A Journey to the Kingdom of Dust… Burning Man 2017: Part 1

Truer words have rarely been spoken at Burning Man. I came across the sign on the Playa this year. After a major dust storm at Black Rock City, eyes, ears, nose, mouth and clothes are coated in dust! And everything else, as far as that goes.


Maybe I should title my post journey interruptus, since my first attempt at reaching Burning Man was squelched by the need to hurry home and pack up valuables in case our house was burned down by one of the forest fires raging near us in Southern Oregon.

By Wednesday, Peggy and I had done what we could to secure our home, made up our minds on what to take, and decided that escaping the smoke was our next priority. It was laying in thick, refusing to go away, limiting our vision, and, much worse, settling into our lungs. Peggy was heading to Sacramento to stay at her sister’s and visit with her 97-year-old mom. I would resume my journey to Burning Man.

We wished our house well. I wandered around inside saying goodbye to treasures— memories that dated back decades— and then went outside to wish the beautiful surrounding forest good luck. So far, the fires had been kind, cleaning out the debris under the trees while, for the most part, leaving the trees to prosper. Forest fires are a natural part of ecology, a natural means of keeping forests healthy. I suspect Smokey Bear would shed half his hair over this thought.

We gave each other a final hug and headed out for our different destinations.

Not to keep you in suspense, our house still stands. On Thursday, a week ago, the Level 1 alert went to a Level 2: “You should be packed up and out.” Neighbors reported on seeing the flames creep over the ridges and make their way down toward out homes. But so far, we haven’t received a Level 3, “Get out now!” message. The firefighters made a valiant effort at slowing down and stopping the fire’s advance with very limited resources. (Resources are limited because the whole West seems to be burning. Teams are moved rapidly from one fire to the next depending on needs.)

Back again in Southern Oregon after Burning Man 2017, my faithful horse and I were glad to find our house still standing. The horse, BTW, is affixed to my bike so I can find it in the middle of thousands of other bikes. The glow sticks help us to be seen at night. My beard, soon to be gone, is courtesy of my summer backpacking trips. Smoke from the fires still hangs in the sky. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

My second effort at driving to Burning Man was more successful. I didn’t even stop in the small town of Cedarville where I had turned around the first time. The road makes its way south out of town down through Surprise Valley, which is a surprise because it has water, and then jogs east out into the Nevada desert on lonely Highway 447 toward Gerlach. I must have passed all of four cars on my 60 plus miles of driving through the Black Rock Desert. At Gerlach, a left jog on Highway 34 for eight miles took me out to the entrance road to Burning Man.

I swear that vehicles escaping from Black Rock City breathe a hefty sigh of relief when they finally reach Highway 147. I watched as a few came out, hit a bump, and exploded in dust, like a dog shaking off water. And then it was my turn to drive in over the dusty, bumpy, dirt road. Here’s the thing, it isn’t that long, maybe five miles, but it can take five hours to drive over during peak hours. Put in perspective, that’s about the same amount of time it took me to drive the 280 miles from Medford to Gerlach.

Almost everyone who attends Burning Man, from virgin to veteran, has a story to tell about the experience. There are several factors that can cause delays. The number of people entering or leaving in a given period is the primary one. Put several thousand people on the road at the same time and it can make driving over a LA freeway at rush hour seem positively delightful. BMORG, the Burning Man Organization, doesn’t help. It is so paranoid about someone slipping in without paying that every vehicle entering is searched from top to bottom. I had to get out and open the back door of my van (admittedly, there is room to store a bicycle pump or a very small midget) and then let the ticket checker in to look under my bed and in the bathroom. It took ten minutes. Multiply that by several thousand.

Speed limits make sense. It’s 10 miles per hour on the road in and 5 miles per hour in Black Rock City. There are numerous police around to enforce the law. Bumpy roads add their own speed limit. This year featured the mother of all washboards. I watched an RV in front of me bounce around like Jell-O during an earthquake.

The weather is always a factor. Massive dust storms are natural, and the vehicles whip up their own, given that the dust on the road is often several inches deep. Close to zero visibility is possible. More than once, I’ve driven from traffic cone to traffic cone hoping that they wouldn’t disappear altogether. Then I hoped the next one would appear beside me, and not under the tires of my van.

This is what the road into Black Rock City looks like during a heavy dust storm through my window. I’ve used this photo before. A car disappears and you can barely see the traffic cone on the lower left. Not fun. Fortunately, conditions were better this time.

Rain stops everything. The fine dust turns into a sticky clay that gloms on to vehicle tires, bike tires and shoes— inches thick. Vehicles are required to stop, and who would want to walk or bike in the stuff. Peggy and I once waited on our way in for three hours as the road dried out enough for people to drive over it. A massive party developed. People were dancing on top of RVs and entertainers were performing on the road. Garbage bags tied over feet provided a solution for those who chose to walk around. We had good books to read, which we always carry, just in case.

I hate to mention this, but a Nevada forest fire helped me on the way in this year. It actually blocked traffic on Highway 147 from Interstate 80, which is the main way into Burning Man. I could see the clouds of smoke roiling up in the distance. With minimal traffic, it only took an hour and a half to reach Black Rock City!

The wind was whipping up a dust storm when I arrived. My lungs started screaming at me. I had just subjected them to a week of smoke in Oregon and now they had to deal with Playa dust. They were not happy. I grabbed the first vacant space I found, which was at 6th and L and then took out my camera to photograph the disappearing camp next to me. I had arrived at the Kingdom of Dust.

My location in Black Rock City this year is shown by the yellow dot. I was on the farthest road out.

Shortly after I arrived at Burning Man 2017, the camp next to me began to disappear in a cloud of dust. This is around 3:30 in the afternoon.


NEXT POST: Some general observations on Burning Man 2017… and lots of photos.








46 thoughts on “A Journey to the Kingdom of Dust… Burning Man 2017: Part 1

    • My niece lost her home in that fire, Cindy. Peggy and I were lucky, are lucky. The fires in the West seem to go on and on. We live out in the forest, so we expected it would only be a matter of time. We aren’t clear and free yet. We are still under a Level 2 alert and the smoke continues to hang in here. There’s hope, however. It even rained a bit today. And our view to the south, the one we love, is still the same. –Curt

  1. I’ve been waiting for your return. Not long after reading your post about deciding to make the trip to Burning Man despite it all, I read about the fire that was affecting Burners trying to reach the place. Ah, irony. But eventually it became clear that the fire wasn’t going to end the festivities, so I relaxed.

    We’ve got smoke here tonight. There is some that’s crept into the state from the Pacific NW. You can feel free to stop sharing any old time! Actually, a NWS guy I talk with on Twitter from time to time said they were out doing flood surveys this week, and there’s a lot of debris burning going on. There are a lot of trees being burned, so that probably explains that. Still, the smoke we have, light as it is, certainly is a reminder of how awful it has to be for people where the fires are burning. A friend in Montana’s only five air miles from a bad one. He’s not only getting ashes, but burned debris on his roof. So far, it’s been cool.

    I’m glad you’re home safely, and that your house is safe. We’re a little damp around the edges down here — more than once I’ve wished we could send some of our 51.88″ of rain to your area.

    • I came in from the opposite direction on the Nevada fire that stopped Burning Man traffic for a while, Linda. It actually made my trip in much easier. So I guess its the luck of the draw… on fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. Is this Armageddon yet? And now there is Irma. Scary stuff. We are still good, however, at least for now and probably for this time. It did rain a bit today. So maybe you sent a bit our way. And how are you? I need to go back and catch up on your posts. Take care. –Curt

  2. I would struggle mightily with that smoke and dust! I hope the festival itself was worth the extra driving and the particulate matter, and I’m glad to hear your house has made it through so far. Love that opening sign!

    • The smoke has been much worse than the dust, which comes an goes. Actually, after I arrived on Wednesday, Lexi, the dust went away for the most part. We still have plenty of smoke here but the fires near us are under control! I’m thinking Pacific Ocean and ocean breezes. I promised my lungs some clean air. 🙂 –Curt

  3. So glad the house is currently untouched. We are having a lot of smoke this year from nearby fires but I can’t imagine how thick it is when the fire is next door. I have to say your description and the photos of the dust at Burning Man are not a selling point. Yikes!

    • Thanks, Sue. Smoke and dust, I’ve certainly had it this summer. But the house is safe, dust goes with Burning Man, and I am planning on heading somewhere where the smoke isn’t! 🙂 –Curt

  4. We have certainly been a country of natural disasters lately. I’m very happy to hear about your safety and Peggy’s and your home coming through unscathed, We heard about that fella who ran into the flames at Burning Man and died too. We’ve had many bloggers affected by Harvey and now we await Irma, Jose and Katia!! What the heck?!!

    • Worried about you with Irma, G. Do take care and good luck. I’ll be thinking of you and our other friends in the path of that monster. Our thoughts are with you.
      Our house is now safe. We got the message this morning.
      And Burning Man, sad about the guy who committed suicide. It is so hard to stop, But beyond that, I had a good time as usual. Lots of art! –Curt

  5. This trip is not for sissys. First fire and smoke and then thick dust and smoke.
    Wow, your lungs must be good to start with.
    I can’t wait to hear about a positive experience at the festival.

  6. So glad you got to go! I thought with the threat of fire to your home, you had written off Burning Man. But wow! The pics of the dust and what little you can see are amazing. I have no idea how you would proceed through all that. Looking forward to more posts. And hoping your home is safe.

  7. I love your storytelling Curt.
    I’m very glad for you that you have a home still. As for the dust it sounds like the Kingdom of Hell. I would not survive that, at least not with any equanimity, so I’m glad I can rely on your storytelling to experience BM vicariously.

    • Ah, Alison, you would love Burning Man. It’s made for you and Don… and your camera. You’d go crazy. The dust? Well a good face mask can do wonders. A neckerchief works for me. That’s what the old cowboys used to wear when they were riding behind their herds! –Curt

  8. Curt, I’m so relieved that your house was safe from the fires…I can’t imagine how it would feel to say goodbye to everything and not know if you would be able to return.

    Blimey, there is dust and there is Burning Man dust!! Yikes, talk of zero visibility. It seems crazy to drive in it and no wonder traffic is slow and from cone to cone! Bet you were happy to park up although the tent is almost swallowed up in sand! You write so eloquently of your experience I feel the need to cough and clear my lungs of particles – not a place for asthma sufferers!

  9. So glad your house is safe, Curt. And that you were able to attend this beloved event of yours. These wild fires have affected so many in the west. As now Hurricane Irma and only a week or so ago Hurricane Harvey. The consequences of these dramatic catastrophies will be long felt. Which makes it even more relevant to appreciate what we love to do. Again, so glad you made it through the fire and to Burning Man.

    • It’s always fascinating to me when the world disappears, Dave. It’s really worrisome when you are out in the far Playa and don’t have a clue where you are. I’ve actually gone to carrying a compass with me. –Curt

      • Pics with limited visual info are good because they make you look harder … I suppose they appeal to the puzzle solver in us all. A fascinating example would be the series of photos in the park that the David Hemmings character took in the 60s film ‘Blow Up’. Have you seen it, Curt?

      • I don’t think so, Dave. I am pretty sure I would remember. Living overseas in the heart of Africa for two years with limited access, I missed a whole bunch of Western culture that was changing dramatically at the time, much to the dismay of more conservative folks. –Curt

      • Those folks would certainly have disapproved of many aspects of this film, not least its experimental nature, but it sheds an interesting light on social conditioning and its influence on perception.

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