Burning Through 

There’s a repurposed school bus that’s often parked in the vacant lot next to The Mine Shaft bar in Winnemucca, Nevada. This small painting adorns its side. I’ve often pondered what it means. My best guess is that it illustrates the evolution of Homo Erectus, subspecies Incendo — collectively known throughout the West as “Burners.” Every year, in late summer, they congregate on the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man — an event that features, among other things, the torching of a huge man-shaped sculpture on the playa.

Sounds simple enough, but over the decades the gathering has accumulated a complexity that’s staggering. Burning Man encompasses everything from inspired public art to hedonistic debauchery and back again. Every human fantasy that can be dragged out to the vast playa behind a vehicle makes an appearance.

If you live in a rural community along any of the migration routes to the Black Rock Desert, you’ll witness a plethora of urban-looking people driving strangely equipped RV’s or towing makeshift trailers piled with bicycles, 55 gallon water drums, building materials and the random odds and ends of civilization.

On the way to Burning Man, everything and everybody is clean. A week later, the same parade passes by in reverse — thoroughly coated with dust. If you live downwind of the Black Rock Desert, it can be hard to imagine what would compel a Burner to pay more than $400 for the privilege of wallowing in all that dust. Any windy day the same dust arrives in Winnemucca for free! But most anyone who’s been to Burning Man will assure you the expense is worth the opportunity to live out your wildest dreams — or watch someone else live out theirs.

I try to imagine what the early pioneers along the Overland Trail would have thought if they came across the modern migration to Black Rock City. Those bedraggled settlers might have rubbed their eyes in disbelief, concluding the desert light was playing tricks on them. That’s how it seems. Burning Man exists as its own mirage. By the end of the week, only the camaraderie, and the dust, are real.

Wildfire Filter


Sunsets seen through wildfire smoke can look pretty weird. I made this photo a few weeks ago looking over the southwestern flank of Winnemucca Mountain. It makes me think of Georgia O’Keefe’s early work, with a slightly apocalyptic bent. Although a picture can be worth a thousand words, there are times when a picture without any words is, in a sense, dishonest.

This image without an explanation is just a glowing pink pearl. But as I pressed the shutter, I thought about how the smoke in this picture is all that’s left of the grasses, herbs, and forbs that made up the grazing lands of several of my ranching friends. This particular fire is huge and the chances of finding replacement pasture for their livestock, small.

Our tragedy probably won’t make the national news. It’s not dramatic enough. But if you happen to be here, it’s plenty dramatic. The map of this wildfire shows that a sizable chunk of our sizable county has been converted to heat, acrid air, and sunsets that look like they came out of someone’s imagination and Photoshop.

So the beauty of this sunset is bittersweet — a snapshot of this Western summer, when our skies were rarely blue.