I first stepped into the Morris Burner Hotel on May 17, 2014. For me, the date wasn’t particularly significant. It was simply the Saturday before I began a weeklong intensive NPR training program at the University of Nevada, Reno. I wanted to go and get a sense of the place and the people, to do some pre-interviews.
Upon entering the Morris Burner Hotel, I was immediately greeted by Jungle Jim Gibson, the microchip entrepreneur who bought the property in 2013. The Morris sits on a half-acre lot in downtown Reno on Fourth Street. Fourth Street’s reputation is an edgy one, to be polite. But Jungle Jim is determined to turn the Morris Hotel into a hub for Burning Man culture year-round. That is the story I think I’m pursuing.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I shake Jungle Jim’s hand, a formality he gently corrects with an embrace and a jovial, “We hug around here.” He immediately offers me a cup of coffee and we set about on a tour of his new venture. The hotel is an impressive ode to its heritage, built in 1928 by the still-existing Savage and Son, Inc. plumbing company. There are detailed accents of the era when the hotel was built. One of the original chandeliers still hangs in the stairwell.
On the second floor, Jungle Jim shows me the hotel rooms that have undergone their metamorphosis—walls once yellowed and browned by years of exposure to cigarette smoke are now adorned with murals. Somewhere in the middle of the hallway is the “Enchanted Forest Room” where a mannequin with a horse’s head and man’s body stands in the corner, keeping watch. Each room is decorated with a different theme, a different imagination telling a different story.
Ushering me down the hall on our tour, Jungle Jim is suddenly distracted. There is a leak in the pipes and one of the showers is flooding. The moment echoes the reality of this project: renovating a hotel that hasn’t shut down in 86 years is nothing short of a labor of love. “Vision”, the hotel’s manager, immediately appears with a mop and bucket and with a calm about him, starts cleaning the mess.
At the other end of the hallway is the Temple of Transition room, a giant mural paying homage to the 2011 temple built for Burning Man. Jungle Jim helped to build the Temple of Transition that year. He is an encyclopedia of past Burning Man events, telling me fact after fact as he ushers me through the hotel. It is becoming evident: the hotel is an art piece in itself.
There are ten principles that come with subscribing to the Burning Man culture and it was very apparent immediately that the people of the Morris Burner Hotel believed above all in the concept of radical inclusion. “We welcome and respect the stranger,” the principle dictates. Jungle Jim tells me of the people who have spent time at the hotel. Some are artists. Some are volunteers. Some are nomads. All are welcome.
I sit that first day enjoying a cup of coffee with Jungle Jim in the kitchen of the Morris Hotel. He regales me with tales of Burning Man while people mill in and out of the kitchen, many sporting red noses. Moments later, Vision enters, this time also wearing a red nose. He finished the mopping. When questioned he answers that May 17 is International Red Nose Day, a day created with the intent of “creating happiness in the world.” Vision is all about happiness. He will later tell me in his interview that he aspires everyday to put a smile on someone’s face. That, to him, is art.
The pre-interview is interrupted when the fire alarm goes off. The water that had leaked out of the pipes is responsible and Jungle Jim immediately tries to intervene before the fire department shows up. His efforts are in vain, as moments later a team of firefighters is buzzed through the lobby door, telling of their lunch waiting for them back at the station. Jungle Jim and Vision have a great rapport with these men, welcoming them as friends.
The gentle spirit of Jungle Jim and the seeming chaos of the Morris Burner Hotel would be mirrored in the few next days. I would return several times with my mentor, Nico Colombant, to the Morris Hotel, telling the story of Jungle Jim and his grand hotel. The creation of a hotel to keep Burning Man culture alive year round was the story I thought I was pursuing. But the people behind this project and their relentless spirit to make it a reality are far more remarkable.