Black Rock City, Population: 1

If you’ve never been to the Playa in the winter, you’re missing out on quite a powerful experience. Benjamin “Jets” Wilner was out there this winter, and he recorded his thoughts, and took some striking pictures. While he sent us this back in February, we thought you’d enjoy it … even in the springtime. He writes:

“I’m sitting in the Reno airport, and thanks to the free wifi I have something to do besides waste the money I barely have in the slot machines they have here.

Playa in Winter, Photo by Benjamin Wilner

I came up here to this cold city in the dead of winter for one reason: I just wanted to see the Playa in the opposite state of how I’m used to seeing it. For no particular reason, really, other than just being there. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since my first Burn, in 2008. The Black Rock Desert is barren enough even during Burn week each year, but I couldn’t imagine what it was like in the winter when it’s completely empty, so I wanted to see it for myself that way.

About an inch or two of snow covered the ground all the way from I-80. I drove past the sleeping towns of Wadsworth and Nixon, then sped up as the landscape opened up more. Pyramid Lake was visible in the distance, and because of the overcast skies it was a dull gray instead of its familiar aqua color that makes it stand out so much. The clouds hardly broke throughout the day, but none of the sights I saw were depressing in any way. Somber, maybe, but I had a peaceful feeling throughout the whole trip out there, especially once I made it past Gerlach and out into the nothingness.

There wasn’t another car or a soul in sight. I didn’t see another person outdoors, even through Empire and Gerlach. It was obvious where the usual turnoff onto the Playa was, because of the marks in the ground from the thousands of cars over the years. Eventually their tracks ended where the Playa floor spread out, covered in snow.

Playa in Winter, Photo by Benjamin Wilner

I was assuming that the Playa would be covered in water, but it was completely frozen. I got out of my car and the first thing I noticed was the complete silence. It was quieter than anywhere I’ve ever been, indoors or outdoors. No people, no vehicles, no dubstep. That was the first of many surreal moments out there for me. Once I realized the desert floor was in a good enough condition to drive on, I sped out onto the open Playa. I went a few miles to where I assumed was near the center of BRC, where the Man usually stands. I was probably way off, but still, judging by the view around me I could have been close. It felt so right just to be there, and I was amazed by the austerity of it all, especially during this time of the year. That desert means so much to so many of us. I took some photos but quickly put my camera back in the car before they froze along with my fingers. It was probably 30 degrees out there, at most, though I warmed up as I ran around.

Before I knew it, hours passed. I hiked and explored all around and even picked up some moop – a candy wrapper and a few pieces of wood. I eventually drove back onto the main road, turning right instead of back towards the towns as usual. I’d never been north of the turnoff before then. There is a wonderful view of the entire Playa from one of the hills that the road runs alongside. I pulled over and got out and just stared out there for awhile. Looking back onto the desert, the sun broke through just enough to shimmer on the snow. That was quite a beautiful sight.

Playa in Winter, Photo by Benjamin Wilner

I made it to some of the local hot springs, but didn’t go into any of em. Eventually I turned back around and headed towards Gerlach. The Burning Man office in town was closed when I drove out to the Playa, but this time it was open, so I stopped in and said hi to Trixie, who runs the place. She seemed a bit surprised to see anyone at all. We talked about the Burn and the Playa and what the two towns – Gerlach and Empire – were currently going through because of the local gypsum plant closing. Trixie said that although the towns very well might clear out by the time 2012 or 13 rolls around, spirits are still high and hopeful among many of the locals. And yet she also said that she isn’t sure what we can do to help save the towns. They do benefit financially from travelers to the event each year, but only so much and for so long. When I drove to the general store in Empire I already noticed changes: the “Welcome to Nowhere” sign is gone, and the place almost looks boarded up except for the tiny “open” sign on the door. I wished them all well and thanked them, before I drove back to Reno to see some friends.

I’m very happy that I made it out to Black Rock to see it in the wintertime. I’m also very happy that I did it by myself. To have that kind of solitude in that kind of a place is mind-boggling. It’s a bizarre but incredible feeling, and that’s what I hoped for. I couldn’t believe that I was out there alone, but I also realized…I was alone. Next winter I’ll try to go with a group, and we can share those feelings together. And in the meantime, there’s the group of 50,000+ in the summer.”

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase first attended Burning Man 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art headquarters) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004-2009, then transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009 to become Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He's the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Voices of Burning Man blog, and content manager for Burning Man’s websites. He also manages the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social networking efforts.

29 thoughts on “Black Rock City, Population: 1