Getting the Lay of the Land

The Survey crew pans out on its first day in the desert
The Survey crew fans out on its first day in the desert

The sign that welcomes you to Gerlach notes, “Attitude: Good. Population: Wanted.”

The town is very much getting what it wants in these past few days, because 300, maybe more, Burning Man people have moved into town, getting ready to build the nine miles of trash fence that demarcates the city and serves to keep trash from blowing all over the desert.

We’re still in something of a quiet zone, though, and the only visible sign of progress that have taken place so far has been the precise placing of 3,000-4,000 multicolored flags onto the desert floor. These flags are the result of the Survey team’s week of work.

A million years ago when we first started coming out to the playa early (well, it feels like that long), we wanted to see what the desert was like before all the art, before all the tents, before all the RVs, before all the everything was put in place in Black Rock City.

So we came up for Fence, but we were wrong about it being the first thing that happens.

Even before the fence goes up, the very first camp will have already set up at Burning Man 2014, and they will also have already broken down their stuff and moved onward. Some folks will take up other duties on the various crews, and some folks will take off for good, having had enough of the desert and the community for another year.

Because before the fence goes up, you have to figure out where it’s going to go. In fact, you have to figure out where just about everything is going to go – where the Man will stand, where the Esplanade will be, where walk-in camping will go. That’s where the Survey team comes in. Eighteen intrepid souls who are on hand for Spike then start work immediately to lay the groundwork for the city where eventually almost 70,000 people will live for a week or so.

Black Rock City is precisely laid out around a clockwork grid. The Center Camp Café is at 6 o’clock on the clock face, the Temple is at 12 o’clock, and the Man is at the midway point between the two. The first ring of roads is known as the Esplanade, and lettered streets from A through L radiate out around it. These are intersected by spokes of the clock; there are mini-promenades at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock, and you can find your pals out here if they leave word they are staying at, say,  3:30 and J.

Something else also happens during that week before the build begins: The eighteen people on the Survey team have their own little Burning Man gathering.

Near sundown, the first bocce ball game of the season commences
Near sundown, the first bocce ball game of the season commences

“It’s my favorite week of the year,” says Coyote, the Superintendent of the city. “It’s better than Chrisma…. Well, now I’m a family man, so I can’t say Christmas. But it’s like that. … I can imagine being out here when I’m 80, with my kids on the Survey team.”


Because that’s how beautiful the desert days and nights are, and when you are out there with people you know and trust, and whom you maybe haven’t seen in a year, it’s a summer camp and class reunion rolled into one.

“It was like a dream,” Molly said simply. “It was just a dream.”

Molly happened to be sitting at the Black Rock Saloon when she started talking about what the week was like with the Survey crew, who are out there with nothing but each other, some equipment and a bunch of flags.

“I feel like I’ve already had my Burning Man,” she said. “If I had to go home now, I’d be ok with it.”

Just then Drinkwater came up to chat, and before too long they were making some kind of oath, hooking pinkies to solemnize the promise. “What are you swearing,” we asked. “We’re promising to keep in touch after Survey.”

The experience reminded Molly of something else, too: “It reminded me that we’re all on the team,” Molly said. “That you can’t do it by yourself.”

Coyote is the superintendent of the city, and as such he pretty much calls the shots for a lot of the stuff that has to happen for the city to take shape correctly. Tony’s first experience in the desert years ago was doing similar work: He had come up with some wild friends, who were only about 24 hours behind schedule before they finally arrived to help with setup. The newcomers were in pretty rough shape, Coyote included. It was not the best way to make a good first impression.

The next day, at dawn, Coyote went to work. He was trying to shake off the effects of the wildness of the previous 48 hours, and he also was trying to make amends with all the strangers who were looking at him with hard expressions on their faces. He worked in the sun, hour after hour, digging holes and trenches, hauling all manner of crap, sweating profusely. Ultimately the experience became … cleansing. He found a way to prove his worth, and he also found sense of purpose that he didn’t even  know he had been looking for.

Coyote officially started doing  survey in ’98, even before Rod Garrett’s beautiful clockwork design had been adopted for Black Rock City, in 1999. That year, ’99, was the first year that they had an official Golden Spike ceremony. And, Coyote reports, they actually had to do the survey not once, not twice, but three times.

Coyote called people to gather around the Spike.
Coyote called people to gather around the Spike.

For the first Spike ceremony, all manner of dignitaries were on hand – the local commissioners, the Reno Gazette, and there was much hand-shaking and speech-ifying. The speeches were made and the Spike had been struck and the Survey had begun.

But then the Sheriff of Pershing County decided that the dirty happy rave was not going to happen on his land, and he got in touch with the BLM, and he forced the Burning Man crews to pull up all the flags and move down the playa into Washoe County.

Coyote dutifully began the survey in the new location, but when Will Roger, the DPW founder, went and took a look at the site, he was outraged. It was too close to Gerlach, too close to water. He went over the head of the Pershing County sheriff and appealed to another BLM official, telling him “you’re going to have to call out the National Guard if we hold it here,” because everyone was going to get stuck in the mud.”

This move of course infuriated the Pershing County sheriff, but nevertheless the decision held. But it also meant that Coyote now had to pull down the second set of flags and move them back to the original site.

“The second ceremony was just me and the crew around the Spike, and we just said ‘Mumbo jumbo mumbo jumbo,’ and we went to work. The third time it was just me by myself, going ‘Goddammit!’”


There were no such maneuvers this year. The Spike went off as planned, and the Survey proceeded apace. The Survey isn’t technically difficult, but it is long and boring and tedious. And it takes place in the desert that is a month hotter than it will be when you get here. In fact, it’s so hot, the crew often has to break in the middle of the day because they can’t get clear sightlines  – the heat sends shimmers up from the ground, and you can’t get a good sighting when the objects in your glass are moving.

The team got a bit of break this year, though, as a cloud cover and moderate temperatures kept break times at a minimum.

“I wish you could have seen them,” Coyote said, “when they were clicking through the blocks, working with really unbelievable synchronicity. We had high winds but a cloud cover, so visibility was really really good. So we just kept going.

“It reminded me of kids playing ball until they couldn’t see the ball anymore,” he said.

To be honest about all this, we’re really tourists when it comes to the Survey team. We were not out there camping with them in their Octogon, an eight-sided wooden structure that provides a bit of shelter from the elements. We were out there for awhile that first night, though, and the wind came up early, and it never stopped. The wind was howling so much, in fact, that the three guys singing and playing guitars and accordion could barely be heard. The moon was new, and clouds meant that there would be no starry sky.

Still, there were distractions. There were libations (cheap, strangely-named beer to go with a fancy bottle or two of whiskey.) Booya had been charged with bringing the glow-in-the-dark bocce balls, but somehow they had been left behind. Someone had been sent to retrieve them, but the mood, like the night, was pretty dark before they arrived.

But they did in fact arrive, and that’s when we made a discovery that surprised us quite a bit. All those dark-clad people wearing the shirts with the orange patch are, in fact, as fond of glow-y things as your average burner. The DPW likes shiny things, too.

Glowing bocce balls finally arrived
Glowing bocce balls finally arrived



The next day drew hot and bright. The Survey crew broke into three teams to mark off the jump circle – pretty much the halfway point between the Man and the beginning of the Esplanade. One person would hold the glass and do the sighting, another would “squire” and hold the flags and other gear, and a third would drop the appropriate mark at the other end.

“I’ve done this a lot,” D.A. was saying as he looked at the city map, “So I like to give other people a chance at dropping the marker. But they have to realize, they’re going to be squires, too.”

Trailer Park Romeo said being out there for Survey was like stroking the belly of a cat. You’re stroking and the cat is purring, but you’re kind of waiting for the cat’s claws to come out. So the Survey crew was doing its thing in the relatively moderate conditions, but they were waiting for the desert claws to come out. But they never did. It was that beautiful.

The DPW folks like to say that they are Killing Time Till Resto, (where the crews take down all that has been constructed, stow it away, and restore the playa to its pristine condition.

But maybe Survey is where Burning Man begins, where people first experience the desert, and each other.

“You get a real sense, or at least an imagined sense,” Dan says, “of what it must have been like when there was less structure, when it was just a bunch of crazy redneck artists partying in the desert.

“There was really a feeling of peacefulness and freedom.”

These blue flags mark the path where the trash fence will be.
These blue flags mark the path where the trash fence will be.



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.

9 Comments on “Getting the Lay of the Land

  • Corvus says:

    The story of the three surveys shows us how Pershing county – at least those nominally in charge of it – has always been ambivalent about that dirty hippy pagan freak fest 120 road miles from their doorstep.

    Report comment

  • TT says:

    It’s so fantastic that the fence catches every bit of trash, and nothing goes past it. It’s like the fence has the Force, or some kind of magical ability to keep all the shit BRC produces from blowing beyond it.

    And where would we be without DPW (we built this city) putting little blue flags all around? I can’t wait to give them all my beer.

    Report comment

  • HoneyBee says:

    “Ultimately the experience became … cleansing. He found a way to prove his worth, and he also found sense of purpose that he didn’t even know he had been looking for.”

    For how many of us is this true? Seeking a place where we can be useful and appreciated and made welcome. Perhaps that is the reason for Burning Man’s global success.

    Without the Survey Crew and DPW, we would not have this amazing opportunity, and I am grateful.

    Report comment

  • Jackie Mcastherton says:

    I was on fence crew in 2001, I can say that the experience bordered on spiritual. We broke the record that year and put the fence up in 3 days. I would love to do it again someday

    Report comment

  • also says:

    Um, TT, it doesn’t work like that at all. Just go to the edge of the playa downwind of the event, there’s tons of trash stuck in the bushes – any thing light enough to blow away, will.

    Definitely a faulty to world view to begin with the assumption that magic is involved.

    Report comment

  • Steven says:

    Love the tale you weave and to have had the fortune to meet you and others who make this a magic journey.
    Look forward to Joyce entreating my senses to all that is BM (that one can intake over 5 days at least) for the first year.

    Report comment

  • Fiver says:

    How exactly is the position for the spike (eventually the Man) decided? I know the city moves a little each year to help minimize the impact on the playa, but who decides the exact coordinates for the man? Is there just a general area decided on, and then they pick the exact location on the day of the spike ceremony?

    Report comment

  • Zac says:

    I dream about this stuff. My life is going to fork pretty soon now, but down both of those forks is a Civil Engineering degree and someday (please oh please) a year with DPW. Keep it up.

    Report comment

  • pilar says:

    ahhhh, your words are like water in the desert, john. beautiful! see you soon! :)

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.