With a population hovering around 100, the desert outpost of Gerlach, Nev., is the biggest town for miles around. Except once a year when Black Rock City materializes on the nearby playa, a 200-square-mile, dry and dusty alkali lakebed. Close to 70,000 people pay $400 each to assemble on the site to experience Burning Man, part communal cultural event and part experiment in urban design. Organizers stress that “Burning Man is not a festival!” After a week, the tents, trailers, art installations and people are gone, seemingly without a trace.
Temporary as it is, Black Rock City still must contend with some of the usual needs of any urban area. Scattered throughout the site, nearly 2,000 porta potties are serviced by a fleet of trucks roaming the streets 24 hours a day. The Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) licenses the fire-breathing and fanciful art cars that roam the playa, balancing personal expression with personal safety. Because most activity occurs after dark when temperatures drop, a cadre of white-robed “Lamplighters” place kerosene lanterns along the main thoroughfares. Tasked with keeping everything peaceful, the Black Rock Rangers address situations within the community “that would otherwise require outside intervention.”
The citizens of Gerlach are divided over the annual invasion of their town. “Burners” bring jobs, most of them temporary, and money to the area. But some are worried that the perceived influx of hipsters and entitled elites will inevitably affect their way of life. Not much has changed in Gerlach since a 1972 National Geographic special put a spotlight on the desert community. “A century of struggle against a land that will not be conquered has given them a pride in their way of life,” the narrator intones. “And the strength to go on.”
Black Rock City is not immune to the calamity of COVID-19. This year’s version will be virtual. Stay-at-home participants are encouraged to enjoy one or more of eight online “universes” including SparkleVerse, a “a 2D clickable mixed-reality party map that allows people to go down infinite rabbit holes into rooms, celebrations, performances and beyond.” Multiverse is billed as “a fully immersive, interactive 3D experience. A visionary expression of a virtual Black Rock City.”
Burning Man may only exist online this year, but local officials and the Bureau of Land Management will be watching for would-be Burners who can’t stay away. It remains to be seen whether Black Rock and Gerlach will stay virtually empty during the week that Burning Man was scheduled to take place on the playa.
The Friends of Black Rock High Rock Visitor Center provides maps and information year-round and works closely with Burning Man to promote good stewardship of the playa.
One of two access points to the playa; the Burning Man entrance is 12 miles north of Gerlach.
Visitors to the playa are few and far between before and after Burning Man.