Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.
Every August in the oppressive heat, tens of thousands of people from all over the world head to a playa in the middle of the Nevada desert.
They build a city and celebrate life, community, art, self-reliance and self-expression.
A week later, the playa appears beautiful, stark and empty, with no traces of the temporary city at all.
Burning Man is just one of the attractions that put Pershing County, Nevada’s newest county, on the map.
“It’s a very unique situation,” Pershing County Sheriff Richard Machado said. “It only happens in one spot in the world. … They build a city for 70,000 people. It’s so cleaned up afterward, it’s all green.”
With approximately one person to every square mile, Pershing is easy to dismiss as common or unexceptional.
“I was born in 1971 here. I moved away, went to college, and came back to raise my daughter,” resident Patty Burke said. “Lovelock (the county seat) is a great community to raise children in.”
As large portions of Nevada can claim, Pershing is largely dependent on mining, agriculture and hunting. The mostly rural county faces a crippling water shortage.
Mark Twain found the living conditions worthwhile. He lived in a cabin in Unionville, formerly the county seat of Humboldt County before Pershing was established.
It was there he penned his novel “Roughing It,” a book about his travels through the rough and wild West.
“There’s a lot of area to explore,” said Beth Reid, manager of the Pershing County Chamber of Commerce. “That’s probably one of the neatest things up here. It’s so open.”
The openness draws a lot of people in, and Pershing County has had its fair share of the famous and infamous.
Edna Purviance, Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady, grew up in Lovelock, the county seat of Pershing County. Amelia Earhart made an emergency landing in the county during her 1931 autogiro tour of the United States. Lovelock native Andrew Humbert Scott made the first military parachute jump in history. And it’s rumored that Sandra Bullock sometimes stays at the bed and breakfast in Unionville.
O.J. Simpson calls the Lovelock Correctional Facility home after a 2007-08 arrest and conviction for robbery and kidnapping among other charges. And in 1984, serial killer Gerald Gallego was arrested, tried and sentenced to death in the Pershing County Courthouse.
And it’s not just about the people.
In Lovelock Cave, miners digging for bat guano discovered Paiute duck decoys and what some said were remains of legendary red-headed giants who cannibalized the Paiutes.
You can stop and take a breather before crossing the 40-mile desert, quicker to traverse in an air-conditioned car than on foot or by wagon as experienced by early settlers.
Also in Lovelock, you can lock your love by adding a link to a chain, a concept inspired by an ancient Chinese custom of keeping everlasting love.
You can attend a rodeo, a Christmas parade or a hot air balloon race, depending on the time of year.
The Marzen House Museum is packed to the rafters with history and artifacts from around the county.
And they have a lot of space.
What Pershing County does not have is a lot of casinos, movie theaters, bowling alleys or other Friday night distractions.
“Living up here, it’s a different way of life,” Machado said. “We live in a frontier community. We don’t have all the things other people have, but we have a great life. … Living in a small community is really cool. We don’t have all the amenities, and we know that.”
They also don’t have a lot of crime.
“I grew up here. For years we would always leave our doors open and the keys in the truck,” Lovelock Chief of Police Michael Mancebo said. “We’ve been lucky. The last murder we’ve had was in ’92, ’93, something like that.”
Pershing County is also the only county in Nevada that has not lost a police officer in the line of duty, although there have been officer-involved shootings, most recently at the end of October near Winnemucca, according to Machado.
Part of what makes Pershing County so safe is a sense of community and the cooperation between agencies.
“I’ve been here 31 years. I know everyone in this town and who they are related to,” Machado said. “Everybody watches out for everybody. You can’t do something at school without your parents finding out before you get home. That’s the kind of closeness and support that this community provides.”
Pershing County High School, with approximately 200 students and one of the highest graduation rates in the state, has champion football and volleyball teams, an on-campus TV station and 14 acres of alfalfa fields that students cultivate.
“There is not a lot of (schools) that can point to 14 acres of ground that’s under production,” high school principal Russell Fecht said. “We try to get everything we can out of our 200 kids. It comes down to that near and dear belief, when you go out for those things, you learn lifelong lessons.”
About 150 students are enrolled in Pershing County Middle School and about 300 in Pershing County Elementary School, and all are active members of the community.
“We have amazing schools, an amazing community,” said Heidi Lusby-Angvick, executive director of the Pershing County Economic Diversification Authority. “There are very talented athletes and scholars in our schools.”
The schools are just the tip of the iceberg in a community built on trust, rural values and personal involvement.
“The town really supports the schools. I think we’ve been quite successful with the kids,” Mayor Michael Giles said. “We still have a small-town aspect here in Lovelock. There is still clean air. People are still friendly. It’s kind of like the old days. It’s a very tight-knit community. We support one another.”