From Cotati to the Nevada desert
Cotati has little in common with Gerlach, Nev., except that both communities are places Christopher Brooks loves and calls home.
Brooks, 50, is a land sailor who discovered the small town 100 miles north of Reno in 1989. Located on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, it was a perfect place to launch long solitary rides aboard his wind-powered rig, and to stage races with fellow sailors.
The following year Burning Man founders decided it also was a perfect place to hold a festival. In 1990, 90 participants showed up on Labor Day weekend to watch the wooden Man go up in smoke. In 1991, the Bureau of Land Management issued its first permit for the festival, and by 2011 the camp had grown into a city of 53,963.
Last year Brooks made national headlines when he mounted a campaign to preserve Gerlach’s character by capping the number of people allowed to attend Burning Man. He appealed federal land managers’ decision to increase Burning Man’s attendance cap from 50,000 to 60,000, citing environmental damage to many of the features that draw people to the desert.
His appeal was denied in June, but Brooks still believes his efforts were worthwhile. In addition to raising consciousness about changing desert conditions, he compiled a book about the Black Rock Desert that will be released in November by Arcadia Publishing.
Brooks grew up in upstate New York loving the outdoors and appreciating nature. He studied geology at Colgate University before migrating to California, where he shifted his focus to project management and went on to become a software engineer at UC Berkeley.
“I started going to Gerlach in 1989 and was basically what locals call ‘summer folk,’” Brooks said. “It is very peaceful and quiet out there on the desert, and the area has a bit of a recreational history.”
As with many small communities, people know each other and help each other out where they can. Brooks helped put the roof on the local bar one summer, for example.
Hot springs were the area’s original draw, and over the years locals and visitors have taken advantage of the desert for golfing and a giant croquet game using 6-foot balls and 8-foot wickets. And for land sailing, a sport in which the rider sits or lies in a small three- or four-wheeled go-kart style rig that is powered by a wind sail and steered with pedals.
“Going 55 miles per hour feels like 100 when you are that low to the ground and not encased,” said Brooks. “It’s amazing to go so fast,” and the price is right. Brooks’ rig cost $2,000, and there are no fuel or major wear and tear costs.
“It’s exhilarating and pretty safe, plus when you are out there by yourself you can really enjoy the solitude and beauty of the desert. There is also a unique community that goes along with it.”
About 80 land sailors used to attend a summer race on the Black Rock Desert. All that changed in 2000 when dunes began to develop. On land that used to be flat, foot-high dunes now dot the landscape. Even a 4-inch dune can be dangerous for a land sailor traveling at high rates of speed, so most have moved on to other safer locations.
Brooks believes the growing number of Burning Man visitors has accelerated what would otherwise have been a gradual change in the movement of dirt and dust. People once able to bicycle on the desert floor now find it safer to ride in car tire tracks. Gerlach also has begun to experience sand swirls and storms that start earlier in the season, covering paths and roads with sand that causes navigation issues.
Brooks was worried that the accelerated desert degradation wasn’t being adequately documented and felt that Burners weren’t following the rules. When the BLM allowed Burning Man to increase its audience last year, he decided to appeal the decision.
Brooks is quick to point out that he has attended Burning Man many times and thinks it is a great event that positively influences the lives of many people. He also admits that he didn’t expect to win the appeal but felt it was important to be heard. Now his focus has moved to compiling a photo history book about the Black Rock Desert.
“I really felt like it was a positive thing to do,” he said. “They actually contacted me about the book after seeing my website on the Black Rock Desert, and we went from there.” He plans to donate his proceeds to the Gerlach Service Center.
The book has given Brooks the chance to learn more about the area and revisit the things he fell in love with. He and his wife of 10 years have lived in Cotati since 2003 and also own a lot in Gerlach, where they spend time during the summer.
“The fastest I have ever gone land sailing was the first time I took my wife out,” Brooks said with a laugh. “I was trying to impress her, and it got away from me a little bit.”