In the before times, long, long ago, before the pandemic and lockdowns and cancellations, going to the Black Rock Desert had become a strangely familiar thing.
When you exited Interstate 80 and started the lonesome drive across the Paiute lands on Nevada Highway 447, you’d make the long climb up the rise outside Nixon, descend into the land that was once covered with water, and you’d think to yourself, “We’re doing this again? Already???”
Because truthfully, the years had begun to run into each other. For most folks, time on the playa for the Burning Man event is compressed into a week, or maybe two if you were working on a big art project.
But for the various groups of people who build the city and help keep people safe, and who set up the electrical grid and provide medical help and keep all the vehicles running, the season extends from March through most of November.
And after the weeks and months of getting ready for the playa, and then the weeks and months of dusting off and putting everything away for next year, the next year always seemed to arrive so quickly!
But it’s different now, for everyone.
There wasn’t an event last year, and there won’t be one this year. For most people, time will stretch from September of 2019 to August of 2022 between visits to the Black Rock Desert. And that’s a long time.
But now the memories are all blending together, and as you drive, they come popping out in unexpected ways, both timeless and timely. The absence has indeed made our hearts grow fonder. The preciousness and fragility of the event has become clearer than ever.
So instead of everything feeling so recent and familiar on the drive to Gerlach, the years are bumping into each other, out of order, out of context. Remember the year that there had been so much rain that there were wildflowers lining the highway? Remember the year that the hills in the distance were singed by fire? Remember the year there was actual fog rolling down the hillsides? Remember when Pyramid Lake was so bright and sparkling you decided the hell with it and went for a swim? Remember when fireworks seemed like a fun idea?
This year, the drive has its own traits and quirks. There has been precious little rainfall, except for the occasional storm cell, so the hills are brown and parched. The skies are full of smoke from the Dixie, Beckwourth, and Tamarack fires due west of the desert. And of course it is hot, very hot.
There are no Indian taco stands, no lurking law enforcement vehicles, just you and your memories, and trepidation mixed in with the excitement and nostalgia.
How is Burning Man weathering this lingering storm? How is Gerlach surviving? Do the locals miss us, or have they welcomed the return of peace and quiet to the desert? And what about the Burning Man Project people who are in town, trying to keep the machinery functioning for another year without an event to support them? We made several visits over the past weeks to nose around, and here is some of what we found.
Ruby Red sits in a tiny office on the sprawling work ranch about 20 miles outside of Gerlach, out beyond where the pavement ends, and he is explaining what the toy on his desk is.
“It’s a salt gun,” he says. “For shooting flies.” They’re really popular out here, because flies are a real problem. But they are hardly the only one.
The Burning Man fleet has grown to 190 vehicles, including all the Fluffer rigs, big rigs, semis, three-quarter-ton and half-ton pickups, the people movers, all of it. They are all lined up, row after row, aisle after aisle, out at the work ranch. And each and every one of them has to be winterized when the event is over, and then woken up again when event time comes back around.
For this abnormal season, when there is no event but still a lot happening, there are about 40 vehicles in circulation. They take a lot of maintenance to keep running.
“Bringing a vehicle out to the playa is the first day of its death,” 9 Volt is saying as he puts new tires on an aptly named truck, Money Pit. “We get vehicles from Craigslist or Facebook, and if a normal person had it, they could run it for six years, no problem. Right when we get one of these new trucks to the ranch, they’re like, oh, this is where I’m gonna die. They just give up.”
Ruby Red and 9 Volt are often the first to arrive in Gerlach and the last to leave, not counting the skeleton staff that works in town year round. Now, with offseason operations around the town ramping up, Ruby Red’s job as auto shop manager might become a year-round position.
“When you’re out here for the long haul,” Ruby Red says, “there are five distinct seasons. You come out here and it’s maybe five or six people for a couple of months. After that, you move to Gerlach and a thousand people show up over three days. And then we all move to playa, and over about six weeks, about 70,000 people show up, and then they leave. That’s the third season.
“And then you move back to Gerlach for Resto, and it’s a total shitshow, and then the fifth season, we come back to the ranch, and we get down to 30 people, then 20 people, and then there’s me and Mike (Nash, the ranch superintendent). And then you go home.”
So, you like the pre and post times the best?
“Well, I did, but I really feel like those days are gone forever, because there are year-round Gerlach operations, we’re developing these real estate assets, and I’m going to be supporting personnel year round, and it seems like they’re going to be trying to utilize these properties to bring people out … so I don’t think I’m going to have an off-season anymore.”
Flip Hassell and Erica “Nipps” Williams both work DPW for Burning Man, and now they are also semi-long-term residents of Gerlach. They’ve created a new life for themselves in the town, and others are joining them. Weldboy and Ash moved here this year as well, and the young daughters of the two couples are each impossibly cute and nearly inseparable.
Flip and Nipps like to make the most of occasions, and they open their big home in Gerlach to all who’d like to participate. There was a Kentucky Derby party, with dresses and hats (and food and drinks). There was an Opening Day party, with ballpark bunting, baseball uniforms, and food and drinks. And for the summer, there is a monthly Wiffle ball game that draws quite a crowd to Flip’s back yard, where he has re-created an authentic minor league setting.
They made the move out here five years ago, following the footsteps of Nipp’s dad, Pete, who had suffered some health setbacks and whose doctor suggested a slower pace and less stressful lifestyle.
“I brought him out to the playa, but he’s the one who got us to Gerlach,” Erica says. “When he first came to Burning Man, it took 10 years off his (appearance). And since then he’s taken another 10 years off!”
They’ve become a fabric of the community, and they have a more than vested interest in seeing that whatever happens in the town happens in the right way.
And there is a lot happening, and not merely keeping the engine running, the wheels spinning, and most importantly, keeping a staff together, so that when it comes time to have an event again, the organization won’t be starting from scratch.
Burning Man Project has owned properties in and around Gerlach for some time, and this time between events is allowing the organization to take care of its business in ways that it hasn’t been able to before. The “360,” a 360-acre site just north of Gerlach with future sights set on supporting theme camps and mutant vehicle owners with workspace and storage, is a big project this summer. Other development is taking place at smaller properties in town, and of course gatherings, sunset walks, and projects are being planned at Fly Ranch down the road from Black Rock City.
“I like it,” says Jonathan Farnsworth, who has lived in Gerlach for 49 of his 51 years. While not everyone is enamored with the changes that have come and continue to come to Gerlach, Farnsworth says, “You’re either moving ahead or you’re falling behind. I like to see some progress being made in town.”
Nipps agrees: “I bought property here. I bought it because I wanted to be safe. I love the quiet. I love the peacefulness here. … Yeah it does suck that there’s not much to do. But now that (things are happening), hey, it could be nice.”
Flip has been working on building containers for the past three months at the 360 property outside of town. He works for Burning Man 9 to 5, Tuesday through Saturday, and he’ll work the Miner’s Club three nights a week as well, because he doesn’t want that job to go to someone else when the Burning Man work might go away.
“As somebody said, Burning Man checks don’t bounce,” Flip says. “You can’t pass up this job.”
Carl Copek is another Burning Man / Gerlach crossover. He started coming to the playa in the ’90s, all the way from Boston. How does a guy from Boston hear about what was at the time a very underground happening in the Black Rock Desert?
“I was out on a business trip (to San Francisco), and a couple of my friends lived next door to some of the Cacophony people,” he says.
“They said they were going to be doing this and that and this and that, and I said well, that sounds like a lot of fun and I might want to be a part of that.”
He still is a part of it, now from the point of view of both an insider (he worked several years for DPW) and as an outsider, too.
“I think I have my finger on at least half the pulse of the town,” Copek says. “And Burning Man has had some properties for a long time, and there’s been some neglect, and that’s not a good impression for the town.
“And now things have pivoted. Now they’re maintaining the properties in Gerlach, which is important to the people of Gerlach. … As Wayne Lucas, the Kentucky Derby guy, says, “The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack. And that’s the God honest truth.
“Whoever’s out front landscaping, the whole neighborhood is going to come along. And if Burning Man isn’t doing anything, nobody else will either.”
But is he worried about the effect that new things will have on the town? “Yes and no. To a large extent, it’s a Western frontier town, and there’s very little cultural history beyond it being a mining town and a railroad town.
“It’s got a saloon culture, a cowboy town, and that’s always going to be the case. And as long as Burning Man respects that … I say it all the time: In order to get respect you have to give respect.”
Copek can get on a roll, and he’s on one now:
“There’s a symbiotic relationship between Burning Man, Bruno’s, and the town, and we all need to be pulling on the same rope, and not against each other.
“There’s a tendency to see each other as competing entities in some weird way, and really, where is the competition? There is none.
“In my opinion, this is an underdeveloped tourist resource.”
Even on these hottest days of summer, when you think the sun will never stop blazing, an almost cool breeze is likely to come up in the evening. As the night wears on, it’s more than likely to become a stiff wind. The heat becomes a memory.
The darkness is all-enveloping. Gerlach is known as one of the darkest spots in the country, well-suited to the star-gazers who will be out on the playa next week for the annual Perseid meteor shower.
And there may be a metaphor in there somewhere: Even in this dark, desolate place, there are people looking for points of light in the sky.
Not everyone is going to risk getting lost out on the faceless playa, and some will complain that the smoke from the fires is going to obscure the views, anyway.
But there still will be a sizable number of people looking up, looking for the light in the sky.
Cover image: Storms looming in the distance on Nevada Highway 446 (All photos by John Curley)