The Big Bang

The first fence crews started gathering well before dawn Monday morning, even as the smoke from nearby forest fires still lingered in the desert air. Spoono and his group would have chow and coffee for everyone who would be spending the next ten hours or so working in the desert heat.

There were stakes to pound and a fence to put up. Trucks would be rumbling from the highway to the playa, dropping containers and generators and all manner of stuff all over the desert floor. The Man Base crew would be hauling gear and the pieces they’d been working on at the ranch for the last three weeks. The vendor’s Commissary tents would be going up, and the Artica and Power teams would be staking out their turf and counting their inventory.

It was the first big day in the building of Black Rock City for 2012, and it was going off big time, everywhere and all at once.

You have to be up for this job, up to the task of building a city for 60,000 out of … nothing. Just as you have to be radically self-reliant for your own needs when you get to Burning Man, the people who put on the event have to bring everything that’s needed from somewhere else to make it all happen. It’s a big job, and you have to be ready for it. You have to be up for it. You have to be inspired, even.

Maybe a little of the inspiration had come a day before.

Just George gave directions in the morning

The first thing you have to understand is that most of the managers and crew chiefs of Burning Man hate meetings, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Still, the day before the big build started, it made sense to get status reports from  all the department heads and crew chiefs who are responsible for all the pieces that have to fall into place the right way and at the right time.

And so there they all were, chased by the wind and the threat of dust from the Water Tower Park in Gerlach across the street to the Black Rock Saloon. About 40 people sat at the picnic table benches in the back room and took turns updating each other about the roads, the water, the power, the fence, the radios, the food …. the list went on. It was a Sunday afternoon, the next morning would come awfully early, and there might have been a little drudgery in the air.

But then the mood began to change. Some managers talked about what to expect from their people this year. They acknowledged that it had been a tough year; that there were more than a few friends who had been lost. There had been professional changes, too, and maybe not all of them had worked exactly according to plan. And they said that it was important to watch how their people were handling things. They might be looking at the event as a release from the pain, as one of the things that would help them process all that had happened. The stakes were high. ..  But one thing was clear: being in each other’s company was a solace.  “I look at you all and it makes me want to cry,” one manager said. And she had tears in her eyes when she said it.

Plenty of pounding, plenty early

So that was the tenor of the room when Marian started to speak. Marian Goodell, aka Maid Marian, aka JackRabbit, aka Meow, one of the Burning Man founders and a person at the very heart of the event, and a person at the very center of the challenges that the organization had faced this year.

She’d come to Gerlach on a lighting trip of 24 hours to be here for the start of Black Rock City. And when she started to talk, she didn’t try to sugarcoat the year’s problems. She looked around the room and thanked the people who had been with her for so many years, and she talked about all that had been done to save the event, to keep it welcome for the people who had made it what it is.  “Don’t believe everything that you read or hear,” she said. “Don’t believe the numbers about what percent [of attendees] are going to be newcomers.”

And then she talked about moving forward.

“I’ve had to decide that it’s going to be a really really good year,” she said. “People feel down and overwhelmed, but you are all the bellwethers. … When it comes off for you, it comes off like … bang! For everyone!” I may not be doing this justice, because what she said, and the way she said it, didn’t come off as rah-rah or Pollyanna. There was no false bravado, just a very endearing humility and gratitude. And the room seemed to hear her.

So now we are on the desert floor as the first light of morning is beginning to reach over the hills. And everything is going to start with the fence. Once the fence is up, there’s an inside and an outside to Black Rock City, as somebody put it. This was the day to establish the perimeter.

The fence crews, and the stake pounders in particular, get a lot of the attention, and rightfully so. It’s not often that nine miles of fence gets put up in a single day, in the heat of the desert. And there was more rallying to be done.

Just George is the tough-talking, drill-sergeant-type ex-military guy who directs the fence operation. He was giving directions in the predawn light. “Do I have to tell you how to line up in two rows??” he was barking, but he wasn’t really fooling anyone with the tough-guy act. He loves his “troops,” and his troops love him back, and they indulge him the histrionics.

Starchild directing folks to the next station

Nico Peaches and Starchild were his lieutenants this day, and they gave last-minute admonitions  about staying hydrated and pounding safely. The pounding is a big job. About 2,000 stakes are driven into the  baked playa surface, and the pounders do it  with prehistoric metal devices that weigh about as much as a small car. These are dangerous items – if you’re not careful, you can conk yourself or your partner and leave a good-sized dent. And even though you’ve wrapped your fingers with protective tape and put on heavy gloves, if  you’re not careful the metal beasts will blister your flesh in the time it takes to drive one stake home.

It’s a hard job, and you’ve got to be motivated to do it.

The veteran pounders get the job done with an economy of motion that they’ve learned the hard way. “I saw a video from back in 2002 or so,” DA was saying, “and I couldn’t believe how [unnecessarily] hard I was working.”   He was walking with a pounder slung on his shoulders as casually as if he were out for a morning stroll.  After he slipped the pounder onto the stake,  he took maybe ten pounds or so to drive it into the ground. Then he sauntered on.

Fluffer Nips and her crew doing the very unglamorous work of making sure that everyone had what they needed – water, snacks, sunscreen, a smile.

Fluffer Nipps

After the pounders had moved out, another wave of workers moved out from Gerlach and started laying out rolls of trash fence and tying it to the stakes. The work doesn’t move as quickly as the pounding, and a lot of it is done in the heat of the day.

At the back of one of the supply trucks, a small group was doing another highly unglamorous task – cutting rolls of nylon rope into foot-long lengths, so that they could be used to tie the fence to the stakes. The cutting implements left a LOT to be desired, so it was more like a sawing action to get through the nylon rope. The thing was, the crews needed string. A lot of string. Like, 30,000 pieces of string, give or take.

(Here’s how we got that figure, and you can check our math: There were about 2,000 stakes that were pounded into the ground. Three pieces of string were used to tie the fence to each stake, and twelve more pieces of string were used to tie the fence to the three strings between each stake.  So, 2,000 x 3 plus 2,000 x 12  = 30,000. Like we said, a lot of string.)

In the end, for those of you keeping score at home, the pounding was finished before 9 in the morning, and the whole fence was done before 3 in the afternoon. “Did we set a record?” someone asked. We don’t know, and we don’t honestly care. It was just an amazing thing to watch.

When it was all done, there were beers handed out, and Just George got a cooler of water dumped on him, and people found shade where they could and enjoyed their cool beverages.

In a half hour, they had all scattered, off to their various crews and various tasks. They had done what they could to get things off with a bang.

And we bring you … the fence
A whole lotta tying going on
Just kicking it
Plenty of playa, plenty of fence
Panda Rat, getting it done
Double trouble
Some people can handle the pounders better than others
The team that brought you the fence

About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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