Volume 41 Number 18

January 31 – February 6, 2007

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Burning Man goes green


Burning Man founder Larry Harvey chooses the theme for each year’s event — such as 2002’s the Floating World and last year’s Hope and Fear — but it usually doesn’t have much impact on the basic character of the event. This year’s theme, Green Man, is different.

"It’s the first theme that has any kind of practical, political character," Harvey told the Guardian, noting that Green Man has sparked big changes in how the event will be staged, a campaign to improve burners’ environmental practices, and a new way of reutf8g to the outside world.

"We’re looking at every aspect of the event: solid waste, energy, and materials," said Tom Price, who has filled the newly created full-time position of environmental director, which was a natural offshoot from his previous work as Burning Man’s lobbyist and the founder of Burners Without Borders, which formed to do Gulf Coast cleanup after Hurricane Katrina hit (see "From Here to Katrina," 2/22/06).

Harvey said it was the good that burners did in Mississippi that started him thinking about the green theme and the idea that Burning Man needed to start turning its energies outward at a time when global warming and other environmental problems are growing public concerns.

"We’re working our way back into the world. Maybe not the mainstream but certainly onto Main Street," Harvey said. "There’s a lot out there that needs reform. The time of the reformer is at hand, I believe."

Among the projects Price is now working on are expanding the already large recycling effort at the event, finding ways to use more solar panels and fewer generators, coordinating theme camps to share power sources, using the purchase of emissions credits to offset the greenhouse gases created by Burning Man, and creating incentives for art projects to use alternative fuels.

"The whole process is being driven by the community," Price said.

Ramping up Burning Man’s environmental activism and commitment has been the goal of several movements within the larger event, such as Cooling Man (www.coolingman.net) and Greening the Burn (tribes.tribe.net/greeningtheburn), as well as being a priority for many Burning Man employees, such as technology dominatrix Heather Gallagher, a.k.a. Camera Girl, and facilities manager Paul Schreer, a.k.a. Mr. Blue.

"We’ve been hippie busybodies pushing for this on the inside," Gallagher told us. "And when [Harvey] announced the theme, I was, like, ‘Yesss!’ "

"What’s exciting about the Green Man theme and this year’s event is it’s a perfect illustration of the power of community," Price said, noting that networking and experimentation have always been hallmarks of the event. "Going back 10 years, Burning Man has been a place for early adopters who are on the cutting edges of a lot of disciplines."

That makes it a good place to experiment with new technologies and evangelize those that work well.

"I’ve always believed Burning Man would eventually partner in some way with the environmental movement," Harvey said. "It’s almost a historic inevitability."

Since the theme was announced, the organization has been overwhelmed with offers from individuals and groups that want to help green the event, from someone who donated $350,000 worth of solar panels to power the eponymous man and surrounding activities this year to artists such as Jim Mason, who has developed a gasification system he wants to use to turn center camp coffee grounds and other waste into fuel that would in turn power his machine (and probably shoot fire as well).

"So I’m proposing drag racing to a more responsible environmental future. As usual, the ravers are not going to save the world. But at least they can power their indulgent disasters with the fuel the local gearheads turned reluctant environmentalists have made for them," Mason, the controversial artist who helped spearhead the Borg2 revolt a couple years ago, wrote by e-mail to the Guardian.

Price said he’s excited by the implications of Mason’s project, noting that it simultaneously addresses energy issues and waste disposal.

"If he can do this, he will have solved two problems," Price said. "Our relationship to nature on the playa is very intimate. Just being at the event, we’ve learned in a way those in the city haven’t what it means to deal with your garbage and to provide your energy."

Harvey sees this year’s theme as a turning point.

"In some ways, we hope this year will be an environmental and alternative energy expo," he said, although he expects it to resonate on an even deeper level that participants will carry back into their communities. "It’s a much broader thing than environmental politics. It’s about our relationship to nature." (STJ)

Investigate the Presidio’s money


EDITORIAL National parks are places where wildlife is preserved, saved, encouraged. The trend in parks these days is to expand the ecological mix; the National Park Service is actually trying to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone. But as Amanda Witherell reported Jan. 17 ("Where Are the Chicks?"), that’s not the case in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. At the Presidio a native species that was thriving not long ago — the California quail — is almost entirely gone. That’s a sign that the ecological management of the park is a mess — which is no surprise. The park is run by a semiprivate trust that’s driven by real estate development and moneymaking. If new condos conflict with quail habitat, guess who has to go?

Then there’s the Presidio’s balance sheet. As we reported Jan. 24 ("The Presidio Trust’s Mystery Millions"), the park is sitting on $105 million — a huge chunk of cash — yet has asked Congress for a $20 million loan. What’s all that money for? The trust won’t tell us — it’s a secret.

This is exactly what we feared would happen when Rep. Nancy Pelosi created the first privatized national park 10 years ago: environmental damage, financial unaccountability, and intolerable secrecy. The trust board (appointed by President George W. Bush) meets in public only once a year. Its press office is openly hostile to reporters and makes it exceptionally difficult for the public to get even basic information about park activities.

This is Pelosi’s pet project, and she’s now the most powerful person in Congress, but that doesn’t mean the Presidio should be able to continue operating in this fashion. The House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Nick Rahall (D–W.Va.), ought to hold hearings on the Presidio and examine how the trust is operating, whether it’s fulfilling its mission, and how its enabling legislation should be changed. A growing number of environmentalists are now calling for Pelosi to repeal the original bill and turn the Presidio over to the National Park Service, which runs parks as public treasures, not as potential real estate developments.

At the very least, Congress should refuse to provide any more loans to the Presidio Trust until an outside auditor conducts a public review of the books — and explains why a national park is holding $105 million in taxpayer money in the bank for secret projects, then demanding even more public money. *

Advancing public power


EDITORIAL A few months ago Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spent more than $10 million trying to keep the public Sacramento Municipal Utility District from annexing a part of Yolo County, which would have cost PG&E 77,000 customers. It was a stunning amount of campaign cash — and as is often the case, it worked: PG&E narrowly won the day, public power suffered a setback, and the people who wanted to get out from the private utility’s high rates and save big money by buying electricity from a public power agency had their hope shot down.

We’re used to this in San Francisco, where PG&E money and power have carried the day for more than 80 years and prevented the city from complying with the Raker Act, the federal law that requires public power. But the outcome of the Yolo County battle is a reminder of how high the stakes are for the beleaguered private utility — and how creative public power advocates are going to have to be in PG&E’s hometown.

It’s likely that there will be another ballot measure in the next year or two to authorize the city to sell bonds and take over PG&E’s local distribution system. The evidence is clear: public power is cheaper, public power is more environmentally sound (remember — for all its green hype, PG&E still runs a nuclear power plant), and public power is San Francisco’s legal mandate. Just about everyone in City Hall claims to be a public power supporter these days.

But in the meantime, the supervisors need to start looking at immediate alternatives that don’t involve an expensive ballot battle. There may well be ways to bring public power to San Francisco without having to confront a $10 million (or $20 million or $30 million) PG&E political blitzkrieg.

The most obvious approach is to continue the small steps the city is currently taking and leverage them into a much bigger program. There is, of course, community choice aggregation, which should continue to move forward. Beyond that, San Francisco just won the right to provide electricity at the Hunters Point Shipyard Redevelopment Project; the city is trying to do the same for Treasure Island. Why not start with the shipyard and build a public power system outward, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood?

PG&E has no legal right to be the exclusive provider of retail power in the city. There’s no legal reason why San Francisco can’t start running wires out of the shipyard — underground, safely, with modern equipment — buy up a bunch of meters, and start offering the residents of Bayview–Hunters Point cheap electricity. The revenue from the first, say, 50-square-block project could fund the next one. The seed money could come as a loan from the General Fund.

The first thing the city’s Public Utilities Commission needs to do is conduct a study of the cost of implementing public power on a small scale in one part of town — and the likely revenue it would bring in. A larger study should look at how the city could build its own distribution system (with state-of-the-art equipment) one step at a time over, say, five or 10 years.

At the same time, of course, while the city is running electric wires, it can run fiber-optic and (if necessary) coaxial lines, with the goal of creating a city-run broadband and cable TV service.

The ideal place to start discussing this is the Local Agency Formation Commission, which should hold hearings as soon as possible, prod the SFPUC to move — and fund the study if nobody else will.

In the meantime, the City Attorney’s Office should look into another (admittedly slightly unconventional) idea: could the Redevelopment Agency, which already has the authority to issue bonds, simply seize all of PG&E’s wires, poles, and meters for a public power system?

We don’t trust the Redevelopment Agency, and it’s risky to even raise this idea. But there’s a larger issue here: in many cities and counties the council or board of supervisors runs the Redevelopment Agency. We’ve long thought that the district-elected board would be more accountable and better suited to handle the immense (and dangerous) power of this agency than a commission appointed by the mayor.

Think about it: The supervisors take over redevelopment. Redevelopment buys out PG&E’s system. A new city agency, under the supervisors, starts selling retail power at cheap rates citywide and builds new solar, wind, and tidal facilities to make San Francisco a true national model of environmentally sound energy policy.

If it’s legal — and the city attorney needs to issue an opinion on that — all it would take is political will. *

Editor’s Notes


› tredmond@sfbg.com

I complain a lot too. I understand: The buses don’t run on time. Everything costs too much, particularly a place to live, if you can even find one. Traffic is terrible, and there’s no place to park. Developers keep destroying good stuff and putting up ugly stuff.

And then there are moments like last Sunday afternoon, when my kids and I spent a couple hours communing with the pair of great horned owls that decided to take up residence in a tree on Bernal Hill.

The owls showed up a couple weeks ago. They sleep during the day, on branches maybe 25 feet off the ground, opening their yellow eyes every once in a while to cast a nonchalant glance at the humans and their dogs gawking up from below. They don’t seem to mind the fact that they’re constantly the center of attention, that it sometimes feels like a zoo exhibit up on the hill — except these aren’t captive creatures. They actually live here.

Great horned owls don’t tend to hang out in urban areas; I’ve never seen one before in San Francisco. But our new neighbors seem well at home on the hill, where there are plenty of mice, rats, and other small mammals to hunt. They’ve become quite the attraction; even Vivian, who isn’t exactly a nature girl, was excited to walk up and see them.

Michael, of course, was way into owls long before these guys showed up. He knew that they eat their prey whole but can’t digest fur, feathers, bones, teeth, or claws, and that once a day they burp that stuff up in a tight wad called a pellet. Naturally, we had to go looking.

So we climbed around the base of the tree for about half an hour, searching for owl pellets. They don’t look a whole lot different from dog turds, which are also common to this particular habitat, but I’d brought a couple sharp wooden barbecue spears to poke around with. After a few unpleasant errors, I snagged one; we took it home, picked it apart with tweezers, and managed to extract what appeared to be almost an entire mouse skeleton, which is now in a carefully labeled specimen jar on a shelf in the kids’ room.

After a quarter of a century in San Francisco, the city continues to amaze me.

I mention this in part because I happened to be looking for something else on the SF Weekly Web site the other day and came upon a peculiar and typically nasty piece columnist Matt Smith had written in the guise of advice to out-of-town reporters descending on the city to find out about the place whence comes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

I’m sure he was trying to be funny, but in the end all I got was bile and vitriol. One typical comment:

"People move here, meet a group of fighting-mad friends, then join one of the city’s myriad wars: dog-owners vs. parents, renters vs. owners, bus-riders vs. drivers, bohemians vs. geeks, everybody against newcomers.

"A few years ago, I denounced the city as a petty battle zone."

That’s one way to look at it. Me, I love the fact that people in the city care enough to fight for its future.

Not to go after our corporate-chain rivals (who? me?), but I have to wonder sometimes: do the folks at the SF Weekly even like San Francisco? *

The mystery of La Contessa


› steve@sfbg.com

La Contessa was a Spanish galleon, amazingly authentic and true to 16th-century design standards in all but a couple respects. It was half the size of the ships that carried colonizers to this continent and pirates through the Caribbean. And it was built around a school bus, designed to trawl the Burning Man festival and the Black Rock Desert environs, where it became perhaps the most iconic and surreal art piece in the event’s history.

The landcraft — perhaps like the sailing ships of yore — wasn’t exactly easy to navigate. It was heavy and turned slowly. The person driving the school bus couldn’t actually see much, so a navigator sitting on the bow needed to communicate to the driver by radio. Those sitting in the crow’s nest felt the vessel gently sway as if it were rocking on waves.

Inside, it was a picture of luxury: opulent, with a fancy bar, gilded frames, velvet trim — a cross between a fancy bordello and a captain’s stateroom. And adorning its bow was a priceless work of art, a figure of a woman by San Francisco sculptor Monica Maduro.

The ship and its captains and crew — most of whom are members of San Francisco’s popular Extra Action Marching Band — hit more than their share of storms in the desert, developing a storied outlaw reputation that eventually got them banned from Burning Man. By 2005 much of the galleon’s crew was dispirited and unsure if they’d ever return. The ship was no longer welcome at the Ranch staging area run by the event’s organizers and unable to legally navigate the highways without being dismantled. So it returned to its berth on Grant Ranch, on the edge of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where Joan Grant had welcomed La Contessa and two other large artworks since 2003.

Then late last summer someone looted the ship, stealing Maduro’s work, which was stored in a special box and hidden deep within the ship’s hold. Maduro and others have kept the theft a secret until now in the hope that they might find it, fearing that publicity and police involvement might drive the piece further underground, particularly after the reported sighting of a photo of the figurehead on Tribe.net, with a caption indicating it was the latest addition to someone’s living room.

And in early December, apparently without warning, prominent local landowner Mike Stewart set La Contessa on fire and had her charred remains hauled away.

It was a sad and unceremonious ending for La Contessa, a subject of ongoing legal actions, and an illustration of what an explosion of creativity leaves in its wake — a challenge that Burning Man faces as it seeks to become more environmentally responsible as it grows exponentially.

It was also a sign of the lingering tension between the giant countercultural festival and the residents of Hualapai Valley, who endure the annual onslaught of tens of thousands of visitors to their remote and sparsely populated region, along with the cultural and economic offerings they bring.

Grant had recently sold her 3,000-acre spread (although she retained a lifelong lease of her ranch home) to her neighbor, Mike Stewart, a landlord who didn’t share Grant’s love for the annual Burning Man event and its colorful denizens. In fact, Stewart led a legal and regulatory battle against Burning Man in 2003, trying unsuccessfully to shut down the Ranch and thus kill the event.

"I’ve been with them since they started out there, when they were just little bitty kids…. I adopted them, and they’ve always been supergood to me," Grant told the Guardian. Although she owned the Black Rock Salloon (which she spelled "like a drunk would say it" and later sold to the Burning Man organization), Grant said she was initially ostracized by many of the locals for supporting the event.

While La Contessa’s creator, Simon Cheffins (who also founded Extra Action), fruitlessly looked for land that might permanently house the galleon, it sat at the ranch, battened down against the elements and interlopers. When a grease fire destroyed Grant’s ranch house last year, sending her into the nearby town of Gerlach, La Contessa had nobody to watch over her.


Stewart is one of the biggest property owners in the region. In addition to possessing land and water rights that would be lucrative in any development project, he owns Orient Farms, Empire Farms, and a four-megawatt geothermal power plant.

He leased Grant Ranch (also known as Lawson Ranch) for five years before buying it in October 2005; in that transaction he gave Grant a lifelong lease of her house, a provision she believed also applied to the art pieces she stored within sight of her home.

That was before the fire, which police say Stewart set Dec. 5, 2006, around noon.

"My understanding was it was OK to park it there. But I guess he had it burned down," Grant told the Guardian. "As far as I’m concerned, it was arson."

Washoe County sheriff’s deputy Tracy Bloom also told the Guardian that he considers the fire to be third-degree arson, which is punishable by one to six years in prison under Nevada law. Yet Bloom said he believes Stewart thought he had a right to burn and remove the seemingly abandoned vehicle and therefore lacks the criminal intent needed to have charges brought against him.

"According to him, they had attempted to contact the owner to no avail, so he decided to set it on fire," Bloom told us.

He wrote in his police report, "I asked Stewart if he was the one that set the La Contessa on fire and he said, ‘YES, I DID.’ I asked him why he decided to burn it. Stewart said, ‘Because the property was abandoned and left there’ and ‘I was forced to clean it up.’ "

The report indicates that Bloom, who lives in Gerlach, helped organize a community cleanup at that time, in which a scrap dealer named Stan Leavers was removing old cars and other junk. "Stewart said that was the biggest reason for burning the La Contessa so that it could be removed by Leavers," Bloom wrote. Nonetheless, he told us that didn’t give Stewart the right to burn the artwork.

"I told him, ‘You can’t just do that, and if I found any intent or malice on this, you’re going to jail,’ " Bloom told us. "But I don’t believe there was any malicious intent. If I felt like there was any malicious intent, I would have arrested him right there. I thought that boat was really cool. It was one of the coolest things out there."

Many Burners who live in Gerlach — a town with a population of a few hundred people that happens to be the nearest civilization to Burning Man’s summer festival site — have a hard time believing Stewart made an innocent mistake. "I think it was a malicious arson," Caleb Schaber, also known as Shooter, told the Guardian. "He’s the guy who tried to shut down Burning Man, and he associated La Contessa with Burning Man."

Stewart refused to comment for this story, referring questions to his lawyers at the Reno firm of Robison, Belaustegi, Sharp, and Low. Dearmond Sharp, a partner in the firm, belittled the value of the piece and implied Stewart was within his rights as a property owner to burn it.

"What would you do if someone left some junk on your property?" he asked us.

Nevada law calls for property owners to notify vehicle owners "by registered or certified mail that the vehicle has been removed and will be junked or dismantled or otherwise disposed of unless the registered owner or the person having a security interest in the vehicle responds and pays the costs of removal."

"What he should have done is get letters out and make a good-faith effort to find a [vehicle license number] or see who the owner is, little things like that," Bloom told us. Nonetheless, after talking with the prosecutor, Bloom said criminal charges are unlikely. He said, "Chances are this is something they will pursue civilly."

Also destroyed in the fire, according to Schaber, was an International Scout truck with a new motor and a MIG welder inside, owned by Dogg Erickson, which he said he parked alongside La Contessa so it would be partly protected from sandstorms.

"Everything was toast," Erickson said. "I was pretty pissed, both about my truck and La Contessa. It floors me, and I don’t know what to do about it."

Cheffins, mechanical design engineer Greg Jones, and others associated with La Contessa and Burning Man all say they never received any message from Stewart asking for La Contessa to be removed. And Cheffins said he believed he had the implied consent of Stewart to store the ship where it was.

Jones and Cheffins said that while they were securing La Contessa for the winter of 2004–5, Stewart drove by and talked to them but said nothing about removing the ship. "We talked to him about all kinds of stuff, and we were impressed by him," Jones said.

La Contessa caretaker Mike Snook also said that he met Stewart in 2005 while he was with the ship and that Stewart didn’t express a desire to have the piece off the property. Jones said there were plenty of people in town connected to Burning Man through whom Stewart could have communicated: "It’s a visible enough art piece that if he really wanted to get it off his property, someone would have known where we are," Jones said.

Burning Man spokesperson Marian Goodell told us Stewart never contacted the organization and that if he had, it would have facilitated the piece’s removal from the property.

"We were surprised to hear about the fire, absolutely shocked," she said. "It was a very iconic piece, and a lot of people are going to miss La Contessa."

According to Bloom, Stewart also claims to have contacted Grant about removing La Contessa and other items from the property. "He contacted her and said, ‘What are you going to do with it,’ and she said, ‘Do what you want with it,’ " Bloom told us. But Grant (whom Bloom did not interview for his report) told us, "That’s not truthful," adding that she hasn’t spoken with Stewart in a very long time and wouldn’t have given him permission to destroy the artwork.

Sharp did not directly answer the Guardian‘s questions about what specific actions Stewart took to contact the galleon’s owners, but he did tell us, "He didn’t know the owners, and they weren’t identified…. The vehicle wasn’t licensed and had no registration and wasn’t legal to drive on the road. It wasn’t a vehicle."

Whether or not it was a vehicle is what triggers the notification provisions under Nevada law: the section on abandoned vehicles prohibits leaving them on someone’s property "without the express or implied consent of the owner."

"It was dumped there, and there is no written consent or implied consent," Sharp told us, responding to our question about implied consent. "In our eyes, it was a piece of junk."

But Ragi Dindial, an attorney working with the La Contessa crew, said that this "junk" was actually a valuable artwork and that he is working on filing a claim with Stewart’s insurance company, alleging the fire was a result of Stewart’s negligence. If that doesn’t work, he may file a civil lawsuit.

And then there’s the lingering question of the sculpture, which survived the fire because of the theft — but still hasn’t seen the light of day. "It’s one of the greatest mysteries in the San Francisco underground," longtime Burning Man artist Flash Hopkins said. "Where is the figurehead?"


La Contessa’s massive scale has created problems since the beginning, when Cheffins had the idea in 2002 of rejuvenating Burning Man and his own enthusiasm for it by building a Spanish galleon. It was a huge undertaking that created logistical nightmares.

"It was such an ambitious and, I think, exciting idea…. I wanted to do something fairly splashy, and the idea of a ship had always been powerful," Cheffins told the Guardian recently. "I was strong on the fantasy-imagination side of things and stupid enough to want to do it. Luckily, my ass was saved by Greg Jones."

Jones, a mechanical design engineer, had been playing trumpet in Extra Action for a few months when Cheffins pitched the La Contessa project at one of the band’s rehearsals.

"I said, ‘Who’s going to design it?’ " Jones told the Guardian, describing the moment when he took on the project of a lifetime. "That first night I had in my mind a way to do it…. For me, it was a challenge of how do you make it and how do you get it out there."

Hopkins said there should have been another consideration: "You have to build something that you can take apart. Sadly, that was part of its demise."

But that doesn’t take away from what he said was one of the best art projects in the event’s history: "What those guys did when they built that ship was incredible because of the detail of it. It was an incredible feat."

The idea of a ship fit in beautifully with Burning Man’s theme that year, the Floating World, so Black Rock LLC awarded Cheffins, Jones, and their crew a $15,000 grant, which would ultimately cover about half the project’s costs, even with the hundreds of volunteer person-hours that would be poured into it.

Cheffins researched galleons, learned to do riggings as a volunteer at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, directed the project, and insisted on materials and details that would make La Contessa authentic. Jones translated that vision into reality by creating computer-aided architectural designs for the ship’s steel skeleton, a hull that would hang from that skeleton and be supported by an axle and hidden wheels separate from those of the bus, and the decks that would support dozens of passengers and hide the bus and frame — all with modular designs that could be broken down for transport to Nevada on two flatbed trucks.

"In the beginning I thought they were crazy," said Snook, an artist and Burning Man employee who worked on the project and later took control of La Contessa after the Extra Action folks ran afoul of festival organizers in 2003 for repeatedly driving too fast and breaking other rules.

The ship was built mostly at the Monkey Ranch art space in Oakland and a nearby lot the crew leased for three months. "My mom even helped," Jones said; she joined nearly 100 volunteers who pitched in, many of whom brought key skills and expertise that helped bring the project to fruition.

"The idea of the ship is it was a lady that you end up serving, and she took on a life of her own," Cheffins said. "We all came to feel like servants at some point."

Meanwhile, Cheffins commissioned Extra Action dancer, event producer, and sculptor Maduro to build a figurehead that would be the most visible and defining artistic detail on the galleon. Cheffins conveyed his vision — including the need for it to be removable so a live model could sit in her place — and Maduro added her own research and artistic touches.

"We wanted her to be beautiful, sexy, strong, and also unique," Maduro told us.

All the ship figureheads that she researched had open eyes, except one that had one eye closed, purportedly the same eye in which the ship’s captain was blind. That gave Maduro the idea of a figurehead with closed eyes.

"The figurehead is supposed to guide you through the night and see you to safety," she said. "We liked the idea that our figurehead would guide us blindly."

Maduro worked for six months in relative isolation from the ship site in Xian, artist Michael Christian’s Oakland studio. The face was designed from a mold of their friend: model and actress Jessa Brie Berkner. The armature was wood and metal, covered in carved foam coated in fiberglass veils dipped in marine epoxy, with sculpting epoxy over that, and wearing a real fabric skirt dipped in epoxy. The idea was to make it strong enough to stand being dropped by people and battered by the elements.

"This is one of the most emotional projects I’ve ever been a part of," said Maduro, who spent six years creating lifelike exhibits for natural history museums across the country, among other projects. "It was a magical mix of all these individuals that made it happen."

Yet there wasn’t enough magic to allow the shipbuilders to meet their schedule. They weren’t where they’d hoped to be when the trucks arrived to haul La Contessa to the playa, requiring a final push on location under sometimes harsh conditions.

"The intention was to build the whole deck and reassemble it," Jones said. "But we ran out of time."

Instead, the crew spent the final weeks before Burning Man — and most of their time at the event — frantically trying to finish the project, completing it on a Friday night just a couple days before the event ended. Jones recalled, "We stained it Friday afternoon during a sandstorm."

Ah, but once it was finished, it was an amazing thing to behold, made all the more whimsical by the large whale on a school bus that Hopkins built that year. La Contessa’s crew loved to "go whaling" that first year.

"The ship and the whale were the right size, and so it was like Moby Dick and the Pequod," Hopkins said.

Those who sailed on La Contessa insist it had a feel that was unique among the many art cars in Burning Man history. People were transported to another place, and many reported feeling like they were actually cutting through the high seas.

Cheffins said, "It was about creation. It was about inspiration. The whole thing was a gift."

"That’s what we heard a lot after the arson," Jones said. "This was the thing that inspired [people] to come out to Burning Man."


A lore quickly grew around La Contessa — and the ship and crew developed something of an outlaw reputation. There were the repeated violations of the 5 mph speed limit and what looked to some like reckless driving as they pursued Hopkins’s white whale. There were people doing security who Cheffins says "were overzealous and got very rude."

Some thought the Contessa crew members were elitists for excluding some people from the limited-capacity vessel and for making others remove their blinky lights while onboard.

There were minor violations that first year because, as Jones said, "we didn’t have time to read the rules for art cars." And there were stories that La Contessa’s crew insists never happened or were blown way out of proportion. But it was enough to convince Burning Man officials to tell the crew at the end of the 2003 event that it wasn’t welcome to return.

"They thought we were fucking terrorists," Cheffins said.

Goodell insists that the organization’s problems with La Contessa have also been blown out of proportion. "I don’t think we consider our relationship to be tumultuous," she said. "They were banned because they broke the rules on driving privileges…. Following driving rules can be a life or death situation out there."

La Contessa remained at Grant Ranch during the 2004 event, which the Extra Action Marching Band skipped to tour Europe. Snook negotiated with Burning Man officials to allow La Contessa to return in 2005 as long as he retained control and did not let Cheffins, Jones, or their cohorts drive.

The fact that there were inexperienced drivers at the wheel was likely a factor in what happened the Tuesday night of Burning Man 2005.

The crew had made arrangements to take a cruise outside the event’s perimeter and within 15 minutes crashed into a dune that had formed around some object, tearing a big gash in the hull and bending a wheel. The crew was instructed by Burning Man officials to leave it until the following day, and when its members returned, the sound system, tools, a telescope, and other items had been stolen.

It was a dispiriting blow for Extra Action and the rest of the La Contessa crew, one that played a role in the decision not to try to bring La Contessa back to the event last year.

"[Last year] we didn’t take her out because of a lack of enthusiasm on our parts," Jones said.

Yet they checked on La Contessa on their way to Burning Man and discovered that it had been looted again and the figurehead was gone.


As mad as she was about the theft of the figurehead and as sad as she was about the fire, Maduro said she feels a sort of gratitude toward the thief. "Assuming we get it back and it wasn’t the person who burned the ship down, then I actually owe this person a debt of gratitude."

Particularly since the fire, Maduro just wants the figurehead back, no questions asked. At her request the Guardian has agreed to serve as a neutral site where someone can drop it off without fear of prosecution; we will return the figurehead to its owners.

"I was really sad, and it surprised me how sad I was because it doesn’t belong to me personally," Maduro said. "I just always thought we would have her."

The mystery surrounding the figurehead grew after Burning Man employee Dave Pedroli, a.k.a. Super Dave, found a photo of it in someone’s living room on Tribe.net — before he knew about the fire and the theft.

"Right after the fire was reported, within a day, I put two and two together and talked with Snook," Pedroli told the Guardian, referring to his realization that the photo depicted the stolen figurehead. "Right after that I started to look for it."

But it was gone and hasn’t been seen since.

"I couldn’t imagine someone walked into that space looking at all the time and attention that went into every detail and wanting to defile it," Maduro said.

But in the world of Burning Man, where most art is temporal and eventually consumed by fire, it wasn’t the fact that La Contessa burned that bugs its creators and fans. It’s the fact that Stewart burned it.

"He still looked at La Contessa as a symbol of Burning Man, and he didn’t know it wasn’t really wanted at Burning Man anymore," said Hopkins, who has heard around Gerlach that Stewart has been boasting of torching La Contessa.

"If it had burned with all of us around it, as a ceremony, it would have been OK," Hopkins said.

That was a sentiment voiced by many who knew La Contessa. Jones said this was the ultimate insult. "If someone was going to burn it down, I wish it could be us." *

Private funeral services for La Contessa are planned for Feb. 2.