Burning Man will end Sept. 2, but you can quench your thirst year-round in Reno, about 110 miles southwest of the desert venue home to the funky pop-culture spectacle.
“The Reno Burner community is incredibly strong,” said “Jungle Jim” Gibson, owner of the Morris Burner Hostel, which welcomes guests with hugs instead of cookies.
The hostel also posts the 10 Principles of Burning Man just inside the front door. Intended as a guidepost to good living, it includes civic responsibility, communal effort and participation. Each room has an artistic theme, such as DaVinci’s Workshop, which features the artist’s black-and-white sketches on the walls; the Desert Room, featuring a cactus and cowboy decor; and the Sparkle Pony Room, with glittery, pink walls and plenty of mirrors. The 31 rooms, some with bunk beds, cost $25 to $30 a night with shared bathrooms and showers down the hall.
“Not everybody gets to experience [Burning Man], but there are tens of thousands of people who follow Burning Man, lurking in the shadows, watching all the craziness,” said Gibson. For them, and curious travelers, Reno serves up a “place to come and hang with a bunch of Burning Man people and participate in something that’s bigger than any of us,” he said.
Gifting, another Burner tenet, is evident throughout Reno. The city, about 2½ hours from the festival’s gathering place in the Black Rock Desert Wilderness, displays dozens of donations of Burning Man artistic creations, including “Space Whale,” a striking installation that sits in a plaza in front of Reno City Hall, steps from the Truckee River.
The life-size sculpture of a mother humpback whale and her calf was first displayed at Burning Man in 2016 and was created to generate discussion about climate change. It includes 22,000 pounds of steel and 25,000 pieces of Tiffany-style stained glass, which is beautifully illuminated every evening. About 50 people spent four months creating the $200,000 work of art at The Generator, a 30,000-square-foot collaborative workshop in neighboring Sparks, Nev.
“Every year, there’s at least a dozen large-scale projects that come out of The Generator and go directly to Burning Man,” said Matt Schultz, founder of the maker space and lead artist on the “Space Whale” project. “Every year, it’s just a complete menagerie of weird ideas blown up to incredible scales. It makes my heart beat faster just thinking about it.”
“Burning Man artists are the punk rockers of the art world,” Schultz added. “Reno’s not pretentious. We’re not snooty.”
Visitors are welcome to drop by The Generator for self-guided tours any day from midmorning to early evening to watch people welding and crafting huge sculptures. Guided tours are generally available in the afternoon on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is free, but visitors are encouraged to donate $10 to help fund a planned expansion.
And this little Burner burg is always in flux. “Space Whale’s” leased installation space ends Aug. 31, and the city hopes to replace it with something else. Eric Brooks, co-founder of Art Spot Reno, an organization that supports a flourishing community of artists, many of them Burners, says the upkeep would be “horribly expensive to the city” because panels of stained glass have regularly been broken by vandals. “It’s an unsustainable piece,” he said.
Even if “Space Whale” disappears, other pieces of Burning Man art sit permanently along Reno’s Riverwalk and at the Reno Playa Art Project, a park just a half-mile north of the river on Virginia Street. The park, created in 2017 with money raised by the festival, is free to enter and open 24/7. It features several sculptures. Signs share information about the works and their artists.
Head in the other direction, south on Virginia Street, for a chance to see the elaborate costumes people buy each summer in advance of their desert pilgrimage. Junkee Clothing Exchange is stuffed full of affordable vintage looks. Locals and tourists drop in year-round for party gear (expect it to be super-crowded in the run-up to Burning Man).
“It’s like a whirlwind,” owner Jessica Schneider said. “It’s brutal, but it’s fun. And I love Burners. I don’t have to worry about them stealing. …They’re happy, and they’re stoked.”