In 2013, I went to Black Rock City, home of Burning Man, a week early to help build the French Quarter Village, of which More Carrot, the camp for which I was a theme camp organizer, was located within. The French Quarter had been, essentially, reprimanded after having received too many yellow and red markings on the post-event MOOP map showing which camps and villages had cleaned their locations well, and which hadn’t; and, as a result, had be placed in a less-favorable location this one year. (They got their act together and got green MOOP map ratings after that experience.) In this particular year, we were at A (the second street) and 3:00, if you know the city. And if you don’t know the city, look at this map.
While I would eventually be camping with the French Quarter once Burning Man officially started, for Build Week–the week prior to the gates opening when some camps are allocated work access passes for individuals to come in early and begin setting up their camps–I was staying with TinMan (Scott Parenteau) in his magical fortress of metal micro houses and pods, way, way down the way at the edge of the city, at K and 3:00–a little over a half mile from where the French Quarter had been placed.
I had neither met nor spoken with TinMan before I got into his heavily laden truck in Reno, along with Charlie Dayburn, the latter who had invited me to drive in and camp with him and TinMan during build week. They picked me up at my hotel, we did a quick stop at the grocery store and then we were playa-bound. Along the drive in and helping with initial camp set up, I soon discovered TinMan was quite the bad-ass (with a gentle demeanor, that is), and his metal micro-pods were, as you can see below, quite unique, well-constructed, aesthetic, groovy as heck, and with their metal walls, quite safe–particularly in the harsh conditions of Black Rock City. I mean, his creations were highlighted in an article titled, 16 Otherworldly Photos of Burning Man Architecture, so there’s that. (TinMan owns a sheet-metal fabricating business in Sacramento, so there’s that, too.)
After breakfast with TinMan and Charlie (nothing fancy–tea, granola bars and apple sauce, or something like that … it was build week, after all), I would leave our camp at 3:00 and K, and I’d bike my way to 3:00 and A (a little over half a mile) to work with the French Quarter crew. I think it was our second day in Black Rock City, maybe it was our third, when the rains came.
We had already had rather intense weather earlier in the day with a warning-warning-warning message blared out on the BMIR radio station and also delivered to each and every camp by the DPW (the Department of Public Works). A massive windstorm with predicted 60 mph winds was coming through in about 30 minutes, and everyone was encouraged to batten down the hatches, put loose items away and prepare for a doozie of a dust and wind storm.
We had, at the French Quarter, unfortunately, just finished unloading the 26-ft. truck in full, sorting all the various pieces of gear and construction materials by project, and now we had to load it all back into the truck — quickly, with no order, or we had to get items into the carports and other shelters that had been put up earlier. It was a frenzied mess. I’d also never heard such a dire warning coming through, so I listened, trusted and acted.
The wind storm did come through, right on schedule, right as predicted. It was fierce. It was powerful. It was intense. From a somewhat sheltered position behind a truck, I watched as one of our village’s well-anchored 10’x20′ carports lifted up and began to roll like a gigantic tumbleweed with long metal sticks pointing out of it. It was terrifying to watch. Anyone in its path would likely be hit, mauled, injured or possibly even killed. Fortunately, the massive metal tumbleweed hit another structure, its “legs” got caught in the other structure, and it soon stopped rolling. To this day, I can still see that frightening sight with full clarity in my mind’s eye.
Once the storm passed, we were able to get to work and do what we came to do–build the village and its main structure: a two-story, French Quarter-like facade with a number of units for camp offerings on the ground floor and VIP hotel rooms above (used as a village fundraiser).
The sun set, we ate a meal together, and we were all in that relaxed, let’s-have-some-fun mood after a long and often-stressful day. Normally, we’d have been outside, but it was uncommonly and uncomfortably windy that night, and someone had suggested we hang out inside one of the village member’s dust- and wind-battered RVs instead. We were drinking, we were joking, we were laughing. We were having fun. Someone was daring people to drink some sort of strong drink, and I’d decided, “Sure, I’ll do that, too.”
I had just taken a sip of this rather strong drink being passed around and was sitting across from Ari, the village mayor, when it happened.
There was a sound. Lots of sounds, actually. The sound of something hitting the metal can of the RV we were in. The sounds were hard, and they went from a few random tinks to a rapid succession of tink-tink-tink-tink-tinks! I was in the perfect position to watch Ari’s face as the tink sounds started. I watched as his face went from jovial and carefree (as we all were), to curious and wondering (about the sounds), to his dawning realization of what he was hearing (loud rain drops quickly increasing in frequency), to near panic.
He stood up quickly and shouted above the laughter, “Everyone, listen up! That’s heavy rain! If anyone has to get back to their camp for the night, you need to leave now!” Turns out I wasn’t the only one not staying in the village during build week. Build Week can be super-fun and many people enjoy coming in early to help build larger camps. Camps with large build projects need people who are good at construction and such things, and it’s not uncommon for people to help build one camp but then stay with another camp once Burning Man is in full swing. Truth be told, though, I wasn’t thinking about anybody but myself at that moment because I had a hike ahead of me to get back to my camp. And weather to contend with.
Even though I’d been drinking that evening, and even though I’d just taken a shot of whatever strong drink had just been offered, I sobered up in a second. Simply watching Ari’s facial expression change in a matter of mere seconds and then hearing his warning had been enough to scare the bejesus out of me. Without pleasantries or goodbyes to anyone, I grabbed my day pack, ran out of the RV, hopped on my. bike and started pedaling down the 3:00 radial from A street toward K.
The rains and winds continued to pick up and grew increasingly more intense by the minute. I was out in the open during what was quickly becoming the fiercest weather I’d every experienced at Burning Man … by far. It was probably the fiercest weather I’d ever faced as an individual. And, yeah, I’ve been in crazy summer rain and lightning storms, stultifying heat and humidity and even a derechos … but always, with an ability to step into my home, car and safety at any moment. Yeah, I’d made it through the occasional blizzard and days afterward of being snowed in … mostly observing the blizzard and effects from, again, the coziness of my home. But this? I was out in the open and home was far away.
The big rain drops were pelting me–that was tolerable. It was rain–water; it wasn’t particularly pleasant and it was pelting me, but it was water. What was so challenging was the fierce storm winds. Unrelenting, powerful and–as things just happened to be happening on my trek home–coming at me head on! The direction I was headed in to get back to my camp was the exact opposite direction in which the wind was blowing, making the rain angled IN to me and my face and body and not ON to me and my head. I had to battle simply to move forward, and I could barely lift my head to see–not that there was anything to see, per se: there were no people around, no vehicles on the road, no bikers furiously peddling home. I was the only person out there.
But there was one more thing–one more condition–that was making my trek home even more challenging. You’ve seen pictures of this, I’m figuring. The ground at Burning Man, the playa as it’s also known, especially after the summer rains have come, cause the desert floor to become a flat shallow lake, which then dries and bakes in the sun, leaving Black Rock Desert a vast stretch of hard, crusted, cracked mud. The high winds started kicking up pieces of the cracked playa, which were flying through the air, hitting me in the face and all over my body.
The pelting, hard rain had forced my head down, the power of the wind was pushing me back as I tried to go forward, and these “playa pucks” of hard, crusted mud were hitting me all about. I’d never experienced conditions like this before, or since– at Burning Man, or elsewhere. It was intense. And challenging. And unrelenting. And, frankly, a bit frightening. I was alone. Very alone, in a desolate, barely populated desert in the middle of an intense storm.
I pedaled until I could pedal no more, which wasn’t that long or far. Not that I ran out of steam, per se–and thank goodness for that–as there was absolutely no shelter or place to stop. See, playa dust, when wet, even just a little bit wet, becomes cement-like. Each rotation of my bike’s tires caused this cement-ish material to adhere to my tires, caking on them more and more, quickly making it impossible to pedal my bike. I hopped off and started to push my bike along with me, but even pushing it, with the tires becoming more and more caked with the playa-cement, it was becoming almost impossible to move my bike forward. I was near a bank of porta-potties (which, come morning when I returned to retrieve my bike, I would find all knocked over, flat), so I placed my bike by portos as a marker and forged on.
I was still many blocks from my camp, and I was truly alone, without resources, people, shelter or comfort. Once the gates to Burning Man open to all ticket holders and the city becomes fully populated these blocks I now needed to traverse would be filled with camps, people and activity. Were such weather to come up then, I could easily find a public-facing dome where I could hunker down until the storm passed, or I could (quite likely) cross paths with some strangers who would actively encourage me and others caught in the storm to get out of the rain, wind and flying debris and come stay with them until it was safe to go back out. They might have even offered me dinner, or a shot of tequila or maybe even a towel with which to dry myself off. But this wasn’t then. This was the second day of Build Week, and most camps with early access were located closer to the inner part of the city, and not far, far out in the rural and under-populated wilds of K street, where my camp for the week, my home, tent, stuff and people were.
We all have moments in our lives–moments when we see, when we feel, when we understand concepts and situations and Life itself with intense clarity. Such was a moment for me.
I was extremely aware I was the only person around in any direction, for any reasonable distance. There were no camps nearby–not even a lone tent a couple blocks in the distance. There were no nearby structures into which I could go and find shelter. There would be no cars out now, or soon, or even later. No one would be out for a nighttime bike ride in these conditions. There were only many unoccupied, desolate blocks of open playa, with not a soul to be seen.
It was just me. Me and the wind and the rain and the pelting pucks of wet playa hitting me constantly.
I had to go on. I had no choice. I had to get to camp. I had to get there. By myself. There was no rescue. No one was coming to help me. No one even knew where I was, or if I was headed back or hunkered down elsewhere. Back at camp, only Charlie was there, as TinMan had needed to leave earlier in the day to reload his truck and bring in more items. There was no reason for Charlie to be worried about me and to go looking for me in the rain. He would probably have assumed I had sheltered at the French Quarter where people, food, drink and probably even a place for me to lay my head for the night, if needed, were available. And so I trudged on, aware of my isolation, aware of my vulnerability, and aware that only I could get myself back to safety.
I didn’t have an overarching sense of mortal fear, though there was a little bit of it there. I didn’t know how intense or long the rains and wind and flying playa pucks would last. I knew the night-time desert temperatures could drop into the 40s, and I knew I was wearing cotton and such a combination of conditions could make for a long, miserable, dangerous and threatening situation. Stopping was not an option. Step by step, forcing my body into the fierce winds and rain I went.
Eventually, I made it to camp. Drenched and soaked to the bones, I popped my head in to Charlie’s metal pod. He was sitting serenely inside (if you know Charlie Dayburn, you can imagine this, I’m sure!), wearing a rain poncho to cover himself from the small drips of rain coming into his pod, making some Oodles of Noodles or something, and working on his DJ set for a sunrise piece he was doing out in deep playa during Burning Man. I said hello, told him I was soaked and needed to get into my own pod for the night and dry off and that I’d see him in the morning.
I opened the door (yes, my pod had a door), got in, peeled off my wet clothes, patted myself dry and pulled on several layers of warm, comfy, soft wool clothing, reveling in the comfort of being warm and dry, appreciating the metal walls and wood floor below me, grateful I’d made it home safely.
After brushing my teeth and getting my sleeping area ready, I checked the metal seams and the door. Despite the still-pelting rain and fierce winds, not a single drop of rain was coming in–anywhere, and with that, I crawled into my sleeping bag, listening to the pleasant sound of the rain hitting the metal pod, grateful for the sturdier-than-sturdy shelter in which I now lay, and fell into a deep and restful sleep.