Welcome to the second story in a three-part series that unpacks how our 2021 theme — The Great Unknown — summons Burning Man’s origin story. Long before the Man touched down (and burned up) in the Black Rock Desert, the Cacophony Society and its early Zone Trips defined Burning Man’s irreverent spirit. As subsequent episodes are published, we’ll add them to the Into the Zone series page. Read “Episode 1: How a Band of Pranksters Inadvertently Created Burning Man” here.
As the Burning Man event on Baker Beach grew in popularity, and the Man grew in stature, it became increasingly difficult to just show up and burn a thing on the beach. This resulted in a convergence of three impossibly perfect conditions: a Man that needed to be burned, a network of free spirits in search of unchartered territory, and a mind-blowingly vast expanse of desert mere hours away.
Burning Man Project co-founder Michael Mikel shares the origin story:
Mikel: The Zone Trip # 4 was when we decided to take Larry Harvey’s wooden statue to the Black Rock Desert. That was in 1990. The event had started on a beach in 1986. And I got involved in 1988.
By 1990 the event was still held on the solstice. We showed up on Baker Beach in San Francisco with several hundred people, and this four-story-tall wooden Man.
Of course the cops also showed up and said, “You can’t do this here. Where’s your permit?” We didn’t have a permit. So Larry made a deal with them. First of all, there’s only two cops and there’s several hundred people around. So there, he made a deal and said, “Okay, we will not burn it. Just let us set it up. We’ll have a party around it. We’ll take it down.” And we kept our word.
We didn’t quite know what to do after that. The Man was in storage.
When did you realize that the Man’s destiny was in the Black Rock Desert?
Mikel: There was this famous Cacophony social house called the Golden Gate House, a big old rambling Edwardian flat at 1907 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco, run by Miss P. Segal. She would have these legendary parties, which would involve artists and Cacophonists, lots of goings on. It was a hub of intellectual activity.
We were there for one of these events. Someone had brought this video that we played on the TV. It was a video that took place in this wide open desert. And it was a video of a croquet game, only the croquet ball was eight feet in diameter. And for mallets, they were using pickup trucks.
“We could burn a Man out there.”
— Michael Mikel, when he first heard about the Black Rock Desert
There had been different kinds of art events happening in the Black Rock Desert for a number of years. There was the Black Rock Invitational Golf Tournament. That was an event that happened every year or two in which they would go out and they would use food coloring to paint the playa and set up a golf course.
Mikel: We heard about this place and said, “We could burn a Man out there.”
So then on Labor Day weekend we loaded the Man into a rental truck and drove to the Black Rock Desert. There were about 90 of us the first time.
We drove down off the asphalt and there was the Black Rock Desert, a giant, vast, incredible experience, a place that we’d never seen before. And of course, I had everybody get out and I took a stick and drew a line. Everybody lined up and I told everybody, “On the other side of this line, everything will be different.” We then stepped across that line together.
We went out there about 16 miles into the desert, set up a camp and erected this wooden Man. And on Sunday we burned it. That was the first Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, 1990.
When You’re a Guest of the Cacophony Society
Luck and happenstance introduced us to Judy Kokura, who accompanied the Cacophonists on that fateful 1990 journey to the Black Rock Desert. She was ostensibly there as part of the media, to take photographs for a magazine article about the Cacophony Society. Her photos, which you see in this article, were never published. Until now.
There was no Survival Guide in 1990. With reassurances that everything would be taken care of, Kokura packed her camera and some tequila, and jumped into a car that was headed to the desert. Read on…
How did you end up at Bad Day at Black Rock (Zone Trip #4)?
Kokura: I had just moved to San Francisco that spring to work for a monthly magazine. My good friend Wanda Hoberg was the senior editor at the magazine and she was covering the Cacophony Society for a feature article. She said, “Hey, I’m going out to the desert for this trip. You could come along and we’ll just pretend you’re the magazine’s photographer.” So that’s why I ended up taking the pictures. When I did develop the film (years later), I thought to myself, “Some of these are kind of good.”
You went out to the Black Rock Desert with… nothing?
Kokura: I think it was John Law or somebody else from the Cacophony Society who told us. “You don’t need to bring anything. We’ll take care of you.” … So we went out there with very little. I think I brought a day pack with a bottle of tequila and some underwear. I swear, I don’t think I even brought a sleeping bag or money. (P. Segal did the catering for the entire weekend from the one RV that was out there.) The group was already packed up when they picked us up at Van Ness and Market late that Friday night. I think I rode in Michael Mikel’s car, a little Volvo, which he had all rigged up with state-of-the-art-at-the-time GPS equipment. Next thing, we were on the Bay Bridge. So yes, we drove through the night.
What was it like to arrive like that in the desolate Black Rock Desert?
Kokura: I remember driving the Volvo for the last part of the trip, from Reno to Gerlach. In the morning we regrouped in Gerlach and then all met up at the edge of the Playa. Someone drew a line on the ground and we all held hands and ‘crossed into The Zone.’ I think that’s when it hit me that this was more than just a camping trip. Then we all got back into our cars and drove out onto the playa in a long line, dust billowing up all around us, to somewhere that seemed like the middle of nowhere.
I’m not sure how they picked the location. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing. Once we got to the spot, everyone started unloading trunks of stuff. I just had my little day pack. But people seemed to have packed their entire apartments. They were hauling out costumes, carpets, even potted plants. It was just insane.
And then people started to build things and raise up the Man?
Kokura: You know the story, right? The disassembled Man had been stored somewhere, after they weren’t able to burn it at Baker Beach. Apparently someone didn’t know what it was, and chopped it up. It happened right before the Labor Day Zone Trip so they had to scramble last minute to get version two together. They rented a 30-foot Ryder truck to haul the Man out to the desert, along with all of the luggage. The Ryder truck was also towing a single port-a-potty, which is all we (100 people) had for the entire weekend.
Once we arrived, a lot of people started unloading and assembling the Man. They also set up a giant orange-and-white parachute in the center of the camp with a carpet under it. There were a lot of organized activities throughout the weekend. At one point there was a ballroom dancing session under the parachute. Someone hooked up a vinyl advertising banner behind a car and people went playa surfing. They even tried to have a movie night, “Bad Day at Black Rock”, but I don’t think the generator cooperated. There seemed to be lots of formal wear and Fez hats, lots of dressing up. I remember wondering, “Who are these people?” It was incredible how they transformed this inhospitable location into such fun.
COMING SOON: Watch this space for Into the Zone Episode 3: The Great Unknown. (Did you miss “Episode 1: How a Band of Pranksters Inadvertently Created Burning Man”? Read it here.)
Cover image of crossing the line into The Zone, Black Rock Desert 1990 (Photo by Dean Gustafson)