Change is in the Air

The playa turns to muck with even the slightest amount of rain

The weather is a constant concern in Black Rock, especially when you are trying to build a city out of desert nothingness.

One minute, the skies will be the bluest of blues, without the faintest hint of a breeze, and the sun is slowly crisping your skin and brains. 

And the next, the wind will come up, and you’ll notice the sky beginning to change. In the distance you’ll see a storm cell, and as it approaches, the sky will change to shades of gray, with white fluffy clouds turning a beautiful but ominous silver.

And just as you think that this summer squall will pass by or around you, it redirects itself and unleashes its torrent of water right where you are standing.

Burning Man staff and volunteers have mostly moved out of Gerlach to the playa, and Wednesday night was supposed to have been both the first meal in the Commissary tent, and the last night of the Black Rock Saloon.

But the weather wouldn’t be ignored, and late in the afternoon, a squall hit Black Rock City and brought all vehicular traffic to a halt. No one could get from town to the playa, and anyone stuck in town was going to be there for awhile.

The sunsets have been special of late

“I told Cuervo (the HEaT honcho on duty last night) that if he didn’t keep the roads open, I was gonna kick him in the – – – ,” Shelley from Spectrum Services was saying Thursday morning. After all, she and her crew had dinner ready and waiting, and if no one could get there, well, there was going to be a lot of food going to waste.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Even without a strong sun to dry things out, the minuscule humidity and steady wind kept haul road passable, and people were able to go about their business and get their grub.

Thursday started out blue and beautiful, but by midday, the clouds were rolling in again, and watchful crews at Man Base and other locations were keeping alert. The other day, Cuervo had to halt operations because, even though the sky was clear above us, there was a lightning strike within six miles. Anything closer than 25 miles is considered dangerous.

Lightening also apparently ignited a relatively small brush fire in the hills outside Gerlach, and you could see the red glow of the flames and smoke rising to the sky. Cowboy Carl said it was in Cottonwood Canyon, and we saw fire teams racing to the scene.

People pretty much stop what they are doing to gawk

And just a brief word about what rain does to the playa. If you’ve never visited, you might think we tend to overreact when it rains, even a little bit. But what might not be immediately apparent is that water turns the alkaline dust of the playa into a thick, sticky goo, about the consistency and weight of cement. It sticks to your shoes and makes walking next to impossible. The goo sticks to your tires, too, and even four-wheel-drive vehicles can quickly become bogged down. And any car or truck that does try to move leaves deep gouges in the playa surface, and those ruts become rock hard when they dry out.

There’s a bright side, though. The changeable weather has brought unfathomably beautiful skies and sunsets. There have been lots of rainbows, almost every day. People come out of whatever structure they are in to gawk upward when the light shows begin.

“It’s like tropical skies in the desert,” Heather Hoxsey, the bar manager of the Black Rock Saloon, was saying. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” And it changes every day.

Heather Hoxsey

So the first Commissary meal was served on playa Wednesday night, and the first on-playa morning meeting was held the next day. The Council of Darkness huddled around a pickup truck for their ever-important meeting-before-the- meeting, and then the Cobra Commander took his place on the stairs of the Depot to address the troops.

“Let’s go over two of the quick rules for the first morning meeting,” he began. “Number one, shut up. That’s my favorite rule. Number two, move closer, so I don’t have to shout.”

Workers ambled slowly toward the front. Some of them might have been moving maybe slightly more slowly than usual, because the previous night was also the last night of the Black Rock Saloon in town. The Yellow Bike Crew had taken over the festivities for the evening, and much hilarity ensued.

The morning meeting

Cobra relayed news that an orientation meeting for first-timers would take place Friday, and that the speed limit in Black Rock City is 20 mph. “You don’t have to drive 20mph,” he said, “because there’s a lot of (stuff) out there that you can hit and do a lot of damage if you hit it at 20 mph. Just be safe. Don’t run over stuff.” He noted that there was a 30 percent chance of more weather in the afternoon, “so keep an eye on the sky, because you know when things go sideways, they go sideways bad.”

When it came time for open comments, Cowboy Carl piped up to say, “When you’re out there driving in heavy equipment or any kind of equipment, if you see a line that’s been drug through the desert, that’s not magic, that’s not a flaw in the playa, I put it there. There shouldn’t be anybody driving on it. That’s not the road to recovery, kids.”

Other folks spoke up about various and sundry, from moving out of town to having the proper driving decals to upcoming “social” events. Then Cobra said if anybody didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing they should come to him, and everybody should have “a great [effing] day!” Whoops and hollers and off everybody went.

Cuervo redefined what it means to be badass

Old timers no doubt roll their eyes when they hear that there now is an “orientation” session for newcomers. Because any DPW will tell you that they are badasses. Baddest of the bad. Snarly and self-sufficient. Grizzled and cocky. Suspicious of newcomers. And maybe not the friendliest people you could ever meet.

But that image, and the reality behind it, has been changing, for better or for worse. Mostly for better.

Cuervo had an interesting take on the transformation.

He was saying that a badass attitude is not really what makes someone DPW, but rather it’s being badass about getting the job done.

“We are hard core, we can do this,” he said. “That’s what makes us what we are. Not being violent or mean, but it’s that we can do the job no matter how hard it is. They way you start and the way you finish, you know? That you can do it in these conditions … that’s where the crustiness comes from, that we can do the job.”

Here are some more pics:



Sgt. Slaughter has a custom-designed door decal on her delivery truck

Cowboy Carl
Gathering for the morning meeting
Lighting caused a small brush fire
The skies have been ridiculous
Peeky took in the sunset
Rocketeers were warned away from Black Rock City


About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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