And so it begins. Gerlach is looking substantially more populous by the day, as employees of Burning Man’s Department of Public Works roll into town to start building that ephemeral, numinous Black Rock City on the playa.
During the last week of August, tens of thousands of burners descend on the Black Rock Desert for this marquee, one-of-a-kind encampment. They come to revel, to escape, to experience and discover, to belong. They arrive in cars and trailers piled high with gear, bringing much and leaving little, in keeping with the Leave No Trace principles of Burning Man. Compliance is mandatory, but constructively so. At the event are support groups such as Earth Guardians, Recycle Camp, and of course the hardworking Restoration Crew, which afterward spends nearly a month ensuring that no trace of this epic congregation remains. And the results are good—good enough for BLM to continue issuing the event permit each year. But does it end there? No.
The Friends of Black Rock-High Rock work tirelessly year-round caring for not only the land Black Rock City sits on, but everything beyond the fence, outside city limits, as it were. For Friends, the Black Rock Desert is home, all year long.
The playa that undergirds Black Rock City is only one part of the multitudinous Black Rock Desert–High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. (Yes, it’s a mouthful.) Designated in 2000, the Black Rock Desert NCA comprises 1.2 million acres of mostly arid basin-and-range topography, along with 10 associated Wilderness Areas (meaning no motorized vehicles), all of which protected by law. There are 8,000-foot peaks, myriad canyons, hardwood forests, geothermal springs, and scads of wildlife. The land is publicly funded and federally managed, supporting uses as varied as hiking, hunting, off-roading, stargazing, land-sailing, and amateur rocketry. Plus a certain massive, annual human pilgrimage.
The Black Rock Playa was chosen as the location of Burning Man for its potential as landscape-wide canvas. Blank slate, tabula rasa. One can be forgiven for experiencing an almost giddy sense of carte blanche upon meeting it. If you’ve ever driven across the playa, you know why we love this place. The bone-white expanse measures a remarkably flat 12 miles wide by 35 miles long, a more or less contiguous area spanning 110,000 acres.
At its 70,000-denizen height, last year’s Black Rock City and its environs occupied merely four to five percent of the playa’s vast spread. But as more and more people travel to this area, the playa’s crust softens, grows friable from repeated use. It gets tracked out. Dust billows in the omnipresent wind as increasingly wider swaths of crust crumble apart and surrender to the elements. Historically the playa received enough winter precipitation to become partially inundated for months, across sizable areas—often covering many square miles to a depth of several inches—and this wetting-down served to compact the sediments, firming up the surface as the water evaporated in spring and summer. But it’s been years since this inundation’s occurred to any appreciable degree. As with much of the West, Nevada’s deep in the throes of a devastating drought. The dust will undoubtedly get worse.