Black Rock Desert is phenominally beautiful and as phenominally
The smell is a damp-wool-sweater kind of scent. You notice the smell when you first approach the desert. Like the scent of a lover, it draws you in. Its absence is your first sorrow. Like when the scent of a lover fades from your pillow.
The desert is so flat that you can close your eyes and walk in a straight line for days without feeling any change in terrain -- not even a pebble. It's ideal for racing cars at the speed of sound or as a blank canvass for art that is too large or too dangerous to be performed anywhere else.
The sunrises and sunsets are the most spectacular I've seen, with unabashed shades of gold and red lighting up the hills and clouds in colors painters only dream of. The night sky is crowded with bright stars when you venture beyond the lights of Black Rock City. When the moon sets and the clouds roll in, the darkness is like the inside of a vast cave. It's an absolute-midnight-deepspace-falling-into-a-blackhole darkness. And you stand there, not sure if your eyes are open or closed.
As beautiful as it is, this isn't one of those Hollywood movie deserts where you can crawl on your hands and knees to a blue oasis shaded by luscious, fruited palm trees. This is the desert where real settlers heading west ran out of water and clawed through layers of thick clay hoping to find an underground pool and they died there, face down in the dust. If you did manage to find water here, it would most likely resemble the crud from a dead battery.
Vultures don't even come out here.
The surrounding hills host scorpions, rattlesnakes and nasty flying ants that swarm and bite like having a hot match touch your skin. The small patches of green on the hills are sage brush and thorn bushes. Sage makes a great spice and smells wonderful when burned. The thorn bushes aren't good for much, but the deer ticks use them both for shade.
There are random lightning showers here, and one night, while strolling out on the open playa, immersed in the immensity of the darkenss, a bolt touched ground just a few feet from me. It was so bright, I was temporarily blinded in one eye. I took it as a not-so-gentle reminder that, while incredibly beautiful, I was in one of the most hostile environments on Earth.
The night before The Burn, it rained. The ground got muddy, and the Rangers on bicycle patrol had to go on foot. It was a comedy to walk around in the damp, sticky dust. I completed my rounds and bedded down in my tent for the night. I left my muddy boots outside my tent, laying them on their sides so the rain wouldn't get in. The rain stopped before morning, and by late-afternoon we had our dry desert again. Sunday night, the night of The Burn, the sky was clear with a big full moon.
Monday morning, the day after The Burn, heavy clouds gathered. That night, rain fell. By morning, the desert had become a muddy swamp.
When it rains, the normally flat, dry crust of the playa becomes a thick goop, like moist dough -- a foot thick. The stuff collects on your shoes and your feet feel like lead weights. Unlike quicksand, there's nowhere to go to get away from it. Several cars, a bus, and a large camper were stuck up to their axels near The Gate. We figured the rain would let up soon and the next day's sun would quickly dry up the mud and puddles and give us back our familiar bone-dry desert.
The rain fell all night. I was camped out in Ranger HQ. In the morning, I put the lead weight boots back on and trudged about camp, 4 inches taller, thirty pounds heavier, and becoming genuinely anguished. In the same way the dry desert wicks away moisture from your pores, the muddy playa wicks away hope from your soul.
The Cafe' provided two hot meals per day out of what should have been food for the DPW and those who had signed on to help them. Instead, they had to feed a community of castaways -- our four-wheeled ships beached in a sea of mud.
Tuesday, one of the DPW workers went mad and raged around the
camp swinging an axe handle. I heard the screaming at the
periphery of a fitful dream as I sat slumped in a chair. I fully
understood how he felt. If this was forever, this would be Hell.
Eventually I abandoned my weighted boots in the hallway of the Ranger HQ trailor and went barefoot. I kept thinking about the Ray Bradbury story of the rainy planet and the astronauts searching for a Sundome -- someplace to escape the unrelenting, brutal rain.
I spent Wednesday night in Pirate Nick's trailor with his wife Emily, Faddah, and Silent Wolf (a novel just waiting to happen). We sat up playing cards, drinking rum, and passing around the peace pipe. I'm really not into pot these days, but I hoped it would help me forget that my feet were crusty with drying mud and it was still raining outside. It rained all night. I had a dream that the DPW had taken the wooden lampposts and built a road with them. It was the reassuring dream of a desperate mind. When Faddah went to put on his shoes the next morning, they were wet inside. He accused Nick of pissing in his shoes and it took some convincing to reassure Faddah that it was just rain water. Insanity was providing us an alternative to a reality that had become unbearable. Faddah stood in the doorway of the trailor looking out at an unbroken sea of thick mud.
"This is HELL!", he shouted.
Faddah went into a long rant about how Larry Harvey had set us up to die out here in this stinkin' desert as a suicide art piece. We laughed hysterically -- or laughter provided an outlet for our already-present hysteria.
"I'm gonna die out here for Larry Harvey's art! If you see him, aim for The Hat! Aim for The Hat!"
Desperation had become delirium. I was still barefoot, but the others were putting on shoes and duct-taping plastic around them. My boots were in the other trailor, a long, muddy walk away. I remembered that Nick had been pissing out the door of the trailer during the night and I realized that several dozen people were living in this muddy camp with no portapotties, and people were not being very creative about where they were relieving themselves. I duct-taped my feet into plastic bags. It wasn't much of a fashion statement, but the mud won't stick to Zip-Lock Bags and I no longer had to worry about what, besides mud, I might be sloshing around in.
There were only two vehicles moving about with any success -- they were large... well, they were monster-trucks with jacked up suspensions and huge tires. They were owned by locals who probably drove these beasts out on the muddy playa as winter sport.
The enterprising owners of these trucks offered to haul out anyone who could pay $50.00 up front. I had stayed after The Burn to help the work crews with cleanup, but the rains and mud had idled everyone. I had to be back by Friday night to spend the weekend with my son. There was nothing I could do to help anyone but myself (well, I did leave the DPW some florescent hair dye and my first-aid kit), and I helped myself the hell out of there. I dug my wallet out of my back pack, scrounged up some change from under the floor mats in my car, and had exactly $50.00 cash for the tow. The driver let me keep my change explaining that he didn't want to take all of my money -- he just wanted to be able to pay for repairs in case something on his truck broke during the tow.
There are things I will remember, perhaps forever. The quiet majesty of the open playa. The lighting storms in the hills. The incredible sights and sounds of Burning Man. The wonderful, playful, bright, unbelievably creative citizens of Black Rock City. Having my car towed through several feet of mud by a monster truck whos tires threw up so much mud that my car was covered completely with it. That we had to stop because the wheel-wells were so packed with mud that my wheels stopped turning and the truck was literally dragging my car through the goop.
I still haven't got all the mud out of my car, and people will wonder where it came from. People who know where it came from will wonder why I went there and why I'm so anxious to go back. The Apollo 13 astronauts lost their oxygen tank while obiting the moon and had to rely on all of their knowledge, skill, initiative, courage, and cooperation with others to survive and get back home. When their feet touched Earth, if someone had asked them if they'd like to go back and try again, do you think any of them would have refused? I doubt it.