I’ve always liked Reno. As far back as I can remember the city has defined itself as the Biggest Little City in the World. It has also been known for its gambling, quick marriages and quicker divorces. My parents were married in the town. For years they teased me about my legitimacy. It probably scarred me for life. But I have the marriage certificate. It looks legit whether I am or not.
I personally became acquainted with Reno when I ran Peace Corp’s public affairs and recruitment program for Northern California and Nevada in the late 60s. The University of Nevada at Reno was one of the campuses where I recruited. I made the trip over the mountains two or three times a year. Those were the days when slot machines were still known as one-armed bandits and the mafia still thrived in Las Vegas– and probably Reno. I did my bit by contributing to the mob and Nevada’s economy but had little luck in persuading young Nevadans to leave the state, much less the country.
Reno is an event-oriented place. The city thrives on antique car shows, rib cook-offs, rodeos, Harley Motorcycle invasions, festivals, and innumerable races including hot air balloons, bicycles, airplanes and kayaks (the Truckee River flows through the middle of the city). Tourism is the lifeblood of the city. Recently, the Chamber of Commerce has added another major event to its things to do list: Burning Man. Each year tens of thousands of Burners pass through Reno on their annual pilgrimage to the Black Rock desert. Apparently they give the local economy a substantial boost.
The influence goes beyond economic to cultural. Reno has a thriving Burner community that brings it enthusiasm for Burning Man back to the city. The most unique contribution, from my perspective, is the Morris Burner Hotel. I read about it recently in Jack Rabbit Speaks, the Burning Man newsletter, and decided that Peggy and I had to add the hotel to our list of stops on our recent three-week journey through Nevada. As you probably know, I am a fan of Burning Man, having gone back regularly since my first visit in 2004. I’ve blogged about my experiences for the past four years. In fact, WordPress gave me its Freshly Pressed designation for my articles on the event.
The Morris Burner Hotel, according to its mission statement “is a Burning Man inspired housing facility and community space, dedicated to building community, fostering the arts, and helping to educate people in the Burning Man ethos. It is a place to share, create, participate, and build relationships.” The inspiration behind its creation is Jim Gibson, or Jungle Jim, as he is known in Black Rock City. (Most Burners have nicknames.)
Jim is an engineer who spent over 40 years in the microelectronics business, co-founded three companies, owns three patents, and, in 2007, was named Entrepreneur of the Year for Northern Nevada. In 2008 he retired and went to Burning Man. It changed his life. His purchase and renovation of the Morris Hotel is an example.
The hotel was built in 1931 along Historic Route 40, the Lincoln Highway, that ran through downtown Reno and on across the country. In its heyday, the Morris would have been a proud establishment, but over the years the neighborhood and the hotel had declined. As one of the Burners who worked on the hotel’s renovation noted, “It needed a bath something terrible… it was spine chilling disgusting.” A great introductory video on the hotel by Liz Margerum, photographer and videographer for the Reno Gazette Journal, captures workers wearing gas masks as they removed aged carpets.
The hotel was still not open when I stopped to visit but I rang the doorbell and was greeted by Alon Vision Bar. Vision is Alon’s Burning Man name, and it fits. A former member of the Israel Navy who holds a degree in Business and Economics, he has a goal of bringing the Burning Man principle of community building home to his war-afflicted land. He is prepared to devote his life to efforts aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East.
But for now, Vision is serving as manager of this rather unique hotel. He provided me with a tour of the guest rooms. Each one has a separate theme and has become a project for individual artists. Walls, ceilings, floors and even furniture serve as the ‘canvas.’ Sculptures add to the ambience. Halls, lobby, dining room, and restrooms also serve as space for artistic works. Outside, a large patio is being designed to accommodate performances. The whole hotel is an art work in progress.
The City of Reno is very supportive of Gibson’s renovation of the Morris. The hotel is located in a run down area of 4th street three blocks from downtown. Its presence is encouraging other businesses to locate nearby and is leading to a gradual transformation of the area. The crime rate is already way down. Peggy and I look forward to the time we can return as guests.
NEXT BLOG: We visit the town of Hawthorne, Nevada, which is where military ordinance goes when it retires. A very interesting museum provides insight into the town’s past. After that it is on to Area 51 and ET…
As this blog goes to press, Peggy and I are off backpacking in the Red Buttes Wilderness, home to bears, cougars, old growth forests and possibly a wolf or two. (Or-7 and his girlfriend are wandering around somewhere in our county.) There have also been several (unsubstantiated) sightings of Bigfoot in the area. We have a camera along. If we see one, you’ll be the first to know. (Grin.) The Red Buttes Wilderness is located on the border of Oregon and California 14 miles from our home.
On a related note, I did a guest blog this week on how I celebrated my 60th birthday by backpacking over 300 miles from Squaw Valley to Mt. Whitney following the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Check it out here if you are interested.