A city in the desert.
A culture of possibility.
A network of dreamers and doers.
Origins of Burning Man
In June 1986, while the Presidio was still an active Army post, a new tradition started at the northern end of Baker Beach – Burning Man. Initially, the founders of Burning Man were drawn to Baker Beachbecause of the bevvy of driftwood found there. The northern portion is notoriously known as a “clothing optional” spot for sun bathing and one of the more isolated beaches in San Francisco. Thus it was the perfect place for a group of 20 friends to gather for a bonfire where Burning Man founder Larry Harvey set aflame the eight foot tall wooden structure he called “the Man.”
Though Larry was the first to burn a structure of a man, he wasn’t necessarily the first to start this effigy burning tradition at Baker Beach. Several years before burning a man was even a twinkle in Larry’s eye, Mary Grauberger, a friend of Larry’s girlfriend, held annual bonfires at the beach where she’d assemble driftwood statues to burn in honor of Summer Solstice.
The Birth of an Event
Picture this: it’s pre-tech boom San Francisco and the City is overflowing with artists, hippies, and free-thinkers. Into this comes the Cacophony Society, “a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society,” according to Michael Mikel, one of the Cacophony Society’s founders.
Influenced by the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Situationists, the Cacophony Society was a proponent of the “free university.” They also had an extensive mailing list and each month they’d invite members to participate in fun and unusual activities – like exploring architecture, putting on plays, or dressing up and having adventures around San Francisco.
Larry Harvey was a member of the Cacophony Society, and in 1988 he invited Michael to attend his first effigy burning at the as yet-unnamed event at Baker Beach. The following year Larry asked Michael to help publicize the solstice gathering through the Cacophony Society’s mailing list, and thus the event became the newly minted “Burning Man” in their newsletter. Attendance shot up to 300.
“San Francisco was ripe for something like Burning Man,” Michael shared. The following year attendance grew to 350 before local law enforcement shut down the burning of “the Man” due to the group’s lack of a fire permit.
In 1990, Burning Man moved to Nevada, far away from the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge. And the event has certainly grown since – last year 65,564 people watched a 60-foot structure of a man burn on the playa in the heat of Black Rock Desert.
Michael now lives in Reno so he’s closer to Black Rock Desert, but he comes to San Francisco every few months, and he’s looking forward to speaking at the Presidio Officers’ Club in August 2016. “The Presidio is such a beautiful place,” he says. “I came out to Crissy Field recently and gave friends a tour of the whole area. We had a barbecue.” When asked if he burned anything while there, he laughed, “No. Surprisingly, I managed to not burn the hot dogs.”