How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dust Storms

Dust storms at Burning Man.  Apparently, this year was rife with ’em.  Pesky, unscheduled, seemingly never-ending dust storms.  Don’t we look thrilled.  I alluded to some dust storms in the previous posts COCONUT + RUM + POLAROID and Tutu Tuesday, but those were minor, rapidly dissipating storms.  No, the one I’m about to tell you about was longer, scarier, more destructive, happened on a full bladder – and was the moment I decided I was actually enjoying myself at Burning Man.


See, it started Tuesday evening, during the Gate, Perimeter and Exodus New Blood Party.  I was a guest of my boyfriend, who, because he had trained the new volunteers (“new blood”) was required to attend this party.  Shortly after Thunderdome, making myself ill on a kiddie ride, see-sawing (yup) and performing surprisingly well at the Nail Gun Shooting Range, the two of us had a powerful hunger (power tools will do that to you?) and decided to head for home, which was fairly far away, to grab some grub.

On the walk, dust began to kick up, only a little though, as it had during the day.  I had brought my night goggles (see: clear goggles, not tinted), but my boyfriend had not.  Eventually, the dust got so bad that he closed his eyes and I led him, barely able to see, through the dust.

The dust is rather amazing.  When it’s flying around at night, it can feel like a snowstorm:  it smells vaguely like the smoke of a distant chimney, and looks pure white swirling around reflected in your headlamp.  Add that to the desert cold of night and the crunch under your shoes, and it can feel like a blizzard!

The dust got too much for us, and we stopped at a bar made of stripped airplane parts (!!) for a stiff drink of vodka and tomato juice before making the final stretch home.  We tried to wait out the dust, but it showed no signs of stopping.  By the time we made it home, and sated our appetites on leftovers from dinner, it had become almost peaceful.  No sooner had we curled up on the camp couch, deciding to hit the bathrooms down the block one last time and then head to bed, when –

WHIP!  CRASH!  CLANK!  RIP!  BANG!

A sudden fearsome cacophony of noise and I couldn’t even see my boyfriend’s headlamp – and I was sitting on his lap!  So much dust in the darkness I couldn’t breathe for coughing as I reached for my dust mask.

The wind had ripped through the street-facing side of our shade structure, tearing out all the grommets we had used to make a wall from the tarp.  It whooshed into our shade, lifted up the ceiling, and the center pole (which was loose, though we didn’t know it) took this opportunity to fall down diagonally. 

What happened next?  A two-person, almost completely blind, coordinated effort to rebuild our structure against debilitating winds, at midnight, while desperately having to pee.  At one point, our campmate emerged from his tent (directly in the line of destruction of that fallen pole to mutter “Oh.  Shit.” and join the effort.  We managed to tie the tarps down again, reinforce the ceiling, resurrect the pole, and my boyfriend snuck a quick pee behind the tire of the truck before the wind died down enough to see, and I couldn’t fight my bladder any longer.

Boyfriend walked me to the line of port-a-potties down the block, because it was still near-whiteout.  Campmate went back to bed, and I finally got the chance to pee.  But I really got so much more.

See, I’ve been feeling rather down on myself ever since my joblessness began.  Talentless, pointless, and incapable of doing anything right.  But in the danger and the dust, I held my composure.  I moved quickly.  I saved our home.  I couldn’t resist howling with glee as I ran to fetch ropes and bungees to fix what nature had destroyed.  Vital, important, I was useful after all!  Capable!  Responsible!  Unafraid and in control!  From then on, I knew I could handle whatever Burning Man – and life – threw at me.  Including ten-foot steel conduit poles.

Dust storm raging away on the playa!  Photo by John Terrill

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