Do we have time for a personal anecdote?
This is a blog about the building of Black Rock City, but we have an admission to make — we stepped away from the desert today, for a couple of reasons: 1) because we could, and 2) because it might be the last day we could make a run to Gerlach to do our laundry, get a shower, use a flush toilet and generally step back from the dirt and the heat. So we did.
Forgive us our weakness. Sometimes it feels like a contest on the playa – who can work the longest and the hardest and get the grimiest? And who can party the hardest and still be present and accounted for at the morning meeting? We can tell you that this is not a competition for amateurs.
And so we stepped away from it all, if only for a day. Folks on the work crews USUALLY get a day off during the week, sometimes two, so we didn’t feel entirely guilty.
Gerlach is a small town, and getting smaller. The gypsum mine in next-door Empire closed several years ago, and Gerlach is doing its best to hang on. But it isn’t easy, and the winter months are especially deadly. The population is down below 200, and there are only 14 students left in the school.
But Gerlach is also a haven and refuge. It sits at the edge of nowhere, “out where the pavement ends,” and summer days are mostly sultry and slow. It’s peaceful. There is no traffic. The sky is huge, the landscape is stunningly severe, and when there’s a soft breeze, like there is today, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to want to be anywhere else in the world.
And because Gerlach has gotten so small, you usually wind up seeing the same people in town every day.
There’s Bruno, of course, sitting in one of the deep chairs along the wall, watching the action at the bar. This time of year, people come by and pay their respects, and he mostly nods silently through clenched teeth, an expression that sometimes approaches a smile.
There’s Flash, wild gray hair flying around as he fixes a trailer that he’ll rent to a Burner, or behind the bar at the Miner’s Club. There’s always life and energy around Flash; he’s a catalyst, a dreamer, an entrepreneur and a performer, all at once. He greets you with shouts and hugs.
There’s Quinn, a former work ranch manager for Burning Man, counting down the days till he opens his pizza and taco shop.
Here come two of Burning Man’s co-founders, Will Roger and Crimson Rose, just back from their Meteor Camp about six miles past the Burning Man site, out in the middle of the Black Rock Desert. “We must have seen 40 or 50 before the moon came out,” Will said. “We had a bunch of people out with us over the weekend, and then everyone took off and it was just us.” The annual Perseid meteor shower is truly spectacular in the black skies of the desert.
There’s Heidi at the Laundromat, doing a bunch of loads for a cleaning job. She’s a newcomer in town, having moved here from Colorado just six weeks ago. She’s not a stranger, though, because her sister Lacy works behind the bar at Bruno’s. And Heidi had only been in town a day before Flash hired her to work the bar at the Miner’s Club.
Somewhat amazingly, Lacy’s been here for six years. “This is a hard place for a single mother,” she says, “but there’s something about it that keeps me here.”
Lacy has her regulars at Brunos. The locals are the only ones who are here all year. They sit and talk quietly, eyeing any newcomers. At this time of year the newcomers are Burners. At other times, there are hunters and dirt-bikers and rocketeers. They each have their season.
There’s Kat, who also works at Bruno’s, and she hasn’t been here long, either. She comes into the restaurant excitedly in her bandana and work shorts to tell us that she’s found one of our notebooks at the counter. “I walked it over to the office,” she says. “I hope you get it back.” And sure enough, the notebook is waiting at the Burning Man office when we check there a little later.
At the office, Trixie is taking a brief break and is sitting on the porch outside.
“(The gypsum plant closing) really hurt us,” she says. “We pretty much know that we’re going to raise our kids and they’re going to leave after high school.”
That’s what happened with her daughter; she couldn’t get out of town fast enough. Now she’s in Idaho, and she’s trying to persuade Trixie to join her and Trixie’s mom and sister there.
“But I love it here,” Trixie says.
Trixie has been here for most of 32 years. Her husband worked at the gypsum mine, as many of the other residents of Gerlach did. He was killed in a car accident seven years ago. “I’d say a quarter of the town is retired plant workers,” Trixie says.
A hunter pulls up outside the office, asking directions to the part of the Black Rock Desert he’ll be shooting in. “You must be all busy with the Burning Man,” he says. “I feel sorry for you.”
“Ohh, Burning Man is our ace in the hole,” Trixie answers. “A NASCAR town will put up with 160,000 coming in. I guess we can handle 70,000.
“I love it.”
Lacy is also sitting on a porch, this one on her house across the street from the Black Rock Saloon. “Hey what are you doing?” she calls over. Before long Heidi, Quinn, Rory (her stepdad) and a couple of others are on the porch, sharing a cool adult beverage. There is talk about the weird weather. “Cecil’s never seen weather like this,” Lacy says, and though we don’t know who Cecil is, it’s pretty clear that if Cecil thinks things are out of whack, they are.
We joke and say that locusts and pestilence are next. “Oh, the locusts were here in 2004,” Quinn says. “The highway was greased with them for 40 miles.” At the morning DPW meeting on the playa, Deacon had showed us a hairy desert scorpion that had wandered into his camp. “Oh we get lots of them too,” Quinn says.
School has already started in Gerlach, amazingly enough. As the afternoon lengthens, kids start appearing on Lacy’s porch, too. Three of the fourteen kids in the Gerlach school live in this house. It seems like all the rest of the kids like to come here, too. A dog that has been sleeping soundly doesn’t stir. “She got ahold of a roast of mine last night,” Rory says, so she’s likely sleeping off the effects.
“Is anybody hungry,” Lacy asks. In a little while, she reappears with a plate of sandwich wraps. “You can’t help but work,” Heidi teases her.
Rory reminds us that there are no churches in this town, “and I’ve never seen that before. I’ve been all over the place, but I’ve never been in a town without a church.” Gerlach does get visitors from the Jehovah Witnesses, though. “I told them, ‘He ain’t lettin’ me in, and I ain’t asking,’” Rory says.
We’re go back to the porch with Trixie, and we watch the big trucks roll by, heading out to the desert for Burning Man. Every now and then someone will come by and ask about credentials, or deliveries, or where to get a hamburger.
Does she think that enough will happen to give new life to the town? Does she think it will come back?
“I wish I had hopes,” she says, “but short of us getting some kind of business out here … I don’t see it.”
Does she go to Burning Man herself?
“Oh yes,” she says. “I went way before I started working here.
“I hate it when it leaves.”