Burning Man Was Born on a Beach in San Francisco

The 2014 Man at Burning Man.

The Man at Burning Man this year stood some ten stories high and towered over the surrounding playa and Black Rock City.

A striking view of the iconic 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. The rest, as they say, is history.

Much had changed when I arrived at Black Rock City in 2004. Old timers spoke nostalgically about the good old days when there had been far fewer people and no rules. They were right; there were more people and more rules, but as far as I could tell things were still pretty rowdy— and magical. I was impressed. So I have been going back ever since. One of my first activities on returning to Black Rock City is to make the journey out to the Man. Since Larry dictates his dimensions, the Man always looks the same. Up until now, however, he has been perched on a different base each year, as shown in the examples below.

Last year's man.

Last year’s man.

The Man at Burning Man in 2006

The Man on his pedestal in 2006.

This year, for the first time since 1995, the Man stood alone and had gained skin. He was magnificent, standing some ten stories or 100 feet tall. A group of tents, representing a souk/market place surrounded him. The souk reflected the 2014 Burning Man theme, Caravansary, and was supposed to be reminiscent of the ancient markets that grew up wherever caravan routes crossed.

The Man at Burning Man in 2014 and a mutant vehicle.

All eyes (and cameras) on the Man, a theme based mutant vehicle passes by. Note the tents of the market place surrounding the Man. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The Man at Burning Man 2014 at the end of the avenue leading out from Center Camp.

The Man stands at the end of the avenue leading out from Center Camp. The building bathed in light behind the Man is the temple. The dome-shaped building off to the right is the Tower of Babel.

A photo of the Man at Burning Man in 2014 framed by the gateway that leads into the market place and Man.

Don Green, a friend who has been coming to Burning Man with me since 2005, took this photo of the Man, which is framed by the gateway that leads into the souk.

Sun shines through the head of the Man at Burning Man 2014. Photo by Tom Lovering.

Tom Lovering, who has been going on adventures with me since the mid-70s took this photo of the Man with the sun behind his head.

Man horse gives ride at Burning Man 2014.

Peggy hitches a ride on a hobby-horse/man in brief briefs at the souk. My favorite cow checks out a red topped man/woman/dummy in the background.

Wild eyed grass eating cow at Burning Man 2014.

The cow.

People headed ostriches at Burning Man 2014.

A number of murals/paintings decorated the walls of the souk. These people headed ostriches were sufficiently Burning Man strange.

What would a souk be without exotic drinks such as a snow cone. Beth Lovering, bathed in the red glow from the tent roof, discusses flavors with the Man from Minnesota.

What would a souk be without exotic drinks such as an icee. Beth Lovering, bathed in the red glow from the tent roof, discusses flavors with the Minnesota Man. Various regions including China, Japan, Russia, Taiwan, Lithuania and Argentina sponsored the various booths.

Drum making at Burning Man 2014.

My favorite souk-like booth, Membranes of Marrakesh, was sponsored by the Utah region and featured drum making. Once again, the red tent roof imparts a red glow. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Drums being Made at Burning Man 2014.

Shelves feature drums in various stages of development.

The man at night, Burning Man 2014.

I’ll conclude this blog with a photo I took of the Man at night, surrounded by the colors and activities of Burning Man. Magical is the word here. Next blog: We will watch the Man burn.


28 thoughts on “Burning Man Was Born on a Beach in San Francisco

  1. My goodness, the Man looks handsome this year. He almost looks like he’s wearing pinstripes. Now, how weird would that be?

    I enjoyed the refresher on the history, and I really like the photos. The Burning Man is impressive, but that cow touches my heart and my funny bone at the same time. The best photo in this batch? From my perspective, the view of the Man at the end of the Avenue. It’s just great.

    • We thought the same thing about the Man, Linda. He was our all time favorite. Burned like a charm, too. 🙂 As for the cow, I always love strange and humorous.

      Three main avenues lead out to the Man, and are always interesting, looking both ways. Lamp lighters light the lamps each night. –Curt

  2. I’d sure love to go to see Burning Man some day, but it’s probably not in the cards for us. Fortunately we have our Wild Goose Festival nearby.

    I didn’t know the history. Fascinating. I would’ve guessed the origins of BM were in the 1960s. Thanks for sharing these scenes.

  3. Curt, what an unique history… Started in SF? I had no idea… but perhaps you need to get Peggy a vehicle that has more than one horsepower… I mean, one woman power. 🙂 If I may ask, how hot did it get out there?

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