A striking view of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge dominates the view from Baker Beach in San Francisco. It’s a romantic spot, a popular place to get married. Folks also get naked; it’s a nude beach. It was here that Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James decided to host a bonfire in honor of the summer solstice in 1986. As to why they chose a nine-foot wooden effigy of a man (and his dog) to burn, Harvey remains mysteriously mum. Whatever the reason, it was out of the flames that Burning Man was born. Larry and his friends had such a great time they vowed to come back the next year with a bigger Man.
By 1990 the Man had grown to 40 feet tall and word of mouth had guaranteed that a sizable crowd was present for the solstice bonfire on Baker Beach. It wasn’t to be. Golden Gate Park police had decided that burning the Man posed a fire hazard to the Park and City. A single Park Ranger rolled in on a motorbike and said no go. You can’t be too careful, right? Fires were raging across Southern California.
The Man was taken apart and returned to the vacant lot he called home. The people who had come to watch the burn were angry. This might have marked the end of Burning Man, except for a bit of synchronicity. The Man had caught the attention of a group in San Francisco known as the Cacophony Society, an organization that specialized in outrageous pranks and strange outings known as zone trips. Several of its members, including Co-founder John Law, suggested to Larry that the place to burn the Man was in the remote Black Rock Desert of Northern Nevada. It would make an ideal zone trip— far out in the language of the 60’s. A Ryder Truck was rented for the Labor Day weekend and stuffed with the man plus personal gear. Cars were loaded with people and some 80-100 Burners headed off into the desert. The rest, as they say, is history.
Much had changed when I arrived at Black Rock City in 2004. Old timers spoke nostalgically about the good old days when there had been far fewer people and no rules. They were right; there were more people and more rules, but as far as I could tell things were still pretty rowdy— and magical. I was impressed. So I have been going back ever since. One of my first activities on returning to Black Rock City is to make the journey out to the Man. Since Larry dictates his dimensions, the Man always looks the same. Up until now, however, he has been perched on a different base each year, as shown in the examples below.
This year, for the first time since 1995, the Man stood alone and had gained skin. He was magnificent, standing some ten stories or 100 feet tall. A group of tents, representing a souk/market place surrounded him. The souk reflected the 2014 Burning Man theme, Caravansary, and was supposed to be reminiscent of the ancient markets that grew up wherever caravan routes crossed.