Satanists? Maybe Burners are Satanists? Before you jump to the comments to say “I’m sick of all the negativity, why is this blog hating on Burning Man, etc. etc.”…please understand that it’s not me saying that, dear readers – it’s Burning Man founder Michael Mikel, aka Danger Ranger. I’m just reporting on what is being discussed about this culture on the Internet. Read on…
Earlier this year we published a story The Natives Are Restless, exploring the idea that not everyone in Northern Nevada thinks that Burning Man is an amazing expression of humanity that is making the world a better place. The next day, the Reno Gazette Journal responded with a front-page story on how good Burning Man is.
Hot on the heels of this week’s news item blaming Burning Man for an uptick in bike thefts, now the RGJ have this feature story: “Burning Man – When Cultures Collide”, about the people of Gerlach and the surrounding area, and what they think of the whole thing. It seems even long-time Burner locals have had enough of rude behavior, public urination, and waste dumping on the highway.
MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO, A GROUP OF SAN FRANCISCANS TRAVELED TO NEVADA’S BLACK ROCK DESERT TO HOLD THE FIRST BURNING MAN. AS THE EVENT GREW EACH YEAR, SO DID THE OPINIONS OF RURAL NEVADANS AS A CLASH BEGAN BETWEEN BURNER CULTURE AND SMALL-TOWN COMMUNITIES.
For 24 years, people drawn from all over the world have set up camp in the dust of the Black Rock Desert for the annual art and counterculture event Burning Man.
As burners swarmed in from all directions, the locals have watched with a mix of wonder, dismay, happiness, shock and, sometimes, disgust.
“When we first came out to the desert, we came through Gerlach and the locals would see all these characters with tattoos, purple hair and piercings everywhere, going to burn this wooden man in the desert, and the first thing they thought is, ‘They’re a bunch of Satanists,’ ” said Michael Mikel, one of the three original founders of Burning Man.
From its introduction in 1990, when Mikel and a small group of San Franciscans hauled a wooden man to the desert to burn, to the first sold-out event in 2011, to today, when nearly 70,000 people are expected to arrive starting Aug. 25, Burning Man has left its imprint on the surrounding communities.
To this day, those communities are not always comfortable with the influx of outsiders who freely express themselves through art, performance, costume and revelry.
That clash of cultures started where it all began: outside the Black Rock in the small town of Gerlach.
In the first years of Burning Man participants often brought out guns, blew up propane tanks and had a drive-by shooting range. Guns were no longer allowed at the event once it grew into the thousands.
Mikel said the San Francisco group and the rural Nevadans didn’t mix at first. But shared interests helped bridge cultural differences.
“We had guns, and we would have shooting events and invite the locals,” Mikel said. “Nevada is a frontier, and when we invited them to go shooting, they would have a lot of fun and think, ‘Maybe they’re Satanists; but they are Satanists with guns, so they’re OK.‘
“We established common ground through that particular cultural sameness.”
Thousands of burners drive through Gerlach, population 120, on their way to the desert. Throughout the years, its citizens began to realize that, not only was the event not going away, it was growing. Fast. By 2013, Burning Man had grown from a few hundred people to more than 69,000.
“We didn’t want them here in the beginning, and we don’t want them here now,” said Cindy Carter, a 40-year resident of Gerlach. “But, they keep coming.”
Unlike many of her disapproving neighbors, Carter herself is a burner —she hasn’t missed a burn since the first year. But the event has put a strain on the community, she said.
“Gerlach kinda freaked out,” Carter said. “When I was working at the Empire Store, it was fun in the beginning. But when you’ve got lines wrapped around every aisle in the store, everyone screaming to get out, and asking for the bathroom or water, or can they get a shower, you had no voice by the end of the day.”
In 2000, after nearly three decades at the market just south of Gerlach, she called it quits.
The exodus after the event lasts for four days, and people strew garbage, including tents and camping materials, furniture and even art cars along the highway from the edge of Black Rock Desert to Reno.
“There are a lot of very rude people,” she said. “Gerlach is this laid back, friendly little town; we get along with everybody. But when it gets like this, Gerlach people get angry, too. It gets all backed up and there’s nowhere to use a bathroom, so they will pee in your yard.
“It’s quite a shock for Gerlach.”
Twenty years ago, one of the original burners settled in Gerlach and opened the Black Rock Saloon.
“In the beginning, they weren’t sure,” Michael “Flash” Hopkins said of the residents. “It was a little scary for them, I’ll admit — why not? You see a guy like me heading to town, saying, ‘I might just live here.’ “
But after the neighboring Empire mine shut in 2010, taking with it a good bit of the population, making a living got even harder in Gerlach.
“The town now accepts Burning Man more than Burning Man accepts the town, if you want to know the truth,” Hopkins said.
“You can’t fight it — it’s here,” he said. “It’s that monster that comes walking through.”
Hopkins recalled the early days, when burners had the freedom to do just about whatever they wanted — including lining up propane tanks and shooting them with AK-47s and racing across the dry lakebed.
“At one point when we first got here, there was a definite clash, but the town was wilder then,” Hopkins said. “It’s mellowed out now, and people here are pretty happy.
“There are a few curmudgeons around town who really don’t like it, but it literally only lasts a few weeks — the bulk of the people are only here for a week or two weeks at the most.”
Carter shook her head.
“Gerlach accepts them, but they’re not happy with them,” she said. “It’s been 25 years. We tried fighting them off at the beginning. We all said, ‘No, no, no,’ and we were promised it wasn’t going to go more than 50,000 (people),” she said. “Well, now we’re past 60,000. There needs to be a limit on it. It used to be fun.”
Gerlach tried fighting Hopkins off at the beginning, too.
“I’ve been shot, stabbed and run over, but I’m still here,” Hopkins said. “It was very rough out here at first. … The cowboys would come into town and fight.”
One night, an employee Hopkins had fired took a couple of shots at him with a .38, hitting him in the leg.
He crawled into a bar and yelled, “Boys, some chick just shot me. Get me some whiskey.”
“I took a shot of Jack Daniels, hit the pool table and fell on the floor,” he said. Someone went to get the sheriff, but he wouldn’t come.
“He said, ‘It’s my day off,'” Hopkins said. “He always told me one day I’d get shot in this town.”
It’s not uncommon for rural Nevadans in Fernley and Lovelock to sit in parking lots near Interstate 80 as Burning Man gets underway.
It’s a popular pastime — watching the cars arrive, sporting bright colors and designs, with people meandering around in costumes and fur as they finalize shopping before heading for the desert.
Erika Wesnousky of Reno’s Controlled Burn recently learned of this activity as she prepared to bring a Compression Fire and Art Festival to outlying towns in Nevada.
“People watch for three or four hours and think, ‘Ah, so this is Burning Man,’ ” Wesnousky said. “They have seen a slice that they think might represent Burning Man, but I would say that seeing something like a Compression event gives them a much better idea.”
For the past seven years, Compression has been part of July’s art and music festival, Artown, bringing fire spinning, music, art cars and costumes to downtown Reno in the spirit of Burning Man culture.
This year, she wanted to share the event with Nevada’s rural communities as part of the Nevada 150 Sesquicentennial celebrations. She also received funding from art organizations to support it.
“We tried to engage 10 counties in Nevada, but only got four confirmed, so we began setting up performances for Lovelock, Fernley, Austin and Reno,” she said. “We knew there were burners living in Lovelock, and it seemed like things had started to settle there — we wanted to do it there as sort of a healing (after years of legal and cultural struggles between the county and Burning Man).”
Wesnousky traveled to Lovelock to begin the process of bringing the event there and said she was surprised by the reaction she received.
“I discovered a negative community mindset about what I wanted to bring to town and was surprised to discover it was seen as a bad influence for Lovelock,” Wesnousky said.
She said she had to go to three city council meetings and one Pershing County Commission meeting to discuss the safety, content and influence Compression would have on the community.
“I think there is a little bit of what went on in Reno 10 to 15 years ago when people were closeted burners. It wasn’t mainstream enough for them to be proud that they attended or contributed or were willing to admit to it,” Wesnousky said. “There are great people in the Lovelock community who are burners, have art cars, invest themselves thoroughly. You wouldn’t give up on the support of those people because of the naysayers.”
She said she explained it was a festival with fire performance, flame effects and a fire garden, and other members of the burner community could bring out their art cars and playa projects.
“I wanted to say, ‘No this isn’t Burning Man; this is just a community-driven arts festival, and we’ll help you develop it and hopefully it could become an annual event,’ but I wasn’t allowed to talk during the meetings; I had to listen,” Wesnousky said.
During one of the city council meetings on May 6, the minutes stated several community members stood up to voice their opposition, citing their reluctance to allow Burning Man values to be introduced to the community.
Wesnousky said that while there were several people who stood up in favor of the event, it was 15-year-old student Steven Goldsworthy who voiced his experience with the event.
He told the council he had twice attended Reno’s Compression event and had not seen anything worse than what he has seen in his local high school.
“People spoke for three minutes, and I listened to them say I was going to bring a terrible experience into town and expose their children to the worst elements of society. I was a danger to the community,” Wesnousky said.
“We didn’t need permission to do this event, but it was more a courtesy to share it with them and that we wanted to bring it to the town,” Wesnousky said. “It’s not that we wanted to come in and make a Burning Man event — this is not a Burning Man event — it is something that we do; it’s part of Artown every year, it’s successful, and we wanted to offer that to their community. Whatever they bring — artists, vendors, performers — makes the festival.”
A week after Lovelock’s Compression event on June 20, Controlled Burn headed to Fernley.
In Fernley, the Compression event partnered with the Multicultural Festival, which featured dance and food from Native Americans, as well as community crafters, artisans, food vendors and music.
Cynthia Brown, a Fernley resident since 2003, came to the festival to support her boyfriend’s music. She said she wanted to see the Compression event after he performed because it sounded fun.
She also thought her 9-year-old niece, Adrianna, would enjoy it.
“I’ve never been to Burning man, but I think it’s good for the town. It draws people into the businesses in the community, and I know it definitely helps out our sales and businesses around here,” Brown said.
“The young people seem to be cool with it and enjoy seeing the people come through and talking to some of the people. You’ve got your older and more conservative group that are like, ‘Get these people out of here. They stink; they’re weird.’ And then there are more open-minded, probably more liberal-type people who are open to them coming through and having a good time on their way to go spend a week doing their thing.”
“I do not like Burning Man,” Adrianna said.
Brown asked, “How do you know? We’ve never been there.”
“Because Mommy says they worship the devil and I worship the Lord Jesus Christ,” she said.
Brown said, “I think she’s aware of the drug use out there and the hippie love.”
“When I’m aware of my surroundings and my surroundings are gross, I do not like it,” Adrianna said.
Betsy Workman traveled from Lovelock for the Fernley Compression event. Workman said she thought the event was awesome and worth the trip.
“It’s a little bigger than what it was in Lovelock because it’s such a small town. I loved the show in Lovelock and that’s what made me want to come to Fernley to see this one. I’ve been telling everyone to come and see it,” she said.
Workman said she didn’t think the event promoted anything negative and felt that it brings people together.
“This is community. It gets people out of the house,” Workman said. “All of this is exciting to me; everyone can’t afford to go to Burning Man — this is free.
“I think it’s awesome because there’s a lot of people who can’t go (to Burning Man) to see all the different neat artwork they do, and now that they are bringing them to different towns, people can.”
Kristi Walls of Carson City said she thought the event inspires other people to do more community-focused events.
“I think anybody who puts on a show and invites people down — I don’t care if it’s flipping pancakes — I think it’s a good thing,” Walls said. “We ended up coming down to watch the show and ended up spending a little bit of money, which is a good thing for the community.”