On Tour: The Black Rock Desert, Empire, NV, and the origins of "Nomadland"

The geological and historical backdrop to this year's Best Picture—and "Burning Man"

In each installment of “On Tour,” The Usonian takes a look at a cool place in some obscure (and sometimes not so obscure) corner of the world. This week, we spotlight the Black Rock Desert and the company town of Empire in Northern Nevada, a location with a connection to the Burning Man festival, the Oscar-winning film Nomadland, and an astounding geological past.

It seems that most everyone has heard of “Burning Man.” The annual arts festival in the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada has an outsize reputation for its artworks, “radical self-expression,” and well, the gigantic wooden effigy that is traditionally set aflame, giving the gathering its evocative name.

I’m not here, however, to write about Burning Man, but the desert which has served as its setting since 1990—as well as the area’s former economic driver, a shuttered company town that inspired the 2020 film Nomadland, Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards.

Located about a hundred miles north of Reno, the Black Rock Desert is mostly composed of salt flats that cover more than 300,000 acres of land. Even more shocking is the fact that the remains of this dry lake bed were just a tiny fraction of the Pleistocene-era Lake Lahontan, which submerged more than 8,500 square miles of present-day Northern Nevada in 500 to 900 feet of water at its peak 12,700 years ago.

At the time, this was probably the largest lake in North America. Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation in the area dating back to 10,000 years ago, when the lake was still sizable. The Paiute peoples, whose descendants today govern the Pyramid Lake Reservation, arrived around 1300 C.E.

But as the last ice age concluded, the climate warmed, and Lake Lahontan evaporated. Its largest remnants include Walker Lake, 75 miles south of Reno, and Pyramid Lake, 40 miles northeast of Reno, an endorheic lake fed by the Truckee River, which in turn flows from Lake Tahoe; the water stops at Pyramid Lake and evaporates.

Since then, the playa, as the Black Rock Desert is also known, has been the home of nomads of many stripes. The controversial American explorer John C. Frémont crossed the desert in 1843; a silver-mining town named Hardin City boomed and busted in the 1860s.

Which brings me to Nomadland. In 1923, the Pacific Portland Cement Company established the town of Empire, Nevada near a railroad town named Gerlach, which neighbors the Black Rock Desert. The company mined selenite, a form of gypsum, and the mine’s tramway, acquired from a mine in Carson City, was re-assembled by Chinese laborers.

In 1948, United States Gypsum bought the claims to produce Sheetrock, their brand of drywall. To support the massive operation in the rural area, the company built a town which included a church, golf course, grocery store, and airport. At its height, about 200 people lived and worked there.

In 2011, as a result of the economic crisis and the ensuing decline in demand for construction supplies, the plant and town were closed. According to the Associated Press, the town was abandoned, save for two llamas named Tony Llama and Llama Bahama, left behind to prevent weeds from taking over the site. Empire had become a ghost town like so many of its predecessors in the Silver State.

And that’s where Chloé Zhao’s film, Nomadland, begins. In this adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman who worked at the Empire plant with her recently-deceased husband. With Empire shuttered, she makes the decision to become a “nomad” and live out of her van while pursuing seasonal and part-time work across the West.

The film cleaned up at this year’s Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, netting McDormand another Best Actress award, and in an historic moment, Chloé Zhao became the first Asian woman to win Best Director.

But though the film’s story concluded with the end credits, Empire’s story remains unfinished.

In 2016, Empire Mining Company bought the abandoned plant and its town to resume operations, though in greatly reduced capacity. About 70 people live in Empire today—as well as the two llamas, which are still alive and well.

The story of Black Rock is a story of reinvention as climatic and economic conditions have changed. Resilience is a common factor among the native peoples, miners, nomads, and the urban crowd of bohemians drawn to the eccentricities and fanfare of the Burning Man festival, an event which has attracted more than 70,000 visitors in recent years.

Time will tell what nomads the playa will draw next.

Selected Bibliography

“Black Rock Desert,” Wikipedia, Website, March 30, 2021.

“Burning Man,” Wikipedia, Website, April 7, 2021.

Burning Man Project, Website, 2021.

Connolly et al, “Getting Beyond the Point: Textiles of the Terminal Pleistocene/Early Holocene in the Northwestern Great Basin,” American Antiquity 81 (3), 2016, pp. 490-514.

Coyle, Jake. “‘Nomadland’ wins best picture at a social distanced Oscars,” Associated Press, April 26, 2021.

“Empire, Nevada,” Wikipedia, Website, April 26, 2021.

Kane, Jenny. “Nomadland’s Empire is a real place in northern Nevada desert,” Associated Press, March 6, 2021.

“Lake Lahontan,” Wikipedia, Website, January 8, 2021.