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The City That Was: Cacophony Zone Trip #4 (Burning Man’s First Time In the Desert)

Updated: Aug 15, 2018 09:28
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In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.

The Cacophony Society did every sort of thing, appealing to quite the variety of tastes. For those fond of getting out of town and embracing the unknown, there were these events called Zone Trips.

A Cacophony member would post a notice in the newsletter, Rough Draft, that they had a Zone Trip planned. People showed up at the designated meeting place at a certain time, and they were taken somewhere for the weekend. You didn’t know, when you showed up, where you were going or what you would do when you got there, wherever there was, or who you’d be doing it with—but chances were good you’d be jammed into a Motel 6 room with them along the way.

Motel 6 got the name because in those days, it cost $6 a night to stay there, and divided up among 12 fellow travelers, who sneaked in after two people registered, it was sort of affordable. It wasn’t all that comfortable, but you could sleep when you got home.

The Zone was a concept made popular in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and the novels of Thomas Pynchon, and Carrie Galbraith distilled it for Cacophony. It was always an unknown place, an alternate reality, in which you needed a guide, called The Stalker, to the mysteries of the locale. It could be Covina, some California missions, or a conference of people claiming contact with aliens.

There were three such trips before Cacophony showed up at Baker Beach for the last Burning Man in San Francisco. We always went to other people’s weird-ass events, because once you have a taste for them, you could never get enough. Cacophony had lots of expertise with things like sneaking 100 people into an abandoned building or convincing skeptical cops that what we were doing was performance art, so people were usually glad to have Cacophony along for the fun.

That day in 1990, sections of the Man were hauled down the path to Baker Beach and assembled on the sand. Just as the sun was falling into the Pacific, and the Man was about to go up in flames, the cops arrived to tell us we couldn’t burn it. It was a drought year, like this one, and the neighbors on the cliffs above the beach didn’t want their houses accidentally immolated.

The few hundred people at the beach clamored for a burn anyway. But the previous year, I’d been to another bizarre event at the Black Rock Desert, a wind sculpture festival. I conferred with John Law, who also knew the Black Rock, and we went to tug at Larry Harvey’s sleeve.

After that, enthusiastic Cacophonists met at 1907 all summer and planned Zone Trip #4. When we divided up the cost of the Ryder truck and port-a-potties, we all had to chip in a hefty $35.00. But this time we knew that there was no Motel 6 and no 7-11 for our basic needs, so for the first time, the Zone Trip destination was clearly stated in Rough Draft, along with a rudimentary survival guide.

Alex Mak has already described the head count as we caravanned out of town, just to be sure we didn’t lose someone out there. At the baseball diamond in Golden Gate Park, we waited for everyone to stock up on enough water and food. There’s NO 7-11 at the Black Rock, we kept saying.

We drove all night and got to Gerlach just as the sun was coming up. Our advance scouts had been out to the playa to find the driest path of entry and marked it with a stack of old tires. Our caravan pulled out onto the playa and raced across it, sending up huge plumes of dust behind us. About a mile out, Danger Ranger signaled us to stop for the essential Zone Trip ritual.

Pulling a stick out of his car, he carved a long line in the playa. All 89 of us stood on one side of the line, joined hands, and crossed over the line together into the Zone. Some of us never crossed back.


The photo above is of Burning Man central camp, year one, taken by me.

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P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal is a San Francisco native, writer, therapist, and life coach. Literary agents have called her a clever niche writer, but none of them can figure out what the hell her niche is.