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 July 26, 2015 · 6 Comments

The Twelve Mile Circle "Complete Index Map" has enough entries on it now that my mind wandered to the spots not yet covered. These tended to be remote, empty places bereft of many people or dramatic topography. That would appear to be an accurate description of central Kansas in particular, seemingly flat as a pancake and lacking much of a population. Nonetheless I drilled down onto the map, spied Interstate 70 and saw a town called Hays. I wondered what might be there.


Actually there wasn’t much there although that didn’t surprise or bother me. Every spot has a story. Hays was the biggest town for miles around with more than twenty thousand residents so I figured I’d find something interesting. It also had a fairly sizable university with twelve thousand students making it quite the college town. Fort Hays University had a museum, The Sternberg Museum of Natural History, which featured numerous fossils from the time of dinosaurs all the way to the Ice Age. It seemed like a lot of these midsized towns of Middle America had fossil museums. I love that kind of stuff. I need to get out there and see a few.

Fort Hays

Fort Hays
Fort Hays by frank thompson photos (cc)

Many readers probably figured from the name of the university that the town of Hays may have had a connection to Fort Hays. That assumption would be correct. It began as Fort Fletcher in 1865 to protect wagon trains. Soon thereafter government authorities renamed it Fort Hays and shifted its purpose, as part of an effort to protect the new railroads from attack by Native inhabitants as tracks began to crisscross the Great Plains. A town grew around the fort. The Fort Hays Historic Site now occupies the original site.

General Alexander Hays

Alexander Hays

Peeling back another layer of its etymological history, Fort Hays derived its name from General Alexander Hays. He displayed abundant courage during his distinguished military career in the Civil War until his death at the Battle of the Wilderness in central Virginia. Hays was the type of General who led from the front of his troops, within the thick of the battle. He suffered several wounds during various campaigns until his luck finally ran out in 1864. He was shot through the head, not quite yet forty-five years old.

Hays was largely forgotten by history despite his bravery, having been overshadowed by much more famous military commanders on both sides of the Civil War. Very little was named for Hays other than the small fort on an expanding frontier that later blossomed into a town. Other than that there were a couple of monuments placed on battlefields as memorials and one small bland suburban road named in his honor, and that was about it.


Czech Dancers
Czech Dancers by Kansas Tourism (cc)

I noticed a town nearby to the east one level more obscure, called Wilson (map). It may be best known as the self-proclaimed “Czech Capital of Kansas.” I was amused by the title. How much Czech diaspora could be living in Kansas? It wasn’t like there would be an abundance of competition. Still, one needed to work with what had been granted in these remote places so Czech Capital of Kansas became its calling card. The story became more interesting as I checked into it. Apparently Czech immigrants arrived in Wilson from Bohemia in the 1870’s to help build the railroads. It must have been a welcoming place because they’ve remained in Wilson ever since. Residents even hold an annual Wilson After Harvest Czech Festival at the end of July (unfortunately 12MC just missed it this year; it was held July 23-25).

I couldn’t find the original Wilson who served as the namesake though. Clearly he was important person locally because Wilson was located in Wilson Township, which also had a Wilson Creek, Wilson Cemetery and an Old Wilson Cemetery.

Completely Unrelated

I got an email recently from Vexillographer who had just completed a video about the Jeddito time zone anomaly on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I had discussed this awhile ago in USA Time Zone Anomalies, Part I

Vexillographer actually visited the anomaly in person and made this video about his experiences. Do check it out — the time zone weirdness found there is amazing. It also includes a nice shout-out to 12MC at the end. Thanks Vexillographer!

On the Steps

On March 1, 2015 · 5 Comments

I sat there cycling through television channels aimlessly the other day like I do when I’m bored. I came across a famous a scene from one of the Rocky movies where the hero Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) started running up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (map). You know the scene I’m talking about.

Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps)
Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps) by Alonso Javier Torres, on Flickr (cc)

He’s climbing the steps triumphantly to a soundtrack of "Gonna Fly Now" and you know someone’s about to get a pounding. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which movie it was — apparently Stallone recreated the scene in just about every Rocky movie — although it did get me thinking. Movie locations aside(¹), were there any genuine historical events that happened on steps or stairs?

On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial

The occurrence that came to mind immediately was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (map) in 1963. The site selected by Dr. King was highly symbolic, as it was the 100th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that trumpeted freedom for slaves living within Confederate states then in rebellion. He drew obvious parallels between the Lincoln of old and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, recognizing Lincoln’s achievements while signaling the struggle continued.

Those same steps featured prominently in another Civil Rights milestone a generation earlier when Marian Anderson sang from that spot in 1939. She’d already earned fame as a classical vocalist, a contralto. She performed on those steps because she’d been denied a performance hall in the city.

Marian Anderson was an international superstar in the 1930s—a singer possessed of what Arturo Toscanini called "a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years." But if race had been no impediment to her career abroad, there were still places in the United States where a black woman was simply not welcome, no matter how famous. What surprised Anderson and many other Americans was to discover in 1939 that one such place was a venue called Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the capital of a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The DAR refused to relent in spite of withering criticism. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, writing "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization failed."

Fifty thousand people showed up to hear Marian Anderson perform on the Lincoln Memorial steps; many times more than would have heard her at the indoor venue. The Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regretted it actions later and invited Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall several times beginning in 1943.

On the Steps of Aztec Temples

Templo mayor ruins, in the middle of Zocalo
Templo mayor ruins by Antoine Hubert, on Flickr (cc)

Many Mesoamerican societies practiced human sacrifice in the centuries preceding European contact. The Aztec of central México took the practice to an entirely new level. There were many varieties of ritual and sacrifice although it was human sacrifices particularly that attracted the most attention of armchair historians. Bloodletting reached its pinnacle at Templo Mayor, the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, now in modern day Mexico City (map).

At the climax of the ceremony, prisoners of war were taken to the top of the steep steps of the pyramid leading to two shrines. Held down, the victims’ abdomens were sliced open by high priests wielding ceremonial knives, and their hearts – still beating – were raised to the spirits above and the crowd in the sacred precinct below. The lifeless bodies of those sacrificed were then kicked down the stairs, and as one followed another, these flowed with blood, bright red against the white of the temple walls. Over the four days of the opening ceremony, some 4,000 prisoners were killed to satisfy the Aztec gods.

That was hardly the only time in history where violence happened on stairways.

On the Steps of the Theatre of Pompey

Largo di Torre Argentina
Largo di Torre Argentina by Rodney, on Flickr (cc)

The Roman leader Julius Caesar met his demise on a set of steps at the Theatre of Pompey in Rome in 44 BCE, now at the Largo di Torre Argentina (map).

Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.

This was considered a triggering event. Afterwards the Roman Republic (with consuls elected by citizens) that had lasted for five hundred years transitioned into the Roman Empire (led by emperors).

Other noteworthy events

  • On the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building (map): Congressman William Taulbee was shot to death in 1890; and Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita consummated an adult relationship in the early 1980’s (although she now denies it), a sideshow to his bribery convictions.(²)
  • On the steps of the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach(map): A serial killer murdered famed fashion designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion in 1997.
  • On the steps of the Avon Theater in Stratford, Ontario (map): Last prize goes to a set of stairs in Canada where Justin Bieber often sat busking for tips before he became famous.

I could probably find some more examples although that Justin Bieber thing discouraged me. I can hardly wait for all of the Bieber-related Google Ads that will now start popping onto my screen for the next month.

(¹) Otherwise I’d nominate the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown, Washington, DC (Street View).
(²) Inspiring the name of a local comedy troupe, The Capitol Steps.

12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
Don't miss an article -
Subscribe to the feed!

RSS G+ Twitter
RSS Twelve Mile Circle Google Plus Twitter
Monthly Archives
Days with Posts
November 2015
« Oct