Good Day at Black Rock:
27 Photos from Burning Man 1997

Good Day at Black Rock: 27 Photos from Burning Man 1997

Originally posted on my old site Life In A Mikeycosm on Spring 1998.

Introduction, 2023

Back when I first got to San Francisco in the mid-90s, full of youthful idealism, the first thing I did was seek out the San Francisco Cacophony Society and their best-known offspring, the Burning Man festival and the nascent subculture that surrounded it. Well, no, the first thing I did was spend 3 years of my late 20s cocooned at the Green Tortoise Adventure Travel office & youth hostel, where I lived and worked, venturing out only to cavort in the surrounding North Beach neighborhood with the poets and the blues musicians. But after three years of that—straight out to explore what San Francisco’s modern counterculture had to offer, without delay.

But well prior to that, in September 1997, a bunch of us Tortoise employees borrowed a bus from them—great perk of working for an adventure tour operator—and went out for a long weekend at that year’s Burning Man Festival, at that time a gathering of about 8,000 people held, for that year only, not actually in the Black Rock Desert, but at nearby Hualapai Flats.

There is a lot that could be said of that weekend, and this handful of photos, picked mostly for their novelty at a time when not everybody and their grandmother made the annual trek out to Black Rock City in remote northwestern Nevada, don’t even beging to cover it. There were the camels someone had trucked out to the desert. There was the Man sculpture, at that time not towering inaccessibly high over the playa (a Spanish-derived word for a desert formed by a dry lakebed) on an elevated pedestal designed to hold hundreds of people without them ever getting near it, but standing on a couple of hay bales. There was my harsh discovery, documented but not explained in one of the below photographs, that in the dry, hot desert environment, a single glass of alcohol can affect your body much more strongly. There was the morning I woke up far from my camp with my eyes burned from alkaline playa dust and experienced the world as a blind person for 8 hours, reliant entirely on strangers I never saw to help collect my stuff and get me safely home. It was an eventful 4 days. There was the stop to skinny dip in gorgeous Pyramid Lake on the way home.

The below photo gallery was one of the very first things I ever designed for the web, after I’d only been learning to build for the web for a year or so, at a time when GIFs seemed to be the right choice of image format and screens were so small that I worried that the below tiny, low-resolution images would be too big for some screens. I threw it together for my friend Gene, a writer then working as a journalist and considering an article covering Burning Man the following year, as an introduction. I did end up accompanying him out to the desert the following year, a whole other story which was happily immortalized in a magazine cover story in which I prominently appeared, also happily, under an assumed name.

Below is a single-page compilation, but in most other ways an unmodified repost, of the original 12 page website I made to entice Gene into coming out.

The Burning Man festival would, unbeknownst to me at that time, over the following however many years prosper by sucking the life away of the San Francisco underground art scene from which it came and carrying it far away, like an aphid sucking a host plant dry to sustain itself. But my not-far-past-college-age self came back inspired and energized, as, I noted for a great many years after I’d become disenchanted with it myself, many people still did.

I attended Burning Man for the next few years, having last been out there in 2002. In my meteoric soujourn exploring San Francisco’s “underground art” scene for a couple of years around 2000, though there were a lot of laughs, I sadly failed to make many friendships of substance (something that probably reflects as much upon me as upon the people I met, and which a wiser person might have recognized as a portent of things to come in San Francisco and bailed) and subsequently grew tired of all that work and planning just to go wander around a desert art festival by myself. Great memories, though, and I wouldn’t trade some of those experiences for anything. And I got a lot of great pictures.

—Mike, December 2023

You need to have graphics turned on to view these pictures. -Mike
All photos taken at Burning Man ’97.

Q: How far out in the desert is Burning Man?


A: Waaay the fuck out there.

I sorta felt like we should put on a Chekhov play or something.

Dramatis Personae

The parachutist
I can’t remember what the deal with this guy was, I just sorta like this picture

The Burning Man

The competition
I don’t think he has any followers, though.
(Note sign above his head, which reads “Highway to Hal”)     

(just prior, I believe, to passing out on the playa due to desert fever)


I saw a lot of strange stuff.

This was my first night there. The ground was burning… a couple of these guys had these long sticks, rolls of toilet paper, and pails of gasoline. They would stick the rolls of toilet paper on the end of a stick, dip them in the gasoline, light them, then bat them around like they were playing lacrosse, or hurl them out into the dark.

When they started throwing them at the audience, I left.

This was pretty cool. See those little silver balls all over the ground? They’re these little motorized balls… I think they sell them as cat toys… they’ve got this little weight inside them that gyrates, and it makes the balls move on their own. If you set one down, it starts moving and rolling around by itself, and if you try to roll one in a straight line, it wobbles off onto its own path.

These guys dumped a box of 500 of them into the central area of the festival. For 45 minutes I watched them wobble out and slowly disperse throughout the crowd.

There’s a neat story about what this is, but it’s more complicated than is worth telling here. I just like the picture.

The desert sunrise alone is worth the price of admission.

(By the way, the big round thing with the pole sticking out of it is the remains of a sundial made of a ten foot ball of ice… I’m going to come back to that later.)

Here’s where I accidentally walked into a Dali painting.
(You may need to scroll to see the whole picture, it might be bigger than your computer screen.) [Note, 2023: yes, this gallery is so old that when I first posted it that photo was larger than the resolution of most computer screens! —Mike]

As if it wasn’t surreal enough already…

The parachute thing came in for a landing while I was standing there. If I didn’t have the photographic evidence, I’d swear it had been a hallucination.

It was an amazing invention… what this guy had, was a chair that he would strap himself into, with a great big propeller on the back, and a parachute attached to it. What a crazy idea! I couldn’t believe the thing actually flew!

The last night, when they burned the Man, everything erupted into bedlam. It was a true mob scene—the single greatest mass chaos I’ve ever even witnessed, let alone had the experience of participating in—a unified, fluid surge of literally thousands of people, united in a single intent: destruction by arson of everything in their path.

Later that night, I was wandering out on the playa, when a wall of people walking side by side appeared out of the dark in front of me. In the middle, about 20 of them pushed this thing, with one guy riding on top.

It’s a great big 20 foot long flamethrower which looked like it was made out of old, rusted farm machinery parts. They were pushing it around the playa in the dark, finding and burning things down with it. I left while they were refueling, but I heard later on they took on the 10-foot ball of ice.Here’s a totally cool sculpture I found out on the playa (and from which I made the page at the beginning of this little album.) It’s hard to tell from the pictures, but it was about 10 feet tall.

That about wraps it up.