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.

Oglala Lakota County

On October 21, 2015 · 2 Comments

I noticed that the the Wade Hampton Census Area in Alaska became the Kusilvak Census Area in a recent Reader Mailbag article. Alaska’s census areas are a unique construct, designed as a convenient parceling of the Unorganized Borough although they’re considered "county equivalents" by the Federal government for a number of statistical purposes. Still, the renaming was a big deal. Counties (or county equivalents) change names very infrequently.

Longtime reader Scott Surgent replied, "You may have already mentioned this, but another county changed its name as of May 1, 2015: Shannon County, South Dakota, is now Oglala Lakota County." Well no, actually, I hadn’t mentioned it. In fact I wasn’t even aware of it until Scott said something. I must have been asleep at the wheel. Thank you Scott for calling me out!

Let’s go ahead and take a look Oglala Lakota County and explore the reasoning behind the name.

Map of South Dakota highlighting Oglala Lakota County
Map of South Dakota highlighting Oglala Lakota County via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

Shannon County, now Oglala Lakota County, formed near the southwest corner of South Dakota in 1875. The land immediately west, the actual southwestern corner formed into Fall River County. That was significant because Oglala Lakota is one of the very few counties in the United States that does not have a county seat. It’s administrative center is collocated within Fall River County in neighboring Hot Springs. According to the South Dakota Association of County Officials,

Until 1982 Oglala Lakota and Washabaugh County, South Dakota, were the last unorganized counties in the United States. Although it was organized and received a home rule charter that year, Oglala Lakota County… contracts with Fall River County for its Auditor, Treasurer, Director of Equalization, State’s Attorney and Registrar of Deeds.

Technically the Unorganized Borough in Alaska remains unorganized and boroughs are considered analogous to counties so, evidently, we have a situation of semantics going on here. Nonetheless, the larger point remained that Oglala Lakota was and continues to be governed in an unusual manner. It also had the lowest annual per capita income of any county in the United States — only $8,768 — which likely explained some of the peculiarities. It couldn’t afford to provide these services on its own.

Who was Shannon?

Shannon County Line
Shannon County Line by Jimmy Emerson, DVM (cc)

The name Shannon applied to the county from 1875 to 2015. Nonetheless that didn’t stop residents from selecting a new name in a landslide, capturing 80% of ballots cast in the November 2014 election. The South Dakota Legislature reviewed and endorsed the vote the following Spring and Shannon became Oglala Lakota.

Peter C. Shannon lived in South Dakota for several years in the late Nineteenth Century. He’d been a career politician from Pennsylvania serving in minor positions, a loyal supporter of Abraham Lincoln. President Ulysses Grant rewarded Shannon by appointing him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Dakota Territory. He held the position while counties formed in the Territory so one was named for him. He was a political hack who benefited from lucky timing. Eventually Shannon "fell out of favor with territorial lawyers who successfully blocked his application for reappointment in 1881." He died in San Diego in 1899 from injuries suffered in a carriage accident.

Why Oglala Lakota

The Women of Pine Ridge
The Women of Pine Ridge by Hamner_Fotos (cc)

There were plenty of counties in the United States named for insignificant historical figures and yet their names haven’t been challenged. It would be useful to understand that the Pine Ridge Reservation covers the entirety of the county. Its people belong to the Oglala Lakota Nation. If that wasn’t sufficient justification by itself, Peter Shannon was understood to be someone "who took part in the corrupt and coercive process of carving up the enormous Great Sioux Reservation in the late 19th century." The Rapid City Journal quoted Short Bull, a member of the tribe who explained, "for Oglala Lakota tribal members like himself, Peter Shannon embodied the changes forced upon his people; from governance changes to the introduction of private property ownership."

It seemed like an open-and-shut case. Many Oglala Lakota, the primary inhabitants of the county, viewed Shannon as an oppressor. The name had to go. I’m surprised the vote wasn’t greater than 80%.

Are There Other County Name Changes in the Works?

I don’t know. Hopefully the 12MC audience will speak up if anything seems to be in the works. I did spot a recent (September 2015) article in the State Journal-Register from Springfield, Illinois: Historical society director floats plan for new Illinois county names

[Bill] Furry, the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, suggests renaming Illinois’ counties. All 102 of them. And he wants the public to participate… "For more than 150 years, they have honored a past that is beyond any living person’s memory," Furry said. "Given that Illinois history is rarely taught in school these days, the names of the counties might as well be written in Latin, or worse, French. Illinois is French, by the way."

To which the Jacksonville Journal-Courier from west-central Illinois responded, Renaming counties a costly, unnecessary rewrite of history; "Even now and then, a good idea comes to light. This is not one of them."

Jacksonville, Illinois, one should note, fell within Morgan County. The county was named for one of those figures who died beyond any living person’s memory: Daniel Morgan, a hero of the Revolutionary War and the suppressor of the Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794).

Maybe the suggestion hit a little too close to home.

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