Techno music blasts from the lobby of the Morris Burner Hotel in downtown Reno, NV, as a handful of twenty-somethings trickle through the lobby.
Sitting near the front door of the hotel is 63-year-old Jim Gibson. He is the owner of the Morris Hotel.
Gibson is a retired business entrepreneur who used to wear suits and ties to work everyday.
Now Gibson wears fedoras, furs, and glow-in-the-dark glasses and goes by the name, “Jungle Jim.” He received the nickname after attending his first Burning Man festival in 2008.
It was a simple moment. Jennifer “Coco” Raiser ran up to Gibson and proclaimed him to be Jungle Jim.
“I don’t know where it came from or why and I knew nothing about the fact that it was a gift, you learn these things as you go,” Gibson said.
Burning Man, the weeklong artistic outdoor festival held at the end of ever summer in Nevada’s harsh Black Rock Desert, attracts tens of thousands of people called burners from around the world.
Burning Man Changed Jungle Jim’s Life
Gibson wanted to create a place for burners to gather year-round. He saw his chance when the Morris Hotel on Reno’s edgy Fourth Street was for sale. But this 1928 building was past its prime.
“These steps when we moved in here were so disgusting,” Gibson said while giving a tour. “You’d walk in here and you’d almost puke from the smell.”
Jungle Jim invited local artists to help him transform the hotel. Now, rooms once yellowed and browned from cigarette smoke boast elaborate murals.
“The enchanted forest room is incredibly popular,” Gibson said. “It’s so crazy. … A strange looking beast with a goat head and a man’s body with writing and painted trees, butterflies and a very, very strange furry animal coming out of the wall. Legs coming out of the floor.”
In the basement, Jeanette Burleigh meticulously paints a papier-mâché dragonhead. The dragonhead will be used as a stage decoration for the upcoming, “Monsters and Elves” fundraising party. Proceeds from the party will be used to build a greenhouse on the Morris Hotel property.
Burleigh has never been to Burning Man. She lives at the hotel with other volunteers and likes the idea of creating art.
“It’s a really accessible art scene,” she said. “Like we can exist and live mostly fairly cheaply and make art together in this really big, inclusive community where people aren’t like, a huge meanie pants about where you’re coming from and whatever. And it’s great.”
Envisioning the Future
Meanwhile, Alon Bar is getting ready for his weekly online show. He is in a makeshift TV studio in the basement called Studio M.
Bar, who goes by the name Vision, is the manager of the Morris Hotel. Vision’s plan is to make the hotel a thriving community in three years.
“Burners are not just doing their praying and blessings,” Bar said. “We wake up in the morning at five o’clock and we are working really hard to achieve these goals.”
Vision, who is from Israel, wants to copy this burner hotel all around the world.
“Yeah so, the goal is pretty much to have this lifestyle all around the world.” Bar said. “I mean, we are having a great time here in Reno. We are building, we are building community, we are making art. And taking this one and copy it to everywhere on the planet.”
Jungle Jim isn’t ready to go global yet. He just wants to make this hotel a success. After all, for him, it is a big risk.
“It’s a labor of love,” Gibson said. “Clearly. It’s the worst business model ever and this is just the most casual, interesting leap of faith that I have ever done. It’s not done like a normal business.”
But the Morris Hotel may already be going global: Gibson has been contacted by burners from China who want to book a stay.