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.

Danger Ranger, 2000

Danger Ranger, 2000

Over the next couple of years, the number of new participants more than tripled. By 1992, I realized that there was an increasing need for a specialized group of seasoned burners who could navigate the desert, locate lost campers and bring them safely back to the community encampment. Knowing that desert skills and communications were key components of this endeavor, I asked a friend to acquire 8 used citizen band radios and we put together a special training program.

We took the name “Rangers”, a term which predates American Revolutionary War when civilian volunteers “ranged” the frontier line of farms and homesteads primarily to protect settlers. The concept was firmly established on the western frontier when the Texas Rangers would operate beyond settlement boundaries, move with great speed through a wilderness, and settle trouble right on the spot.

Black Rock Rangers, 2000

Black Rock Rangers, 2000

The early Black Rock Rangers learned how to find their way on the desert. They were highly mobile, equipped for survival, and had radio communications. The open playa was like deep space; locating and intercepting moving vehicles was accomplished by vectoring. With average speeds of 80 to 90 miles per hour, distances were measured in time. During the day, we navigated by the surrounding geological features and at night, by the stars. We learned that the playa has different characteristics in different locations, so when visibility was limited, surface changes could be sensed through a vehicle’s wheels.

Over time, the camp became a community and the community became Black Rock City. With the establishment of the protective orange fence in 1998, the Gate & Perimeter department took over responsibility for outside the city and the Rangers focused on helping participants inside the city.

The role of the Rangers has changed and grown at the same time, but the original purpose still holds true; Helping lost souls. And being a Ranger has became an art.

About the author: Danger Ranger

Danger Ranger is Burning Man's Director of Genetic Programming. Some claim he possesses near borderline supernatural powers, including the ability to bi-locate and appear at two places simultaneously. In 1992 he founded the Black Rock Rangers. He also created the first Burning Man mailing list/database, produced the first issue of the Black Rock Gazette, established the Burning Man Archive, and drove the first art car to the Black Rock Desert. Michael functions as the guiding light of San Francisco's famous Cacophony Society. His Silicon Valley career began with Fairchild Semiconductor just a few years before it gave birth to Intel. After 1984, he served as a robotics consultant to Apple Computer and later engineered the rise (and fall) of Jasmine Computer Systems. Always riding the edge, he contributed to the Mondo2000 house in Berkeley and wired Wired Magazine's first office in San Francisco. His wide range of experiences includes having been a combat veteran in Vietnam and a federal fugitive in the United States. Other past activities include involvement with the machine performance group Survival Research Laboratories. Throughout the year, M2 lends his guidance and wisdom to navigate Burning Man into the future.

7 thoughts on “The Black Rock Rangers – Part 1 (Origins)

  • In a conversation recently among rangers, a question was asked, “Just what is a Black Rock Ranger?” In the spirit of Radical Self Expression (one of our 10 principles), here is what I said:

    A burning man ranger is…

    Someone, who like a beacon in a sand storm, guides travelers with “the way”, in this case with the core principles of the event that it was founded on that represent a belief system, a code of conduct, an ethos, a way of being and doing. I have heard the phrase “defenders” of this or that, and while I don’t disagree with that I like the term “ambassador” better, but in this case I mean to say not an ambassador of a place but of a way of being. But ambassador is not to say I just represent something like a walking billboard; no, I think of something active like trying to teach someone in my host country how to speak a language or understand a custom. I love the phrase taught to me by many others called “teaching moments” because it is those collections of teaching moments we share with participants that passes on the institutional knowledge we have learned and represent as ambassadors. But that is only part of it, because

    A burning man ranger is…

    Someone who is there to help our citizens feel and in many cases be safe in our temporary city that is not a lawless society as the 2009 report unfortunately highlighted all to well; but imagine our city without the Rangers as a buffer and first-line-of-defense…my imagination wonders to a very unhappy martial law situation that would quickly lose appeal to our citizens. So, in a way, if we are “defenders” we are defenders of a bit of freedom, and responders in those cases where someone has stepped too far outside their own (or someone else’s) comfort zone and needs help to deal with the results of stretching their or someone else’s boundaries. So, perhaps it’s fair to say we are a safety patrol that I have heard some say, but I don’t have bandaids in my toolbox (not intending to insult the value of green dots and medical personnel this is just shorthand); I have mediation skills and principles and a network of experienced fellow rangers who can supplement my on the job training with a simple call. But, it’s still missing something to think that a Ranger is an ambassador out on safety patrol because that is about doing. And to me the question wasn’t really about what does a Ranger do, but what “is” a Ranger.

    A burning man ranger is…

    Someone, who for it seems there are as many reasons as there are active rangers, is on a quest to learn about and embrace “OTHER” in the broadest sense of the word. The collaborative way, flame, and i’m sure there are many other frameworks I haven’t been introduced to yet (or remember) seem to talk a lot about BEING in a way that honors others and value others and respects others and listen’s to other and draws strength from others. IT IS NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. Had I even thought that once during the first 44 years of my life I would have been so much better of a person for others, and me. There are so many self destructive things I have thought and done all because I kept thinking it was all about me. me. me. me. Now, as I write this I think but what the hell does “it is not all about you” have to do with being a Ranger? EVERYTHING. The better I am at practicing that simple realization the better I am able to render assistance IF it is even needed and WHEN it is best applied. The more I keep myself on that path…and yes I believe it is a path of enlightenment as corny as that sounds…the better Ranger I am. And the better person I am. So a burning man ranger, to me, is a path of enlightenment about others, and through that about me.

    How do you explain it to others who ask…

    I stumble and try to say that I represent the core principles of the event while out patrolling our great city to help increase the safety and well-being of our citizens while trying my best to not make it all about me.

    Report comment

  • Thanks for the explanation/observation of what it means to be a ranger. I hope all that seek to ‘serve’ would strive to seek to remember it is ‘not all about me’.

    Report comment

  • Leave a Reply