Cannibal Dogs, a Clean Cat, Witches and Other Murals… Burning Man 2017: Part 4

“Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble.” Macbeth immediately came to mind when I saw these three lovelies on a mural in Black Rock City. This seemed to fit Burning Man’s 2017 theme, Radical Rituals. And why do witches come in threes so often?


Murals have been around for a while. Try 30,000 years. Those ancient cavemen and women painting on the dark walls of their caves in Europe had a message they wanted to pass on, as did the prehistoric artists of the Southwest pecking out their messages on rock 3000 years ago. In modern times, graffiti artists have used their spray cans to mark out their territories and declare “I was here,” irritating competing gangs and the public as well, which, I’m pretty sure, was the point.

Street art has become more sophisticated today, and more acceptable. Major cities and small towns alike want a piece of the action. You are as likely to see a mural in a small Midwestern town as you are in Paris, Moscow, Rio or New York. The best of the street artists have found fame, and even a bit of fortune.

Not surprising, street art has made it to Burning Man. Murals may show up anywhere in Black Rock City, but a special place is reserved for them on the back wall of the Center Camp Café. I always try to include a few in my review of Burning Man art because it is representative of the art form, and, more importantly, I am fond of murals. They often show up in my blogs when I travel, and, I might note, they often show up in the blogs of the people I follow.

As you might imagine, Burning Man art can get a little weird. Take the cat below, for example. If you have a cat, you have noted their hygiene practices, and possibly even been a little embarrassed by them when the boss or the in-laws are over. But cats are cats, and, for all I know, they may do it on purpose during awkward moments. You might make your dog feel guilty about the practice, but never your cat. Speaking of dogs, they were featured on a mural as well.

Okay, this is a bit outrageous… But you have to admit, it is a cat ritual.

I may have seen this as a cartoon a long time ago in a New Yorker, but Karen Strauss’s mural on rituals made me laugh.

I can easily get lost on the Net when I try to find a particular Black Rock City mural artist. I never know where the search will take me, if anywhere. For example, Papa Witch caught my attention. I watched him work, found his monkey/ape charming, and was intrigued by how he signed his work.

Papa Witch, Chokae Kalekoa, paints the Monkey King on the wall behind the Center Camp Cafe at Burning Man.

I thought the Monkey King was quite regal.

My Papa Witch search eventually took me to Chokae Kalekoa, who was doing a fundraiser for a 2000-mile bike ride he was going on through the West. He declared, “The Conscious Relaxation that is achieved By Shutting my Monkey Mind, reveals a state of ok-ness that allows me to Mindfully Work, Artistically Create and Frolic to the best of my ability.” He taught meditation and promised, “I hereby pledge that on this 2000-mile odyssey bicycle ride, I will get 2000 people that I meet along the way to frolic and meditate with me.” He was shooting to raise $5,000. Darn, I thought, why didn’t I think of that for the 10,000-mile ride I did around North America. An equivalent amount would have been $25,000! But it wouldn’t have worked. I didn’t have the desire to frolic with 10,000 people, and I certainly didn’t have the stamina. Can you imagine frolicking with 100 people at the end of a 100-mile day on your bike?

Like much art work, most of the murals leave the viewer to make up his own interpretation of what he is seeing. So, I have, liberally. My apologies to the artists in advance. They are certainly free to correct me. Do you have any unique interpretations you would like to add?

This mural was quite clear And meaningful. Not drinking water at Burning Man can get you in a heap of trouble.

This mural, right next to the drink water mural, made me chuckle again. The sign on the bottle says “Not Water.” Note the sleepy-eyed cat up above. I found three among the murals.

These mermaids included the third cat, and a flying saucer.

This is weird. I am sure that the symbols tell a story. One look at the teeth and I promptly named the mural, “Dentist’s Dream,” however.

Another strange one, but I liked it. Note the name, Femmebrandt. I called this one, “The Eyes Have It.”

Does this remind you of anything? I got stuck on GOP. How else are you supposed to interpret an elephant with wild orange hair. I’m pretty sure that isn’t what the artist had in mind, but…

I thought of global warming here, which may say more about how my mind works than the mural. But I saw the water lapping at the city and thought of poor Houston. Frogs aren’t doing very well with global warming either.

Another artist works on her mural. The post says, “It’s for all of us.”

Go with the flow.

Daliesque, I am thinking. This fox had quite a rack.

And finally, bring it on!

NEXT POST: I wander around the outer edges of Burning Man.





A Giant Jellyfish and a 180,000 Penny Bear… Burning Man 2017: Part 3

A giant jellyfish, created by the artist Peter Hazel, was located in front of the Center Camp Cafe at Burning Man this year.

I wasn’t all that surprised to find a forty-foot-tall jellyfish hanging out on the Playa. It was Burning Man, after all. Plus, I had seen pictures of it—I’d previewed the art I could expect to find in Black Rock City this year. Don’t get me wrong, I love surprises. There is magic in finding something you have never seen before, and can’t even imagine seeing. But my time was limited. I had three days: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I was staying on Sunday as well, but artists start removing their art then. Or it has been burned. And I wanted to be sure I caught the major works. There were dozens of them scattered over the Playa, spread out as far as the eye could see.

Peter Hazel was a construction worker in tile and granite in another life. I imagine that he was a good one, that he took pride in his work, maybe even regarded it as art. But his world view shifted significantly a few years back when he made a trip to Barcelona and came in contact with the uniquely inspiring art of Antoni Gaudi. The world lost a talented contractor, and gained a talented artist.

I get it. Peggy and I were in Barcelona a few years back as well, maybe even around the same time Hazel was visiting. I wrote this for a post I published then:

Barcelona arrived in the Twentieth Century with its own brand of Art Nouveau, Modernisme. Combining whimsical and practical with a healthy dollop of nature, Barcelona’s artists and architects did a makeover of their city. Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), the best known among the Modernistas, added a strong religious belief to his work and became the architect of Sagrada Familia, the Church of the Holy Family.

Started in 1883, the church continues to be a work in progress today. Like the towering cathedrals of the Gothic and Renaissance periods, it is a work of generations, and like the great cathedrals of Europe, is a masterpiece of art and architecture. Peggy, I, and our traveling companions walked inside and could only stare up in awe.

Here are a few photos Peggy and I took that illustrate why.

Looking up inside of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Another view inside of Sagrada Familia designed by Antoni Gaudi.

An outside view of the Cathedral, which is still under construction.

The outer walls feature very modernistic looking sculptures like these.

The recent terrorist attack in Barcelona was recognized this year at Burning Man by this sign put up in the Temple by Burners from Barcelona.

The forty-foot-tall, thirty-foot-wide jellyfish Peter created had a position of honor on the Playa. It stood in front of Center Camp in a direct line with the Man and the Temple. Each year, BMORG (the Burning Man Organization), selects an artist to place his or her work here. Almost always, the artist is someone who has had art at Burning Man before and has already impressed the organization and the participants with her/his creativity and talent. The jellyfish had an appropriate jellyfish-look from a distance. Up close, you could see that it was made up of small jellyfish, some 2000 of them, each one carefully placed in a large steel structure that had been built to accommodate them. Glass had been broken, reshaped, and fired to create the small jellyfish. Some eight kilns and a lot of volunteers were kept busy in the process. I followed a set of stairs up into the belly of the jellyfish and them climbed higher on a ladder so I could see how the work had been put together, and take advantage of the height to see out over Burning Man. I made the journey twice— once during the day and once at night.

Hazel’s Jellyfish during the day.

A view from inside of the small jellyfish, each one unique, that made up the skin on the large Jellyfish.

A small jellyfish I photographed at an aquarium in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this year.

Looking back toward the Center Camp Cafe from up inside the Jellyfish during the day…

And at night.

Looking out toward the Man past the jellyfish on the night the Man burned.

Back in the 1800s, the challenge of creating animation was solved by a device known as a zoetrope. Slits were carved in a cylindrical device that contained still representatives of a bird in flight, a horse running, or some other action sequence. Several representations of the bird, horse, etc. would be included opposite each slit in a slightly different stage of movement. The cylinder was then turned rapidly with an individual looking through the slits as they passed by his eyes. The result was an illusion of motion.

A similar illusion was created when we were kids by having the illustrations drawn on separate pages of a small book. We would rapidly flip through the pages with the same results. You wouldn’t believe what Mickey and Minnie were up to. Bad mice! The books weren’t anything we wanted to take home to our parents. I don’t have a clue where they came from, but so much for the vaunted innocence and safety of the 1950s.

Peter Hudson’s creation, Charon, operating under the same principles as a zoetrope, rotated rapidly and created the illusion of movement— in this case, Charon rowing his boat across the River Styx. Ropes, hanging down from each side, were pulled by Burners in unison to make the sculpture rotate.

The Bay Area artist Peter Hudson, or “Hudzo,” as he bills himself, has taken the zoetrope idea to new heights by using life-size figures and strobe-like lights to achieve the movement effect. His works of art are interactive. People pulling ropes or riding bikes in unison cause the art piece to rotate and give the desired effect. He’s had several different works at Burning Man.

This year he returned to an earlier piece that featured Charon, the ferryman of Greek Mythology, who transported dead Greeks across the River Styx.  The Greeks would put a coin in the mouth of their dead loved ones to pay Charon. No coin, no transport! The poor were left to wander for a hundred years or so on the wrong side of the river. Once across, the dead would make their way past Cerberus, the three-headed dog, into Hades where they would exist forevermore as shades. Cerberus wasn’t there to keep them out; he was there to keep them in. And he was really good at it. If you’ve watched the Harry Potter series, you have a good idea of what a three-headed dog might look like— and how it might drool. My old Basset Hound Socrates didn’t have three heads, but he did have the drooling part down pat, especially if we were eating cheese. When he shook his head to clear the drool, it would slime all four walls of our small apartment… and us.

A close up of the skeletons. Note that each one is in a slightly different position. Charon as a skeleton is a fairly recent adaptation. Originally, he was depicted as a smelly old man.

I was out exploring in the Playa on Horse with No Name and had dismounted to check out some art when a Burner said to me, “Look this dragonfly just landed on my hand. It must be lost.” Indeed, a dragonfly had landed on the hand of the guy who looked like a long-time Burner. They come with a certain patina. I dutifully took a photo.

The dragonfly that came to visit Black Rock City.

Maybe it was fate. Shortly afterwards I came on a sculpture of a large dragonfly at the head of a whole lot of little ones that were escaping from a bottle held up three, headless guys. Acolytes, I was informed. The piece, titled Flight of Illumination, was created by Iron Monkey Arts out of Seattle. The acolytes, so the story went, had gone their own way but learned that working together was better. “The world is cold and lonely when you are a self-centered dick,” the literature about the sculpture told me. So be it. We can all use a little illumination.

The acolytes release the dragonflies in the Flight of Illumination.

Who then flew across the sky…

Ending with this big fellow.

Bear with me here, for my final sculpture today. This one has to do with 180,000 pennies, attached as fur on (you guessed it) a giant bear known as Ursa Major. If you’ve been around my blog for a while, you may remember Penny the Canadian Goose from a couple of years ago covered with Canadian Pennies. This year, Lisa and Robert Ferguson out of Oakland, California, the creators of the goose, decided to go with a grizzly. The couple met and fell in love at Burning Man in 2008 and have been creating art for the event ever since.

A close up of the bear’s fur that is made out of pennies.

Ursa Major and her two cubs at night. I don’t think that you would want to mess with the mama.

Alaskan Brown Bear

Just for fun, I thought I would finish this post with a picture Peggy took of a brown bear a couple of years ago in Alaska playing with a moose bone it had found by throwing it up in the air and catching it, again and again. Check out those claws!

NEXT POST: A look at some murals at Burning Man 2017. You won’t want to miss the cannibal weeny dogs.








I’ve Been Through the Desert on a Horse with No Name… Burning Man 2017: Part 2

A bike is critical to traveling around the Playa and through Black Rock City. Distances are substantial, as this photo demonstrates. I took this photo from the Man. Looking the other direction would provide a similar scene.


When I made my second trip to Burning Man in 2005, my friend Ken Lake brought along stick horses— the type that are popular with five-year-olds— to put on our bikes. They served as decorations and a way of quickly telling our bikes apart from the tens of thousands of others that reside in Black Rock City. If you pinched their ears, they went clippity clop, clippity clop, neigh, snort. Naturally, we had to name them.  Horse with No Name popped into my mind. I would be riding through the desert on my horse-bike, and I’ve always liked the song written by Dewey Bunnell. There’s more. Bunnell was inspired to create the haunting music by memories of his childhood travels through Arizona and New Mexico, a Salvador Dali painting of the desert, and a strange horse depicted by M.C. Escher. The fact that I am a fan of the Southwest, surreal art, and Escher was frosting on the cake.

Ken Lake, on the left, showed up with stick horses in 2005. Here, he and Don Green try out our new horses before attaching them to our bikes.

Horse with No Name is something of a contrarian and likes to see what is being him.

The seven squares miles covered by the event requires a bicycle, so I’ve been riding Horse with No Name on my trips to Burning Man ever since. I suspect I’ve put on several hundred miles during my 11 trips into the desert. The bikes have changed, and the stick horses have changed, but the name has remained.

As I’ve noted before, my primary reason for going is to see the art. It’s located everywhere. Even with a bike, it’s difficult to see it all— and I always miss pieces. This year, I had to skip the first four days because of forest fires threatening our home. I only had three days to cover what I normally do in seven. I was on the bike a lot. My tail was complaining loudly by Sunday. (For those of you who have been following the saga of the burning forest, we are out of the woods, so to speak. Level 1, 2, and 3 evacuation notices have been dropped.)

The art at Burning Man ranged from this 70 foot tall Flower Tree Temple…

To this very realistic looking tree that provided shade from the desert sun during the day and was beautifully lit up by night.

There are other things to do at Burning Man besides look at art, of course. For example, you can party 24/7 for a week if that’s your thing. Bars ‘gifting’ free booze are located on almost every corner. You can also dance the night away, or day. I saw people dancing country along the 6th street route I followed into Center Camp, and I could have gone elsewhere to learn to Tango, had I been so inclined. The most common music, however, is the type that goes thump, thump, thump in the night, industrial strength stuff. World renown DJs come to Burning Man to play it for free. The music will keep you awake if you allow it. I have a very loud, battery operated fan that serves as a wonderful noise maker in addition to keeping me cool, however. Let it thump away. (The secret of sleeping through the desert heat, BTW, is to wear a wet T-shirt and let evaporation do its thing. It also works for daytime naps. The fan speeds up the evaporation and makes it cooler.)

I thought that this mutant vehicle was an excellent example of what a Burner might look like after partying straight for seven days!

Always one of my favorite mutant vehicles, this large dragon was back again in 2017. Large speakers and industrial strength music guaranteed that people would be dancing around it whenever it stopped. Dancing is a 24/7 activity.

For those who wanted a slightly more challenging form of exercise, there was a marathon. Here a runner gets a high-five as he runs under the Man.

For the first time ever this year, the Man was enclosed in a structure.

Dozens of classes are offered for those who want to learn something new. They range from the ecology of the Black Rock Desert to sensuous massage: BYOM. (Bring your own mate.) You can also take a class in bondage. I’m normally too busy to be tied up for an hour, however. (grin) Many classes come with an Eastern/New Age twist such as meditation and Yoga: BYOM applies here as well. (Bring your own mat.)

Camp Mystic offers ongoing classes in Eastern thought.

There is entertainment galore. Twirling fire is big at Burning Man. As is creating magic with hula hoops. If you want to see something truly sensuous, watch a talented hula hooper. The Center Camp Café always has something going on, both planned and impromptu. One moment you might be listening to a lecture on physics and the next surrounded by several hundred large rabbits, or at least people wearing rabbit ears. But you can be anywhere in Black Rock City or out in the Playa and find entertainment.

The Center Camp Cafe is always a center of activity at Burning Man. This year it was set off by a rainbow arch.

A story teller and a violinist were performing under the green tree shown above.The story teller was reciting a love story that could have come right out of Scheherazade. She would tell a part of the story in what I thought was Arabic or Persian and then translate it into English, accompanied by the violin.

People watching is always big. Some folks develop elaborate costumes and almost everyone makes some effort to look different, even if it’s only putting on a tie-dye T-shirt. Scantily clad is a Burning Man trademark. While total nudity is rare, topless is not uncommon, for women as well as men.  I think of it as eye-candy. Staring is rude but appreciative glances are okay. You’d have to wear blinders not to notice and be a robot to not enjoy the views.

A costumed trio lines up for a photo at the Temple of Flowers.

A major reason people give for going to Burning Man is to share the experience with friends. Over the years I’ve always been accompanied by folks who are close to me, people who have joined me on backpacking and bicycling adventures as well as in fighting for environmental and health related causes. Some of them have been friends for decades. This year was an exception. Only one, Don Green, could make the event, and he bailed on Wednesday, the day I was driving in from Oregon. I was left alone. Not that I am overly worried about being alone. Remember I took off backpacking on two wilderness trips this summer by myself. Still, it felt a bit strange. Fortunately, a group from Nevada City, California camped next to my van and befriended me.

My Nevada City friends: Blaine, Ashley, Baley and Miriam.

“Curt, you have to join us for dinner,” Baley insisted. “We have way more food than we can possibly eat.” Blaine had already stuffed me with watermelon in the morning. Miriam had shown up with fresh pineapple and cookies in the afternoon and stayed to chat for an hour. Both her parents were Italian but she had been raised in Tahiti and Fiji. Now she was living in Brazil. She’d come to the US to trim marijuana buds for Blaine, who is a pot grower— a now legitimate profession in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada. (Half of the traditional farmers along our road in the Applegate Valley have added marijuana as a crop, including the guy who had a large Trump sign on his property.)

They were cooking up a batch of ribs, tri-tip and sausages. Given that I had a hotdog waiting for me in the van, I quickly joined them! “You need to eat salad, too,” Ashley admonished me. She wanted to assure Peggy that I was eating my veggies in her absence. I gave each one a copy of my book on my Peace Corps experience in Africa as a thank you.

A final photo: The women line up with me next to my van.







A Journey to the Kingdom of Dust… Burning Man 2017: Part 1

Truer words have rarely been spoken at Burning Man. I came across the sign on the Playa this year. After a major dust storm at Black Rock City, eyes, ears, nose, mouth and clothes are coated in dust! And everything else, as far as that goes.


Maybe I should title my post journey interruptus, since my first attempt at reaching Burning Man was squelched by the need to hurry home and pack up valuables in case our house was burned down by one of the forest fires raging near us in Southern Oregon.

By Wednesday, Peggy and I had done what we could to secure our home, made up our minds on what to take, and decided that escaping the smoke was our next priority. It was laying in thick, refusing to go away, limiting our vision, and, much worse, settling into our lungs. Peggy was heading to Sacramento to stay at her sister’s and visit with her 97-year-old mom. I would resume my journey to Burning Man.

We wished our house well. I wandered around inside saying goodbye to treasures— memories that dated back decades— and then went outside to wish the beautiful surrounding forest good luck. So far, the fires had been kind, cleaning out the debris under the trees while, for the most part, leaving the trees to prosper. Forest fires are a natural part of ecology, a natural means of keeping forests healthy. I suspect Smokey Bear would shed half his hair over this thought.

We gave each other a final hug and headed out for our different destinations.

Not to keep you in suspense, our house still stands. On Thursday, a week ago, the Level 1 alert went to a Level 2: “You should be packed up and out.” Neighbors reported on seeing the flames creep over the ridges and make their way down toward out homes. But so far, we haven’t received a Level 3, “Get out now!” message. The firefighters made a valiant effort at slowing down and stopping the fire’s advance with very limited resources. (Resources are limited because the whole West seems to be burning. Teams are moved rapidly from one fire to the next depending on needs.)

Back again in Southern Oregon after Burning Man 2017, my faithful horse and I were glad to find our house still standing. The horse, BTW, is affixed to my bike so I can find it in the middle of thousands of other bikes. The glow sticks help us to be seen at night. My beard, soon to be gone, is courtesy of my summer backpacking trips. Smoke from the fires still hangs in the sky. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

My second effort at driving to Burning Man was more successful. I didn’t even stop in the small town of Cedarville where I had turned around the first time. The road makes its way south out of town down through Surprise Valley, which is a surprise because it has water, and then jogs east out into the Nevada desert on lonely Highway 447 toward Gerlach. I must have passed all of four cars on my 60 plus miles of driving through the Black Rock Desert. At Gerlach, a left jog on Highway 34 for eight miles took me out to the entrance road to Burning Man.

I swear that vehicles escaping from Black Rock City breathe a hefty sigh of relief when they finally reach Highway 147. I watched as a few came out, hit a bump, and exploded in dust, like a dog shaking off water. And then it was my turn to drive in over the dusty, bumpy, dirt road. Here’s the thing, it isn’t that long, maybe five miles, but it can take five hours to drive over during peak hours. Put in perspective, that’s about the same amount of time it took me to drive the 280 miles from Medford to Gerlach.

Almost everyone who attends Burning Man, from virgin to veteran, has a story to tell about the experience. There are several factors that can cause delays. The number of people entering or leaving in a given period is the primary one. Put several thousand people on the road at the same time and it can make driving over a LA freeway at rush hour seem positively delightful. BMORG, the Burning Man Organization, doesn’t help. It is so paranoid about someone slipping in without paying that every vehicle entering is searched from top to bottom. I had to get out and open the back door of my van (admittedly, there is room to store a bicycle pump or a very small midget) and then let the ticket checker in to look under my bed and in the bathroom. It took ten minutes. Multiply that by several thousand.

Speed limits make sense. It’s 10 miles per hour on the road in and 5 miles per hour in Black Rock City. There are numerous police around to enforce the law. Bumpy roads add their own speed limit. This year featured the mother of all washboards. I watched an RV in front of me bounce around like Jell-O during an earthquake.

The weather is always a factor. Massive dust storms are natural, and the vehicles whip up their own, given that the dust on the road is often several inches deep. Close to zero visibility is possible. More than once, I’ve driven from traffic cone to traffic cone hoping that they wouldn’t disappear altogether. Then I hoped the next one would appear beside me, and not under the tires of my van.

This is what the road into Black Rock City looks like during a heavy dust storm through my window. I’ve used this photo before. A car disappears and you can barely see the traffic cone on the lower left. Not fun. Fortunately, conditions were better this time.

Rain stops everything. The fine dust turns into a sticky clay that gloms on to vehicle tires, bike tires and shoes— inches thick. Vehicles are required to stop, and who would want to walk or bike in the stuff. Peggy and I once waited on our way in for three hours as the road dried out enough for people to drive over it. A massive party developed. People were dancing on top of RVs and entertainers were performing on the road. Garbage bags tied over feet provided a solution for those who chose to walk around. We had good books to read, which we always carry, just in case.

I hate to mention this, but a Nevada forest fire helped me on the way in this year. It actually blocked traffic on Highway 147 from Interstate 80, which is the main way into Burning Man. I could see the clouds of smoke roiling up in the distance. With minimal traffic, it only took an hour and a half to reach Black Rock City!

The wind was whipping up a dust storm when I arrived. My lungs started screaming at me. I had just subjected them to a week of smoke in Oregon and now they had to deal with Playa dust. They were not happy. I grabbed the first vacant space I found, which was at 6th and L and then took out my camera to photograph the disappearing camp next to me. I had arrived at the Kingdom of Dust.

My location in Black Rock City this year is shown by the yellow dot. I was on the farthest road out.

Shortly after I arrived at Burning Man 2017, the camp next to me began to disappear in a cloud of dust. This is around 3:30 in the afternoon.


NEXT POST: Some general observations on Burning Man 2017… and lots of photos.








Burning Man or Burning House… When Forest Fire Threatens


Heavy smoke from local forest fires fills southern Oregon’s Upper Applegate Valley where we live.


I left our home on the way to Burning Man with the heavy smoke of the surrounding forest fires filling the air in Applegate Valley like an evil fog. Once again we had an inversion; there was nowhere for the smoke to go so it was hanging around and hassling our lungs.

The forest service folks said there wasn’t much to worry about. We might have bad smoke, but the fires were good. They were the type that make their way along the ground, clean out the dead wood, and leave the forest feeling healthy. Naturally, there was an if attached. The wind could change; the heat could skyrocket; the fire could cease its peaceful ramble through the woods and become a raging inferno. Conditions were extreme.

Trusting a fire to behave is something like trusting a tropical depression in the Gulf to behave. Sometimes the depression simply goes away; but occasionally, it morphs into a horrendous hurricane with devastating floods. Hello Harvey. Our thoughts are with our friends and all the other people in southeast Texas who are suffering from the torrential downpour.

The forest service people in our area also told us that they didn’t have enough personnel to seriously tackle the fires creeping through our woods, even if they wanted to. The Chetco Fire over near the coast, some 50 miles away, had been declared the worst fire in the nation, at least for now. Even the local firefighters had headed for the coast. The town of Brookings was being threatened, and firefighters go where the threats are the greatest.

I was happy to escape. I drove down through the Rogue Valley. Smoky. I drove up and across the Cascade Mountains. Smoky. I drove down into the Klamath Basin, past Klamath Lake, past Klamath Falls. Smoky. Finally, down around Tule Lake across the border in northern California, down where Japanese-American citizens were once corralled behind barbed wire fences like cattle, the smoke begin to clear. I breathed a sigh of relief. I breathed fresh air.

A sign outside of Tule Lake told me there were no services for the next 70 miles. Not many of California’s 39 million people live in the remote northeastern part of the state. I checked my gas gauge. Not a problem; I made it to Alturas with a quarter tank left. Gas prices had shot up, however— partly because of the towns remote location, partly to make money off of the increased traffic to Burning Man, and partly because of Harvey’s romp through the Gulf and along the Gulf Coast. I am sure that you have noticed that gas prices shoot up within hours when the oil industry has a problem. It takes months for them to creep back down.  Or is this just my imagination?

I bought gas. I also bought apples, oranges and salad mix at the Holiday Market. (California won’t let you bring fresh fruit and vegetables into the state.) My destination for the day was Cedarville, a mere 26 miles away up and over the Warner Mountains from Alturas. I like the small town. It perches on the very edge of California. Off to the east are the vast open spaces of the Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where lonely ranches, windmills, sagebrush, jack rabbits and rattlesnakes rule.  Cedarville likes Burning Man. The majority of the Northwest’s large population of Burners pass through the town. A couple of years ago, a local gas station owner told me he pumps as much gas during the week of Burning Man as he does the whole rest of the year.

My normal routine is to spend the night in the town and then drive the 90 plus miles to Burning Man early the next morning. I checked out the fairgrounds where I was going to camp and then headed for the Country Hearth Restaurant. It’s a small-town kind of eatery that moves at its own slow pace but serves excellent food. I had my traditional last meal before heading into the desert and then went out to the van for a final call to Peggy. Phone service is non-existent to highly unlikely in Black Rock City. A large brindle dog offered me a wag or two, sat on the sidewalk, and watched me make the call.

Peggy greeted me with her usual chirpy welcome and then told me that the sheriff had just been by our house. “We are under a Level 1 fire alert!” Our endless days of smoke were threatening to turn into something much more serious. Level 1 is a warning. Be aware, the fire is threatening to come your way. Level 2 is you should be packed up. Leaving is highly recommended. Level 3 is get out now. You may be too late.

“I’m coming home,” was my immediate response.

“No, Curt,” Peggy replied. “I have everything under control. You need to head on into Burning Man.” She knows how much I look forward to the event. And I had no doubt that Peggy had things under control. She’s cool under pressure and highly organized. Plus, we have great neighbors. But that wasn’t the issue. Having to abandon our home and possibly lose it to fire wasn’t something she should face alone. She was insistent, however.

“Let me think about it,” I concluded. I went back to the fairgrounds and broke out a beer. It didn’t take much thinking. I was not going to leave Peggy home by herself. I called her back.

“No, no, no, Curt,” she made one final plea. But I reaffirmed I wasn’t going to leave her alone. I also said I wanted to say goodbye to our home if it was in danger of burning down. And finally, I told her I would head back to Burning Man if the situation improved. I think it was the latter that convinced her.


It’s a strange feeling to walk through your home and figure out what to take and what to leave behind when a forest fire threatens. In ways, it’s a walk down memory lane. There’s so much history. Some things are easy: medical and financial records. Others are more complicated. I love our books, for example, but there is no way we are going to pack up a couple of thousand. Maybe I’ll pull a dozen. A few family albums from our childhood, some art work with meaning, original materials from Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, my genealogical files, Peggy’s quilts, some clothes— whatever we take has to fit in our pickup.The digital age helps. Much is on-line.

Peggy and I spent time outside yesterday, prepping the house. Most was already done. We live in an area prone to forest fires, so we have ‘defensible space.’ Plants, except for lavender, which is fire resistant, are away from our walls. Lower limbs have been cut away from trees. I’ve weed whacked most of the weeds near our house, but now wish I had done more. Too late. Plus, the fire people have a ban on all gas-powered tools. I did some hoe work and Peggy raked, The heat and the smoke made things much worse. Three hours was our max. We drank lots of water. A cold shower afterwards felt good.

We’ve decided on an action plan. There is really nothing else we can do here. Hanging out and manning a garden hose during a Level 3 situation is not an option for us. We will pack the truck today. There is a community meeting hosted by the forest service that we will attend tonight. Tomorrow Peggy will head for Sacramento to escape the smoke and I will resume my trip to Burning Man. We are pretty sure our property is safe. If not…

Peggy smiles. “Maybe it’s time to buy another small RV and hit the open road again.”



Peggy’s Lake

Peggy’s Lake. The quiet beauty of this small Sierra lake captured me.

Gold prospecting was a lonely occupation for most of the men who came to California as 49ers. Wives and girlfriends had been left behind. Often the only female companionship a miner might have was the type you paid for. Every town of any size had its whorehouse, or possibly several. One way the miners compensated for their loneliness was by naming lakes in the Sierra Foothills and Mountains after their favorite female companions, be it a wife, a girlfriend, or a particularly friendly lady of the evening.

I honored the tradition when I made my solo trip into the Grouse Ridge/Black Buttes/Five Lakes Basin Area. I had hiked out on Saturday from the Basin but Peggy wasn’t coming in to pick me up until Sunday. I didn’t want to hike up the Grouse Ridge Campground and spend the night. It was undoubtedly crawling with people. So, I went looking for a substitute.

A small lake that I had camped on before had been taken over by cattle, lots of them. I hiked on. Another little lake was shallow and also a favorite watering hole for my bovine companions. I hiked on and on, getting father and farther away from the trail. Much to my surprise, I came on a little, unnamed lake that I had never been on before— and I’ve crisscrossed the area extensively. It was shallow, only a few feet deep, and it might very well dry up in another month or two, but it was gorgeous. I decided to name it Peggy’s Lake, after my best friend and wife. It’s nothing official of course. It won’t show up on any maps. But I knew that Peggy would like ‘her’ lake.

Peggy's Lake in the Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized area.

Similar to Five Lakes Basin, Peggy’s Lake is nestled in the granite. Storm clouds hovered over head in this photo. They soon produced rain.

And it rained hard. I hid out under a couple of large pines to stay dry. This Lupine welcomed the rain with open leaves!

Lupine at Peggys Lake near the Black Buttes of the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

These pods on the Lupine left no doubt about its connection to the pea family.

After the rain, a convenient rock provided a premier seat for enjoying the lake.

Peggy’s Lake in the evening.

Peggy's Lake in the Grouse Ridge area of the Northern Sierras.

And with the early morning sun.

These two trees, a pine on the right and a juniper on the left, caught my attention.

Here they are early in the morning, backlit by the sun.

The shallowness of the lake encouraged grass to grow. I kept seeing little heads pop up out of this grass and didn’t have a clue what they were. Later I figured out they were baby ducks, catching insects.

Once again, I found a fun monster lurking in the lake’s reflections. I turned it upright for your enjoyment.

This red fir made me think Christmas tree.

As always, I was attracted to the beauty of old wood like this stump.

And these two trees that seemed to continue an embrace that they had shared when they were young and green.

Gnarled wood called to my camera. I liked the patterns here…

And here…

The setting sun lit up the Black Buttes that help define the area.

And I am not going to tell anyone where Peggy’s Lake is! There’s a reason.

The Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized Area is well-loved. Maybe too much so— especially for someone like me who prefers his wilderness rugged, wild and relatively people-free. But I make an exception for this region. It’s an easy place for people to get to and is very backpacking-friendly for families and newcomers to the sport. It serves as a great introduction, as it did for our grandchildren, Ethan and Cody. And as it did for me in the 1970s. There is great value in this— for the people of course— but also for our world. People who experience the wilderness in a positive way are much more likely to appreciate it, and want to protect it. And protecting our wild areas is ever so important, for ourselves, our children, and future generations.

This doesn’t mean that I am beyond selfishly wanting to keep a bit of it to myself, like Peggy’s Lake. So, I’ll share photos, but not location. (grin) If folks who frequent the area are charmed by the photos and go out of their way and find the lake: Welcome.

It was only proper that Peggy, Tasha, Ethan and I ended our backpack trip the following week at Peggy’s Lake.

Tasha points out a white cow that stopped by for a visit, laid down in the grass, and happily chewed her cud while watching us. It was the same cow that had come to visit me up near Glacier Lake the week before. Maybe she was missing her people.

Ethan and Cody explore the shallow lake.

It wasn’t all backpacking. Here Peggy displays her cards in a game with the 9-year-old Cody. This would have been a bad hand for poker. It was even worse for War, which Cody insisted she play with him whenever we camped, including at 6:30 in the morning!

And finally, nestled into the seat of honor, Peggy enjoyed her lake.

I am off to Black Rock City, my friends. And I am excited to return to the desert, the incredible art, and the magic of Burning Man. This year’s theme, Radical Rituals, promises to produce some interesting art. For example, what the heck is the Pagan Bunny Shrine? The creators say it’s all about hoppiness. We’ll see. Anyway, I’ll be away from my blog again for a week. But immediately afterwards, I’ll begin a series of posts on this strange, sometimes wonderful, and occasionally downright weird event. And I’ll respond at that time to any comments you’ve made in the meantime. See you then. –Curt



















In the Beginning… A Reflection on the Grouse Ridge-Black Buttes-Five Lakes Basin Area

A waterfall in the Five Lakes Basin provides water from snowbanks to one of my favorite lakes. The Black Buttes tower above. Hemlocks, pines and firs grow on the hillside.


Old Pond

Blue mountain, white snow gleam
Through pine bulk and slender needle-sprays;
little hemlock half in shade,
ragged rocky skyline,

single clear flat nuthatch call:
down from the treetrunks

up through time.

At Five Lakes Basin’s
Biggest little lake
after all day scrambling on the peaks,
a naked bug with a white body and brown hair

dives in the water,


A poem by the Nobel Prize winner and the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology, ” Gary Snyder.

I have just returned from my last backpacking trip of the summer, my fifth— one for each decade I’ve shouldered a pack and disappeared into the wilderness. My last two trips included the Grouse Ridge-Black Buttes-Five Lakes Basin area, the same region Gary Snyder refers to above. He lives outside of nearby Nevada City (just above Grass Valley in the map below), and, like me, has wandered and loved the glacier carved country from top to bottom, from the Buttes to the Basin.

The maps below provide information on the location of the area and where I backpacked on my two trips.


Yellow marks the general location of my two trips this summer into the Grouse Ridge area just north of Interstate 80 between Sacramento, California and Reno, Nevada in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (I was raised in a small town just outside of Placerville.)

The area circled in yellow was where we backpacked. I-80 can be seen at the bottom of the photo. I helped achieve the non-motorized status for the area in the 1970s when I was serving as Executive Director of the Sacramento Ecology/Environmental Center.

A close-up of the area. Today I am featuring Glacier Lake and the trail there from Grouse Ridge marked in yellow, which was the route I followed on my first trip. I went into the Basin on the Sand Ridge Trail when I backpacked in with my family.

The first trip into the Basin I made by myself this summer; the second was with my wife Peggy, my daughter Natasha, and her two sons, Ethan and Cody. It was our grandkids’ first backpacking trip and I wanted them to explore the area where my own backpacking experiences had begun in 1969— where I had first discovered the joys of backpacking, and the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Our daughter Natasha with her two boys, Ethan on the left and Cody on the right. Sierra granite provides the backdrop.

Ethan and Cody contemplate another climb. Both boys, Ethan at 12 and Cody at 9, carried full backpacks. Ethan was like a deer on the trail, bounding ahead. Cody was like a Sierra badger, digging in and not giving up, mastering the trail one step at a time.

In the beginning: It sounds almost biblical. Dan Iles would like it. I met Dan at Glacier Lake on my first trip into the Grouse Ridge area this summer. He introduced himself as the Dean of Graduate Studies at the Shasta Bible College in Redding, California. He’s a serious Christian, and a heck of a nice fellow. I liked him immediately. He had backpacked into Glacier Lake with his 13-year-old grandson and told me that he had been bringing youth groups into the area since the 70s.

The Reverend Dan Iles at Glacier Lake.

I was getting ready to leave the next morning when he came over for a chat. I had told him the night before that I lived in the Applegate Valley near the small town of Ruch in Southern Oregon and he wanted to know if I attended one of the churches there that he was familiar with. I explained that I was a bit more Eastern in my beliefs, a bit more Zen, and something of an Agnostic. I dug into my pack and found Siddhartha, a 1922 novel by Hermann Hesse that a friend had given me in the 70s. The novel describes Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment at the time of the Buddha. I read it every few years because it reminds me of the importance of living in the present, of the interconnectivity of all things, and the value of a simple life— of not getting lost in our materialistic world.

Reading Siddhartha after dinner beside a quiet Sierra Lake. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Dan and I must have talked for 45 minutes or so about our lives. He described himself as a Professor of Practical Theology and told me of his efforts to help children and women in Africa who had been left homeless and destitute by the seemingly endless conflicts. He also told me that he believed in freedom of religion, that people should be free to worship according to their own beliefs, which is a concept that I strongly support. Still, I could tell he was concerned about my soul, that he would have considered a day spent trying to convert me as a day well-spent. It went with the territory of who he was and what he believed.

As I hiked past his camp to say goodbye on my way down into the Five Lakes Basin he urged that I read the Book of John in the New Testament. “It does an excellent job of describing the miracles of Christ,” he assured me. I’d read John before. In my youth, I had been considered a prime candidate for becoming an Episcopal priest. But I read it again on Dan’s recommendation. Miracles are what have been pulling people into Christianity for millennia. Jesus changes water to wine, feeds five-thousand people with two fish and five loaves of bread, walks on water, heals the sick, revives the dead, and ascends to Heaven.

I should have said, “Thanks, I’ll do that,” and moved on. But I couldn’t help myself. “I don’t need miracles, Dan” I responded. “I’ve got this.” And I raised my hands to take in the surrounding countryside. The towering Black Buttes climbed above the blue-green Glacier Lake. Giant red firs and pines stood as silent sentinels over the campground. Brightly colored flowers called to insects with an urgency that predated man’s sojourn on earth. Massive cumulus clouds spoke of lightning and thunder and rain and hail— of the incredible power of nature. If I needed awe, if I needed inspiration, if I needed a reason to believe, it was right there in front of me, behind me, surrounding me. I didn’t have to travel back in time 2000 years to events that required a leap of faith to believe. I waved one last time, turned, and hiked down the trail toward the Five Lakes Basin.

Photos of Glacier Lake and my hike into the lake.

The Black Buttes of the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains tower over Glacier Lake.

A close up of the Black Buttes as the sun sets.

The moon hovers above the Black Buttes in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

A small pool fed by melting snow provided this reflection shot at Glacier Lake.

Red fir reached for the sky above my campsite.

Glacier Lake in the Grouse Ridge Area of the Northern Sierra Nevada mountains.

I found these two moss colored elders along the trail to Glacier Lake.

What insect could resist this brightly colored Red Mountain Heather that I took a close up of along the Glacier Lake Trail.

Towering cumulus clouds threatened thunder, lightning and hail at Glacier Lake.

I found a small creek along the trail to Glacier Lake and decided to camp next to it, thinking it might provide a short hike for my grandsons. (They didn’t need it.) I removed bear scat from the campsite so they wouldn’t get too nervous.

This boulder next to the campsite reminded me that the area had been carved by glaciers. The granite rock, known as an erratic, had been left behind by one of the glaciers.

I hid out under my tent’s groundcloth as lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and hail pounded down on my campsite. Later, as the sun set, all that was left of the storm was a few puffy clouds.


NEXT POST: It’s down into the Five Lake Basin.


















Out of the Woods… For a Day

Ready for another adventure, I look out toward the Black Buttes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of I-80. Peggy dropped me off at the trailhead, wished me well, and took this photo. And then I headed down the trail.

I am out of the woods— for a day— and decided to check in. I have just finished backpacking by myself for a week in the Grouse Ridge Non-Motorized Area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Interstate 80. I’m going back into the same area tomorrow with Peggy, our daughter Tasha, and our grandsons Ethan and Cody. It’s a beautiful area, and I have lots of adventures to share. Like how do you persuade a cow that she really doesn’t want to camp with you overnight?

Anyway, here are a few photos to serve as a teaser. I should be home next Monday, which will give me a chance to catch up with fellow bloggers after a summer of backpacking. Of course I will be madly getting ready for Burning Man 2017… (grin).

I expect to see wild animals out on the trail, but this one didn’t seem particularly wild. In fact, I think she wanted to camp with me. Maybe she had seen the same fresh bear poop I had.

Turns out the weather was much more of a challenge than the bear. Shortly after my discussion with the cow, I was in the middle of a thunder, lightning and hail storm!

This is an area of incredible beauty that I have returned to again and again over the years. There are meadows filled with flowers…

That are always forcing me to stop and take their photo.

Numerous small lakes…

And the Black Buttes, seen here at Glacier Lake— lit up by the setting sun.

A final shot from Glacier Lake as the sun goes down, outlining what I considered to be a very strange tree.

See you all next week. —Curt


Pass the Datura, Please… I Want to Make a Square.

Geometrical forms are often found in rock art, and the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is no exception. The body of this horse with its ears back and tail sticking out is filled with squares. I’m wondering if its pose is a result of eating Datura, whose seed are represented by the two circles. Or maybe it just spotted the horse-sized snake off to the right. My ears would be back and tail sticking out too.


Datura, one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite flowers to paint, is a strong hallucinogen, and dangerous. Shamans of the western US often used it to induce visions and travel on their journeys into other worlds. It seems quite likely that many of the stranger petroglyphs found at Three Rivers were inspired by its use. There is also a theory that many of the geometric patterns found in rock art sites throughout the world are hard-wired into the brained and are discovered through the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

Datura, also known as Jimsyn Weed.

Datura, a beautiful but dangerous plant is also known as Jimson Weed. I took this photo along the American River Parkway in Sacramento.

I’ve always been amused by how Datura earned its Jimson (Jamestown) Weed name. Apparently the residents of Jamestown fed the plant to British soldiers in 1676 who had been sent to quell a rebellion by the townsfolk. One of the soldiers spent his time trying to blow a feather up into the air while another sat naked in a corner and made faces at them. The other soldiers were similarly effected.

Following are a few of the petroglyphs we found at Three Rivers that featured geometric forms and were perhaps inspired by the use of Datura.

This particular petroglyph at Three Rivers reminded me of a spiral galaxy. Maybe it was supposed to.

This large petroglyph was laid out like a maze.

Another large rock petroglyph. This one of squares with one of the squares filled with further squares.

Another maze like petroglyph. Following the spiral takes you to the center of this large circle.

Lacking the geometric look of the above petroglyphs, this may be a ladder leading down to a map of personal crop sites. Many Native Americans lived in cliff dwellings and would travel by ladder to farms below. I wonder if the footprint isn’t saying ‘walk this way.’

Here’s a pattern that you might expect to find in a modern-day Navajo blanket.

Okay, I’m thinking Datura here. The wavy lines might actually represent a river, but the eyes? (On the top maps I use backpacking, they would represent two depressions in the land.)

Circles are common at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. This may represent the sun.

And I conclude my posts on Three Rivers with what might be another candidate for Datura influence.

NEXT POST: Continuing my series on petroglyphs, I’ll travel up to Sego Canyon in Utah. Since I am out backpacking in the Sierra’s,  I’ll respond to comments on my return.
















There’s Something Fishy about the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site


What’s an octopus doing at the Three Rivers Petroglyph site in south central New Mexico.


This, and my next post, will take us back to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico. I am backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains this week and will respond to comments next week. Thanks, as always, for following my blog and reading my posts. 


It’s really dry at the Three Rivers Petroglyph site in New Mexico, like desert dry, like 10 inches of rain a year dry! So what’s with the petroglyph of an octopus? It’s at least 800 miles to the nearest body of large water, the Gulf of Mexico, and a similar distance to the Pacific Ocean. I’d think it was one of strange aliens that rock artists like to portray if it weren’t for the three-masted ship with the guy in the stern also found at the Three Rivers site.

Check out this three-masted sailing ship and what appears to be a guy peering over the railing. Even the experts scratch there heads over this petroglyph.

Obviously, someone from the Jornada Tribe had traveled to distant lands and returned to share his or her experiences as rock art. Maybe several members of the tribe had travelled on such journeys. Peggy and I also found fish, a possible seal, and maybe even a whale among the petroglyphs. The frog is a bonus.

A seal perhaps.

There’s no doubt about this fish. But note the geometric patterns. I’ll return to this theme in my next blog.

This is the whale. At least that’s what I am going with. You can make out its mouth on the left and then eye, fin and fluke. This is another example  of fitting the rock art to the rock.

Slightly off subject but still associated with water, I had to put this frog somewhere! Is this one saying, “I need a hug!” ?


NEXT POST: Geometric forms among the petroglyphs of the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site in New Mexico.