Into the Zone — Episode 2: A Bad Day at Black Rock

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.

Rough Draft, Issue #48, September 1990

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.

Larry contemplates the Man in its new home, 1990 (Photo by Stewart Harvey)

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.

Raising the Man, 1990 (Photo by Judy Kokura)

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.

Rough Draft #49, October 1990

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)

About the author: Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger

Misadventures led Kirsten Weisenburger (aka kbot) to Black Rock City in 2004. She was captivated and hoodwinked into organizing theme camps, rangering and participating in Regional Events. As Communications Strategist, Kirsten works across the organization and global community gathering stories and writing for the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks, and the annual Dispatch. She went to journalism school in the 1990s and then spent two decades at startups and digital agencies.

18 Comments on “Into the Zone — Episode 2: A Bad Day at Black Rock

  • Burning Man Project Communications says:

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  • Max says:

    They shouldn’t have called it ‘Burning Man’ back then. It’s only ‘Burning Man’ if the LLC produces the event. People should be sued for IP violations for calling any of the events prior to 1997, ‘Burning Man’.

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    • Joules says:

      That’s pretty much the opposite of what Burning Man stands for.

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    • Mer says:

      Your comment doesn’t make sense on so many levels; The people you’re referring to are the same people that started the LLC, before they started the LLC…so you’re implying they should sue their “past” selves for using the name that they made up, and eventually made official as the name of their LLC?? Woah brah, brain bender! Irrational AND irrelevant! But your abrasive and negative suggestion/comment is just unnecessary dude! Get a life – I mean a better one, existentially! I say that with sincerity and only good intentions!

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    • Nick Nelson says:

      I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest this was an attempt at humor.

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    • kbot says:

      It’s not called Burning Man unless it comes from the snarkiest region of the Burner-verse, otherwise it’s just a small, sparkling equine.

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  • Magic Ellingson says:

    Never Ben, Was suppose to in 2001 with a friend who directed the first film I had ever Ben in “Ray Of Darkness” That friend is deeply involved now a days since. I’m sorry family I’ve never met ️ hope to see you soon in the near future!! #BoltsOfPositiveEnergyArt will appear and manifest one day in Black Rock so say #HenryHemp let the Magic Live! ✌️

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  • matt klein says:

    Miss P. Segal had a restaurant on Baker and Macalister.
    She also led the Proust Support Group back in 2000 and was a wonderful person who supplied us with “Props” for 3 one act plays 2 by Chekov and one by Shaw that we performed at her Restaurant. She paid the actors $10 per night, free food and a couple of Beers each. She was wonderful. Hope she still is “About”

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    • ladybee says:

      Yes – MIss P Segal was the founder of the Cafe at Burning Man; I met her there in 1995, when her single espresso machine was malfunctioning. We got to talking; I had just moved to SF from NYC, and P said, “If you want to have more fun here, join the Cacophony Society.” I did, and it absolutely changed my life; i’ve worked for Burning Man for 22 years now. One correction: it was P who suggested moving the burn to the Black Rock Desert. THANK YOU MISS P!!!!

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    • P Segal says:

      I am still here, Matt—thank you so much for reminding me of that wonderful time at Caffe Proust, and for the lovely compliments! I’ve also carried on with the Proust Support Group through the zine, Proust Said That ( My current project is artists’ co-op live/work spaces and venues in San Francisco (I’d like to have a theater to offer you next time!), because working artists can longer rent apartments in the city. I’m going to be putting up a post about this soon.

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  • james says:

    Carrie was a friend of mine.
    She was also a desert camper from youth on. The zone trip and the desert.

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  • Sharon Anderson says:

    What a delightful article. Makes me all misty-eyed. Feel so wistful and privileged to have experienced BM in 2010,11 and 13 … but oh what a trip it must have been in 1990.

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  • Franchesca says:

    On my bucket list, hopefully I make it one year or more

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  • P Segal says:

    Kirsten, thank for remembering that I cooked for you so long ago, reminding me of the days of The City magazine, and for this wonderful piece. And thanks to Michael Mikel, for remembering 1907 Golden Gate, and the years and years of amazing conversations around the kitchen table, where so much inspired mischief was hatched. As I’m writing now for Proust Said That #11, Cacophony and Burning Man really taught us a lot about surviving the After Times.

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  • lio messi says:

    Image result for A Bad Day at Black Rock
    The American-English phrase bad day at Black Rock denotes a fateful day that brings disaster. It alludes to Bad Day at Black Rock, the title of a 1955 U.S. thriller film, directed by John Sturges (1910-92), starring Spencer Tracy (1900-67) and Robert Ryan (1909-73).

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