August 31, 2015

At Burning Man, pretty much anything goes

Burning Man participants visit the site's temple, which will eventually be set on fire. Visitors leave notes inside and in the walls of the structure, hoping the cleansing fire will set them free.
(Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)

Trevor Hughes

BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev. – A young woman stepped into the dusty glare of my headlights, and I realized she was topless. And pantsless.

The only thing she was wearing was a playing card strapped on by a clear rubber band around her waist.

And a giant smile.

"Welcome home!" she said. "Is this your first time?"

Yes. Yes, it is.

I'm spending the week embedded in the annual Burning Man festival, reporting on the newest tech trends, the dust storms and the luxury camps that drew criticism last year. The temporary city we've created is called Black Rock City, and for this week it will be the third-largest place in Nevada.

First-timers like me are pulled from their vehicles to celebrate. In my case, the young woman ordered me to remove my shirt and make dust angels as lights flashed and music drifted on the wind. I banged a bell as my greeters yelled "not a virgin" to mark my transition in the encampment.

Burning Man draws 70,000 people annually to the Nevada desert (God forbid you pronounce it Nevaaaaaada, by the way) for an almost-anything-goes event. A sign at the entrance warns arrivals that all laws apply, but there's a lot of people and not a lot of cops.

That's kind of the point: Organizers create and encourage a freewheeling experience in which many people take illegal drugs, and casual sex is not only common but widely condoned. Many of the themed camps seem intended to confront and then contort societal norms. But norms are reserved for the outside world, the Default World.

Here, creativity is everywhere. Elaborate sculptures reach toward the sky. Others blast flames. Endless electronic dance music pumps across the encampment as neon-lit vehicles circle. Strangers hug you without warning.

And the outfits. The outfits! This is a place for extreme personal expression in a way that might make many Americans feel uncomfortable. Here, lots of people go shirtless, and there's a fair few wearing even less than my greeter.

Media access is tightly controlled, and the organizers use copyright law to enforce the rules –-- photographers must sign a contract agreeing not to exploit people's images for personal gain. The last thing Burning Man organizers want is to see participants' images used to sell stuff.

And while it took me a whole day to notice, now I can't stop marveling at the complete lack of stuff being sold or marketed. Corporate logos on rental trucks are usually covered up or altered, and there's no one hawking, well, anything.

It's a welcome relief from the constant pressure of consumerism we face every day. Gone are the messages to buy buy buy. Instead, we're asked to simply be. (There's no official Internet provider, and mobile phone coverage is iffy.)

Don't get me wrong. Virtually everyone has spent a lot of money to be here, and spending a week requires lots of logistics. I watched as participants stocked up on cheap plastic junk in Reno, pouring millions of dollars into that city's economy while allowing Burning Man to maintain its reputation as the world's largest Leave No Trace event.

Here, the entire economy is based on the concept of gifting. People give you things out of the kindness of their heartsAND, with "gifts" ranging from the sculptures to free booze and Tantric massages.

Sunday, a young woman handed me a beaded bracelet she'd made, with each colored bead a piece of Morse code.

Unfurled, if you know how to read it, the bracelet quotes Shakespeare: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

And for the next week, this remote Nevada desert is the biggest stage of all.

August 30, 2015

How a 1930s water war between California and Arizona delayed Parker Dam

Parker Dam and Lake Havasu on the Colorado River in 1939. In 1922, six of seven states signed the Colorado River Compact. Upset with its allotment, Arizona refused to sign. So when Parker Dam construction began, Arizona sought to block the project. (U.S. Department of the Interior)

by Scott Harrison
Los Angeles Times

"Water war" has for decades been a term used to describe the political battles over water in the West.

But back in the 1930s, a fight between California and Arizona over water actually veered from cold war to hot war — almost.

In 1934, the Metropolitan Water District began construction on Parker Dam, which was opposed by Arizona. The resulting Lake Havasu would feed the new Colorado Aqueduct.

Before, in 1922, six of seven states signed the Colorado River Compact. Upset with its allotment, Arizona refused to sign.

So when Parker Dam construction began, Arizona sought to block the project.

In March 1934, Arizona Gov. Benjamin Moeur called up the Arizona National Guard. Six soldiers arrived in Parker, Ariz., to observe the construction.

National media, including the Los Angeles Times, ridiculed the deployment.

When an Associated Press photo appeared in the March 10, 1934, edition of The Times, the accompanying caption reported:

"Arizona Troops Leave For (Water) Front.

"Without any flare of trumpets or a band playing martial airs, this squad of Arizona National Guardsmen left Phoenix and arrived at Parker yesterday preparatory to patrolling the dam site to prevent 'encroachment' on Arizona's rights by the Metropolitan Water District. Maj. Pomeroy, commanding the detail, is shown on the extreme right."

For the next several months, the troops patrolled the Arizona side of the dam site.

In November, the construction of a trestle bridge from the California side prompted action. On Nov. 10, Moeur declared martial law. He dispatched more than 100 National Guard troops to block construction on Arizona's shore.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes intervened and halted construction. The troops were recalled.

The resulting legal action led to an April 29, 1935, Supreme Court decision. The April 30, 1935, Los Angeles Times reported:

"Without a dissenting voice, the United States Supreme Court yesterday forced an indefinite suspension of work on Parker Dam by upholding Arizona's right to object and interfere with construction....

"Arizona officials, a dispatch from Phoenix said, hailed the decision as a victory in their battle over the Colorado River, which has been waged for twelve years.

"Gov. Moeur, who last November ordered out the Militia to stop construction, was quoted as saying he was pleased; and he and other State authorities indicated they now intend to let other sides in the controversy make the first move.

"By its far-reaching decision, the Supreme Court virtually justified Gov. Moeur's action in ordering out the troops.

"The decision, written by Justice (Pierce) Butler, assert the dam project never has been authorized by law."

Political compromises were made. Congress passed legislation allowing construction to proceed. Parker Dam was finished in 1938.

August 25, 2015

New Sheriff Overseeing Burning Man to Crack Down on Naked Rule-Breakers

The weeklong event in Nevada draws thousands of people — and their drugs

Participants walk through dust at the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert of Gerlach, Nev., on Aug. 29, 2014.

Jack Linshi

A new Nevada sheriff tasked with overseeing the upcoming Burning Man festival plans to crack down on the annual desert debauchery.

Jerry Allen, 39, who was elected Pershing County Sheriff in January, said he plans to tighten law enforcement for the tens of thousands of festival-goers journeying to the remote Black Rock Desert next week for the annual event, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported on Tuesday.

In recent years, many attendees at the week long event — where nudity is the norm, drugs flow as if on tap and orgies litter the desert — have not been charged for crimes like marijuana possession, according to federal reports on the event, but the new sheriff in town said he has a tougher police protocol in mind.

“We don’t have the personnel to issue citations to 70,000 naked people on the playa, but we will be upholding the law to the best of our ability,” Allen said. He added that Burning Man “brings nothing … except for heartache” to the conservative, rural county.

Burning Man organizers said they remain optimistic because the low number of arrests in years past suggest more festival-goers are abiding by the law.

“We’ve been working with [Allen] since his election, and he’s been involved with all of the large coordination efforts,” said Burning Man spokesman Jim Graham. “It’s an ongoing process on education, but he hasn’t been out there for a few years, so he hasn’t seen the progress we’ve made in recent years.”

Burning Man will take place from Aug. 30 to Sept. 7.

August 5, 2015

Ghost Town Emerges As Drought Makes Nevada's Lake Mead Disappear

Many of the buildings used to lie 60 feet below the lake surface

A sign showing the trail to the ghost town of St. Thomas in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada in August 2015.

Nick Visser
The Huffington Post

Lest anyone forget, the drought in California and across the Southwest is still raging on. And one of the places where its effects can be observed most clearly is Nevada's Lake Mead.

The nation's largest reservoir has hit a series of troubling milestones over the past year, sinking to a record low in late June. Now, in the latest benchmark for the new Lake Mead, a town that flooded shortly after the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1938 has literally risen from the depths.

The ghost town -- once called St. Thomas, Nevada -- was founded as a Mormon settlement in 1865 and had six bustling businesses by 1918, according to But for nearly a century, it's been uninhabited and uninhabitable, existing mostly as an underwater curiosity.

Captured by two Getty photographers, the photos [at the link] below show the shell of the former settlement. St. Thomas has appeared under similarly dire drought conditions several times in the past decades.

The National Park Service has opened up a pathway from a parking area down to the ruins, which you'll be able to visit for the foreseeable future. Take a look here.

The ruins of a school in Mormon pioneer town Saint Thomas, flooded 70 years ago by the rising waters of the Colorado River when it was dammed to create Lake Mead.