Tales from a playa dust storm

Burning Man is well known to be a dusty experience.  In fact, the idea of avoiding playa dust while at the festival is simply anathema to most Burners.  Many of us embrace the dust and consider our experiences in white out conditions badges of courage.

Knowing what to do when you’re caught in a dust storm is important, because the likelihood of encountering one during the week of Burning Man is fairly high.  After seven burns, I consider a festival without a dust storm simply missing something.

We’ve watched most of the dust storms from inside our RV, but we’ve been caught in a few, including some while doing our Lamplighting chores.  One particular experience is not only our most memorable, but also serves as an object lesson in what to do.

Judie and I were both heading back to camp from far out on the playa.  Unfortunately, we weren’t together as I had started back ahead of her.  A monumental dust storm came up that looked the sandstorm scene from the first Mummy move (of the series starring Brendan Frasier).  The dust was so thick that it looked like a wall coming toward us.  At that point, the best a person can do is seek shelter and turn his/her back to the wind.

Your survival equipment comes in handy at this point.  Wearing goggles and face mask during a dust storm prevents you from ingesting playa dust or getting it embedded in your eyes (often requiring a trip to the medical tent).

Once you are in the midst of a sandstorm, it is not a good idea to keep moving forward, because you lose all sense of direction and are just as likely to be going the wrong way as the way you intended to travel.  The best move you can make is to find shelter, stay put and wait for the storm to subside or for help from the Black Rock Rangers to arrive.  It’s best to find shelter with other people because you’re less likely to get panicky and make a bad decision.

A mildly dusty day on the playa

Judie and I had different experiences while stuck on the playa.  I found my way to a tent that was part of an art installation and stayed there with several people enjoying the art and waiting for the storm to subside.  Before I found the tent, I had been sitting against of the lampposts with my back to the storm.  Using the posts as guides, I was able to walk toward center camp until I reached the tent.  After a few minutes, the winds died down and I was able to make it to Center Camp, and eventually to our RV.

Judie was with a group of bicyclists who had participated in the Critical Tits ride, which ends far out on the playa.  As she was heading back toward Center Camp, the big dust storm rolled straight at her.  She started pedaling as fast as she could thinking she could beat the storm in to Center Camp (wrong!).  Suddenly, she realized that she was pedaling to no effect.  The headwinds were keeping her immobile (“I felt like the old lady riding her bike in the Wizard of Oz tornado sequence,” she told me) and visibility quickly fell to near zero.  She was forced to dismount from the bike and walk, so she headed in the direction she thought would lead her to the Temple.

Then she heard some other people’s voices and she called out to them.  Just as she caught up with them, a Black Rock Ranger emerged from the wall of playa dust and led the group to shelter.  When the dust storm subsided a bit, she found herself far off her original path, beyond the temple and well to the right of the central playa position she thought she had reached.

With the wind dying down a bit and visibility improving, Judie and one of the other women from the bike run followed the lampposts down the 9 o’clock street to the Man for further shelter.  It was a relatively short walk from there to Center Camp, and on to the RV.

When we finally saw each other we had to laugh.  Our hair was playa grey and we both were wearing playa makeup on our faces.  Our clothes were coated with fine dust and our shoes had become stiff from the layer of playa dust that had embedded itself.  What a day!

Takeaways for us from the experience:

  1. You can survive a dust storm
  2. Always take eye protection and breathing aids with you on the open playa
  3. It’s better to travel with someone than to be out on the open playa by yourself
  4. You can easily become disoriented during a dust storm and you’re likely to go in the wrong direction
  5. Seek shelter and stay there until the storm has subsided
  6. Look for a Ranger, and always follow his/her advice
  7. When the storm is over, celebrate your experience and consider yourself a veteran Burner