[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 …
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.
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.
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.