August 4th: Form Stakes & Range Finders

“Four inches left. Mark it, 5:00 and Arctic.” That’s the word from the Octagon to one of the teams on the Survey crew. Coyote’s got one eye on the transit and a radio in hand, as he directs the placement of survey flags along the first street beyond the Esplanade. This year the city is three blocks extended past 2006, so the Survey crew has got 221 intersections to mark. Along with the Man base, 624 street pegs, and flags for Center Camp, Promenades, and four plazas. And you can’t believe how precise they are.

The Octagon was built around the Golden Spike by Coyote using leftover lumber from last year’s Waffle and panels from the Center Camp Café. It’s painted red on the outside so you can see it from far away, and it’s solid, really solid. It’s temporary home to most of the crew since they start work shortly after dawn and keep going til dusk. This is their busy time. They’ve got seven days to lay out the city compared to ten last year, and the city is significantly bigger now. Check it out:

Black Rock City survey map If you think it’s easy to lay out Black Rock City, sit down and try it. You need to know trig. You need room for 45,000 people and 645 theme camps. You’ll have to calculate street dimensions and block sizes. The city has to be situated on the playa at the exact angle that has been agreed upon by Burning Man, the BLM, Washoe County, and Pershing County. Don’t forget the airport and the two-mile long entry and exit road. And the pentagon-shaped trash fence has to be situated at a fixed distance from the Man on all sides.

Now go out to the site and set up a home base to use for the next seven days. You’ll need a crew that’s willing and happy to work long hot days in the sun. The wind will be blowing up dust that makes it difficult if not impossible to see, and you need to make sure you have all of your supplies ahead of time because the nearest city is two hours away. Oh, and there’s no cell phone reception. Or electricity. Or bathrooms.

The Survey Crew
The Survey crew uses radios now, instead of flag signals like they used to, and laser range finders instead of tape measures. Some things have definitely changed. The team works really well together, most of them returning from years past.

Nipps and her FluffmobileCoyote has a crew of eight including Nipps, a fluffer from Philly who makes sure the crew has everything they need. Food, water, or a ride to the port-a-potty. Duct tape, Sharpies, and a comfy place to land. She drives a tricked out van from the early eighties and does body work with a hammer. Yah.


I hang out with Coyote in the Octagon while he keeps an eye on two crews in the field, making measurements every minute or so. He’s the City Superintendent, and this is his 12th year at Burning Man. He wears a cowboy hat, sunglasses, no shirt, steel-toe boots, and shorts. He’s got four or five tattoos, one of which is the DPW logo on his right calf. Coyote’s got a million stories about the event and a lot of great energy.

In 2002, when the theme was the Floating World and the Man base was a lighthouse, there were lasers going out from the Man toward Center Camp, the Temple, and two laser towers at 3:00 and 9:00. It was a real challenge because of the way the lasers were aimed, everything had to be exact. They must have measured a thousand times, but after construction started at the Temple, they were off by five or six feet, a massive number in the survey world. Turns out a Bobcat driver had driven over a flag and not told anyone. He just stuck the flag back in the ground when he noticed it lying there. They fixed it as best they could, and the laser went through by about two inches. Remember how cool that looked?

We see somebody coming toward us from the 12-mile entrance. It’s Cowboy Carl in his pickup truck. He lives in Wadsworth and directs the fence crew. Coyote tells me this is how it unfolds every year- nobody hears from Carl at all, and one day he shows up, ready to roll. Carl is old school Nevada and starts talking to Coyote about work crews. “A lot of ‘em have been stoned for 8 to 20 years you know, so you don’t want ‘em to have to think. Better to keep it simple.”

In the meantime, a real live coyote has wandered onto the playa. She’s in pretty bad shape, exhausted and dehydrated. She heads straight for Trailer Park Romeo and they build up enough trust that she follows him to Nipps’ van and lays down in the shade underneath. We give her water and food, but she’s too stressed out to drink or eat. It’s not helping that a seagull has followed her across the playa and parked itself by the van, obviously waiting for the young coyote to die. The survey comes to a grinding halt as TPR, Bean, and Nipps try to make sure the coyote is ok. Finally they wrap her up in a blanket, load her in the van, and take her across the highway to an area with water and vegetation. The coyote, now named Gull Bait, scampers away, seemly rejuvenated. Happy ending.

After lunch, I go out with the surveyors as they plot out two more streets. Bean stands at 2:00 and Estuary while Blackthorn goes toward 2:00 and Fresh Water, and DA goes out to 2:00 and Grassland. Blackthorn bounces a laser off Bean through the crosshairs in his range finder until he gets a consistent reading of 67 yards. He plants a flag at his best guess, waits to hear back from Coyote about which way to move left or right, and then sets the mark. Coyote is about 2/3 of a mile away at this point, and he’s eyeballing this line of sight through the transit, against a backdrop of serious playa shimmer. It’s hard, and he’s good at it. So is Blackthorn – he’s got four marks exactly right today just by looking back toward the Octagon.

Trailer Park Romeo & Rascal surveying F & G Streets As the team of Bean, DA, and Blackthorn make their way around the semi-circle from 2:00 toward 10:00, I join TPR and Rascal at 10:00 going the opposite direction. I’m the laser target, and they mark the center of the intersections at Fresh Water and Grassland. I have to mention, the survey crew runs from mark to mark- they don’t mess around. It takes a while, but we meet the other team at about 7:30 and call it a day. F and G are done.

Chillin' in the Octagon Everyone reconvenes at the Octagon for a beer, a smoke, and an initiation for the new girl- snuff that you sniff. We sat around and laughed our asses off, enjoying the feel of hard work and knowing that the city was being built. Having a hand in such a cool thing makes me feel great. This crew rocks, and I’m really happy to be here.    – Marnee

About the author: Marnee Benson

Marnee Benson

Marnee is Burning Man Project’s Associate Director of Government Affairs. Her work focuses on permitting and relationships with the Nevada Legislature, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Pershing County, and multiple other Nevada agencies. She helps Burning Man navigate Nevada politics and federal issues affecting the Burning Man event. Marnee’s first trip to Black Rock City was 2001, and in 2007 she worked with the Department of Public Works and the Communications team, writing and photographing content for the Burning Blog “Building Black Rock City”. From 2009 to 2013, she served as the Deputy Director at Black Rock Solar. She loves the way Burning Man expands her world and flips ideas upside down.

One comment on “August 4th: Form Stakes & Range Finders

  • linka says:

    I want to say to those that are not there…you should not regret your choice. If Burning Man has anything to teach, it is to accept each moment for what it is. I am happy for all my friends to be there having an awesome time and taking a couple years off here and there only makes the next year’s visit more gratifying.

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