Storm over the Playa

This was the first minute of dust storm with still part of blue sky in the background. Dark dot on the playa is the emergency parachute landing.Crude Awakening by Dan das Mann and crew.

This was the first minute of dust storm with still part of blue sky in the background. Dark dot on the playa is the emergency parachute landing.Crude Awakening by Dan das Mann and crew.

“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 see if I could 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 and tallied how many guy lines anchored the structure we’d been building. Not enough, I feared. The Heartspace was a two-story, ten-sided yoga studio the size of a circus tent, and since the wall fabrics were not yet tied down, there was a high probability that they were going to billow like sails and cause the entire building to take flight.

While Justice and John worked feverishly up on the scissor lift to finish zip-tying fabric to the ceiling poles, I grabbed a loose guy line and wrapped it around some rebar. After tightening a second 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 pause or 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 crewmembers 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 vigorously 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 cloth 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 on securing 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 sixty miles per hour now, and random debris tumbled past our positions. I couldn’t see my tent through the dense clouds of dust, so I had to rely on faith that it hadn’t blown out into the open desert.

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 breathe easier through my bandana, and I 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 fifty thousand people in Black Rock City.

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

The downpour started on 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 into platform shoes. The weather was unprecedented in all my years out there, and because the wind had picked up again, I started to get nervous. If the earth around the Heartspace’s rebar anchors turned to clay, the tension on the support ropes could pull the rebar through the softened ground as easily as a knife slicing through butter! This could be very bad.

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

Since I’d adopted the word “Rain” as 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 passing of the storm there came the most vibrant rainbow to possibly ever span the skies 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 whooped and hollered 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.


by Bryan Snyder

About the author: Tales from the Playa

Tales from the Playa

Tales from the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.

7 Comments on “Storm over the Playa

  • Dani says:

    Thank you for sharing this story.

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  • Linda says:

    Well done, I had the pleasure of the very first one . Not what I expected bit had a blast

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  • Joebar says:

    Scary — what year was this?

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  • Kiki says:

    We we’re stuck in line at the gate during the rain that year. I was wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, so I took my red purse, filled it with treats, and visited the vehicles stopped around us, introducing myself as Big Red Riding Hood and asking if they’d like some candy. I met so many people and made many memories. The most fun I’ve ever had waiting hours in line. Thank you for sharing your beautiful memories!

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  • Corvus says:

    This tale should go out all of those bucket-listers out there. Burning Man isn’t all dancing, parties, and drugs – there are those infrequent moments where you can get hurt or killed. Looking at Youtube videos gives you the wrong impression because the weather’s always good. Of course, I don’t blame someone who’s reluctant to take out his camera in the middle of a whiteout. Just be aware that it isn’t all blue skies and light breezes.

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    • Barbara St Jacques says:

      I read this with trepidation, as though I was there! Everything is a gamble, but I think I am too old to think any more about the burning man being the only thing I wanted to do on my bucket list.

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