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Documentary: Burning Man Impact on Reno

July 21, 2013

How did I end up at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert in 1992?

Two reasons: 1) a Santa Cruz friend who was a member of the Cacaphony Society which partnered with early Burners to make the event happen; and 2) I was a grad student in English at the University of Nevada Reno from 1991-1993. (Read more about my first trip to Burning Man and about the early, wild years).

In 1992, when I mentioned Burning Man to my Reno friends and fellow grad students, no one had heard of it…and only two friends, Helen Jones who ran the Women’s Center and her partner Steven Foster, wanted to join me. In fact, the Reno Gazette had a hard time finding locals for a news story.

Body of Knowledge


Reno in the early 90s was a very tough town for a Californian, especially a coastal Californian like me. The challenge wasn’t the dry air–although it took me a year not to be thirsty all the time–but the cultural climate. I lived north of town, in Stead (instead of Reno I lived in Stead…of Reno…) in officer’s housing on an old base near an airfield. There were a couple of cool coffee houses in town, but the town revolved around two activities: casinos and Wolf Pack sports. Neither held much interest to me; we were more likely to be found in the mountains or in the desert when we weren’t teaching or studying.


Reno has changed significantly in the past 20 years, and this 2012 documentary highlights the impact of Burning Man–the culture and the event, this experiment in an alternative, temporary culture–has had on the Reno area. In addition to the influx of Burners who have settled in the area, Patagonia moved their warehouse from Ventura to Reno in the mid-90s, bringing employees and a business model with an ecological awareness and concern to businesses in the area. These days, Reno has Santacons, fire conclaves, and in 2011, they built 200′ long pier onto the playa that in 2012 had a pirate ship docked at it. Reno also built the Temple one year.  (Photo above of me and my son on the pier from the recommitment ceremony my husband and I held on the Pier in 2011)

The Stupa of Limbo by Paul Windsor


In the documentary, among many interviews, Damian Jannsen, a Reno artist and Burner dad, says that Burning Man shows kids adults playing so children want to grow up.Will Rogers, one of the early staff members, speaks to the kind of transformative arts education people experience out there. Larry Harvey, who made the first man, talks about how Nevada’s approach to liberty was a good match, Crimson Rose talks about how people come back form the event and they want to do more in their communities and with their lives back home, and UNR’s Alicia Barber talks about how slow Reno was to embrace Burning Man.


The documentary points out that Reno is an important staging area for Burning Man for people who drive or fly in. Most of the time, it’s gas, food, drink, and other supplies, and a stop at my favorite coffee house, Deux Gros Nez (now closed), for a milkshake and a iced triple espresso.  One year on the road, I realized I’d lost or left my sunglasses so I ordered some by cell phone at Lenscrafters and they were ready to pick up on my way in. I finally started driving around Reno because I spent too much time and money there so Fallon, Fernley, and the tribe get my money.BRNinBRC2011sm

Among other interesting tidbits, the documentary says that:

  • While most attendees at Burning Man are from California, the second largest group comes from Nevada with 20,000 Burners coming from the Reno-Sparks population of 500,000.
  • Burners spend $15,000,000 as they pass through Humbolt, Washoe and Pershing Counties in Nevada.
  • Traveling from 34 different countries, 15,000 Burners fly in and another 15,000 Burners fly out of the Reno airport. A welcome table, Burner art, and other services are provided by the airport to create connection with community and Burners.
  • As they pass through the Paiute lands, Burning Man and Burners contributes to the Tribe directly and indirectly–they buy gas and Indian tacos, and money goes to law enforcement.
  • RJSsquirtBRC2011sm

Unless noted, photos by me; other photos from the Burning Man site.

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