Off the Map, Week 10: Storm over the playa

“It’s a tornado!” shouted Justice from the top of the scissor lift, excitement and disbelief coloring his voice. I followed his gaze through the cluster of tents and shelters, straining to make out the form of a twister or oversized dust devil. Instead, to the southwest, a wall of dust was rolling and billowing inexorably towards our camp in the Black Rock Desert. We’d weathered storms before, but this one was going to be huge.

We probably had less than a minute. I looked around, assessing how many guy lines we had securing the structure we’d been building and thinking they might not be enough. The Heartspace was a two-story, ten-sided dance and yoga space – part of the sprawling infrastructure for Nevada’s Burning Man Festival – and since the wall fabrics were not yet tied down, there was a high probability that they might billow like sails and cause the whole building to take flight.

While Justice and John worked feverishly up on the scissor lift to finish zip-tying the walls to the ceiling poles, I grabbed a loose guy line and wrapped it around some rebar. After tightening another rope, I had just enough time to lower my goggles and cover my mouth with a bandana before the mass of air struck.

The storm came tearing into the camp without mercy, rocking the Heartspace backwards with the sudden impact. Metal poles bowed and looked ready to buckle. I ran behind the leading pole and threw my weight against it, pushing back against the wind, though my individual efforts felt futile compared to the sheer power the storm was throwing against us. Other crew members and passersby materialized out of the blinding dust, grabbed the other poles and hung on with all their might.



The wall fabric took the force of the air and bulged inward, as I feared. I released my pole and grabbed the lower edge of the cloth to pull it down tighter, removing some of the slack so it wouldn’t billow out and cause so much wind resistance. It was a ridiculous gesture. Slowly, the fabric lifted higher, and as forcefully as I tried to haul it down, the upward pull increased until I found myself getting lifted along with the fabric. I was pulled up onto my tiptoes as the wall billowed further into the structure, and when my feet left the ground, I realized it was time to let go and change strategies.

A quick group decision was made to “raise the sails” and let the walls flutter freely in the gale so we could focus the metal structure. Justice tied another rope onto a ceiling pole, then lowered the scissor lift before the top-heavy machine could topple in the wind. Gusts were barreling through our camp at 60 miles per hour now, and random debris tumbled past our positions. I couldn’t see my tent through the dense clouds of dust and had to rely on faith that it hadn’t blown out into the open playa.

The greater danger in all this was that if the Heartspace was not secured in time, it could tear all the anchors from the ground and start cartwheeling across the neighboring encampments, crushing cars and bludgeoning people to death. In all this dust, no one would see it coming. The fear of being responsible for human life was heaviest in my thoughts throughout this entire ordeal.

I grabbed a pole again, while others hurriedly hammered fresh rebar into the ground. As more ropes were tied down, I began to breath easier through my bandana and wondered how other camps had fared during the storm. Together, a few thousand of us were laying out roads and erecting shade and workshop structures for the 50,000 people attending the Burning Man festival.

My co-workers and I were only responsible for the needs of a smaller village of 200 within the sprawling expanse called Black Rock City. From a barren plain of hardpan clay devoid of multicellular plant life, we were building Nevada’s fifth-largest metropolitan area, and in just a few weeks it would make its yearly return to dust and emptiness. The dance clubs would be deconstructed, the wildly-imaginative art cars would be carefully driven back to their warehouses, and the giant sculptures would be dismantled, perhaps never to return. Even the ashes from the seventy-foot Man effigy would be hauled away to a landfill near Reno.

And now that the Heartspace had survived that windstorm, I felt reasonably secure that it would outlast the coming week. We had enough support lines nailed into the ground that the structure wasn’t going anywhere. Unless …

The downpour started the first day of general admission. Lightning arced across the desert sky, and cars and RVs were halted at the city gates as the fine powder of the playa floor turned into thick, slippery clay. It clung to boots and sandals, transforming them quickly into platform shoes. The weather was unprecedented in all my years of attending the festival, and since the wind had picked up again, I started thinking: if the ground around the Heartspace rebar turns to clay, the tension on the support ropes could pull the rebar out at an angle, just like a knife sliding through butter! This could be very bad.

Luckily, I had pounded a few more pieces of rebar into the ground that morning, and Justice was already circling around the Heartspace, hammering rebar deeper into the ground, where the earth was drier. They’d be a pain to uproot after the festival, but at least the structure wouldn’t come loose and roll out of our village.

As I’d adopted “Rain” for my “playa” name, I got teased for all the chaos the storm produced. Tents were soaked, and staying warm throughout the cold night would prove challenging for some. But with the immediate passing of the storm came perhaps the most vibrant rainbow to ever span above the festival. A double rainbow shimmered into existence, and the primary arc grew four extra reflective bands beyond the indigo and violet. Citizens of Black Rock City were whooping and hollering at the spectacle like they’d won the lottery. There could be no better omen, no better promise that a wonderful and otherworldly week in the desert was about to begin.

Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and works as a naturalist at the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School in Santa Barbara, CA. You may reach him mid-journey at foolsby@hotmail.com. Look for Bryan’s columns on our Facebook page – www.facebook.com/theeveningsun.

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