Black Rock City, Population: 1

If you’ve never been to the Playa in the winter, you’re missing out on quite a powerful experience. Benjamin “Jets” Wilner was out there this winter, and he recorded his thoughts, and took some striking pictures. While he sent us this back in February, we thought you’d enjoy it … even in the springtime. He writes:

“I’m sitting in the Reno airport, and thanks to the free wifi I have something to do besides waste the money I barely have in the slot machines they have here.

Playa in Winter, Photo by Benjamin Wilner

I came up here to this cold city in the dead of winter for one reason: I just wanted to see the Playa in the opposite state of how I’m used to seeing it. For no particular reason, really, other than just being there. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since my first Burn, in 2008. The Black Rock Desert is barren enough even during Burn week each year, but I couldn’t imagine what it was like in the winter when it’s completely empty, so I wanted to see it for myself that way.

About an inch or two of snow covered the ground all the way from I-80. I drove past the sleeping towns of Wadsworth and Nixon, then sped up as the landscape opened up more. Pyramid Lake was visible in the distance, and because of the overcast skies it was a dull gray instead of its familiar aqua color that makes it stand out so much. The clouds hardly broke throughout the day, but none of the sights I saw were depressing in any way. Somber, maybe, but I had a peaceful feeling throughout the whole trip out there, especially once I made it past Gerlach and out into the nothingness.

There wasn’t another car or a soul in sight. I didn’t see another person outdoors, even through Empire and Gerlach. It was obvious where the usual turnoff onto the Playa was, because of the marks in the ground from the thousands of cars over the years. Eventually their tracks ended where the Playa floor spread out, covered in snow.

Playa in Winter, Photo by Benjamin Wilner

I was assuming that the Playa would be covered in water, but it was completely frozen. I got out of my car and the first thing I noticed was the complete silence. It was quieter than anywhere I’ve ever been, indoors or outdoors. No people, no vehicles, no dubstep. That was the first of many surreal moments out there for me. Once I realized the desert floor was in a good enough condition to drive on, I sped out onto the open Playa. I went a few miles to where I assumed was near the center of BRC, where the Man usually stands. I was probably way off, but still, judging by the view around me I could have been close. It felt so right just to be there, and I was amazed by the austerity of it all, especially during this time of the year. That desert means so much to so many of us. I took some photos but quickly put my camera back in the car before they froze along with my fingers. It was probably 30 degrees out there, at most, though I warmed up as I ran around.

Before I knew it, hours passed. I hiked and explored all around and even picked up some moop – a candy wrapper and a few pieces of wood. I eventually drove back onto the main road, turning right instead of back towards the towns as usual. I’d never been north of the turnoff before then. There is a wonderful view of the entire Playa from one of the hills that the road runs alongside. I pulled over and got out and just stared out there for awhile. Looking back onto the desert, the sun broke through just enough to shimmer on the snow. That was quite a beautiful sight.

Playa in Winter, Photo by Benjamin Wilner

I made it to some of the local hot springs, but didn’t go into any of em. Eventually I turned back around and headed towards Gerlach. The Burning Man office in town was closed when I drove out to the Playa, but this time it was open, so I stopped in and said hi to Trixie, who runs the place. She seemed a bit surprised to see anyone at all. We talked about the Burn and the Playa and what the two towns – Gerlach and Empire – were currently going through because of the local gypsum plant closing. Trixie said that although the towns very well might clear out by the time 2012 or 13 rolls around, spirits are still high and hopeful among many of the locals. And yet she also said that she isn’t sure what we can do to help save the towns. They do benefit financially from travelers to the event each year, but only so much and for so long. When I drove to the general store in Empire I already noticed changes: the “Welcome to Nowhere” sign is gone, and the place almost looks boarded up except for the tiny “open” sign on the door. I wished them all well and thanked them, before I drove back to Reno to see some friends.

I’m very happy that I made it out to Black Rock to see it in the wintertime. I’m also very happy that I did it by myself. To have that kind of solitude in that kind of a place is mind-boggling. It’s a bizarre but incredible feeling, and that’s what I hoped for. I couldn’t believe that I was out there alone, but I also realized…I was alone. Next winter I’ll try to go with a group, and we can share those feelings together. And in the meantime, there’s the group of 50,000+ in the summer.”

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase

Will Chase is Burning Man's former Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He was the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Burning Man Journal, and content manager for Burning Man’s web properties. He also oversaw the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social media presence. Will first attended Burning Man in 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art HQ) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004 until he transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009.

29 Comments on “Black Rock City, Population: 1

  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Awesome. Thanks so much for making that trip and reporting back to us all.

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  • Jim Wolff says:

    Great story Ben. Thanks for sharing this.

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  • Jindy says:

    Jets! Thanks for the story. I can really visualize you out there. Lovely.

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  • alexis says:

    Beautiful journey. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. I can only imagine the feelings it must have evoked, staring out into so much expanse, in the company of only yourself and the snowy playa.

    Sad to hear what’s happening in Gerlach and Empire. I hope we will continue to hear more in the event there is anything we can do to help… I hope there is.

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  • CookieMan says:

    Kick-Ass little brother!
    Love you GOOD!

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  • dean jordan says:

    I’ve only been there once in my 12 years when it wasn’t our time, and it was amazing, but your trip, even better.

    Thanks for sharing and being a burner.

    love us!

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  • Sarah Swayze AKA Miss GO says:

    Ben thank you SO much for sharing this! I think about our home all winter and wonder what it looks like. You’ve inspired me to want to take a trip there myself.
    Much love and many blessings!

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  • Great story. I hope Gerlach and Empire hold up, thanks for mooping! :)

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  • Ben Trimm says:

    Wonderful article and great pictures. Especially liked the one that looked like there were some tire tracks under the snow. That made me think of an archeological survey of some ancient civilization. Thanks for sharing yet another wonderful aspect of burning man!

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  • Donna says:

    Very nice. Thank you. Looks beautiful out there with the snow.

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  • Jay says:

    Ben great story and glad you were inspired to visit the Playa off season. The power of the Black Rock Desert draws us all back.

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  • Ben W says:

    Thanks everybody :)

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  • Dan says:

    Wow that was really touching. Sometimes we forget that the very thread that binds us together can so quickly be broken. I guess this area is becoming a ghost town. The journey to Burningman may not be the same but I hope the experience there continues as it has in the past. See you soon !!!!!

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  • Spice says:

    Ben, you inspire me. Thanks for the pictures and your commentary.

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  • Rilling Commagee says:

    Thanks, I felt so homesick as I read this. But a warm kind of homesick. Thanks brother. You’ve inspired me to make a winter or spring or autumn trek myself. Beautiful.

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  • Len H. says:

    A great write-up. Thanks for sharing!

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  • SAK says:

    I made a similar trek in 2008. The only difference was that the playa was wet instead of frozen and therefore there was absolutely no way to drive a car out there unless you were intent on getting it stuck (Walking over it caused about 2 pounds of mud to collect on each of my boots.). It was somewhat intimidating to be out there without the rest of the city. I think he captures the vibe pretty well in this writing (I even cleaned up moop too!).

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  • Dupont says:

    Hi, i’m french and i would go to the burning man 2011, but u’m 19 years old, is it a problem to participate?

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  • Cosmo D says:

    Its so beautiful out there. Being out there with the energy that surrounds the playa, way to go brother and namaste. The Universe blesses you

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  • Tumbleweed says:

    Stunning. Thank you!

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  • Ops31337 says:

    Loved this. Thank you!

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  • langdon says:

    “Dupont Says:
    May 15th, 2011 at 6:40 am
    Hi, i’m french and i would go to the burning man 2011, but u’m 19 years old, is it a problem to participate?”

    Dupont, I think 18 is the age limit though you aren’t old enough to legally drink there. Check out the ePlaya link / forum and browse around this site.

    Burning man is a big commitment especially alone (and I’m going for the first time this year as well) so try to find people to talk to or gain advice and help.

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  • billmay34 says:

    wow, enjoyed the vision shared so much.
    everyday is filled with insight, moreso on the playa.
    story well told.

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  • Paisley says:

    Please keep us posted on a winter trip to the playa. Thank you for sharing!

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  • Jim says:

    Thank you Ben for sharing your touching experience. I was moved.

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  • ShamansJourney says:

    There is nothing so powerful as returning to a place like this that has so many spirits connecting to the land. This will be my first year to the Playa, and its funny – i have already dreamed of it almost just like this….population 1. Ben – did you see any reflections or hear anything echoing from your experiences during the event while you were out there? What was the strongest vision you had? Thank you for sharing this story.

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  • There is an indescribable energy out there that I felt even during that trip. It’s magic.

    At one point, I could’ve sworn I heard whispering. It may have just been some wind or a distant train, but I swear I heard something. It was when I was way out on the deep Playa that day, I looked around and didn’t see anyone else or any cars way out on the road. It was a little surprising but it made me smile, a lot! I was alone but I wasn’t alone.

    To warm up I turned some music on in the car and got out and danced around. Just me and the Playa dancing together. What a feeling.

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  • I’m finally catching up on all the reading for BM. The article was lovely and gave me a good sense of the energy of the playa. I’m looking forward to my first-time burner experience.

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  • This is the right website for anybody who really wants to find out about this topic.

    You understand a whole lot its almost hard to argue with
    you (not that I personally will need to…HaHa).
    You definitely put a brand new spin on a subject which has been written about for years.
    Excellent stuff, just wonderful!

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