Danger Ranger Past & Future
Founder. Catalyst. Mythic character in the Burning Man world. Also known as Michael Mikel, Danger Ranger shares some of his stories of pranks and potential in the wild west (rural and urban) – this time with twists that tie together his other tales. Stuart talks with him about what happened, what’s happening, and what might happen next – from difficult topics to revelatory contexts. It starts with “stuff no one has ever heard.”
Michael’s bio on Burningman.org
- Some of the topics explored:
- Prank activism / Coyote teaching
- From Paperman to a non-profit Corporation
- Beach pagans and “Satanists with guns”
- The harshness and opportunities of the high desert
- The BRC mono-story of “naked white people”
- Anti-consumerism (in a spendy way)
- “Smiley” the Man’s balls and “Burn the Man Early”
- Cacophony Society’s Santas, Brides & Billboards
- A divided society and “the one click dopamine kick”
The rest of M2’s stories will be told at some point in the future or the past.
Founder. Catalyst. Mythic character in the Burning Man world. Also known as Michael Mikel, Danger Ranger shares some of his stories of pranks and potential in the wild west (rural and urban) – this time with twists that tie together his other tales. Stuart talks with him about what happened, what’s happening, and what might happen next – from difficult topics to revelatory contexts. It starts with “stuff no one has ever heard.”
MICHAEL: There’s stuff here that nobody’s ever heard about.
STUART: Everything controversial.
Melissa “Hormel” Waters: Meet the people who make Burning Man happen, beyond the desert and around the world; the dreamers and doers, the makers, shakers and innovators, the artists, activists, freaks and fools. Burning Man Live
STUART: Are you rolling?
MICHAEL VAV: Yes.
STUART: Well, that’s great. We are in fact Burning Man LIVE, and we are in fact live today from Burning Man headquarters. My very special guest is something of a mythic character in the Burning Man world. You may have heard him by his government name, Michael Mikel, but you’re more likely to have encountered him by his other alter ego, Danger Ranger. Hey, Michael. Thank you.
MICHAEL: Hi, Stuart. Good to be here.
STUART: It’s good to be in the same room together and not in a tiny zoom box.
MICHAEL: Yes. Those boxes are so small.
STUART: They’re so claustrophobic.
MICHAEL: But I love the backdrops. I have so much fun with the backgrounds.
STUART: Yeah, I saw your green screen suit over the green screen background was pretty classic.
MICHAEL: I liked the floating head.
STUART: Floating head and floating hands, pretty magical.
So let’s talk about Burning Man, why don’t we? Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Tell me about how you found it and what it was like out there.
MICHAEL: I’d gotten out of the service in the seventies and worked in Silicon Valley, had a whole career, settled into San Francisco.
And I always loved the unusual, the weird, and the strange. One day I heard through friends of friends that there were some people who were going to go down to the beach, and they were going to burn a wooden man on the solstice. I assumed they were pagans or something, so it sounded like fun. So I got a friend and we went down there. This was in 1988.
Sure enough, there was some people there with a 30 foot tall wooden man. And it turns out there were no pagans, really, it was just Larry Harvey and some friends doing this kind of dada art project of creation and destruction.
Then the next year I decided to list the event in the Cacophony Society newsletter, which was perpetually titled “Rough Draft.” All of a sudden a large turnout of all the Cacophony people showed up on the beach. It took off after that.
STUART: So that first meeting with Larry Harvey. What’d you guys think of each other?
Yeah, he talked a lot. Matter of fact, he dominated the conversation. Mostly but he was an interesting guy, he had a lot to say and a lot of ideas.
STUART: For those of our listeners who are unfamiliar with the epic history of the Cacophony Society, we know the basic charter.
MICHAEL: A randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society… AND…
MICHAEL: You may already be a member.
STUART: You may already be a member. Yeah. You were involved in the Cacophony Society for how long?
MICHAEL: For the whole lifespan, pretty much. In the 1970s, I heard about this group called the Suicide Club and they were doing outrageous things, but you only heard them through rumors because they were underground. And so I couldn’t make contact with them. They were so tight knit and insular, they didn’t bring in new people with new ideas, and they kind of ran out of steam in 1982 and disbanded.
But then a few years later, a few of them just decided to start up something new, and called it the Cacophony Society. I immediately got involved. I became the editor of the newsletter, and I decided that Cacophony should be more open. Anyone could join, anyone could be a member. And, I remember when I brought you in on this too. I seem to remember we communicated about your zine for a while, and finally I started sending the newsletter to you.
STUART: Uh huh. And then what happened? I’m a little hazy on the 1990s myself.
MICHAEL: Are you sure you were there?
STUART: I don’t know. Did you see me there? You came to my house. Isn’t that what happened? I threw a party and invited some of my, what I call my invisible friends.
MICHAEL: You threw several parties. I’ll never forget the Bodeen Family Reunion.
STUART: You know, that actually started with the White Trash Cookbook and The Elvis Cookbook. We were sitting around, looking at this stuff, giggling like “I want to cook some of this, but who would ever eat it?” And that turned into the Bodeen Family Reunion, which was an extended white-trash family. What was your..? You were Grand Pappy Bodeen, weren’t ya?
MICHAEL: Uncle Mikey.
STUART: I believe I was “Cooker Bodeen” fresh out of the slam. Many cacophony events, or I should say a few of them, turned into ongoing things, Burning Man being one of them. There are two others that I think that you had something to do with. What’s this about dressing up in wedding dresses?
MICHAEL: Yes, The Brides of March. 1999. I was in a thrift store and I saw this rack of wedding dresses and I thought, “Oh, this is so sad. We should do something.” So, I bought the whole rack of wedding dresses and I got a bunch of friends – guys and gals.
We put on these dresses and we started going around San Francisco and going to bars and places and shopping at Nordstroms. It was hilarious, and it was one of those ideas that really took off, got other cities; LA started doing it, Seattle, Portland… And it ran up until COVID hit, and hasn’t been done since.
STUART: Just like SantaCon.
MICHAEL: Ah, yes. 1994.
STUART: Were you on SantaCon 1?
MICHAEL: Yes. A friend of mine – we can call him Santa #1 – came up with this idea.
STUART: Or Santa Zero, like in an epidemic, patient zero.
MICHAEL: Yes. Exactly. Yeah. He came up with the idea in 1994. We found these cheap Santa suits that we could order online. And there were about two dozen of us that first Santa Rampage. It was really kind of aimed at culture jamming. Yeah. We wanted to take the central icon of Christmas consumerism, the central tool that was being used to sell us shit, and twist it around, kind of corrupt it, if you will.
And so we got all these Santa suits, a week or two before Christmas. And the stores were all jolly, they were all kinds of Christmas decorations. And all of a sudden these two dozen Santas burst through the door, or actually maybe stumbled; we’d had a few drinks by that time. That was quite rambunctious in all the stores. But I think the peak was: we went up to Nob Hill, and at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. And evidently there was a fancy cotillion party being held.
STUART: Down at the Tonga Room.
MICHAEL: And we found a way to get into the side door. Behind the stage where the band was playing all these Santas come in and of course the band thought this was part of the act. So they started playing “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus.”
STUART: That was a magical moment of synchronicity!
MICHAEL: And then we started grabbing the champagne bottles off the table. Then pretty soon they call security.
STUART: Yeah. Santa Melmoth, also known as John Law, was also your business partner.
MICHAEL: Ah, yes. We were collaborators for a long time. We collaborated on events. We were together in this sign business. We repaired neon signs. And, I did a lot of troubleshooting. He was the guy that would climb up the sides of buildings. He was fearless. Amazing. We had a third partner, a character named Chris Radcliffe too. And so we were quite a trio in the pranks that we pulled.
STUART: You hold a lot of the history of Burning Man, obviously as a founder, and as a guy who goes back to 1988. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who’s been to more burns than you have.
MICHAEL: Actually at this time I have been to 34 Burning Mans. I have been to more Burning Mans than any other person on Earth.
STUART: Are you counting the Renegade Burn as a Burning Man?
MICHAEL: Yes, I counted that one too. So 32. Still, the record.
STUART: Well you heard it here, folks. A living legend. A walking piece of history. And also a scholar about Burning Man. I’ve been through some of your excellent presentations about Burning Man history.
MICHAEL: Certainly there’s a history of the trajectory of Burning Man, certain points in history. But what is it that makes Burning Man so special? What is it that makes people say “Burning Man changed my life”? I’ve thought a lot about that.
There are the characteristics in the event in the experience that transform people. First of all, we go to a place apart. It’s difficult. You have to bring everything you need to survive. You have to go to this godforsaken desert in the middle of Nevada. You have this dry lake bed, this vast expanse of nothing; tabula rasa, blank slate.
So people are taken from what they’re familiar with. Human beings when we’re born and we grow up and we live in a society, we live in cities or places where everything has a familiarity, and the brain identifies that or creates reality around that. And at Burning Man that reality is stripped away.
You’re in a completely different environment. There are these incredible works of art, amazing things. You walk through the streets of this desert city and you look people in the eye, and everybody is friendly. It’s a place that’s not mediated by commerce, and so it enables people to rethink their view of reality; enables people to realize that they can reinvent themselves. They can recreate themselves. And that’s the magic of Burning Man.
STUART: Very well said. Maybe you can tell our listeners a little bit about what were the pivotal turning points in Burning Man history, and where are we now?
MICHAEL: In the early days of Burning Man word spread rapidly through word of mouth. There was no advertisement. During the early to mid nineties, our growth rate doubled at the event. It was crazy. And what we had to do as an organizational structure, find a way to manage this growth, to keep up with it, because the staff was just burning out; we we’re growing so fast.
So I realized our staff, the people who worked and helped do the event, had to be empowered to create their area, their division.
So instead of a very steep hierarchical structure, Burning Man is much lower and spread out. And so people could start to be involved, and do what they do, and add friends and staff to that, so that the departments could grow and keep up with it.
My own role has been largely as a catalyst to get things started in a certain area, and then they take off on their own. The Black Rock Rangers is a good example. In 1992 when Burning Man was still just a small camp in the desert, there was no fence. And the instructions were “Get off the asphalt highway, and you drive for 16 miles, and then you turn right, and then you go another 5.8 miles…” And if you missed it by a couple of degrees, you went veering off into the desert. And so, I decided we need to find a way to find those people and bring them back to camp, because they would be out there for hours, sometimes days.
We would go out searching for people. We would pull up, and, “Oh, you’re looking for Burning Man. Oh yes. Follow me.” And they would lead them back at high speed, take them back to camp. The original job of the Black Rock Rangers was finding lost souls in the desert and bringing them home.
Then the event grew and grew, and 1996 was a pivotal year. One of the staff members, people working volunteers on the event, crashed his motorcycle into a van. That was the first death we had. And then another altered person ran over a tent and seriously injured a couple of people. And so we knew that we needed to control – certainly the driving.
The next year, 97, the Federal government was not going to let us get a permit to do the event. And we found a local rancher in the next valley over. I was looking at the map that this rancher had. There was one square of his ranch, which jutted out into this playa, a 20 acre square. I said “That’s where we could burn the man” because it’s private property.
So we held the event there that year, 1997. And because it was in a little valley, there was only three roads into it. You couldn’t just drive from any direction. So that was the first time we had complete control of the perimeter. Matter of fact, there was a couple of cowboys that tried to sneak in in their pickup truck. He came in from the far side across the brush and they hit the mud and that truck was buried up to the axles. Didn’t move for the entire event. So that was a important lesson learned.
STUART: 96 also was a bit of a organizational… kind of… collapse… How did that shake out?
MICHAEL: There was a fracture in the organization, differing points of view. Because of the roots of anarchy that we were founded on, there was a division between people who followed that philosophy and those of us who felt that it was so important that we should continue doing this, but we had to have more control. So the choice was between the group who followed the rule of anarchy to stop doing it, or just do small events. But Larry and I decided that the way to go was to continue moving forward, but by implementing some controls.
STUART: And the governing body at that time was a Limited Liability Corporation of you and Larry and John Law, right?
MICHAEL: It was just a loose partnership.
STUART: Oh wow.
MICHAEL: It was not even a corporation. And so when John Law decided to leave, we decided that we would put the name, the trademark into a holding body called Paperman, and that Paperman would license the use of the name and the trademark to the event, which a LLC formed with six people. And they are basically the founders of the modern day Burning Man.
In 2006, there was concern over that outside entity holding the trademark. And Larry decided that he needed to have control over the event and the trademark. And I was somewhat in disagreement with this concept. I felt that if this event is going to continue, if this community is going to go into the future, it needs to be held not by one individual, but by a group of people in a nonprofit.
Because as you know, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And I did not want to see it go in that direction.
So there was somewhat of a struggle within the organization about how to manage this, and John Law got involved with that. There were some lawsuits back and forth.
STUART: You and Larry and John had multiple suits against each other. Isn’t that true?
MICHAEL: Actually, there was only one suit and that was the one when I sued Larry Harvey. That was the first one, because he was breaching his fiduciary duty by attempting to take absolute control.
And John Law saw this as a fight with him. So he then filed a lawsuit against me and Larry. That drug on for a couple years, until we finally got everything sorted out. John Law was able to go on his way and myself and the other founders of the LLC got to continue forward as a nonprofit organization, formed in 2011. And so we have Burning Man Project, the 501c3 Corporation.
STUART: Tax-free! No, not tax free. Tax deductible. Your tax deductible donations… to fund this show.
That’s all fascinating history. There’s a couple other pivotal years that I think back when I talk about Burning Man history. Tell me about 1990.
MICHAEL: 1990. Well, that was, oh yes. Burning Man was going to be held again. It was held the year before. In 1989 there was some engineering problems with the structure of the Man. when we were going to erect him on Baker Beach in San Francisco. When we pulled on the rope to pull him up, he broke in half. So he was kinda like Kneeling Man, but we burned it anyway.
STUART: Was he lacking backbone? Is that what it was? Not enough spine?
MICHAEL: More tube force, yes.
Then the Man was re-engineered and the height increased from 30 feet to 40 feet. And so in 1990, we showed up on the beach with this four story wooden man and about 500 people. Before we could get it completely up, the cops came and they said, “You can’t do this here. Where’s your permit?”
We were Outlaws. We never got permits.
And so there was just about a riot, and Larry looked at these two police officers and then he looked at the 500 people surrounding them, you know, and… It could go bad if things got out of hand. So Larry told them “Okay, let us erect the man. We’ll have a party.
We won’t burn it. We’ll take it down.”
And we kept our word, even though there were some in the crowd who wanted to burn it anyway, but we did indeed keep our word. After the party we disassembled the Man we hauled it back up the beach and we put it in storage in this vacant parking lot, over on 11th Street in San Francisco.
I guess it was a couple of weeks later, we were at a friend’s house, an amazing Cacophony hangout, a place called The Golden Gate house.
STUART: The 1907 House.
Yes, it was in 1907 Golden Gate. Amazing costume parties. It was kind of like a social center for us. We were over there and somebody had brought this video they were playing, a big video that was shot out in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. And it was this blank slate. And in this video, they were playing a game of croquet, only the croquet ball was eight foot in diameter, and for mallets, they were using pickup trucks. And we thought “This is the kind of place where we could burn a man.”
There was already an event being planned out there by Cacophonists John Law and Kevin Evans. They were planning on doing something out there. So we decided to take Larry’s homeless sculpture out to the desert with us. We listed the event in the
Cacophony Society newsletter, and it was called “Bad Day at Black Rock.” And that was the first event in the Black Rock Desert.
We decided to do it on Labor Day weekend, so as we got close to Labor Day, we were about a week from leaving, and we found out that the guy who owned the parking lot had come in – because the Man legs and arms were too big – so he took a chainsaw and chopped it up so he could get more cars parked there.
Oh my God, we had no Man! But the crew that built the Man got together and in one week they built a new Man and that’s the one we took out to the desert.
STUART: Was Jerry still the lead builder? Dan Miller?
MICHAEL: I think Dan Miller was the one. He worked at this sound studio and they had a carpenter shop and he’s the one who spearheaded that.
We went out there, the man was in a rental truck. There was about 80 of us. And, we pulled off onto the desert, and it was just this amazing, vast landscape. I had everybody get out of their trucks and cars and we lined up and I took a stick and I drew a line on the ground. And I said, “On the other side of this line, everything will be different.” We then stepped across that line together.
Now that line is miles long!
STUART: Was that the first time you had done that? Was that just a spontaneous ceremony?
MICHAEL: There was actually a… That tradition came out of Cacophony.
STUART: Out of earlier Zone Trips?
MICHAEL: Yes, earlier Zone Trips. A Zone Trip in the Cacophony Society was an event where you all got into a van or went somewhere, and it had to be overnight. You went to a place apart, you went somewhere else. And it was really interesting; kind of a democratic process with anarchists.
STUART: Was it worth it?
MICHAEL: The idea of it was what was worth it.
STUART: Yeah. 1990, that was actually one of two years that we had to build two men. The other was 2007.
MICHAEL: Ah, yes. The Cacophony crowd has always been inhabited by pranksters, largely. We did a lot of pranks. In 1997 we were out there in Black Rock. I was working a Ranger shift in the middle of the night and I got a call from the Rangers, and they said “Somebody is climbing the Man.” And I thought about it, and I said, “Well, is he sober? Is he going to cause any damage?”
And they said, “Yeah. He knows what he’s doing.” I said, “Let him climb.” That was all I heard from it. But the next day, when the sun came up in the morning, the man was standing there with two giant silver balls between his legs. Larry was pissed. I thought it was funny.
STUART: Was he, was he as angry as he was when “smiley” appeared?
MICHAEL: That was another prank. That was in 1996, the year before, when John Law had a neon smiley face hidden behind the Man head. And at one point during the big burn, that smiley face came on briefly. Yes Larry was pissed about that too.
STUART: I believe he was actually stamping on his hat.
MICHAEL: Well, I don’t think we should hold too much reverence to our idols. I’ve always had that philosophy.
STUART: Yes, we tend to… We burn our idols, but then in 2007, the prank too far, right?
MICHAEL: We had always joked about burning the Man early. There was different cards were made up. One time somebody had matches…
STUART: I remember the book of matches!
MICHAEL: Book of matches, you know, “Burn the Man early!” So it was kind of a fun meme that was going around.
The same individual who did the 97 event was able to sneak in and climb the man because this was in the lunar eclipse, full darkness. And the same individual set fire to the Man. I remember getting up in the middle of the night and the Man’s on fire, and “What? It’s only Tuesday?”
And, actually Larry took it pretty well. Larry and I both thought it was funny because it was the fact that that was going to be the Man’s eventual end anyway, it still met Larry’s criteria for ending the event, in a way. So, Larry did think it was funny. And so did I at that time.
However, he violated two principles. One, he damaged someone’s art without their permission. And two, he put people in danger without their permission. So I think that was a line crossed. The wheels of authority ground forward, and the individual was eventually prosecuted. So, that’s that story.
STUART: What are some other landmark years?
MICHAEL: Well, 2011, when we sold out of tickets for the first time. Boy, that was a crisis.
STUART: How could that be a crisis? That seems to be like you’ve reached the pinnacle of success at that point.
MICHAEL: The federal government decided there was a limit to the number of people who could be there, first from the limitations of the two lane road to get there, and second: their staffing wouldn’t be up to what they felt it should be. And so they set a cap. It was 70,000 at that time. And we sold out of tickets. After that it became a mad lunge for tickets. Online tickets would sell out 80,000 tickets in a few minutes.
STUART: And of course, if tickets can go to random people and there’s the issue of… I look at it as there has to be a certain amount of Burning Man there for it to be Burning Man. There has to be a critical mass of people who show up and actually contribute rather than people who just show up and spectate.
MICHAEL: Yes. Gradually in later years, what we started to see, as Burning Man became so popular, everyone in the world wanted to come, and it caught the attention of the more well-to-do parts of society, people of wealth, which could literally buy their way in, in a sense. Once they got tickets and they could have people set up their camp, they would cater them; they would have chefs.
And so there was kind of a cultural divide that started to happen between the Plug & Play Camps, as we call it, and the rest of us. I’ve always set up my own camp, I’m philosophically attached to that.
STUART: And you just set it up a few months ago out at the (What do you call it?) Renegade Burn, Plan B, Operation Non-Event. What was that like?
MICHAEL: Plan B. I set up my whole camp out there, a little ways away from the crowd because I knew it was going to be loud and chaotic. But, I was quite impressed with what came out of Plan B with no official organization other than online where a map was put up and anyone could drop a pin and say, “This is where I’m camping.”
So it was like Burning Man with no organization, no streets and no fire, no burn. Although there were some creative ways that fire was applied. The federal government had implemented temporary restrictions to – I don’t know – throttle down the event or control it.
First they said there would be no commercial porta-potty servicing there. So everybody scrambled and shared ways of how to deal with that. Also there would be no large fires allowed, and no large art could be on the playa. Matter of fact, there was not supposed to be any art at all.
People got very creative with their works of art, where they were not just art, but they were supporting their shade structure, or they put their art on trucks and drove their art around, legally licensed vehicles.
STUART: I see.
MICHAEL: There was a wonderful little temple that was built and it followed the same tradition of Burning Man temples. People would bring things, they would memorialize those who had passed.
And at Plan B, what they did was have large burn barrels, about a dozen of them, scattered around. So the temple was dismantled piece by piece and burned in these burn barrels.
By and large, the Plan B not-burn, the Plan B community met the conditions that were imposed upon them. And I did feel a great sense of community there. It was very much Burning Man, had the same feeling, the same sense of community.
STUART: So do you think that bodes well for the future of the event, for, say, Burning Man 2022?
MICHAEL: That’s a good question. The Burning Man Project is a very large organization and it has rent pay. So there’s a lot of pressure to produce some kind of an event in which tickets are sold. There’s also this Plan B community which has done a successful event. So I don’t know what’s going to happen next year.
STUART: What do you hope will happen next year?
MICHAEL: I would like to see two Burning Men. I would like to see Burning Man two months long.
STUART: Well, that was the idea with the regional network, right. We have official regional events year-round and all over the globe, right? Not just one week in one place that is hard for people to get to.
MICHAEL: The idea is to spread the culture. That’s right.
STUART: But to be fair, you did say that it being hard to get to is a key part of the experience.
MICHAEL: Yes, but I’ve been to some Regional events, and being in a nice, shaded, wooded grove is beautiful, beside a river or a lake, that has certain qualities to its own. And I’ve been in urban events, a giant warehouse filled with theme camps. It just, it’s great.
STUART: Where was that?
MICHAEL: That was done in Oakland one time, in this big warehouse space. It was a great event.
STUART: Burning Man indoors. That’s one of my recurring dreams, by the way. Do you ever have dreams where you’re at Burning Man, but it’s not Burning Man? Something’s desperately wrong. Like you’re indoors.
MICHAEL: Have you seen a doctor about this?
STUART: I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams lately.
MICHAEL: Burning dreams.
STUART: Let’s go backwards. Let’s do some time traveling here. I understand that’s a specialty of yours.
MICHAEL: Time traveling? Yes, I do have a reputation for time travel.
STUART: or you will have…
MICHAEL: It depends on if we’re here now or there.
STUART: So you’ve…
MICHAEL: Actually, I got that reputation, I had been going out to the desert for a long time, by the time 2000 rolled around. And I learned all about the desert. There’s so many places to explore, and actually it’d be before cell phones before GPS, we would navigate by the stars or by compass. We learned a lot about the desert. We would drive through the desert at night at high speed where you couldn’t hardly see anything.
And we could tell where we were on the Playa and this was like 400 square miles by the sound of the tires on the playa, the kind of crunch, kind of smooth, the rhythm. We could tell what area, whether we were on the north end or the south end, by the sound of our tires.
STUART: God forbid, you should hear that thumping in the wheel wells, which means that you’ve crossed the bog.
MICHAEL: That’s why we always carried two spare tires and a week’s worth of food and water. Actually in the very early stage, I learned that the locals would put stockpiles of water buried in the ground, underneath a car hood.
You would go out there on the edge, and once in a while you’d come across a car hood, always near the edge. And it was enough shade that if you were broke down, you could get under. And if you dug just a few inches underneath, it would be several gallons of water in bottles, and they used to do that.
And so I learned, I always carried extra water and food and two spare tires when I went out there.
STUART: So you have been going out to that area for so long. That little town of Gerlach, how has that changed since once you first saw it and until now?
MICHAEL: Well, the population’s been up and down. When we first started going out there, the gypsum plant was still running full bore in the town of Empire. There were something like 250 people working there. So it was quite a lively place.
1909, when the railroad came through, there used to be two water towers in town, plus the train station and there was a ranch to the east of town called Deep Hall, and it was owned by a man named Louis Gerlach. That’s how the town got its name.
And I’ve always been fascinated by Gerlach and by Bruno – which we call king Bruno because he ran the town when we arrived. You always paid your respects to Bruno, who had Bruno’s Country Club and Bruno’s Motel and Bruno’s Gas Station and Bruno’s Ranch. He owned a big part of the town at the time that we arrived.
He came from Italy in the 1950s. And he started working at a place called the Longhorn Saloon and that eventually burned down and it was replaced by Bruno’s Country Club. A lot of interesting history there.
STUART: As a founder, as a board member, you’ve been involved in a lot of the decisions to purchase real estate out in that part of the world. We’ve got kind of a pretty interesting and diverse portfolio now. What do you see as the future of our properties out there?
MICHAEL: When we first came out to Burning Man in 1990, we had found out about the Fly Hot Springs, and we actually went out there. It was customary at the time that the local rancher who owned it didn’t care, you could just go back there and jump in.
So we’ve always loved the place. It’s a beautiful hot springs, which was created when somebody was drilling. So, it’s not really a natural hot spring. It’s manmade, but it grows at a pretty substantial rate, about an inch a year, I believe. And, it’s always been a beautiful place.
And, 1997, I remember being there and seeing 300 people in the pool and it was, a bit overused. And, certainly, since Burning Man has acquired that property, we have had to put restrictions, just to protect the local environment.
But I remember Old Man Casey who owned the property at the time. We rented it from him. He was an old rancher character, codger. I remember I went with a ride with him across the property and he had this huge Cadillac and he would go plowing through the sage brush at high speed chasing cattle with it. It was quite funny.
But a lot of people talk about the delicate environment. There’s very little left of what was the original environment. Fly Ranch has been a cattle ranch for more than a hundred years, and before that the settlers were there and they cut down trees. So there’s very little left of the natural environment anymore and so that gives us an opportunity to create an environment.
It’s not just trying to protect the environment, but to eliminate or reduce the invasive species, to restore the ecological balance. I think a lot can be done with Fly Ranch. Burning Man has also acquired more properties just outside of Gerlach. There’s a 360 acre parcel which is being developed into kind of a permanent space for Burning Man. And that’s the thing we’ve never had permanence. Burning Man, having a permanent place enables us to do so much more, to create, and do what we do. I’m very excited about what the Project is involved with now.
STUART: So what does that area look like 20 years from now?
MICHAEL: Well, we’ve certainly made an attraction, for even more than just one time of the year. People come out to appreciate the beauty of the Black Rock Desert and to experience what’s out there in the mountains. I think in the future there will be more people coming out there.
Three years ago my wife Dusty found this book, and it was a book filled with these designs for energy-producing systems using solar, wind, geothermal, a variety of means, to produce energy. But they weren’t just generating plants, they were art, they were works of art. And there is this competition that they do called The LAGI Project, Land Art Generator Initiative.
Every couple of years they hold a competition for designs for art that generates electricity. We found out about this group through this book and we invited them to come to Burning Man and camp with us. And they we’re amazed. And we told them about this property that Burning Man has, this Fly Ranch that’s just over the hill.
And they decided that they would hold a competition for art that generates power based on this place Fly Ranch. So there was an international competition held, and close to 200 different projects were submitted, and there were 10 winners that were selected as potential art projects that could be built on this property.
One interesting one is called Coyote Mountain. It is a very large structure. From the outside, looking across the landscape, it looks like a part of the mountains; it blends in with the Calicos. But it’s actually a multi-story building that holds housing, workshops, a greenhouse. It’s covered with a glass that generates electricity from solar power. It also has a channel that has wind generators.
And it also taps into the geothermal energy that’s in the ground below. It uses those sources to make an inhabitable space year round in this place. I think things like that have a great deal of potential.
Being out in the desert, this harsh environment, wind, sun, cold, heat, has a lot of potential to explore ideas for how we humans can live in places, particularly in this era of changing climate, where we could adapt to, and not just survive, but thrive, into the future.
So Burning Man has a potential to show the world how to survive, how to invent, how to create, how to adapt.
And it’s not just the environment. Burning Man, Black Rock City, is a place, it’s an international place, it’s probably the most diverse place that exists on the planet for a period of one week. You have people from all over the world, and they get along. And I think we can teach people about how to live together on this planet.
STUART: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because a lot of people say it seems extraordinarily not diverse, that it’s just a bunch of white tech bros.
MICHAEL: Well, certainly, our roots came out of San Francisco and white culture at the time. And there’s a lot of discussion about, an imbalance if you will, that exists at the event. I’m seeing a lot of concern and consternation, actually, over this issue of racial balance.
For a long time, we’ve always said that Burning Man has a lot to teach the world. One of the problems that I’m seeing now is there’s a lot of the outside world which is starting to impact and encroach Burning Man. More and more people are bringing their own ideas of what they want Burning Man to be.
What we really need to do is have Burning Man change the outside world using the existing balances, whatever they may be, in politics, in race, and teach what we have learned at Burning Man about community. I have never seen a racial issue happen at Burning Man. We’ve always welcomed everybody.
There have never been any barriers other than the barriers that exist outside: difference in economic strata that prevent people. And, there’s a lot of myths and perceptions about what people believe Burning Man is, a bunch of naked white people, stoned and dancing in the desert. It’s more than that.
STUART: Yeah, that is the recurring story though, still to this day. At least we got guns out of the picture. I think we used to say the motto story was “orgy in the gun sites.”
MICHAEL: Well, when we first got there, you have to keep in mind that we were in a culture that was a Western outdoors culture, and that was what we fell into. So naturally there was a familiarity, even fondness, for firearms. And in those first few years these people in Gerlach would see all these people come to town to go out and burn this giant wooden man, people with purple hair and tattoos everywhere and piercings. They’d see us go out there and burn this giant wooden man, and they said “Well, they’re a bunch of Satanists. They must be Satanists out there.”
And then we invited the locals to go shooting with us. So we would line up little stuffed animals and we’d drive by and shoot at them. It was hilarious, silly fun. And they thought that was fun too. So they thought, “Well, they’re Satanists, but they’re Satanists with guns, so they’re okay.” So we got them to identify with this. And so that’s part of the thing, making friends.
STUART: Well, I’m sure you’re no stranger to guns. You grew up in Texas in the 1950?
MICHAEL: Yes. In 1950s/60s. Yes. It was a part of my heritage. We actually lived off the land, the way you got food on the table.
STUART: Farming and ranching?
MICHAEL: Farming and ranching and hunting.
STUART: Wow. I’m trying to imagine the young Michael Mikel. Do you think that there were signs back then that you were going to grow up to be the man that you are today? Were you a prankster or were you a weirdo? Were you a troublemaker?
MICHAEL: I was a troublemaker. I tended to be an outlier. I would hang out with the people who were not popular, the people who were different, be that in thinking or even color. I hung out with everybody.
STUART: And then, you left town to join the Navy around when?
MICHAEL: 1962. And I did a couple of tours of Asia. I learned about all these different cultures and it was so amazing. And the Navy brought me out to the west coast and San Francisco. And that was where I was exposed to this San Francisco culture. I’d heard about the Beat Generation, and I went and looking for the Beats. I found the City Lights Bookstore, and I got a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s HOWL which had been published six years before.
Reading the poem HOWL changed the way I looked at the world. It changed the view that I grew up with. And I think that was one of the defining moments in my history that transformed me, just being exposed to that. And then I started hanging out with pranksters, and Cacophony came along, and Burning Man. Did we get sidetracked on this?
STUART: No, we’re just going wherever it goes. I just want to hear more stories. Tell me about outdoor advertising.
MICHAEL: A bunch of us got this idea, actually it was an idea that had gotten started, that first occurred in the Suicide Club in 1977. The whole club went up on top of a building and there was a giant billboard up there. They brought along paste and stuff and they changed what the billboard said. And, it became known as the Billboard Liberation Front. They did this several times in the Suicide Club.
So in 1991 we decided to bring the Billboard Liberation Front back to life. We would go up on a billboard and change just a few letters, change the message. It was their own brand of bringing truth to advertising.
This was right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And there were these billboards in the Bay Area for a radio station called “HITS HAPPEN” and the name of the radio station. And so, we went up on several of these billboards in the middle of the night. We had operatives with radios communications. We use fake names, which was a precursor of playa names! And we even had people disguised as homeless people on the ground, in case the cops came.
These boards that said HITS HAPPEN, we changed them to SHIT HAPPENS, New Exxon. The next day, the sun come up, tens of thousands of commuters driving across the bay bridge saw these signs, “SHIT HAPPENS. New Exxon.” They were up for hours before they could get a sign crew to come up and take it down.
But we always believed in responsible pranking. We used rubber glue paste ups so that it could be easily peeled without damaging the billboard. We never damaged the boards, but over the years there was a lot of boards that were changed. They’re online, you can go look for yourself, the Billboard Liberation Front.
STUART: Really? And download their manual, “The art and science of Billboard Liberation”? So you can do it yourself?
MICHAEL: Yes. There’s a manual. Yes.
STUART: I always respected that Leaving No Trace ethos, unless you count a six pack of beer as a trace.
MICHAEL: Oh, yes. We always left a thank you note and a six pack of beer to the sign crew, the poor guys that had to go up there and peel off the letters.
Yeah, Burning Man is, one of the Principles of course is Leave No Trace. In 1991 I took a garbage bag and I walked the length of
Gerlach picking up trash. That was the first cleanup in town. And now Burning Man cleans up from Gerlach to Reno on the side of the road. It’s amazing the cleanup is done every year.
STUART: Now, you look at what we now call the 10 Principles of Burning Man. And would you say that there’s a lot of Cacophony DNA in the 10 Principles gene pool?
MICHAEL: Yes. Certainly.
STUART: So where are we going? What does the future look like?
MICHAEL: We live in interesting times. I’ve never seen society so divided. There are so many extremes on not just two poles, but several poles, of thought and belief. And I really think I blame that on technology. I blame it on social media.
The idea of the one click dopamine kick that is so prevalent in our social media. It’s an addiction that has co-opted our brains from critical thinking. We’re now addicted to that shot of dopamine we get when we click that button. A, and the algorithm keeps feeding us, not for our benefit, but for the benefit of making more money, of building power.
The biggest challenge that we have in this age is to find critical thinking because there’s no truth anymore. I recently watched a deep state conspiracy theory video. I was amazed at how well it was done. So there’s no reality anymore. There’s no reality until we get out there in the desert among ourselves and look each other face to face, that’s where it’s real. It gets real at Burning Man.
And that’s the magic of Burning Man.
STUART: I would think that a prankster like you would be actually kind of excited by deep fake technology.
MICHAEL: What you could do with it. But the problem is the motivation of the person who’s doing it. That’s what’s dangerous. Our pranks were always directed at a way of thinking. We never pranked an individual. We never made somebody feel bad. What we did was challenge their way of thinking in order to maybe shake them up a little bit or alter their way of thinking. That’s what I think pranks should do.
I have this presentation I do about Coyote, the trickster, the prankster, as a teaching tool, the history which came out of Native American culture, primarily in the Americas, as being a way of teaching. They would tell these stories about what Coyote did. And I’ve always admired that idea.
STUART: They usually have a moral, right? Coyotes pranks almost always backfire on him.
MICHAEL: They either backfire or they backfire and the persons involved.
STUART: Unintended consequences.
MICHAEL: Yes. And it’s a way of teaching morality. And here we are. Where’s Burning Man going now? I think it’s going to be up to the kids. It’s got to be up to the next generation.
STUART: Is it still relevant? I mean, does it still have potential to be the kind of force that it’s been in the world?
MICHAEL: Yes, it does. But it’s going to be different. It’s not going to be what you expect.
STUART: What are you expecting to not expect?
MICHAEL: I’ll leave that blank.
STUART: Okay. There is a generational shift going on. I think this three-year hiatus is going to kind of kick that in the ass too.
MICHAEL: Our whole world has shifted. Yeah. I’ve always been anti-brand except for Burning Man. That’s the only brand I ride for.
STUART: What? Burning Man is a brand?
MICHAEL: In a sense it is, but that also grew out of Cacophony. We were anti-consumerism.
STUART: So many people’s lives are so saturated with brands.
MICHAEL: That’s the only thing they identify with. That’s what culture is largely done, is to create a bunch of mindless consumers. And that’s what is eating up all the resources in the planet. We’re going through our fossil fuels to make more stuff that we can sell. Everything new, and the latest thing, not because people really need it, but because it’s being advertised. Burning Man goes against that concept.
STUART: In a very spendy way…
MICHAEL: Yes, it’s true. And there’s been a lot of discussion about how environmentally-friendly it is. Yes, we have a big fire out there, but it’s nothing compared to what some large corporation burns through in pallets in a week.
And the fact that we are teaching people so much about how to live on the planet. Coming out there makes people keenly aware of their impact on the Earth. You have to bring everything with you and take it away. That’s a great lesson. Burning Man is the largest Leave No Trace event in the world. We teach people to Leave No Trace.
They go back home. They go back out to the default world and they take that with them. They pick it up off the street. The light that our fire makes is quite useful and bringing people to it, to teach them that lesson. So I think it’s worth it.
STUART: I was surprised to learn that the actual burning of stuff on the playa is like 1% of what our carbon footprint is. 90% transportation, to and from. It makes me want a train. Can we get a train to Black Rock City?
MICHAEL: I think that’d be a wonderful idea, but we’ve not been able to get the train companies to agree to that.
STUART: I want it to be a wild west train too.
MICHAEL: Oh, I would love that.
STUART: So any Cacophony events that are worth doing again?
MICHAEL: I don’t know. At one point we had chapters in San Francisco, LA, Portland, Seattle, Houston, New York City, London. There was even a group in Sydney. But, over time the world changed, the internet came along and of course we put all of our energy into Burning Man.
You’ve got this device. We have these services, which gives us these false connections to the world. Friends. You know, if you click on your friends, you’ll get rewarded. You get this little burst of dopamine that happens.
STUART: You get a “like.”
MICHAEL: You get a “like.”
STUART: I got a “like!”
MICHAEL: Feedback loop that is, I think, destroying us. Again, that gets back to: How do you find truth?
STUART: What is truth?
MICHAEL: So the world has changed a lot. I don’t know if you can do Cacophony anymore.
STUART: Is Burning Man the child that devoured it’s parents?
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Yes.
STUART: That was a line from a review of the Cacophony book that I just adored.
MICHAEL: But what about Burning Man?
STUART: What about Burning Man?
MICHAEL: We didn’t talk about Burning Man.
STUART: You guys were the three monkeys, the three guys who ran the whole thing out of your pockets and out of your personal credit cards.
MICHAEL: We believed in it. And it’s still going on.
STUART: So you never stopped believing?
MICHAEL: I never stopped believing.
STUART: Did you ever have a crisis of faith?
MICHAEL: There were times that I was ready to walk away, because of the difficulties from one point or another. It’s hard to give your life to something like this, or maybe anything, something I believe in. It’s something that can and has already changed the world. Few people get to be able to say that. And it’s your fault, too.
STUART: No, it’s your fault.
MICHAEL VAV: Dear listeners, that is our show.
Thanks to Danger Ranger for these stories, and for starting so much, and for living to tell the tale. For more information, search for Michael Mikel and you’ll find a rabbithole of amazing stories.
Burning Man LIVE is one of the productions of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project made possible by generous donations from listeners like you. Crack a rack of quarters into the piggy bank at donate.burningman.org.
Tell us what you love, what you hate (meh), and what you want to hear next at email@example.com.
I’m Michael Vav, the Technical Producer and Story Editor. Andie Grace is our Story Producer. Stuart Mangrum is the Executive Producer and our Big Shot Meeting Proxy. Thanks to Melissa “Hormel” Waters for voicing this episode’s introduction.
And thanks Larry.