Hustles and hope

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We like to take at least one trip back into Gerlach after moving onto the playa for the build season. We like … no, we need … clean laundry, and there’s a spot at the Shell Station to do it if the Saloon gets too crowded.

But we like to see some of the people we’ve gotten to know a little bit in Gerlach, too.

Pete, who works at the gas station, had his nice pickup truck parked off the shoulder of the road the other afternoon when an arriving Burner got a little too close with the trailer she was towing. BOOM! Her awning caught Pete’s windshield, smashing through the passenger side. Fortunately, no one was inside.

Up the road a little bit, Bruno, the 93-year-old Gerlach patriarch who owns a lot of the town, is moving unsteadily from the bar to a back room. A little later, his daughter asks if anyone has seen him, and fingers point to the door Bruno disappeared through. Most days Bruno sits quietly in one of the chairs that line the other side of the bar. Sometimes he wraps himself in a blanket against the air-conditioner’s chill. A blurry mounted TV is on pretty much all the time.

A young man named Adam is hanging around outside Bruno’s, telling his story to each new person who pulls up. He was supposed to be hauling trailers from a nearby storage yard out to the playa, he says, but the guy who hired him never showed up.

Heidi and Lacy are opening a coffee shop in Gerlach on Friday. Stop in!
Heidi and Lacy are opening a coffee shop in Gerlach on Friday. Stop in!

Andy’s upbeat in a Rainbow Gathering kind of way, all platitudes and joyousness, ready for the light to start shining on him. He says he’s been doing odd jobs for a week on a ranch nearby (“Working my ass off!”), and he’s got $450 in his pocket to show for it.

Most of his story, we come to find out, isn’t true. He had only gotten to town that morning. He didn’t know how to drive a stick-shift, didn’t have the license he was supposed to have to haul the trailers, so he was told things weren’t going to work out. We’re not sure exactly what he was hoping for at this point, but getting onto the playa without a ticket was likely at the heart of the matter.

The Black Rock City offices on Main Street in Gerlach
The Black Rock City offices on Main Street in Gerlach

Lacy is big-city pretty in a small lonesome town, so when she works behind the bar at Bruno’s, there’s a spark. The rocketeers, the hunters, the locals, the Burners, they all like her easy smile and the way she listens and laughs. She seems kind and forgiving, so she makes the hard-edged drinkers feel better for awhile.

Her sister, Heidi, who also causes hearts to beat faster, moved to town last year, and the two of them will open a coffee shop on Main Street this weekend, hoping the travelers to Burning Man will need some caffeine and maybe a rest before they hit the craziness of Burning Man. They were testing the espresso machine and making freezy mocha frappuccinos the other evening. Real Ghirardelli chocolate, too.

Lacy’s sensitive to the plight of the hard-luck visitors this time of year, the ones without tickets, the ones still hoping that a miracle will happen. But Burning Man isn’t spontaneous anymore: You can’t decide at the last minute to make the trip. You need a ticket, and you need a vehicle pass, and neither comes easy. You can’t depend on the kindness of strangers, either.

A woman sitting at the counter in Bruno’s coffeeshop said she had just arrived from New York. She was supposed to have a ticket waiting for her at will-call, but it wasn’t there when she showed up. “But it’s ok,” she said, smiling. “It’s going to work out. I know it will.”

A busload of early arrivers
A busload of early arrivers

She had recently gotten out of a relationship, and Burning Man seemed like the right thing at the right time for her. But now she was struggling to figure out her next move. “The guy I got a ride with, he’s 62 years old, a really cool guy. But they wouldn’t let him in, either.”

Burning Man doesn’t let stranded travelers become a problem at the event site, so they require the people they are with to look after them, which sometimes means driving them back as far as Reno so they can get a place to stay.

Out on the dusty four-mile road into the event site, Tabitha was working a Gate shift. The wind was blowing hard, and most people were pulling on their goggles and facemasks. “We had a guy show up,” Tabitha said, “who felt his path in the world meant he should go to Burning Man.” The black-clad Gate folks were busy in the lanes of cars, checking for early arrival passes, checking for tickets, and looking in the trunks for stowaways. “But he didn’t have a ticket, or early arrival, or anything,” Tabitha said. And he, like so many before him, was sent away.

Tabitha at the Gates
Tabitha at the Gates

“If you show up here in a vehicle with someone who doesn’t have a ticket, you’re responsible,” Tabitha said. “That whole car, everyone gets turned around, and they have to deal with that person and make sure everyone gets taken care of.”

Do people get mad when they are turned away, or do they take a la-la, playa-will-provide approach?

“Most of the belligerent comes from people who are tired,” Tabitha said, “because they’ve been driving for three days. They don’t want their car to be searched, they just want to get into the city and do their thing.”

Miss Roach and Sailor were down at the Gates, too. We’re coming up on the biggest night of their year, when the doors open for 70,000 visitors.

Miss Roach
Miss Roach

“The rules are the rules,” Sailor says. “If there’s some mind-bending story, we’ll kick it upstairs, but ninety-nine percent of the time we just don’t have time for this stuff.” Miss Roach agrees: “We just don’t have the resources to make miracles happen,” she says.

Believe me, these are good-hearted, generous people, but there’s not a lot they can do. “Every now and then you get one that really moves your heart,” Miss Roach says, “but you’re like, crap.”

Hopefully, though, you’ll make it past the imposing, no-fooling-around Gate people, and you’ll head another mile or so up the dusty road to the Greeter’s station. Once there, all is well. Happy people will encourage you to get out of your car so they can give you a hug. If you’re a first-timer, they’ll want you to bang a triangle and roll in the dust.

“She didn’t want to do it at first,” one guys says after his lady friend got up from her initiation in the dust. “But she figured she might as well do it the right way.” He had taken pictures while she was down on the ground, and then the Greeter gave them more big hugs, and they got back in their car, and off they went.

Hugging for the camera
Hugging for the camera

Back at the bar in Bruno’s, Lacy is annoyed. She’s learned that her mom, who lives in the house with her and her sister and her brother, has invited smooth-talking, non-stick-driving Andy back to the house until he can get himself squared away.

“She’s gonna turn me into a mean person!” she says. “I don’t like it!”

Would she ever do that? Let a stranger with a sad-sack tale into her house?

“Oh yeah,” she says, softening.

The woman from New York who didn’t get the will-call ticket will be staying at the house tonight, too.

A few more pics:

Michael Michael at the Greeter's Station
Michael Michael at the Greeter’s Station
Almost home
Almost home
The dust was thick on the way in
The dust was thick on the way in

 

About the author: John Curley

John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person In a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients, and I'm especially fond of shooting weddings. I'm also the editor at large of the Tasting Panel magazine, which is devoted to the beverage industry. I've also taught a bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on a (house)boat in Alameda, California.

6 Comments on “Hustles and hope

  • Chely Rey says:

    The story of life in Gerlach before, during, and after the event has never been told before. There are so many generous and kindhearted people in that sleepy little town. Thank you so much for telling their story, my friend. ~Miss Stress

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  • Jonathan Gordon says:

    Love your blog! Wish I was gonna be there

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  • TelePrompTer says:

    Hey guys, I could t find this answer anywhere else and don’t wanna be one of those “burdens” on gerlach. But I’m coming from Reno and this year is first year with early arrival passes. Half of my camp will be out there by tomorrow. I will have the rest of our supplies but prolly can’t Make it till late Saturday night. What is the cutoff for early arrival entry? You think the gate staff will let us through late Saturday with our early arrival passes and the rest of camp suppose to get our theme camp up by Sunday morning? Thanks guys. I couldn’t find this info anywhere.

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  • Jose Acosta says:

    Your blog helps me feel like I’m not missing out so much. It’s not quite being there but I’m pretty sure it’s as close as I can feel this year. Thanks John! :)

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