Driving along the nearly deserted two-lane highway that winds its way from Gerlach, NV to what will be the entry point to Burning Man later this year, you wonder how Black Rock City can possibly emerge from the empty playa passing by on your right. But you’ve seen it before so you know it will happen – almost by magic.
If you drive a little further over the roughening road until the macadam drops off into dirt and gravel, then take the first right turn onto a long gravel driveway, you find the secret underlying the magic. Burners call this place “The Ranch” or “DPW Ranch”, its manager calls it “Black Rock Station,” and around 30 people call it home for part or all of the year.
At this desolate site, you can see the skeletons of Burning Man: bony structures ready to transform into art cars, hundreds of ramshackle vehicles bearing whimsical names and departmental assignments, and acres of containers whose content will spill onto the playa and turn into the various permanent theme camps and departmental facilities that are the core of Black Rock City. There are also the boxes: brown wooden living quarters for the Burning Man staff and volunteers who make it all happen. Most of these tiny units – with space only for a bed and minimal storage but mercifully air-conditioned — will be transported to the Playa for the Burn itself and become what their residents call “the ghetto,” a neighborhood of mostly DPW staffers who make the city rise from th empty desert every year.
There are also a few guest quarters cleverly fashioned out of large containers with two air-conditioned rooms per container. These are not luxury accommodations, but comfortable sleeping quarters for volunteers who arrive throughout the year to do advance work on their camp or departmental facilities. The ranch staff provides three meals a day at its commissary, not just to the full-time staff, but to short-term volunteers as well. We were there the weekend of July 1 to do critical prep work for Temple Guardians Staff Camp.
The ranch is staffed by men and women with all the outward appearance of tough construction workers, but a Burning Man ethos of love and caring. They welcomed us not as strangers but as fellow Burners and offered help joyfully. Some were familiar to us from past Burns; others were new faces. The experience was not unlike Burning Man itself in terms of the harsh desert environment, the daytime heat and nighttime chill, the expectation of self-reliance from everyone, the presence of porta-potties (they’re optional; there’s a “real” bathroom with showers) and typical Burner welcoming and farewell hugs. These 30 or so lean, mean, building machines of Burning Man are the keepers of the Black Rock City infrastructure. Their year-round effort belies the magical appearance of Black Rock City’s annual birth.
You can’t “visit” the ranch. It’s a work-only space with no tolerance for lurkers. You have to schedule yourself there with official approval from the Burning Man manager responsible for oversight of your camp or department. Once your arrival and departure times are set, accommodations for the numbers of workers you’re bringing are arranged. Check-in is required and each person must sign a release of liability form. You’re reminded to work safely because it’s a long way to medical services and the available First Aid is rudimentary.
Ranch staff does more than just prepare for Burning Man. They are responsible for Burning Man’s Nevada properties, which include facilities adjacent the Playa, in and around Gerlach, and in Reno. And while most art installations are built away from the Ranch, DPW projects ranging from road signs to administrative structures such as the Box Office are put together in a well-equipped and immaculately maintained workshop. This year, workers proudly told us, the 2018 Man was built in-house after a contractor failed to deliver on a proposed animated robot representing the 2018 “I Robot” theme.
As we drove off property the evening of July 1, we realized that we felt the same sense of melancholy as we did when departing Burning Man. There is a spirit alive at the Ranch; the spirit that created the event and has nurtured it for nearly 30 years. While the effect of Burning Man may be magical, it takes hard work, planning, and commitment by staff and volunteers to bring it to life.