As another Labor Day approaches, so do tens of thousands of Burners to Gerlach, Nevada, the last stop, so to speak, before entering the Black Rock Desert and the temporary, though exponentially larger city built there ever summer for ticket-holding Burning Man-goers. And once again we have a news article profiling the city and quoting some of its townspeople who annually must endure the pilgrimage and exodus, and annually get their chance to bitch about it to whoever will listen. This time it's the Las Vegas Review-Journal that's on the case, and they find that in the tiny former gypsum mining town of 120, folks are still divided in their feelings about the festival, which they've been living with as it's grown in size since becoming a public event on the next-door ancient lake bed 20 years ago.
Inevitably, the older people who have been there the longest remain the staunchest foes of the fest, with local potter John Bogard giving almost the same quote he gave to the LA Times 16 years ago. That year, in 2000, Bogard said, "It's become a sort of Medusa, a monster growing more heads," adding that even though he was an early participant in the festival, just a few years later he was done with it and "the numbers have just become preposterous." Flash forward to 2016, and Bogard still runs Planet X Pottery in town, and he tells the Review-Journal, "Burning Man is a Medusa that each year grows more heads. And don’t think of chopping any of them off, because their lawyers are better than your lawyers."
These days, some organizers of the festival own year-round homes in Gerlach, and earlier this year we learned that the non-profit Burning Man Project had purchased a 3,800-acre piece of land known as Fly Ranch, which lies 21 miles north of Gerlach and adjacent to the lake bed where Burning Man happens. The organization has long had its eyes on the property as a potential place to create a year-round retreat or resort built upon Burning Man principles, and that naturally has locals even more worried than before.
Will Roger, a founding member of the Burning Man board, insists to the Review-Journal, "Gerlach is going to become an arts community," and he's bought property there presumably to help make this happen.
Lacey Holle, a waitress at the town's main hub, Bruno’s restaurant and bar, tells the paper, "This is the dawn of a new era for Gerlach. The mining culture is dead; the old miners are dying off. These people are the future."
But critics say that if nothing's happened for Gerlach in the last 20 years, what's to say it's going to happen now and to be fair, the "dawn" of any new era would have been 20 years ago, or at least 15, when the numbers of attendees to the festival started to swell. And it's not like Burners have left behind much in the way of public art or lasting improvements in Gerlach proper.
These days attendance is capped by the Bureau of Land Management at 70,000, up from the 8,000 or so who attended back in 1996, and the 100 or so who attended the first private version of the fest in the Black Rock Desert in 1991.
Steve Miller, one local resident who says he still goes to the festival every year, sounds pretty down on the new crop of Burners overall, and tells the Review-Journal he's worried about what the future will bring once they develop Fly Ranch. "Most annoying is that attitude that says, ‘Look what we do.’ Well, screw you. Gerlach was here long before you arrived and will still be here when you leave."
There's not much to do, though, except embrace change, and maybe Roger is right: Once Fly Ranch becomes a year-round Burner destination, maybe that will do something to boost the year-round economy in Gerlach, as opposed to just creating a sudden in-and-out tsunami of traffic and people buying beer and water.
Onetime Gerlach chamber of commerce president, Michael “Flash” Hopkins, says he told the townspeople 25 years ago, "They’re coming over that hill. Get ready for it." Now he puts it this way to the paper: "The reality here is many people don’t want any kind of change at all, and that’s just not reality."