round of heavy dust laden winds swept through the region. several minutes later, after weathering the elements with a few others on bicycles, a street sign was found and we soon made it back to camp.
There was no damage to our tents, and the shade structure was mud splattered and playa colored but intact. Dunes several inches deep curved across the plastic tarp courtyard. There were rips on one side of my mylar fabric tent cover which were limited by the amount of plastic tape backing I had used, so repairs were made in a few minutes. The interior of my tent was a uniform brown as in yesterdays storm, everything inside thickly coated with dust. My blanket covered sleeping bag and pillows again remained clean under the cover sheet I habitually used.
As we cleaned up the dust passed us by, chased by a light rain. The Western sky was clearing, allowing the sunlight to play across the turbulent dust, rain and clouds. The conditions appeared ripe for a rainbow, and I dug out my still camera in anticipation. Indeed arcs of colors soon appeared, rising from the horizon on either side of the 'anti solar' point, soon bridged by a chromatic arch to form one of the most beautiful rainbows I had ever seen. Widespread cheers, clapping and drumming heralded this sight from every corner of Black Rock City. It was as if the population used this mass vision as a focus for a collective sense of relief from the harrowing experience of the storm it now covered.
The main bow was especially vivid at it's height, with rain textures gracefully highlighted inside its border. The inner edge of the rainbow was lined with a repeating 'fringe' of delicate color stripes repeatedly 'echoing' an abbreviated spectrum inside the primary bow. Outside this main arc the dim wider secondary bow softly framed the spectacle.
I later heard of numerous uprooted tents, lost
items, and injuries due to the storm. A woman reportedly had her
arm broken by flying debris. Gordon appeared and told his storm
story. He rode out the storm alone, protected but suffering in
the dense dust. A dark shape leaped out at him from the opaque
surroundings, proving to be a folded plastic tarp torn from some
nameless camp. This tarp became a place of refuge when Gordon
wrapped it around himself, forming a small relatively calm shelter.
In this sanctuary Gordon decided to light up the joint be had
brought, safe amid the chaos. This happened at about the same
time the idea of the safety of doing so occurred to me.
My evaporation pond was intact, but with one corner of the plastic only held down by a large rock and the remaining water. Kneeling over it I then washed my hair, which truly needed it then. I thought of Dr. Lizard, who had during a storm several years ago commented on such events 'separating the wheat from the chaff' in the population. Indeed such weather in the past often led to a stall in the rate of population growth of the event the next year. The tent City dusted itself off and roared to life by nightfall, when the glowing streets were busy with foot and bicycle traffic. As in the previous night, the city collectively shrugged off the siege of the elements and blossomed like a field of luminous living things that only emerge at night. One interesting night time sight was caused by a long row of gas flame spewing pipes, timed to go off in co-ordinated sequences. Each would brightly illuminate its immediate area, casting long shadows farther away. When you were near them the sudden lighting changes from behind to before you on such a large scale was visually striking. There were numerous custom built vehicles of beautiful and sometimes puzzling design as well as the usual 'party barges'. A few ships still cruised the night time flatness, built around buses, but none as elegant as the fabled 'Contessa', sadly neglected and destroyed by arson last year.
Wandering in the night one would come upon art and various prepared personal spaces inviting quiet contemplation. There were attractions mobile and stationary reaching at our collective humorous, spiritual, political, anarchistic and bar hopping natures, all appreciated by various portions of the multitude. By midnight Friday night Rangers began evacuating the region around the Man to prepare for Saturday night.