The Black Rock Rangers – Part 1 (Origins)

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

The Black Rock Rangers are Burning Man’s non-confrontational mediating agency, made up of trained volunteers who help to resolve disputes within our community, and bridge the gap between the ethos and the culture of our citizens and the needs and responsibilities of law enforcement. It didn’t start how you might think …

Burning Man, 1990

Burning Man, 1990

1990 was the first year of Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert. It was a small and intimate affair. Driving instructions for the event were simply: “Find your way to Gerlach, Nevada, drive another 12 miles, get off the asphalt and drive for 16 miles, then turn right and drive another 4.8 miles.” Before the advent of the GPS, it was easy to get lost in the 400 square miles of Black Rock Desert, even with a compass. The camp was small and always over the horizon. An error of 3 degrees for a new arrival or a group returning from a hot springs, could send a vehicle to the other end of the playa 20 or 30 miles away. (more…)

He’s Still My Best Friend


by Crystl

1999. Black Rock City, somewhere in the desert, Nevada. Two young lovers were hand in hand, strolling through the sites of Burning Man oblivious to what was around them. They had eyes only for each other. Everything else seemed surreal. She was dressed in a long white sundress covered in green Buddhas, wrapped overall in an orange silk shawl to protect against the ferocious sun. He was wearing his usual Burning Man apparel; green raver pants that you could fit three of him in each leg, bare-chested so his brown Cuban skin could so soak up the sun, and a camelback to carry their water. They were on a mission.

Though much the same size and build, they were very different- he so dark and quiet and peaceful, she energetic, overzealous, blonde and fair skinned. The two no doubt made a curious couple as they moved through the throngs of hippies, nudists, ravers and freaks. There was an energy about them that was unmistakable. They had a purpose. They had a vision. They moved slowly out into the desert proper and away from camp, which was populated by 30,000 of their closest friends. Only a Burner could understand. In the middle of camp, surrounded by a great horseshoe throng of attendees, the Man sat silent, guiding their way. Back then, in ‘99, he was still the tallest thing on the Burning Man Skyline. His arms were down, his head upwards to the blue Nevada sky. Around them, the stark Blue Mountains rose. Soon enough his arms would raise and the dark of the desert would fall- and fire would pervade the night. They had time. Step by step they traced their way out into open desert. They knew what they were doing.

Far out beyond camp, they sat down to talk. So many things were said- so many dreams- so many worries and reservations and wants and needs. They were all addressed, or as best as they could be. The two lovers did try. And when vows were finally said, each hoped for the best. There was an underlying love that drove them despite their misgivings. And then, when all had been said, they walked in to see the Man burn down. They felt the throng press close around them and thought: I have never known such unity of being.

So we were married. That is the story of our wedding.

It was never an easy road for my husband and I. From the very beginning there were doubts. Burning Man is very serious and totally ridiculous all at once, and that applies to our marriage, too. But always there was love- overarching, deep, unrelenting love that carried us through things any ordinary couple would have been destroyed by. We made it ten years. I still know, to this day, that there is no better person in the world than my now ex husband. I always knew it. If things had been different; if I had been more stable; if he had been more apt to settle; if I could have borne a child; there are so many ifs and should haves and maybes. But that’s a grey world to live in. It is what it is. And we were what we were; two orphans clinging together trying desperately to make it work because we knew- nobody loved us the way we loved each other. Was it co-dependent? Was it painful? Hell yes. But who defines what real love is? I still to this day would die for him in an instant. I know he feels the same. We grew apart, and we no longer connect. But still, we understand each other and trust each other. He is, forever, my best of friends.

All of this is so disjointed because you see, tonight we divorced. It was never about legality for us. It wasn’t legal in the desert. We made it legal when we got back from Burning Man. And we didn’t wait for legality this time. We ended it the same way we began it, by ourselves… on our terms. We didn’t need a church or a priest or the government. This was about us. We’ve always understood each other on that score.

Every year, we’ve always celebrated our marriage on the day the Man burns at Burning Man, in Black Rock City Nevada. We tell people that the date of our anniversary is the fourth of September, but that’s really just a guideline. Our anniversary is the day the fire roars into the sky in the Black Rock Desert and tens of thousands of people rush the embers screaming at the top of their lungs, celebrating a new beginning. You who haven’t been there, to Burning Man, you’ll never understand.

Imagine walking out of your RV, water on your back, lip balm in your pocket, glow sticks strung around you to make sure you don’t get run over by bicycles in the dark. Imagine the fire dancers weaving their tantalizing webs whenever you stop to watch them. The throb of a drum and bass camp pulls you in with the promise of free warm chai on a cold night. The huge vampire on moon boot stilts pulls you into his embrace to cop a feel just because he liked your pink stripper skirt. Stop to watch your hot best friend hurtle herself into the air on a trampoline, only duct tape covering her nipples, while dozens of onlookers scream in response. Or maybe just sit down to watch Dance Dance Immolation, the Burning Man rendition of the popular video game, except instead of being disqualified when you miss a step, they hit you with flame throwers. No joke, this is Burning Man. You will never see fire the same way. And this is where we decided that saying our vows to each other was most appropriate.

We were both rebels. So it felt fitting to end it the same way. Tonight, August 30th, the Man is burning and celebrants are rushing that cleansing fire in hopes of a clean slate. They will later roam the city in what can only be described as the most enlightening night of their lives. Artwork that will move them- people that will befriend them- music that will enlighten them; it’s all there. We couldn’t be. But we used the night to say goodbye in our own way.

The craft store is a wonderful place- full of all kinds of tricksie silly things, and many of them are pure joy to an experienced Burner. Anything glittery, shiny, silly, or glow in the dark- these things are all our friends. My husband and I found what we needed in little time, and then later that afternoon, we built our own Burning Men. Two of them. It was so ironic that at the end, we couldn’t even agree on who could build a better Man. We decided to burn them both. This was the night. We knew it. It was time to say goodbye.

We went out on the back porch with our glowsticks and our sparklers- as close as we could get to the insanity and colorful spectacle of Burning Man nights. At BM, when you get ready to go out for the night, first you light up your living space. That means hanging glowsticks everywhere. Otherwise you can’t see. There’s no electricity and the desert night is pitch black. Then you paint your face with glow in the dark colors, tie glowsticks on to every part of you, strap on the multicolored flashing choker you bought on that cheapy website, put on your furry boots and your craziest blue furry jacket, clip on the glow in the dark earrings, fill your backpack full of water, and THEN you go.

Tonight we did not have so far to go. We lit our meager fire on the back porch. As the flames flickered into the sky we added our little effigies one by one. They burnt all too quick. I remember waiting for hours for the Man to burn. I remember thinking dammit, they built him too sturdy. He will NEVER fall! I remember hearing the howl rise from those tens of thousands around me as he started to waver in his flames, ready to crash, and when he did, I would grab onto my husband’s hand and scream like a banshee with the rest; I was safe, amid the chaos. I could celebrate being a wild being. Because he was there. I always had him to fall back on. We were always there for each other.

Tonight, the fire consumed our little Burning Men so quickly, I didn’t have time to reach for his hand. A wind rose, and soon burning embers were flying through the air in all directions. I almost panicked, but in his steady way, my husband said “Relax, this is wet South Florida. There won’t be a fire.

Our sparklers went out. Our last attempt at reconnection was over. I started to cry and reached out my arms and he held me. Everything about him, everything familiar and wonderful and loving; it all took me back to that moment in the desert when we sat on the hard playa and said our vows. I was there again. I knew him- I felt him and saw him as I hadn’t in years. It’s so sad. The reason it didn’t work was not for any lack of love. I can’t repeat the whispered consolations we said to each other. Those will always remain between us. Go get your own tragic love story if you want to know what they are. They are easy enough to find in this day and age. Someone across the waterway was playing sad Cuban music and we swayed to it, dancing in our strange way, watching the embers slowly go out of our Burning Man pyre.

And now? We’ve cried. We’ve mourned. It’s time to move on. The wood has burnt. It’s a new beginning. I don’t know where life is taking me. But I do know, love never dies. It merely changes. All those impetuous hopeful daredevil promises! We did not fail each other, Monk. We may have made things very difficult, but when you really look back at it, when you look at those vows we took sitting on the hard baked playa looking back at the Mirage that was Burning Man, we stayed true to them, in the end. We promised always to push each other to achieve the best of ourselves. No matter what. And always to love each other. I love you still Monkey. I always will. And it’s just come to pass that who we really need to be, what we really need to achieve, is without each other. I will always be here for you in your journey as your best friend. Safe passage to you.

And out on the playa? Fire… fire…. always the cleansing fire. It’s a new year at Burning Man. I wish all of you a happy and prosperous one.

Creating the Black Rock City Café

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Early in 2000, a young restauranteur presented an idea for a huge “Cafe” at Center Camp. His premise was “the larger the structure, the more coffee would be sold,” so if it was big enough it would much more than pay for itself. However, even if this formula didn’t prove out, a grand central meeting space would still be a fine community asset.

A 3/4 sphere of glued toothpicks was the model for a one to two hundred foot high dome, this to be built of timber bamboo shipped up from Mexico. The proposed structure was evaluated by our City Designer, Rod Garrett.

This design proved not entirely practical, as it would have an enormous surface area compared to the usable area within its footprint, and might roll through the city like a giant potato masher in high winds. Further, we had no expertise in building high in the air with bamboo, possibly having to import a crew from Asia. Lastly, the bamboo would simply explode into cracks and splinters in the extreme low humidity and heat of the high desert. (more…)

Designing Black Rock City

[Editor’s Note: Rod Garrett’s essay Designing Black Rock City, originally written for the Burning Man website, provides a comprehensive history of the thinking and factors that have impacted the evolution of the Black Rock City Plan, and as such is an excellent starting framework for the consideration of Black Rock City as an urban planning Petri dish. We’ve reproduced it here in its entirety, as a foundational document for the Metropol Blog Series.]

Origins

The historic origins of what was to become Black Rock City began with the relocation of the Man’s burning from Baker Beach in San Francisco to the Black Rock Desert, Nevada in 1991.

Black Rock City 1992
Black Rock City 1992

Due to the several hundred mile trip, it was necessary to establish an overnight camp near the Man for the 250 participants who attended. The original form of the camp was a circle. This was not particularly planned, but formed instinctively from the traditional campfire circle and the urge to “circle the wagons” against the nearly boundless space. The following year, an informal plan was required by the B.L.M. for permission to camp. It rapidly developed from a weekend to a week-long event.

Not only was it difficult to find our modest settlement in the expanse, but people exiting our village frequently got lost or mired on the margins of the playa. For practical reasons, four avenues were added, indicating the cardinal directions. Compass headings added to the circle served our need to orient ourselves in that stark emptiness. (more…)

The City of Burning Man


Black Rock City 2003, From 10,000 feet
Black Rock City 2003, From 10,000 feet

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

We might view Black Rock City as a great machine, efficiently providing the many hundreds of functions needed to help sustain us in a wilderness almost devoid of life. However, it seems more appropriate to consider it an organism, much more than simply a sum of its parts.

Our city is dynamic, adaptive and reactive. The streets stream with people like arteries seen under a microscope. It’s organic structure milling with the movement of information and materials, with organizing and building, nourishing and removing wastes, finally breaking down and disappearing. Additionally, it references the mythological Phoenix in symbolically burning and being reborn from itself each year. (more…)

Road Tripped

Skydiving Over Burning Man, 1996
Skydiving Over Burning Man, 1996

[Tony “Coyote” Perez first set foot in Black Rock City in 1996, where he immediately went to work, ultimately becoming the Department of Public Works’ Site Manager. He is renowned amongst the staff as Burning Man’s Poet Laureate, as well as being an accomplished saxophonist with his band “Second Hand Smoke.” This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Did you know that the basic layout of the city of Boston was planned by the cows? No, it’s true. It’s not just something I heard on “Cheers” from Cliff Clavin. Boston was one of the earliest-settled cities of the new world and the settlers of the times, being from various parts of Europe and such, threw down camps apart from one another to start their own separate farms and villages. The open range pastures of these early farmers allowed the cattle to roam from farm to farm and from village to village as they were raised and traded. Paths formed.

I remember my first Burning Man. No, it’s true. The ’96 burn didn’t have a fence yet and the dust plumes of caravans came from all points like slow motion meteors. People started throwing down camps apart from one another to start their own separate camps and villages. A road formed.

Put a group of people together and, given time, communal geometry happens. Old as the hills. Given time, the single celled life of pre-history took a billion-year old leap and started arranging themselves into organisms where cells started taking on tasks – started working together. In a sense, multi-celled organisms were single-celled communities. A blood stream formed. Funny how the conduits are amongst the first things that a community builds. Funny how one can get the word “communicate” out of the word “community”. Seems the words have something in… common… (more…)

Welcome to Metropol – The Story of a City


Black Rock City, 2007
Black Rock City, 2007

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

According to my dictionary, a bohemian is “a creative person, as an artist or writer, who lives a free, unconventional life.” When bohemians gather, they tend to form ‘scenes’ — loosely knit societies that often coalesce around a meeting place; a salon, a club, a neighborhood or bar. Burning Man emerged from just this sort of boho scene in San Francisco. Such scenes have given rise to avant-garde and counter-cultural movements that have profoundly influenced the evolution of modern society. However, just as frequently, the interactive and communal aspect of these scenes has proven fragile and short-lived. Seen against this background, Burning Man may claim one novelty: it is the first bohemian scene to turn itself into a city.

This city that seldom sleeps, a place in which the pulse of life is so distinctly urban, isn’t powered by a traffic in commodities. Although the theme camps lining Black Rock City’s streets resemble retail outlets, they function to distribute gifts created by our city’s citizens. Likewise, many of our city’s services, such as the ritual lighting of street lamps, or the informal transit system provided by art cars, are contributed by Burning Man participants as acts of self-expression. This preoccupation with aesthetics, personal initiative, communal effort and the sharing of gifts is exactly what might be expected of an urbanized Bohemia. (more…)