Pre-Burn: A Bittersweet Remembrance of the Days Before Burning Man
As the time of Burning Man approaches, my thoughts often turn to the before-time. There was an article in the SF Chronicle last Sunday July 27th about the area around the playa. After reading it I decided to pen this missive to illuminate some of the factors that lead to Burning Man. I went to Burning Man once as a guest in the time before fences. There were about 600 people; way too many for my playa sensibilities. Here's my story.
Intrepid adventurer, Pat Kelly, first introduced me to the playa of the Black Rock Desert in 1981. Pat was working as a ship’s radio operator and often had weeks between assignments. During those long weeks she’d often go exploring, often alone and often in the great expanses of Nevada. Years before, we found out through mutual acquaintances that we were both fans of the wonderfully perplexing Pyramid Lake: a big ol’ blue lake smack dab in the middle of a stark desert. But Pat had moved on from Pyramid Lake and began to venture north. She wound up stumbling on to a curious place in the Smoke Creek Desert named Plant X. Planet X was a pottery and art studio founded by two Berkeley expatriates John and Mary Bogart. The three of them (or four sometimes when Pat would cart along her current beau) struck up a fast friendship.
In due course Pat told a few close friends about this new place she’d found and offered to give us private tours. She was purposely vague about what was there (or really what wasn’t there), but trusting Pat, one by one we’d accompany her to her new discovery. When it became my turn, she gave me directions and I embarked the long six-hour drive to Planet X. When I got there late one summer afternoon Pat gave me the perfunctory tour of Planet X and introduced me to the current inhabitants (usually there was quite an assortment). Then came the big show. She instructed me to strap myself into the passenger seat of her Plymouth Valiant, which she had named Clark. Clark Valiant. And off we sped to points unknown. A few minutes later we were speeding down the road towards Gerlach and in a few more we made the left turn onto State Route 34. As we motored along the highway I kept looking at what I would soon know as the playa of the Black Rock Desert. It reminded me of the vast salt flats between Wendover, Nevada and Salt Lake City. After ten miles, Pat stopped the car and instructed me to close my eyes, which I dutifully did. We surged forward. I felt a little bump and a few seconds of rumbling as Clark Valiant left the road and entered the playa. Still with eyes closed, everything got quiet and smooth and it literally felt as if we were floating. “Keep your eyes closed,” implored Pat. I heard Pat turn off the ignition but still we continued to drift across the playa. After a while the car stopped. Then Pat, again instructing me again to keep my eyes shut tight, got out of the car, opened my door and led me out. Then she told me to start walking telling me that she would be at my side. After what seemed an eternity, (in reality only a minute or two) Pat told me to open my eyes.
What I saw and felt changed my life. Forever. The playa. I felt like I was on top of the ocean. By this time the last rays of the sun were streaking across the playa and the surrounding mountains were beginning to turn warm amber. A few hundred yards away was Clark Valiant and Clark looked absolutely stunning. Just like an advertisement for an exotic automobile. Except it was a Plymouth Valiant, certainly not the most elegant automobile ever designed. I didn’t know it at the time, but a few little brain cells fired off and the seeds of a photo project were planted. Years later those seeds would be part of the mix that influenced Burning Man's move to the Black Rock Desert.
Over the next few years I made multiple trips to the Black Rock Desert and to Planet X. Interestingly for the first few years I rarely ventured onto the playa, at least not very far. There were stories told by the locals of cars being swallowed up by the playa and I was discouraged from venturing very far our, especially alone. During that time, the folks at Planet X had, from time to time, events out on the playa. These events often had a “wind theme” since wind, especially in the late afternoon, was a fairly regular event. They had a wind festival, a tire rolling contest and a croquet match featuring enormous wickets and ten-foot balls, which they hit with cars. It was all great fun.
One weekend in the mid 1980’s a group of us were camped on the edge of the playa. One morning, fueled no doubt by industrial strength doses of caffeine, we started devising contests. (it’s been said that men can’t be together more than a few hours before making up some sort of competitive game). Bets were contemplated and offered, then all manner of items and projectiles were thrown at a variety of targets. After sufficient destruction had taken place came the big challenge. How far could a person walk on the playa in an hour’s time? Calculations and wagering ensued and the youngest member of the group, one Mark Davis was selected as the walker. And off he trekked in the vague direction of a mountain the folks at Planet X had named Sleeping Elephant because of its profile. As the minutes ticked on Mark Davis melted into the shimmering heat waves of the playa. A bit before noon we piled into our cars and took off in search of Mark. We not only found him, but we found him perched on what became known as Mark’s Island. Who won the bet (I believe Mark walked a bit over three miles) has been lost to history. But where Mark wound up marked the beginning of a wonderful project and ironically the end of the pristine playa.
Mark had not just found one island; he had found three. We later found out that these three protrusions above the playa had been formed, according to geologists, by three tiny springs one of which still trickled. The other two islands were given names and the entire complex was christened the Mark’s Island Archipelago. No longer were we confined to the edges of the playa; the whole Black Rock Desert was our playground and Mark’s Island became our base camp.
Then, a seminal moment came for the playa and me in June 1988: I turned 40. As befitting any momentous decade-turning time, my official entry into middle age needed to be acknowledged appropriately. What to do? I toyed with the idea of a grand party but it seemed like too much bother. The answer ultimately came from my friend Lawrence Brown, a Bay Area attorney. He had some dusty old golf clubs in his garage that had belonged to his grandmother and suggested that we bury a couple of coffee cans on the playa and invite people for a "Golf Tournament". Neither Lawrence nor I had actually played golf since we were teenagers, so we reasoned that the vast expanse of the playa would be a wonderful place to rediscover the game. After all, who wants to whiff at a ball or sail their shot off at a right angle to another fairway with a huge group of people watching?
The plan was set in motion, but it wasn’t easy convincing people to come to my party in the desert in the middle of the summer. Most folks thought it somewhat odd that I would ask them to drive six hours from the San Francisco Bay Area, turn off the highway three miles north of Gerlach, drop down onto the Playa, follow a track in the dirt for ten miles, then chase a golf ball around on the sun baked clay surface. Nevertheless, after a bit of arm twisting and cajoling, I did find two other players and three gallery members. Lawrence and I proceeded to lay out a three-hole course in the searing heat of June 1988. Our plan was to play a nine-hole tournament; three times around our three-hole course.
One of the other players, Doug (D.B.) Boilesen, suggested that we should play a scramble style "best ball" tournament. Both players on two-person teams hit their shots, use the better one and pick up the other ball. This turned out to be a great idea since all four of the players were quite rusty. Our hooks and slices on the pavement-smooth surface rolled hundreds of yards in the wrong direction. Luckily Lawrence brought a bicycle that we could use to retrieve the errant shots.
When someone actually drove a ball straight it was a thing of beauty. We all looked in awe as the carroty sphere (we did have the foresight to bring orange balls) cut through the cobalt blue sky, hit the Playa and rolled and rolled...and rolled. After a while the magic of the Playa took hold and we found that we were thoroughly enjoying hitting the ball on a course that had no out-of-bounds, no water hazards and where 150-yard putts were routine. We wound up playing only six holes, but vowed to come back the next year to finish the job. Over the years what came to be called the Black Rock Self-Invitational Golf Tournament grew. Every year we added something. The biggest addition came in 1994 when we started painting all the “greens” with the same paint that is used to paint the end zones of football fields. The now nine-hole course even got a name: Lucifer’s Anvil. The last tournament occurred in 2002. By that time we had attracted a whopping 60 players and a handful of spectators. Unfortunately because of the success of Burning Man we had to jump through the same hoops (insurance, permits, user fees, porta-potties) as Burning Man and its thousands of participants and it was no longer possible to do.
From the beginning of my playa adventures I had brought my camera along. I’m an architectural photographer, primarily doing books on historic architecture, including three of the famous “Painted Ladies” series on colorfully painted Victorian homes. From the very first time I saw Clark Valiant resting on the playa I saw the playa as the world’s largest stage. Nothing but Earth and sky. I started to experiment with photographic possibilities on the playa, adding lighting, gels and props. Pretty soon I started adding people and then my “models” started telling their friends and Black Rock: Portraits on the Playa was born. In the spring of 1990 I resolved to find a way to take more portraits of my friends on the playa and publish the book. I wanted to celebrate my friends by exploring their fantasies and ideas. We’d get together in my Emeryville studio and talk about what was possible and how to pull it off. Then small groups of us would journey to the playa and stage and execute the portraits. It became a genuine phenomenon during the summer of 1990. Soon friends and friends of friends were calling me wanting to take their portraits on the playa. There are many stories to be told about what occurred that summer; far too many for this already-too-long report. Suffice to say that Black Rock: Portraits on the Playa was sent to the printer in Hong Kong in late summer 1990 and the books arrived in late October 1990. Even before the book came out the now-defunct California Magazine ran a feature story on the project. The word was now out. The Black Rock Desert playa had been discovered. Enter Burning Man.
During the shooting of Black Rock: Portraits on the Playa my friend Mark Davis, discoverer of Mark’s Island, jokingly said to me that I was going to be known as the “man that sold the playa.” “Just wait.” He said. “Soon they’ll be crawling over this place like ants.” How right he was. The last photography for the book occurred in late August 1990, but already word had spread throughout the San Francisco Bay Area community about the goings-on at Black Rock. Members of the Cacophony society, John Law, Kevin Evans, and P Segal, heard about the playa either from people who had participated in Black Rock: Portraits on the Playa or from people who knew people at Planet X, or most likely, from both sources. The first playa burn happened on Labor Day weekend 1990. About 80 people attended. I was invited to a pre-burn Burning Man party in the early 90’s where Larry Harvey thanked me for my unintended inspiration and he also took a few cases of my book to sell at the event. The book was one of the rare non-Burning Man items ever offered for sale. I’ve been to one Burning Man burn. It was in 1993 at the north end of the playa. I believe there were about 600 people. No fence and what can only be described as very porous entry/registration gates. Bill at the Texaco station gave me a press pass. After the burn, there was an enormous dust storm followed by rain. I’m a playa veteran, but I’m embarrassed to say that I got lost and guided by friends on a rather circuitous trip back to our camp some ten miles distant.
So that’s my pre-Burning Man story. I’m sort of a history buff. In particular I like to know the pre-history of things; where they came from. Someday I hope someone tells the Planet X story in detail. It’s important.
In August 2007, I put a few of the remaining (slightly blemished) copies of Black Rock: Portraits on the Playa on eBay with a reference to Burning Man in the headline. The Burning Man legal folks sent me a cease and desist email, not wanting me to profit from or sully the Burning Man name. I complied. If you want a signed copy send 15 bucks via PayPal to email@example.com and one will be delivered to your door.
In 2000 my wife and I left the big-city Bay Area for more rural Chico, California. I haven’t been out to the playa for a couple years partly because I no longer have the need to escape the city. During my last few trips to the playa in the early 2000’s it just wasn’t the same. There were lots of “reefs” (big mounds of up-thrust playa) and tire tracks everywhere. No more driving with your eyes closed. No more pristine playa. No more Clark Valiant at sunset. Things change. I suppose I’m partly to blame.
Doug Keister, Chico California