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Who left a 4-mile-wide ‘Black Lives Matter’ mural in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert?

  • August 06, 2020

“Black Lives Matter” has been painted on streets throughout the United States, but it’s now written in the surface of the Black Rock Desert. 

Bureau of Land Management officials say a person or group used a vehicle to imprint the message into the crust of the desert playa last month. 

“Someone drove with a GPS and drove several times to make huge, huge letters,” said Heather O’ Hanlon, spokeswoman for the BLM. “They drove several times so that it stayed imprinted.”

To the naked eye, it might appear to be a mess of tire tracks, but a hobby pilot last month documented a bird’s eye view of the message.

“Pure awe,” said Nick Howard, of Petaluma, who was flying back from a trip to Idaho when he decided to fly over the Black Rock Desert for the first time. “How did it get there? It was done so perfectly. It was really impressive how accurate and crisp it was. I tried to figure out how and who, but there still aren’t any answers. You would think that if someone made the effort to make it they’d want some kind of credit.”

Tire tracks can be seen in mid-July 2020 on the Black Rock Desert as part of a message that currently is inscribed in the playa crust, reading Black Lives Matter.

‘The freaking thing was real’

The message appears to be written in perfect Helvetica font about six miles out from the 12-mile entrance to the Black Rock Desert playa

It does not appear to be placed on site of the Burning Man event, though it’s nearby, according to GPS data. 

“Obviously somebody made a statement, and it wasn’t us,” said O’ Hanlon. “It’s unfortunate it happened on the playa, but mother nature will heal itself. It’s going to be a matter of wind storms and rain storms.” 

Douglas County sheriff to library: Support Black Lives Matter? Don’t bother calling 911

While BLM officials could not confirm the size of the text, a local Burner and member of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue team said he drove the entirety of the message and the circle that encompasses it.

The message is four miles wide and the circle is 13 miles in circumference, according to Esteban Valle, who is also a third-year medical student and a volunteer medic at Burning Man. 

“Pretty much everyone thought it was photoshopped, but then someone posted a video from the air, and still I was skeptical,” said Valle, who first saw rumor of the message on Reddit. “I was kind of bored honestly, so I decided to get my friends and drive out there and I expected not to see anything. The freaking thing was real. We actually drove the whole thing.”

A pilot, Nick Howard, discovered the message Black Lives Matter written into the surface of the Black Rock Desert playa on July 10, 2020.

All together, there is 25 miles of text, Valle found after driving the whole message. Each stroke of each letter is about 50 feet wide, he added.  

“It’s so big that it can actually be seen on my search and rescue team’s weekly updated satellite imagery feed,” said Valle. 

Some critics on social media have expressed frustration, calling the tire tracks vandalism of the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, but Valle said it was one of the most moving pieces of land art.

Read More:The story behind the Black Lives Matter mural at Reno City Hall

He compared it to the Nazca Lines, or large geoglyphs made in the soil of the Nazca Desert in southern Peru.

“I think it’s fantastic. Just going out there and seeing the incredible amount of effort. The fact that someone did it, and without credit, and then strangers found it… It’s fantastic,” said Valle, who’s attended Burning Man for five years.

Satellite imagery shows the location of a Black Lives Matter message that was etched into the surface of the Black Rock Desert playa in July 2020 using tire tracks.

While Burners practice Leave No Trace as one of their 10 principles, Valle felt like the message reflected the priorities of Burners today. 

Burning Man as an organization has been repeatedly criticized for its homogenous makeup, but Valle said that Burners were largely on board with the Black Lives Matter movement as far as he could tell. Burning Man was canceled this year due to concerns over the novel coronavirus. 

BLM Police:Reno-area police respond to Black Lives Matter calls for reform. Here’s what they said

“It seemed like it was done by Burners. It seems almost natural. Burning Man is a place where people express themselves radically, it’s a place to build community, and this is a great way to express solidarity with the Black community and those who are mourning the death of George Floyd,” said Valle. 

Jenny Kane covers arts and culture in Northern Nevada, as well as the dynamic relationship between the state and the growing Burning Man community. She also covers the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry (Check out her podcast, the Potcast, on iTunes.) Support her work in Reno by subscribing to RGJ.com right here

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