This past Labor Day weekend, I went on a tour of the state with my father and one of my best friends. The main purpose of the trip was for my father and I to visit the small town that bears our last name, Gerlach. Gerlach happens to be the last stop before Burning Man, making the yearly desert festival an unexpected reoccurring theme in our trip.
The first signs of Burning Man appeared in the outskirts of Las Vegas at the I-15/US-93 turn off. We noticed several campers, cars, SUVs and RVs oddly marked by psychedelic artwork and loaded with the self-titled “Burners” — Burning Man attendees. We drove through US-93, stopping frequently to stretch our legs, ask around for the best places to camp and fish and breathe in the pristine air of the the valleys, hills and mountains of the deserts, marshes, farmlands and forests of the Great Basin. As we made our journey north, we spotted more and more Burners.
Shortly after passing Winnemucca, we reached part of the Black Rock Desert. Along the highway we saw white sands stained by black. We noticed designs and messages written in the sand with the black rocks. While we didn’t stop, we felt electricity in the air and an urge to make our own mark on the desert floor.
Finally we reached the road to Gerlach, where we passed the massive, beautiful Pyramid Lake. Its waters were so clear, it seemed like an invitation by Mother Nature herself to jump in and cool off. Further along the road we saw several locals who had set up temporary shops selling food, services and trinkets. We passed the towns of Wadsworth, Nixon and Empire, each prominently displaying “Welcome Burners” signs. In Empire we saw the sign telling us we were six miles away from Gerlach. My father and I were elated.
On the drive from Empire to Gerlach, the scenery changed from desert to dry lake bed. Finally we saw it: the sign that says “Gerlach, Nevada.” We immediately pulled over. My father and I got out and took the picture we had talked about taking for the last 20 years. We then drove the three minutes it takes to see the whole town, population about 100. Once we had our fill of pictures, we stopped at the only open diner, saloon, and hotel combination, Bruno’s, to eat. From there we made our way to Reno, ultimately heading the long way back to Las Vegas.
The next morning in Reno, I overheard a Burner ask a barkeep at a restaurant: “How much money do you think Burning Man brings the local economy?” A figure I had read in an article just the day before popped up my mind and I blurted out, “$35 million this year!” The Burner and I struck up a conversation about the dynamics of the festival.
He told me how he and friends were each spending $1,000 a day to attend Burning Man. He went on and on about how the BLM Rangers’ presence seemed too prominent. He believed that since the festival invested so much money in the local economy, Burners should be left alone to enjoy themselves. He also mentioned that he’d heard the organizers of Burning Man were in talks with a Native American reservation about changing the festival’s location to their land. I thought to myself that it would be a loss for Gerlach, which is wholly dependent on the festival to make most of its yearly income.
On the way home, my passengers and I continued the conversation. Nevada has landscapes that are almost entirely untouched by man. As a state, we have a rare opportunity to capitalize on these sorts of events that celebrate humanity’s connection to nature. If Nevada does things right, there are several festivals the state could start, or entice to move to here, bolstering tourism both from within the state and across the globe.