From Baker Beach to the Black Rock Desert… The Fiery Journey of Burning Man’s Man

The Man at Burning Man burns in 2012. A few remaining fireworks fall from the sky.

 

One of the first things I do at Burning Man each year is head out to the Playa to visit the Man. It’s a way of paying homage. Given that the annual event in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada wouldn’t exist without the Man and his appointment with fire, my ‘pilgrimage’ seems appropriate. Here’s what I wrote a few years back on Burning Man’s beginnings in San Francisco:

A striking sight of the 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. A tradition was born.

Today’s Burning Man is tame in comparison to the early years on the Playa. In the beginning, people camped wherever and drove when, where, and as fast as they wanted. Admission was free, open to anyone who wanted to make the drive up (primarily people from the Bay Area). At times, the event took on the guise of a shooting gallery. Running in and out of fire became a sport, particularly popular to those who were drunk or drugged out of their minds. Once again, Burning Man could have easily ended, but Larry and the others who founded the event had a broader vision and the event evolved, instead. By the late 90s, rules had been developed to make the event safer. Elements of its art, environmental, social and spiritual culture had begun to develop. When I first arrived in 2004, Burning Man had more or less become the event it is now, minus 35,000 people.

This year, 32 years after the first Man first burned on Baker Beach, some 70,000 people from the US and around the world will make the journey into the desert for the week-plus of craziness starting on August 27th and ending September 3. On Saturday evening, September 2, most of these Burners will make their way out onto the Playa and form a huge circle around the Man. The majority will either walk or bike, but many will also journey out in mutant vehicles that form their own large circle where they blast out music and fire. As night settles in, hundreds of fire dancers will perform their fiery art in the center of the circle followed by a solemn procession to set the man on fire, which also kicks off a massive fireworks display. Sometimes the Man burns quickly as he has been prepped to do, other times it seems to go on and on. Regardless, almost everyone stays until the sculpture comes crashing down, creating one of those moments of silence, which is so rare at Burning Man, followed by a very loud celebration.

It’s impossible to get the full sense of the event without being there, but photos help. I will start with several pictures I have taken of the Man over the years and then move on to the burn.

The Man begins his week located at the center of the Playa. While his look remains more or less the same, his base changes each year depending on the theme for the year. I took this photo in 2006.

In 2007, the Man burned twice— the first time in the early hours of the morning by a rogue Burner. I had actually missed the act of vandalism by only a half hour. Note the Phoenix on the face, like the mythological bird, he was able to rise again.

BMORG, the Burning Man organization was able to put together another Man in San Francisco and get him back to the desert in time for his Saturday burn. Here, he is being placed on his pedestal, still headless. (Photo by our friend Ken Lake.)

One of my favorite bases was this one from 2009.

In 2010, the Man came with gargoyles, like a European cathedral. In this photo they are still working on the base. It isn’t unusual for finishing touches to be added at the beginning of the week. The steps up to the fourth level provided Burners with an opportunity to look out over Black Rock City, the Playa and the surrounding mountains.

One of the gargoyles I photographed when I reached the top.

Three main roads lead out from Black Rock City to the Man. This one was from Center Camp. Lanterns are hung from the poles at night. The 2012 base was one of the largest.

A close up.

What the structure inside the base of the 2012 Man looked like. No nails were used in putting it together.

A flying saucer provided the base in 2013.

The Man’s head had been altered to have an alien appearance..

The man was fleshed out, so to speak, in 2014. The Temple, lit up by the sun, can be seen through the Man’s legs. Each year, Center Camp, the Man and the Temple are lined up.

Part of Burning Man’s appeal is the magnificent mountains of the Black Rock Desert that surround the event.

I liked this shot of the 2014 Man’s face lit up by the sun.

The 2015 Man was perched on top of a maze covered with side-show circus posters reflecting the year’s theme.

And now we come to the 2015 Man being prepped for Burn Night. It’s Saturday. The art work has been removed and the firewood piled high. Entrance into the area has been closed off.

On burn night almost everyone in Black Rock City gathers around the Man. The Man on top of its flying saucer base in 2013 is looking even more ET-like. Lighting has been added to help create the effect.

Fireworks and arms raised means the Man is about to burn!

The 2014 Man goes up in flames. (Photo by Don Green.)

This shot of the base of the 2012 Man captured the intensity of the fire well. You can almost feel the heat!

The Man is standing on his ‘last legs’ here. He and his flying saucer teeter on the edge of falling into the fire.

Burners celebrate as the Man falls. Mutant vehicles provide prime seating for the event.

The morning after: Burners use glowing embers from the night’s Burn to roast a lamb. Life goes on. The Man will rise again the next year.

This completes my series on Burning Man for now. I may do a couple more posts before I head off to Black Rock City again on August 26. In September and October I’ll post the results of my 2017 adventure!

NEXT POSTS:

Big Sur with its iconic bridges, beautiful coastline, and a bit of history.

I encounter a 70s terrorist group in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A new series: The fascinating, ancient rock art of the Western United States.

 

33 comments on “From Baker Beach to the Black Rock Desert… The Fiery Journey of Burning Man’s Man

    • It is a very interesting event, Lulu. Go to Burning Man under my categories list and read a few of the posts that I have put up so far this year for an overview. Or just Google “Burning Man.” 🙂 –Curt

  1. While looking at some of the pictures, I felt like I should throw up my arms and yell, “All Hail The Man!” Can’t help but visualize escapees from Woodstock hanging out there.

  2. Yes, amazingly I too never knew about ‘burning man.’ The world is full of art and beauty. It is important to keep searching and find it. Thank you, Curt, for this interesting journey.

    • You are quite welcome, Gerard. I first learned about it in 2003 when the president of our Condo Association told me about it (he had been several times) and suggested that I might like it. I suspect I was the only one in the Association that he even told he went. A friend and I went the next year. Peggy, as principal of an elementary school, thought that she had better not. Obviously, I was taken with the experience, as was Peggy when she finally decided she could go. –Curt

  3. I am just curious as why Peggy thought it better not to go at first. Was there a social stigma or some slight attached to Burning Man? Were the visitors to Burning Man seen as very outrageous with female breasts exposed or some other perceived moral decadency in progress? It is all very interesting how things evolve.
    Years ago in Australia, residing on pavements’ chairs with tables, sipping coffee and eating a croissant was seen as a moral collapse and Euro decadence, totally unconscionable behaviour..
    Thank goodness all this has changed.

    • Burning Man has gradually become more ‘mainstream’ over the years, Gerard. But it definitely had, and has, an edgy feeling to it. Early on, it wasn’t something that ‘decent middle class’ people participated in and more fundamentalist types might consider devil inspired. Serving as an elementary school principal in a relative conservative area required that Peggy be relatively tame in her public persona. She did go her last couple of years as principal, much to the amusement and support of her staff. –Curt

  4. Yeah we recall you mentioned about the burning on the final day. Such a waste we said then. And you mentioned that some of the pieces of art will be moved somewhere they can be permanently exhibited?

    • More and more art is being placed and gathered by museums, Suan. Most of the art, beyond the structure itself, is taken off before the burn, like the circus posters I mentioned on the blog. Many of the art pieces are metal, like the giant female sculptures and the coyote I featured in previous posts. Obviously, they aren’t burned. But the Man is built to burn. 🙂 –Curt

  5. Great post Curt. The organisation involved for the whole event to take place must be huge! I’m guessing that the proceeds from the gate actually go towards salaries of people at BMORG? Impressive that they were able to get a second man in so quickly the year of the rogue burner. Did security tighten after that?
    Alison

    • Thanks. The money goes toward lots of things, Alison, including building the infrastructure, supporting art projects and international efforts. It’s now a nonprofit, which places some limits on how money is spent. I am sure that the founders don’t suffer financially, however, and that staff is adequately paid. A great deal of what goes on is handled by volunteers. –Curt

  6. Curt, thank you for reposting abut the history of Burning Man – what a fascinating background and funny how it all came to be rescued and transported over to Nevada. Those early days sound wild and apocalyptic almost! The photos of Burning Man in all its forms are terrific, the raging fire ones somehow primeval and raw. Almost as if the heat is radiated through the images…I take it you are going this year again? 😀

    • “Apocalyptic” seems to fit, Annika. Almost Mad Max. I’ve seen a video that shows some of what it was like. I prefer the emphasis on art. And yes. I am going! 🙂 Thanks. –Curt

    • Thanks AC. And I agree. Burning Man is intense. It is valuable having a way to escape, and when you have reached the fence that encloses the event, you are a long ways from anywhere. Not many Burners make it out there. I wouldn’t miss it. –Curt

  7. Cool, would love to see this! The island called Hönö(hen island) in Sweden where I live, we have a very old tradition. Kids between ages of about 7-24 start collecting xmas trees on Christmas day until Easter when they are brought out of hiding and burnt in a competition of the biggest bonfire. I’ve also been to Lewis in the UK for Bonfire night, that’s a fantastic experience!

  8. Pingback: From Baker Beach to the Black Rock Desert… The Fiery Journey of Burning Man’s Man — Wandering through Time and Place – The Punk Rock Hobo

  9. Yes, amazingly I too never knew about ‘burning man.’ The world is full of art and beauty. It is important to keep searching and find it. Thanks to share this amaze post.

  10. The painting on your page with all the animals coming out of the woman’s head, where you commented how about this do? …..Do you know the artist’s name? Dying to find a name. Argh.

  11. I’m always amazed at the Burning Man structures — like the ones put together without nails, etc. So much design work, craftmanship, etc. goes into these creations. So, you’re right to pay tribute to the Man first thing. Thanks, too, for updating us on the evolution of the event – from a free event with free-roaming visitors to a more artsy, more controlled (well, sort of?) event. Are you returning this year? next year?

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