Misadventures in Shelter Building (1997)

In the two years my husband Grover and I have journeyed from the California coast to the Playa for Burning Man, we have learned tons, but we still have a vast skill at learning by screwing up. I want to share some of the knowledge we have discovered about building a camp shade structure that will survive a week at Burning Man.

The two biggest natural challenges at Burning Man seem to be incessant wind all the time, and pushy, disrespectful, prying sun. So your task is to build a bending potato chip – cool, dark shade in a structure built to allow the weather complete access to pass through (nonresistance) and with extreme struxtural (hey, nice word) integrity, with a minimum of linear wall-type thinking.

Perhaps my experiences will save the newbie reader some agony. Our first year, we took two little camping tents, period. Grover spent hours each day pinning up towels, sheets, my long skirts and dresses, etc, to clotheslines, and moving them around, to create a speck of shade over our living area. He used clothespins, bungees, paperclip wire, wooden skewers, duct tape, needle and thread, even a fork. We had little furniture, no rug or covering for the baking thirsty sand, and we were angry and arguing lots of the time. Also, we knew nobody there at all that first year.

So, the next year, our brains being just slightly larger, we designed something out of PVC – and you always end up putting up your structure while the wind is trying to get a rise out of you – to be covered with a parachute, sheets, Indian blankets, and four or five discount blue tarps. Everything was unassembled, waiting until the afternoon we arrived there and emerged from our van into the 100- degree playa playground of terror for the insane and stupid.

All around us – and, once again, still, we knew nobody around us; how about that? – folks were erecting enviable huge buckyball structures and onion domes and big rainbow things, getting them up and starting dinner while we struggled. Grover and I were majorly furious at each other over some triviality, refusing to work together, so we took hour-long turns. After he stormed off finally to the van to glower and seethe, I tried My way, which didn’t work either.

See, we had a PVC dome, built to plan and strengthened and rebarred and duct-taped and braced into relative stability, but then we were unable to throw the center, top parachute over the thing and batten it down. Our skin refused to fit lovingly over its bones, even after I got myself lost wandering around borrowing a stepladder, and even though well- meaning people stopped and – I must have been a pitiful sight – offered to help me get set up (they soon became confused and vanished away.)

Finally, some four hours later, after a teary reconciliation between us, and after way too much defensive, not even remotely temporary duct-taping, we had a twisted sort of scone-shaped 20′ wide structure, with a white parachute roof and variously attached walls and panels all around, a nice breeze from underneath the hanging cloths, and the early-evening sun cooking down on us right through the roof.

Did I mention that sudden exposure to extreme sweaty, sticky, incredible heat makes many people sort of psychotic and irritable and prone to making bad snap judgments? It takes about forty hours or so on the Playa for me to remember why I’m there, and to get a breath of more reasonable air, to relax and finally wake up to the amazing surroundings I’ve been ignoring.

Okay. So, this time we had stocked a lot of spare cloths and netting pieces, and more cord and wire, better tools, and large, trustworthy, diaper- strength safety pins. We patched and flung and plastered with scraps and flips and flaps and dangles, and managed to arrange two or three layers of differently colored material between us and every trick the sun could think of. Blue and maroon seem very comforting visually, and make honest shade, too, not like what yellow or white roof cloth throw down.

We eventually fixed the two trouble spots on the roof, where the sun moved around until it drew a bead on us every time, with a pole-controlled adjustable moveable heavy blanket, operated skillfully during the week by my now also-recovered Grover. The day doors were tied up for light in the morning, and were tied down when the wind changed, and the several night doors, survival feng shui, were opened for some cool evening breeze. (This was the hottest year I can remember at Burning Man, with not even a rainstorm for relief.) So, by our manipulating this ragtag house as though it were a fine machine, and our various hangings reactive petals, collectors and reflectors of the solar ambivalence, our hot days were dark and quiet (good!) and our hot nights bright and airy.

In the years since, the nights have been much cooler, sometimes freezing, and we have experimented widely with double walls, wooden barricades, trick entranceways, and other attempts at weatherproofing a temporary structure against a feverishly creative natural antagonist. I offer here a few suggestions for those who do not buy their shelters ready-made, but try each year to make something aesthetically pleasing, yet cheap, large enough for sanity, and protective against multiple weathers.

Whatever you cobble your shade together from, you probably want to streamline it, design it with a natural curve, resistant to most weather rather than really protective. Building low is good, with a slanted top so the wind will find its way easily over. Tents blow away, even staked, if they are made like balloons, sucking air and not releasing it. Build the shorter side facing the prevailing wind – or sort of spiral what you build, so air will move up and around and away. The wind will have its way with your tent in any case, and will curve and twist and reshape it in a week by itself, huffing and puffing, so why not anticipate the need?

So, given that factor of surrendering to the wind because it will win anyway, build your shelter gently out of whatever varied materials you like, and want to be seen in, on the playa. Every camp bigger than a barrel gets visited, as thousands of people walk along the streets of the burgeoning city in the heat, and the better structures are much more popular with passers-by.

Most homemade tents begin with a skeleton of PVC or other bracing material, and the roof, walls, doors and moveable panels can be a layered patchwork of specialized (waterproof, say, or UV-resistant) or beautiful fabrics, ancient or modern. Little holes or slits in large surfaces prevent the sail effect, and exchangeable doors and windows (moving with the sun) help get you through the twelve climate changes in an average desert day.

The next year, I resolved after all this building experience, I was absolutely going to:

  • Take rugs, a broom, and a bike bell
  • Sew the shade skin together before the playa
  • Have a ladder and a really good lantern
  • Sleep raised up off the ground, as on: a cot
  • Carry around my own damned folding chair
  • Hire someone else to raise the structure, while I recover from getting there
  • Camp with friends!
  • Have interactive muralization of the shelter – not just a bulletin board, but paint, etc.
  • Use brighter colors and darker shades

Whew. More. Tarps for walls are too loud and too dry for my taste, flapping and cracking nervously, and they argue with the wind. Use them as flooring, as cooler covers, as bright territory markers – not as walls, even inner-between-two-cloth-sheets walls, unless you can handle the noise. (Of course, if it rains, they go well anywhere).

Take rugs! The playa dust sucks out your juice through your feet, and everything dropped is at risk of becoming quickly buried by fine blowing “sand”. You want soft comfort under hot, sore feet. Air spaces between floor and walls are good, freshening the air day or night, but you have to sweep the rugs a lot. The sand is not caustic or acidic, but it gets into everything (your flashlight, your dentures, your eyelids, and tiny cracks in your skin). We discovered the wonderful healing properties of pickle juice for the feet, poured out of the big jar into a foot-bath; perhaps plain vinegar would do as well.

So. Your shade structure should, in addition to all this technical adjustability and detail micromanagement, look artsy, and represent each of you with your personal signature of elegance. Not only does everyone think of your tent as representative of you, your style and class, but also, every time you trudge back from the portapotties (don’t build too close to those monsters!) you visualize and then find and recognize your structure, comparing it to its neighbors, and often cringing from the stark knowledge gained by seeing sharply what you have built yourself.

We suggest lots of decorative touches, well-attached by powerful forces (we have watched hot-glued flags shed and lose letter after letter in the wind, and ladders holding art have been known to blow away.) Try flags, banners, shields, flashy signboards, cutouts, glued-on clothing or decorations, attractive outside fabrics, stencils, spray paint, metallics, plants, wicker anything, plus the absence of trash or anything ugly. Also excellent are ostentatious props and antiques, wind toys, flowers, welcoming lights or markers, light-or-shadow tricks, bright ethnic colors and artifacts, any kind of garden, paintings on the tent walls, good smells, food exhibited in nonordinary ways, festive clothing used as ornament or in symbolic ways, murals, towers, big hanging art – all these and more can help in converting your drab, ordinary, boring, horrible, or squalid shade structure into a mod, phat, rad, charming, popular, gorgeous, startling, enlightening, glorious, homey, more acceptable, enviable, or timeless temporary living experience.

by Sadie Damascus

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Tales From the Playa

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