Pound It, Pound It, Pound It


It was dusty, it was windy, but it wasn’t hot, and for that we’re all grateful.

The combined forces of Black Rock City put up 9.2 miles of trash fence yesterday, and they finished before 2:30 in the afternoon.

“Great crew,” project leader Just George said, noting that another speed record had been set. The stake pounding was finished before 9 am, and the whole job was done and beers were being drunk before school would have gotten out.

There was no time to linger and bask in the glory, though, as a fierce wind kicked up just as the fence was finished, causing near white-out conditions. That and sprinkles of rain chased everyone to their vehicles and then back to town.

Even though it was still relatively early in the afternoon, it seemed like the day had begun in some other time zone. The first people on the playa were Fluffer Nips and her associates, and they were out there making breakfast for the crews at 4 in the morning. By the time the sluggards arrived around 5, the coffee was hot and the eggs were ready. Yes, this was going to be a tough day, but it was starting the right way.

Light was breaking as cars and trucks started coming onto the playa
Light was breaking as cars and trucks started coming onto the playa

“Can’t you feel it?” Slim asked. There’s just a tension in the air! The radio was just crackling all morning!” There were plenty of people feeling it. An impromptu dance party broke out not long after Customer Service said it was time to bump up the music.

We don’t want to project our feelings, but it seemed like it might have been a nervous excitement. The crews were there to build a damn fence, and building the damn fence meant pounding a whole lot of stakes in the ground, and then hours of dusty, grunty, finger-shredding work. But you almost forgot how hard it was going to be because of all the energy and excitement.

But just do the math: There was 9.2 miles of fence to build, so:

The Fluffers were out there early, getting breakfast ready
The Fluffers were out there early, getting breakfast ready


— stakes had to be unloaded from trucks and dropped on the ground every 25 feet

— each of those stakes then had to be pounded into the desert floor

— nylon line would connect the stakes, and it had to be tightly looped around the top, middle and bottom of each stake.

— rolled-up bales of orange netting needed to be unloaded and laid out on the ground

— enough pieces of cord would need to be cut to attach the fence to the strings on the stakes every three feet or so

— and then all those knots would need to be tied.

So yeah, there was excitement and energy, and we were going to need it.

Just George and the other team leaders called the troops to order. “There’s no time to lollygag,” he said, which is a word you don’t hear often enough. “It’s a word we don’t do often enough,” Trailer Park Romeo said. Just George is a former military man, and his barking is veteran. “I feel like the DI from ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ he roared at the start. I do NOT want you to shoot me though.”


Just be glad Just George wasn't talking to YOU
Just be glad Just George wasn’t talking to YOU

Stake-pounders were paired up with partners, lined up one in front of the other. “Ugly and uglier,” Just George said. But everyone knows these 50 people are the rock stars of fence day. Nothing comes close to being on one of the two teams that head off into the dawn with the big pounders on their shoulders. (Although KJ said later: “I want you to know that I did a lot of pounding today, too. But I was pounding my keyboard. Come take pictures of my spreadsheets tomorrow!” Noted.)

Anyway, the pounders headed off, literally RUNNING from one stake to the next. They do it every year, and every year it is amazing. A stake pounder is a heavy, dangerous thing, and yet they get tossed around like breakfast burritos out there.

A little later the stringers and the fence-tiers got going, and everyone was in this mad cacophony of laughing and hollering and hooting and cheering. Especially near the end, when the two teams were about to join together and pound the last stake, and again when the teams were about to finish the last of the fence. Yes, it was still only the early afternoon, but they’d been out there since 5, and the day was starting to feel pretty long.



This was a different kind of fence day, though. Maybe it was the conditions: the sun never broke through the overcast. There was no stirring, dramatic sunrise, just a lightening of the gloom. You couldn’t see the mountains in the distance, and the air smelled of smoke, which reminded you that even though you were part of this exuberant exercise of communal effort, bad things were happening elsewhere.

And yet, paradoxically, the work went more quickly than ever – maybe because you weren’t drenched with sweat from a searing sun. Some folks even lamented later that they shouldn’t even have taken a lunch break, because they felt so good and they were just zipping along. “We could have really smashed the record,” Felix said.

We found ourselves wondering and talking about whether the act of observing this fence ritual had changed the nature of the event itself. And of course the answer is yes. All this great organizational effort isn’t something that takes place in the unseen wild anymore; you can hear it and see it almost in real time (hmm; how long before Fence Day is live-streamed?). We were talking about how cameras had changed the reality and perception of what happens here, and how the people playing their parts had changed, as well.

“Ten years ago,” Slim said, “If I had done what I did today, they would have broken my camera, broken me, pissed on me and left me to die.”  Ah, the good ole days of the DPW.


You couldn't always easily record what was going on out there
You couldn’t always easily record what was going on out there

We don’t doubt that what Slim said was true. The first year we came to the desert, very few people would even talk to us, much less have any kind of trust.  We mostly stuck with the Oculus crew, the people who build the Center Camp Café, and because we spent so much time there, eventually we had little breakthroughs.

But overall? Not so good. Not only were we the new guy, but we were the new guy with a camera. The prevailing attitude was, “What the f– are you going to do with those photos?”

Today, though, things are radically different. The selfie culture has infiltrated even this hardcore bunch. People will go along with you, maybe even do a little posing. We all know that almost everything that happens out here will be seen, in one form or another. So if you want to control your image, you might as well present the face you’d like the world to see.

Pirate was saying that while the current crew still has a bad-ass reputation, there is less drama. “There aren’t many fistfights,” we said. “Right,” he said. “But that drama just grabbed you, and you couldn’t look away.”

To be honest, we’re fine without the fistfights. And even though there may be fewer broken teeth, there is still an incredible amount of skill, talent and energy gathered together in this one crazy spot. “I like that this place attracts the do-ers,” Pirate said, “and the ones that want to become do-ers.”

True enough. This place seems to attract highly talented people, and people looking to acquire new talents. It also attracts people who think independently and creatively, and that differentness is appreciated and encouraged. But this is not an easy place to be if you’re trying to figure out who you are.

Families that pound together, stay together: Angel and her son Nacho worked on the fence yesterday
Families that pound together, stay together: Angel and her son Nacho worked on the fence yesterday

As ever, the do-ers must do the work, and there is plenty of it. There is so much work to do to get the city ready. Logan was saying the other night that when he went to Germany this offseason to talk about how things are done at Burning Man, he was often asked how the organization got so many people to volunteer their time.

“That’s really not the way to frame it,” Logan said. “What you want to do is give them an experience they want to have.”

When the stake pounders neared the end of the line, people were whooping and cheering when virtually every stake was put into the ground. One young woman was moving a little slowly, and as she walked along she said to her partner, “Thanks for doing two (stakes) to every one of mine.”

“Of course,” he said. “That’s just what we do.”

As the crews were about to finish, there was lots of hugging and laughing and again, more cheering. When the last pieces were finally joined, and the circumference of the city was complete, a big cheer went up. And then everyone got down on the ground and did ten pushups for Just George.

More than a couple of DPW folks traveled the world in the offseason this year (and we don’t mean “traveled the world” in a generic sense; se mean they went all over the globe, and they were gone for the ENTIRE offseason, only returning in time to come back to build Black Rock City. Witch Doctor was one of them. He said, “I saw a lot of things this year, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

When the fence was finished, everyone dropped to the ground for pushups
When the fence was finished, everyone dropped to the ground for pushups


Morning Notes: There was real, windshield-wiper rain in town this morning, but the latest forecasts indicated that we’d miss most of the bad weather. … There was another Dawn Patrol of stake-pounders this morning, getting Gate Road flagged, and they were doing their jobs with little of the fanfare that accompanied Fence Day. “We’ve just got a job to do,” Booya said. … Overheard quote of the day: “You have to bring plenty of socks, or go without shoes and leave the tenderfoot life behind.” … The authorities have laid down traffic strips on the highway out to the playa, monitoring the 55-mph speed limit. “If they find too many people speeding, they’re going to lower the speed limit next year,” Playground said. … There’s a Gerlach pub crawl this evening. This will take a little heat off Miss Roach and her crew at the Black Rock Saloon, and it’ll help spread some business around to the locals at Joe’s and the Miner’s Club. “Bring money,” we were advised. … There were lots of tired faces and aching bodies at breakfast this morning. “I don’t know why, but I had a really hard time getting up this morning,” one person said. “Maybe it was the weather.” “Or maybe it was the drinking,” he was told.


Here are some more pictures from Fence Day, 2014:


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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