August 10th: Fence

Fence. Say it to a normal person, and they might look at you like: “Yeah, so what?” Say it to DPW and they’ll get a semi-crazed look in their eyes. A little drool maybe. You might sense a strange longing. Don’t worry, they’ll be fine. Eventually.

This is the day that Burning Man officially descends on the playa. Transpo starts; the DPW Depot gets built; Center Camp gets laid out; the man base takes shape, major art installations arrive. But the biggest thing by far is the fence. The fence that keeps loose moop inside the city limits when the wind blows. The 8-mile perimeter fence that gets pounded in and tied by hand.

Everybody in the DPW shuttled out to the 12-mile entrance this morning at 6:30. There was a LOT of energy in the air. The playa was still bare playa at this point, beautiful and flat as far as the eye could see. Only our vehicles and the equipment trucks interrupted the view.

Cowboy CarlCowboy Carl gathered everyone around the back of a big rig with a few choice swear words for a meeting to talk about the day’s work. He has a way about him- his mannerism and speech in addition to the bona fide cowboyness- that is positively enthralling. Anyway, he made us laugh and got us even more fired up before he split us up into teams. One for pounding t-stakes and one for tying fence. He told us we’d probably start out kinda slow and eventually get a rhythm going. He grossly underestimated the determination of (or is it overestimated the good sense of) the group.

T-stakes waiting to be poundedHere’s how it works: A big trailer full of t-stakes starts out at slow speed along the fence line that was dragged out in perfect straightness by chain the day before. Four people in the back of the trailer hand off t-stakes to a guy on the ground who counts out footsteps and lays a t-stake perpendicular to the line every 20 feet or so. A mob of pounders follows. In teams of two, they wield custom-made t-stake pounders and beat the t-stakes into submission. One after another, for eight miles.

After 5 & Jack RabbitEach stake takes a Herculean effort. One person sets it in place, and the other person raises the pounder and slams it down, repeatedly. They take turns pounding. (Editor’s note: once the pounding starts, if you’re the holder get out of the way.) In some cases, the team of two will operate the pounder simultaneously. Doyle In some cases, you’re six feet six and built like a lumberjack in a recruitment ad for lumberjacks. You show up on fence day after driving all night, and you pound in 144.5 t-stakes by yourself. The pounding is loud, really loud. The DPW is louder. Everyone’s yelling and singing and egging each other on.

Star ChildStar Child celebrates every one of his stakes with a sustained Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!! Coyote’s got music blaring in the background from the specially designed and newly-built fluffer wagon. Six of the pounders break-they can’t take the heat and have to be re-welded.;

Padawan & FoxThere are machines that will install t-stakes more easily. But this is the DPW, and this is how the fence goes up at Burning Man. I am positive there isn’t a single person here who would have it any other way. In the end, the t-stakes were done 30 minutes faster than last year, and the fence is a mile and a half longer. Didn’t I tell you they were badass?

Rolling out the trash fenceMeanwhile, there’s another team following the pounders, tying three lines of string to the t-stakes. Then Cowboy Carl with Panties No Panties and Bloody Knuckles delivering rolls of fence along the entire perimeter. Then comes the fence tying crew. They roll out the fence, stretch it tight along the t-stakes, and tie it to the string along the top, middle, and bottom.

Tying fence Let me see if I can calculate this. Three square knots on each stake, three more every four or five feet for eight miles… That’s one gazillion square knots tied by hand. There are so many knots that a team of three is working full-time just to cut lengths of string. There are so many knots that most people on the crew have their fingers taped to avoid the inevitable beating their hands will take. And yet, three of the five fence sides are finished today. The entire fence will be done by noon tomorrow. When you go to Burning Man this year and see the orange fence in the distance, think about these people and this day. Let your eyes gloss over just for a moment, and feel the love.

Remember what I said about the playa being pretty much empty this morning at 7:00? Well, here’s what I meant by “transpo.” All day long, there’s been movement on the playa. Heavy equipment, huge trucks, cranes, Hysters, trailers, storage containers, and fork lifts. All of which have to be coordinated: pick-ups and deliveries, times and locations. (And remember, anyone making a delivery to the playa has to figure out location without benefit of street signs or even streets.) Equipment and supplies are coming in from the ranch as well as dozens of different vendors around the state. It’s a major undertaking.

Finished fenceAs of 5:00 this afternoon, you could see important landmarks taking shape all over the city. A transformation is taking place, and today was big. Sitting in the office my first day, I heard maybe one or two trucks a day go by outside. Now it’s nearly constant. Last week there were 50 of us in Gerlach. Now there are 170 DPW, Gate, Placement, and senior staff. When I first got here, the trailer park was quiet. Now it’s completely full. Last week only the survey team was on the playa. Now the playa is buzzing with workers from every department. Yesterday it felt like preparation. Today it feels like we’re building Black Rock City.


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.

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