Dust and Humanity

Black Rock City spent most of its opening day under a series of rolling dust clouds.  Not “storms” as we have come to know them – no massive wind strikes that come at us with the fury of the Old Testament, tearing down a city in their wake.  Just clouds of dust covering everything across the road and beyond.

“It’s not nearly windy enough for this much dust,” a 21-year Burner said in his camp, waiting it out.

But it was happening, and so the city took a slower pace for much of its opening day.  The last few years have seemed as if there is a competition among participants in Black Rock City to build it bigger and faster each time.  It was in 2015 that I first heard someone say “Sunday feels like Thursday used to,” and it was true.  But today, with long stretches where no one could productively work and the camps builds were dormant, it felt like Sunday again.

Maybe this was why so much of the city seemed more focused, for a while, on smaller scale interactions, instead of giant installations.  One of my favorite moments came as I was walking down the 5 o’clock street as night began to fall.  From the side of the road, someone in a camp invited me to play the “cupcake game,” in which they’d blindfold me and have me spin a wheel to determine what kind of frosting my cupcake would have.  Another wheel spin would determine what topics would be put on the frosting, and then they’d feed it to me, still blindfolded, and I’d have to guess what I’d selected.

It sounded great, but I was late to a presentation by a renowned scholar of James Joyce, so I hesitated, and at that moment someone in an inflatable tyrannosaurus rex costume walked down the street.

“Hey Tyrannosaurus Rex!” she called out to it.  “Do you want to play the cupcake game?”

The dinosaur jumped up and down in delight, and so she led it into her camp, explaining that it would be blindfolded and spin a wheel to choose frosting.

That image will forever make me happy.

Sadly, I was never able to find the talk.  Instead, I walked through the Vortex of Destiny, and ended up outside Hardley’s wild west saloon, looking at the compound when suddenly a dozen people walked out through the swinging doors, all chanting “FUCK YOU!”

After a moment’s pause, I walked inside.  The place was empty now, except for three people behind the bar.  “Excuse me,” I asked the bartenders.  “Did all your customers just leave chanting “FUCK YOU?”

“Yes,” one of them said.  “Would you like to stay and chant ‘FUCK YOU?'”

I did.  They had moonshine that tasted like apple pie.

Perhaps the other reason that everything felt a bit more human was the sensibility that one singular human, Larry Harvey, is gone.  Small tributes to him are easily found, and it makes me happy to think that, in his memory, we have found a good reason to re-engage one another.

I saw David Best as he was loading some materials into a car, to take to a shrine for Larry out in the deep playa.  We exchanged thoroughly banal pleasantries about our friend, the things you say when you don’t know what to say but mean it, and then started to walk away.

Suddenly he turned.  “Well,” he said.  “There is one conclusion we’ve come to.”

I tilted my head.  “What’s that?”

“It’s okay to talk about it.  We know that.”

I like that very much.

By night, the city was flashing and thrumming again, the way it always does.  The race to be bigger and better, and not just more human, was on.

Or maybe it’s two separate races we’re running at once.  I went to the Lost Penguin Lounge after someone from their camp threw ice in my face as a way of reminding me they had snow cones.  As I was sitting on the couch, two women began to dance, and were joined by two more women, and then a man, and then another man, all dancing together to every song that came on the speakers.

Eventually, one of the first dancers looked over at me.  “Care to join us?” she asked.

I shook my head.  “No,” I said.  My costume didn’t make dancing convenient, and I was really not in a good place for it.  I’m struggling, to be honest.  “It’s okay.”

“Well,” she said, “I just want you to know you’re included.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “It makes a difference.”

And it does.



Cover image by Tom Stahl

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

6 Comments on “Dust and Humanity

  • Ranger Sweet Spot says:

    For someone who was not able to make it this year, this article brought the love that I have been missing since my friends made the trek home. I needed this for it brought home to me all the way in Montana. Thank you Caveat Magister, my heart is there with you.

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  • Stow says:

    It’s just another week here in the default world, only it isn’t. If only for a moment on a Tueday morning, thanks for bringing me home. Dusty Xs and Os…and Fuck Your Burn! )'(

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  • Elise Falanga says:

    Same here! As
    I lie in my bed unable to sleep, I wanted to read about what’s going on, thinking about all of you there and missing these sweet moments, trying to remember and feel it, your words took me
    right there on a journey with you! Thank you for your gift of writing and sharing.

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  • Magic says:

    Echoing the above! I feel included, even though I can’t be home this year.

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  • Super Suz says:

    So many wonderful n00bs bring wonderful things to Burning Man on their very first burn. You walked into EBB and Glow Village and experienced Random Acts of Cupcakes. The woman who set that up is the wife of a ranger who had never been to Burning Man before. From all the Decmpressions, Precompressions, EBB and Glow campmates know her well. She’s been to regionals, campouts, parties, and many art / camp build days. I would say that she “got it” perfectly! Thank you, Caveat.

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