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Another Account of Condition Alpha after Burning Man 2002

Letter from Burning Man: Dust Up
Reproduced from this LA Weekly Column by Jim Mason

IT TOOK ME 30 HOURS TO GET OUT OF Black Rock this year.

Two shredded truck tires, full ignition-system meltdown, minor air-cleaner fire, and several hacks to my brake and taillight wiring seemed about what I deserved for attempting to drive, once again and against its will, my 1969 junkyard crane truck home after attending the Burning Man festival, two hours north of Reno, Nevada. But, as is often the case, the event was not quite done with me: When I got home and opened my e-mail, I found this -- already on its 1,000th or so bounce around the Burning Man e-mail ecosystem:

Wednesday, Sept 4th

Starting Tuesday at noon and going until 7 in the evening, the playa had the worst whiteout conditions seen in the history of the event in Black Rock. Whatever was not packed up by noon is now under one inch to 18 inches of dust. They are having another whiteout today, including gusts of up to 100 MPH.

These are very serious conditions. We all have friends still on playa, who are having to deal with this. The lucky few of us who got out in time are home, rested and clean. If we can find it in our bodies, souls and pocketbooks to go BACK to the playa now, the project and our loved ones need us.

How better to participate than to go rescue our friends, the DPW (Department of Public Works), and the project in general? Hands are needed to clean up MOOP (Matter Out of Place), help pack up camps still left on playa, and guard piles of stuff against the scavengers, which are everywhere, sadly.

By the time I read this dispatch, it was too late to return. I had already lived through the cataclysm; I was one of those who didn't get out in time. I sat through the dust on Tuesday and Wednesday, watching firsthand from the cab of the crane truck. I watched as everything got buried and generally destroyed. Waves of blinding white alkali scratched over the cab as my truck reeled with each blinding gust. Loading anything ä was out of the question. Trying to sleep in any vehicle was like trying to nap in a Shop Vac -- running. No one could leave. You couldn't see for more than a couple of feet. It was like being incarcerated, against your will and better judgment, in one of the largest expanses of open horizon in North America.

And while I watched it, I remembered: This is what always happens.

It is now clear that the first Tuesday after Labor Day causes large-scale meteorological disturbances in northern Nevada -- disturbances that result in high winds and the accompanying dust storms across most of the Black Rock desert playa, the site where Burning Man has arguably ended a day or two before. It's happened every year for the last eight years, without hiccup. The old-timers will even tell you that, back in the day, the wind blew twice that hard, in both directions, simultaneously, and the dust was actually more like sharpened volcanic pebbles dislodged and propelled from the surrounding mountains. It went right through car paint and blue tarps, chafing the skin to blood at 103 feet per second.

As those who stay late know, the dust storms are key: Each year they create a desert full of front-row seats for a performance in which people you know and respect snap in curious and revealing ways. The BMan literature makes claims for the transformative nature of the event. But, in reality, the event is only the necessary prelude for the real show: Eight days of no sleep, lethal dehydration, substance abuse, unrequited sexual aggression, camp drama, faux-fire warfare and heroic art catastrophes leaves everyone hanging on a thin sliver, right and ready to deal with the skin-stinging, eye-blinding and breath-preventing reality of a good dust storm. And this is where the real tests begin.

All it takes is about two hours of dust on Tuesday before things start heading south on a screaming pulse jet. Within six hours, I get in my vehicle (if it still runs) and start the camp tour to enjoy the now-real scenes of the apocalypse and the generally accelerating disassembly of humanity. Faint figures in full desert wrap quietly scrounging discard piles for goodies contrast harshly with screams of frustration as large metal objects are heaved into the backs of U-Haul trucks. It quickly becomes clear who has "crossed over" and lives in the desert, and who needs to get the hell out of there and back to work.

The dull truth is that, this year, as with every year, the Burning Man Department of Public Works needed no concerned urban youth to return to that chaos in a shiny Honda Civic, hoping to rescue a DPW desert-hardened warrior, fingers deep in the mechanics of a chopped Dodge Power Wagon. The trajectory of rescue would have quickly been inverted.

The DPW builds the site of Burning Man from dust and will return it to dust before the real rain sets in sometime in November. All traces of our creative excess will be erased, and the stillness of Black Rock will be all that's left to thank them. As the DPW announced several days later in an e-mail: "Curb your e-mails, enjoy being home AND STAY THERE."

- Jim Mason

See our recommended Condition Alpha Survival Guide here.

See our personal account of surviving Condition Alpha at Burning Man 2002.




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