Courtesy of Sadie Damascus.
Building shade Shelter talk. Yeah. The two years Grover and I have playa'ed, we have learned tons, but we still have a vast skill at learning by screwing up. The two biggest natural challenges at BM 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 struxtural (hey, nice word) integrity with'a minimum of linear wall-type thinking.
Whatever you cobble your shade together from, you probably want to streamline it, keep it curved and naturally designed, resistant to 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. wind will just have its way with your tent, and will curve and twist and reshape it in a week 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, when you're hosting on the playa. Most homemade tents begin with a skeleton of PVC or other bracing stuff, and roof, walls, doors and 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 help get you through the twelve climate changes in an average desert day.
Perhaps my experiences will save you some agony. Our first year, we took two 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 (1996).
Last year, our brain 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 -- and a parachute, sheets, Indian blankets, four or five discount blue tarps, all unassembled until we got out into the 100 degree playa playground for the insane or stupid.
All around us -- and, once again, still, we knew nobody there; how about that? -- folks were erecting enviable buckyballs and oniondomes 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, planned and built and strengthened and rebarred and ducttaped 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 looking to borrow a stepladder, and even though well- meaning people stopped and -- I must have been a pitiful sight -- offered to help me set up.
Finally, some four hours later, and after way too much defensive, not even remotely temporary ducttaping, we had a twisted sort of 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 evening sun cooking down on us right through the roof.
Did I mention that sudden exposure to extreme sweaty, sticky, incredible heat makes you sort of psychotic and irritable and prone to making bad snap judgments? It takes about forty hours or so 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 I had stocked a LOT of spare cloths and netting pieces, and more cord and large, trustworthy , near- 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 that 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 you down.
And we fixed the two trouble roof spots , where the sun moved around until it drew a bead on you, with a pole-controlled adjustable moveable heavy blanket, operated skillfully during the week by my now also-recovered Grover. The day doors folded down and were tied down when the wind changed, and the several night doors, survival feng shui, opened for some cool air relief. So by our manipulating this laundry house as though it were a fine machine, and our reactive petals collectors and reflectors of the solar ambivalence, our days were dark and quiet (good!) and our nights bright and airy.
This year, I am absolutely going to:
Whew. More. Tarps are loud and too dry, and they argue with the wind. Use them as flooring, as cooler covers, as flapping territory markers -- not as walls, even inner-between-two-cloth-sheets walls. (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 nor acidic, but it gets into everything (your flashlight, your dentures, your eyelids, and tiny cracks in your skin).
Almost done. Your shade structure must, in addition to all this martha- costco- Gilligan detail micromanagement, look art- touched, with your personal elegance signature. Not only do people think of your tent as representative of you, your style and class, but also, every time you trudge back from the privies, you visualize and then find and recognize your space, comparing it to its neighbors, and often cringing from the stark knowledge gained by seeing sharply what you have built yourself.
Flags, banners, shields, flashy signboards, cutouts, glued-on clothing or decorations, attractive outside fabrics, stencils, spraypaint, metallics, plants, wicker anything, absence of trash or anything ugly; 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, chickens, 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, gorgeous, startling, enlightening, glorious, homey, more acceptable, or timeless temporary living experience.