Travel Nevada: A trip to Jean Lake for annual ‘RiSe” lantern festival
Special to the Bonanza
Traditional lantern festivals have been around dating back to 13th century BC in China, when they were used for signaling between troops. A message, written on a parchment lantern, often summoned help when the enemy was surrounding.
Festivals around the world expanded the original message to include expressions of reconciliation. But, up until now, distance, scarcity and concerns over sustainability and safety have kept them out of reach for most Americans.
All that changed on Oct. 18 at the Jean Dry Lakebed (22 miles south of Las Vegas ), when a year’s worth of planning and permits made way for 10,000 attendees and the first annual “RiSe Lantern Festival.”
The RiSe team, headed by founder Dan Hill, worked alongside the Bureau of Land Management and several other federal, state and local agencies to bring the festival to life.
“The idea that we have to sacrifice so many of the things we enjoy for sustainability is false,” Hill said. “Beauty and responsibility, fun and sustainability — these things aren’t mutually exclusive. From the start, we wanted RiSe to demonstrate that with a little extra effort and planning, sustainability is feasible.”
After a test launch a week before the event, RiSe had successfully mitigated any fire risks, with the BLM issuing a permit to move forward. By using a fuel cell that cools to 150 degrees (not hot enough to burn or ignite a fire) within 10 seconds of burning out, the lanterns touched down harmlessly.
With lanterns designed to only burn for seven minutes, RiSe had calculated maximum travel distances and wind speed placing workers within that radius to make sure that “every lantern was recovered.”
BLM and RiSe always had the interest of the land at stake and with the help of 500 staffers and volunteers hauled 30 pickup truck loads of garbage that was there before the event, not to mention approximately 20,000, 100 percent biodegradable lanterns.
As much focus there is on sustainability and environmental concerns, the main draw to lantern festivals around the world is because of the surreal beauty they provide. Described as a “spiritual cleansing,” attendees ascended onto the desert lakebed, prepared to bond with family, friends and strangers, shed tears, share their joy and pain, express their wishes and admonitions by writing on their lanterns, and release them into a sky filled with stars. Recorded, as well as live music, framed the event from the moment you walked 500 yards from the road to the giant RiSe letters acting as the gateway. Each ticket guaranteed a seat in an assigned section, with a yoga mat for seating on the crusted earth.
Each grouping had three yoga mats and a pole torch, accompanied with multiple parchment lanterns and pens. Set on a dry bed surrounded by mountains, on a crystal clear night with barely a breeze, a simultaneous release of 10,000 lanterns set to Coldplay music created strained necks, looking upward, with eyes of wonder and mouths agape.
“Our goal was to be part of creating an event that allows people to seek for something better, to find a resolve, to honor or say goodbye to those we love and we consider it a privilege to facilitate that intense catharsis,” said Hill.
Everything that goes up, must come down, and by the time the attendees stuck around to release additional lanterns (after the simultaneous release), many chose to start the pilgrimage back to the frontage BLM road that brought you into the venue.
That’s when two hours of “awe” was followed by nearly four hours of transportation nightmare. The two shuttle bus locations (The Rio Hotel in Las Vegas and The Gold Strike, seven miles outside Jean) were part of the transportation package created by busing-logistics company AWG.
However, glitches that started with transportation (tour buses) reaching gridlock during arrival drop-off were nothing compared to the crucifying crisis that occurred trying to get 10,000 people “out,” via a two-way BLM road. Original plans called for a lantern release by 8:30, with a final bus shuttle departure no later than 11 p.m.
“The last bus left at 2 a.m., and we take full ownership of the event’s transportation breakdown and lack of crowd control,” Hill said. “We clearly have some logistical issues to work out for next year.”
Measuring the success of an event must calculate the good with the bad. Organizers, as well as attendees of the true spirit of the festival, ultimately urged followers to focus on the experience that (for some) provided a peace that no temple, church, forest or sea could ever achieve.
Some who chose to walk the seven-mile hike back to the Gold Strike location, in the pitch dark, were a mixed bag of disdain naysayers and devote believers. To quote one attendee, “Even at 2 a.m. when we finally boarded a bus, nothing helped me reach a point of reconciliation as did watching my message float to the heavens with thousands of others.”
Nevada seems to be the leader in all things magical and creative. Burning Man (28 years since its creation) came to Black Rock Desert after the BLM granted permits in 1991. Attendance has surpassed 60,000 as of 2014. It’s possible the Jean Dry Lakebed may be home to something just as promising.
RiSe President, Jeff Gehring, believes, “As long as we continue to build and improve on a concept centered around living more and worrying less, and having a better time in the process … the sky’s the limit (no pun intended).”
After experiencing it for myself it’s safe to say, “you’ll never be the same.” I’ll be back!
Carole Bernardi is an Incline Village resident and a freelance writer.