Geography Ablaze

On November 15, 2015 · 2 Comments

Loyal reader Ken has attended Burning Man a number of times and suggested I highlight some of the geographic quirks associated with it. He was even kind enough to provide the topics! I’ve never experienced Burning Man so I was grateful to begin this article with a pre-packaged outline. All of the ideas below came from Ken except for the last little tidbit. I simply took his suggestions and put them in different words along with a few graphics. It also took me a lot longer to get around to this than I would have hoped. I always appreciate reader suggestions although it takes me awhile to figure out how to include them sometimes.

What is Burning Man? Well, it’s this (and so much more):

Burn Night and the citizens of Black Rock City: a panorama, 2009
Burn Night and the citizens of Black Rock City: a panorama, 2009 by Neil Girling on Flickr (cc)

It’s a week-long gathering held annually on the Black Rock Desert playa in western Nevada (map). I’m not sure I can adequately describes what takes place there. Maybe 12MC attendees can post their recollections in the comments. I’ll simply borrow the description that Burning Man uses for itself.

Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. In this crucible of creativity, all are welcome.

I did mention Burning Man in Twelve Mile Circle a couple of years ago. I believed that it could serve as a modern proxy for the nineteenth century Camp Meeting phenomenon. The focus shifted away from religious devotion in its current incarnation although it still retained the desire of people to band together in community each year. In one new twist, it followed a "leave no trace" philosophy. Every artifact of Black Rock City must be removed at the conclusion of each festival.

Black Rock City

2012 Black Rock City Theme Camps and Villages map
2012 Black Rock City Theme Camps and Villages map by Alexander on Flickr (cc)

I wondered how I might describe the geographic layout of Black Rock City without a map because "Burning Man does not maintain a portfolio of ‘stock’ or PR images" with proper licensing. I figured a photograph of a map would constitute fair use so that’s the route I took instead of borrowing the much better map on the Burning Man site that might possibly run astray of a copyright.

The layout was quite logical. Radial streets followed the pattern of an analog clock in fifteen minute increments. Circumference streets began with Esplanade closest to the center and then proceeded in alphabetical order outward from the center. The alphabet streets changed each year based on the chosen art theme. In 2015 they were Arcade, Ballyhoo, Carny, Donniker, Ersatz, Freak Show, Geek, Hanky Pank, Illusion, Jolly, Kook and Laffing Sal, to fit the Carnival of Mirrors theme.

Finding someone in a crowd of tens of thousands would be a daunting task ordinarily. The layout simplified efforts. Let’s say, and I’ll pick something randomly from the 2015 Unofficial Map of Black Rock, someone wanted to visit her friend at Ganesh Camp. She would simply wander over to 3:30 & G(eek).

County Road Conundrum

Portion of Washoe County Road 34 within Pershing Co.

The road leading up from Gerlach to Black Rock City, as Ken noted, was signed Washoe County Route 34. Nonetheless several miles of the road highlighted above — including the portion nearest Burning Man — strayed into Pershing County. 12MC had observed similar situations before such as New York stealing roads from its neighbors. It was nice to see another example albeit at the county level. I found a photograph that corroborated Ken’s recollection. I can’t reproduce it here because of its copyright notice although I could certainly link to it and let readers check it for themselves. Clearly this spot at the entrance to the festival was physically located in Pershing County and nonetheless signed Washoe.

Did Pershing contribute to road maintenance for the segment on its own side of the border? I don’t know. Washoe certainly had more financial resources, seeing how Reno was included within its borders. Washoe was a long, skinny county and CR34 connected its northern portions to the remainder. The road ran all the way from Gerlach up to the Oregon border, 120 miles, with only eight miles in Pershing. Additionally the Pershing portion didn’t serve anything in Pershing except for an ephemeral Black Rock City once a year. I thought Pershing might have a case for not paying for maintenance although I didn’t know that to be true.

Fly Geyser

Fly Geyser
Fly Geyser by photosbyflick on Flickr (cc)

Fly Geyser was an interesting attraction along CR34, not too far removed from Black Rock City. Geothermal activity created the wild design and coloration. However, it wasn’t natural. People exploring for geothermal energy sources failed to plug the well either intentionally or accidentally. Hot water continued to spew to the surface, creating a geyser cone from dissolved minerals. The attraction can be seen from the road although the site isn’t open to the public anymore (map). It looked like something that would fit within Burning Man itself.


Recent Freedom of Information Act requests confirmed that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents conducted surveillance on Burning Man for the last several years. Apparently they’ve tested some of their new toys there along with placing undercover agents amongst the guests to watch the happenings. Next year Ken can play “guess the FBI agent” as he wanders across the playa. Is it the lady meditating in the yurt or the dude twirling fire batons? Inquiring minds want to know.

Equally odd, think about it from the perspective of the FBI agents who get paid to attend Burning Man and blend in with the crowd. I bet they have a lot of volunteers.


On November 11, 2015 · 12 Comments

I thought I’d sliced-and-diced my county counting exploits in every way imaginable by the time I posted Counting Down, my account of barely crossed and airport only captures. Loyal reader and fellow county counter Andy begged to differ. He discovered one more dimension when he noted, "Probably 99% of what you or I color in on the map has been driven over or flown into, even if we got out of the car to touch ground with our own feet. But — have you visited any counties /only/ on foot?" On foot, eh? Now that was something I’d never considered.

I knew it couldn’t be very many instances. I’ve lived a pretty sedentary life devoid of strenuous hikes over vast distances. Friend-of-12MC Steve from (formerly Connecticut Museum Quest and now much more broadly focused) once completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I created an article on counties he’d hiked through hoping he’d pick up the county counting hobby, although it just wasn’t his thing. I’m sure Steve drove through a few of the 87 AT Trail counties on other journeys although I’d also guess that his "only-on-foot" tally would be substantial. Mine, not so much.

San Juan County, Utah

4 Corners
Four Corners – Summer 1992.
Utah, Colorado, New Mexico & Arizona come together at a single point

I think I have two only-on-foot counties. One for sure. That would be San Juan County which was Utah’s contribution to the sole state quadripoint of the United States, Four Corners. Notice my right foot touching said county in the photograph above from a long-ago road trip. I circled around the marker any number of times, traveling through that tiny bit of Utah on foot each time.

Four Corners

I had confidence in my memory although I consulted maps extensively to confirm it. Apparently I drove on all sides of San Juan Co. without actually crossing the border except on foot at the Four Corners marker. Even the road leading up to the marker remained completely outside of Utah. So that’s ONE. Absolutely.

Nantucket County, Massachusetts

Cisco Brewers
Visiting Cisco Brewery.
That is NOT the pedaled vehicle we used.

Might it be possible to bend the rules a little? I’d have a second example from one of my more recent travels if that wish were granted. Massachusetts’ island of Nantucket fell within its own county. I never used a motorized vehicle anywhere on Nantucket. However, we rented bicycles and pedaled a few miles into the countryside to the Cisco Brewery for an afternoon of tastings and entertainment during our stay (map). I think I deserved at least partial credit or an honorable mention for getting everywhere on Nantucket under my own personal muscle power.

Incidentally I couldn’t make the same claim a day earlier in Dukes County (Martha’s Vineyard, primarily). We rented a car in Oak Bluffs and drove all over the island.

Municipio de Juárez, Chihuahua, México

Av Juarez to S El Paso Crossing
Av Juarez to S El Paso Crossing by Aquistbe on Flickr (cc)

I wondered if I could expand the game into foreign countries. I’ve been to México twice, neither time using engine power so I felt I might meet the rules for an entire nation. It involved two separate Mexican states so I should also get credit for Chihuahua and Coahuila. However I decided to focus on counties for this exercise, or in this instance their Mexican equivalents, municipalities (municipios).

Several years ago on a business trip to El Paso, Texas, a group of us decided to walk across the bridge into Juárez (map). The smarter bunch hopped into a taxi as soon as they crossed the border and went to a restaurant in a nicer part of town. Others, myself included, just sort-of milled around the border area checking out the scene. I thought it was pretty seedy, with a bunch of shops selling liquor and discount drugs that would need prescriptions back in the United States. I lasted about ten minutes before I grew bored and walked back into the U.S., although apparently it added Municipio de Juárez to my very short only-on-foot list.

Municipio de Ocampo, Coahuila, México

Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, Mexico
Boquillas… and the burro I rode in on

How about an even better rule bender than Nantucket? Several years ago I wrote about my technically illegal (albeit tolerated) dodge across the border into México while visiting Big Bend National Park in Texas. I visited tiny Boquillas del Carmen (map) in Municipio de Ocampo. I never used a motorized vehicle during that visit although I didn’t remain entirely on foot either. I rode a burro into town after disembarking a rowboat that ferried me across the border. Yes, a burro. I’m fairly certain it was the only time I’ve even ridden a burro. I should get double points for that effort.


Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls. My Own Photo.

I couldn’t think of any other examples. I’ve traveled into Canada using seven different border stations. For a moment I thought I might be able to claim the Regional Municipality of Niagara in Ontario because I walked across the border from New York for a better view of the falls. Then I remembered I drove up to Toronto on a different trip and would have passed through the same municipality by automobile. No dice. I also looked at my travels to Europe, Asia and Australia and found nothing.

The final tally in the United States: one county solely on foot; one on foot and bicycle. In México, one municipio solely on foot; one on foot and burro.

Airports in the District of Columbia

On October 28, 2015 · 2 Comments

I mentioned that no airport existed within the physical boundaries of the District of Columbia in the recently posted Airport Visits article. That would block me from ever traveling through airports in every state/territory/district in the United States. I wanted to put a little asterisk next to the claim. That certainly held true for commercial aviation, whether general aviation or scheduled airline service. It also applied to fixed wing aircraft. It might be possible if the President ever invited me along for a ride on Marine One and we landed at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling by helicopter. I didn’t think the influence of Twelve Mile Circle would ever grow strong enough to make that happen so it remained an elusive goal.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

It shouldn’t have been that way. National Airport (later renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) really should have been part of the District of Columbia. Even the airport itself noted the inherent contradiction.

Was the airport located in Virginia or the District of Columbia? The District "owned" the Potomac River to Virginia, claiming the boundary had been set in 1846 at the high water mark along the shoreline. But since the airport was built on a fill, a new eastern shoreline was created. The question arose as to whether the District’s authority ended at the new shore or the original one. The problem went unresolved until 1945 when Congress approved a bill that fixed the airport boundary at the mean high water mark, regardless of changes, which placed the airport in Virginia.

Certainly the original boundaries would have been preserved had airport construction taken place along a border between two states instead of a state and a Federal district. Open hostilities would have erupted if any state ever attempted such a blatant land grab against another, and it would have been overturned by the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the District of Columbia didn’t have the power to fight back and National Airport became a part of Virginia. In a sense I feel like I’ve landed at an airport in DC a couple of hundred times although the law says I’ve actually landed in Arlington, Virginia.

I wondered if the feat might have been possible during the early days of flight. I couldn’t find a single reference to a commercial airport operating within the borders of the District of Columbia (other than the early ambiguity of National Airport). Perhaps nobody in the entire history of aviation ever took a scheduled airline flight into or out of an airport within the physical boundaries of Washington, DC.

Military flights, well, that was a completely different story.

Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling

There was a long history of fixed wing aircraft flights into and out of Naval Support Facility Anacostia and Bolling Field, now joined together as Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling. There were two separate airstrips constructed on the drained mudflats along the eastern side of the Anacostia/Potomac River confluence, very much within the borders of the District. Only a short taxiway separated the two airfields so they were essentially conjoined, although they were operated separately by the Navy and the Army (later the Air Force). I mentioned the situation briefly in More Oddities in Washington, DC back in 2010. I said at the time that "I’ve done some additional research on this topic and I expect to post an in-depth article someday in the future." Well, five years passed and I finally got around to it. I never claimed that 12MC was prompt or efficient.

This plane was listed as stationed at Bolling Field in 1954

I found a great resource that discussed aviation history at both facilities, Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: Washington, DC. It included tons of photographs and maps for those who might be interested in the details. Apparently from about 1917 until 1962, fixed wing military aircraft landed routinely at both sites. During the World War II, as the source stated, Anacostia even became "a primary training base for naval aviation." The party ended on July 1, 1962 when "the last fixed-wing flight departed Bolling AFB, a C-54 carrying 33 passengers & 6 crew members, bound for nearby Andrews AFB." The runways had to close for two primary reasons: they were too short for jet aircraft and National Airport stood directly across the river with some of the busiest commercial runways in the nation. The likelihood of a collision between military and civilian aircraft only increased as the years passed until it became an unmanageable risk.

The "Super Moon" rises over Reagan National Airport
The "Super Moon" rises over Reagan National Airport by Joseph Gruber via Flickr (cc)
Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling and its tower can be seen in the background

Fear not, aviation continued even after runway removal at Anacostia and Bolling. The focus shifted from airplanes to helicopters. The military constructed a control tower and hangers still used today, clearly visible along the banks of the river opposite from National Airport. For many years "Marine One," the helicopter that transported the President of the United States on short trips, used Anacostia as its base.

Sikorsky VH-3 Sea King Helicopter
Sikorsky VH-3 Sea King Helicopter by Mr.TinDC via Flickr (cc)
Using Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling

Marine Helicopter Squadron One now operates out of of Quantico in Virginia although it continues to maintain a detachment at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling. One can still see helicopters landing and lifting off from their facility within the District of Columbia regularly.

A handful of civilian flights actually landed in the District within the last few decades although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. The latest involved a small gyrocopter landing on the grounds of the Capitol in April 2015 as a protest in support of campaign finance reform. Authorities arrested the perpetrator immediately. As the Federal Aviation Administration warned,

The airspace around Washington, D.C. is more restricted than in any other part of the country. Rules put in place after the 9/11 attacks establish "national defense airspace" over the area and limit aircraft operations to those with an FAA and Transportation Security Administration authorization. Violators face stiff fines and criminal penalties.

Even drones were prohibited "within a 30-mile radius of Ronald-Reagan Washington National Airport." That’s right, I’m prohibited by law from flying a drone anywhere near my own home! Sadly, I believe it would be statistically impossible for me to ever fly into the District in any manner, and even more unlikely to arrive within its borders on a scheduled airline service. Loyal Reader "Peter" mentioned that the state of Delaware lacked any scheduled airline service too, albeit its largest city, Wilmington had been served in the past. There might be some hope that service could return to Delaware someday. I don’t think that will ever happen in the District of Columbia, though.

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