Welcome home: the Nevada hostel where it's always Burning Man
Categories: Homes / Dwellings
This hostel has no relation to the Burning Man Brand, but nevertheless it seems to have been inspired by it. With its neon lights, and vintage and eclectic decorations, this place sure seems to have been created in the middle of the desert, amongst dancing people, music and fire.
The festival may be over for another year, but there’s an old flophouse in Reno where you can pretend you’re on the playa ... forever.
A woman was holding a jar of dust from the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man was taking place at that moment, and offering to sprinkle a pinch of it on my head. My hair was still damp from my first proper shower in a week and I was sure that some of that insidious dust was still clinging under my toenails and in the folds of my ears. I declined, but the man next to me bent his head reverently to receive the unusual sacrament.
We were in the courtyard of the Morris Burner Hostel in Reno, Nevada, watching a live feed of a wooden man incandescing 120 miles away. The Morris is a Burning Man-inspired facility, and on the biggest night of the 2015 festival it was holding a parallel celebration. A DJ played while two effigies flamed: a 60-foot one on the screen and a six-foot one in the courtyard. Half the crowd was in costume. In front of the stage someone was teaching people how to hula hoop; in a tent nearby people were taking turns pole dancing. I had left the playa, Burning Man’s festival grounds, six hours earlier but it felt like I hadn’t gone very far.
The Morris has no official link to the Burning Man festival or organization. But it’s owned and run by self-identifying burners and operates according to Burning Man’s 10 principles. It’s the brainchild of former tech executive Jim Gibson, who is known on the playa as Jungle Jim. When Gibson bought the neglected motel building in 2013, he had no idea how well the burner population would respond to his vision of “building community, fostering the arts, and educating people in the Burning Man ethos”. People rallied around the project. Two hundred volunteers were involved in the multi-year renovation of what had formerly been a flophouse.
“When we first got here the building was absolutely derelict. There were holes in the structure and a quarter-inch of nicotine on every surface,” says customer service manager Andy DelliColli, who goes by his playa name, Ice. “Now the crime rate in the neighborhood is around 30% lower, and almost all the empty buildings around us have been purchased by businesses which we helped court. The neighborhood is experiencing quite a renaissance because of us being here.”
The improvement isn’t purely by osmosis. Communal effort and civic responsibility are among Burning Man’s 10 principles. In that spirit, the Morris runs a weekly clothing and blanket drive over the winter. And after Burning Man, festival-goers can deposit excess food and clothing there to be donated to charity. The hostel itself runs on volunteerism. Most of the staff are unpaid residents who live on the premises, as DelliColli has done for the past year.
The Morris Burner hostel has three levels. The top floor belongs to members of the residential program, who number between 10 and 20 at any given time. These rent-paying tenants manage all day-to-day operations, usually while holding down paid jobs elsewhere. DelliColli entered the program in 2015 after relocating from Syracuse, New York. “I visited for four days after I got off the playa last year. Then I went home, immediately packed up all my stuff and moved west,” he recalls. There is no limit to how long a resident can stay. One member helped launch the hostel in 2013 and has lived there ever since.
On the second floor of the Morris, there are 13 artist-designed rooms available for short-term guests. The accommodations range from four-bunk dorms ($15-$20 per night) to deluxe suites ($95-$105 per night), and they have themes such as Sparkle Pony and Enchanted Forest. The Reno Music Room is strewn with playable instruments and decorated with flyers of local gigs. The walls of the Temple suite depict dark towers silhouetted against a technicolor sky – a reference to the Temple of Transition, a 2011 Burning Man art installation that Jungle Jim Gibson worked on. The public can tour vacant rooms at any time but staying in one requires membership. Joining the Morris costs $20 for a month or $50 for a year, and discounts apply if you can recite the 10 principles.
Workshops, shows and other events – such as drum circles and Star Wars-inspired lightsaber fitness classes – are held on the ground floor. In June, chef Clint Jolly of the Food Network held a themed dinner that cost $75 per head. The Morris has even been used as a wedding venue. “We try to say yes to as many people as we can, so that we can get as much of the community involved as possible,” saysDelliColli. Even when there are no scheduled events, people can play a round of pool in theSteampunk Saloon or hang out in the open-air courtyard. Gifting is one of Burning Man’s 10 principles, so there’s often a plate of homemade muffins or a pot of soup on offer in the shared kitchen.
The hostel shifts gears with the approach of Burning Man in August. The schedule ramps up with daily workshops covering costume making, bike maintenance and other festival preparation. The rooms book out as burners assemble in Reno; the city is a popular staging ground due to its proximity to the playa. Local volunteers are called in to cover for festival-bound staff. But for those who stay behind there is Home Burn, the Morris’ corresponding celebration where a mini effigy is torched in salute. “It’s for people who maybe couldn’t find a ticket but still want to experience a flavor of the burn,” says DelliColli. “Unfortunately there isn’t space for everyone on the playa, so we give them a little bit of the playa right here in Reno.”
I met some of those people at Home Burn last year, but I also met people for whom the Morris is an alternative to Burning Man rather than a replacement. One long-time burner told me he’s disillusioned with what he sees as a dilution of Burning Man culture on theplaya, and no longer wants to attend. A young woman said she wasn’t sure if she considered herself a burner, since she’s very drawn to the artistic community surrounding the Morris, but isn’t all that interested in the festival it’s inspired by. Toward the end of the night, I had whiskey in one of the hostel rooms with three non-burners who had driven over from California because it sounded like a good party.
Those road trippers had no way of knowing what an authentic burner experience they were having that night. But I, fresh off the playa, was in a better position to appreciate it. That event was Burning Man distilled into a house party. It had many of the same intangible qualities, including an elasticity around what is normal and what is possible. It also had that sense of belonging that makes “welcome home” an appropriate greeting when you arrive at the Burning Man gate. I had already had a great burn but the Morris provided me with one final highlight: the discovery that there’s a real-world location where Burning Man never ends.