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October 20, 2017

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Burning Man brings counterculture to small Nevada town but falls short of economic boom


Andy Barron / The Reno Gazette-Journal / AP

In this Aug. 29, 2013, photo, Selam Borges plays on a trampoline at Burning Man in Gerlach, Nev. Once a year, tens of thousands of participants gather for Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance.

2014 Burning Man

In this Aug. 27, 2014, photo, participants walk around at the Burning Man festival on the Black Rock Desert of Gerlach, Nev. Launch slideshow »

Burning Man

A man in a bird costume walks around in stilts next to the Launch slideshow »

The city of Fernley is among the last signs of civilization on the road to the Burning Man festival.

The majority of the 60,000 beatniks, bohemians, freethinkers and adventurers attending this year’s Burning Man traveled through the town to arrive at the event, which started Tuesday.

The town’s Wal-Mart Supercenter and Lowe's Home Improvement are beacons to the bands of travelers who come to Northern Nevada for the weeklong fete, where radical artwork and nonconformist behavior are on display.

Many “burners” tout the experience as a crash course in “self-reliance.” After they pay for the $380 ticket, they build a makeshift community and use nonmonetary means to barter goods.

But before they partake in the noncapitalist festivities, many of them stop to shop in Fernley.

Every year, Wal-Mart orders extra water, bandanas, sunscreen, booze, bicycles and breathing masks (sandstorms are common at the festival). The store never runs out of the necessities, store manager Jim Thompson said.

“We start prepping for Burning Man six weeks out,” Thompson said.

Burners camp in the Wal-Mart parking lot in the days before the festival. They also stay in hotels, eat at restaurants and hang with the locals, sharing the festival’s values with a town whose residents aren’t known for participating in the event.

“You know a burner when you see one,” said Yvonne Souza, manager of the Lazy Inn, a Fernley hotel where burners often crash. “They stand out. We don’t judge. I grew up in the ’60s. I don’t have a problem. But you can tell.”

The volume of Burning Man traffic adds a distinct panache to Fernley, a town whose roots are seeded in agriculture.

The burners’ cars and RVs are decorated with the burning man stick figure or waving flags. Their hair is often knotted in dreadlocks, dyed neon colors or covered by bandanas.

“It makes for an interesting juxtaposition of cultures during this period,” said Fernley City Manager Chris Good.

But according to state data, sales tax revenues don’t skyrocket even though the number of travelers does.

The state doesn’t collect town-by-town sales data. But it does collect it by county. (Fernley is in Lyon County.) Monthly data show that, despite the influx from Burning Man, the holiday season is more of a boon for Fernley retailers.

“It’s surprising because it sure feels like a lot of business is being done,” Good said.

Thompson oversees the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Black Friday, and he wasn't surprised that Burning Man fell short of the holiday sales season.

“There’s no comparison,” he said.

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