“It’s Fun Till You Have To Do It”

A line of half a dozen cars and trucks snaked along curvy Route 34 out of Gerlach early Friday morning, headlights making small dents in the darkness. The vaguest hint of light began to touch the sky, pink and purple and gray.

When the mini caravan reached the 12-mile entrance to the Black Rock Desert, it became clear that these weren’t the earliest pilgrims to make the trek this morning. About a mile out, there were dozens of other vehicles parked in a rough semicircle, and maybe a couple hundred or so early risers were gathered around long tables that had been set up in the darkness.

On the tables were breakfast burritos and coffee, and people were laughing and stretching and getting reacquainted. It was Fence Day, 2017, the day nine miles of orange trash fence is installed around the perimeter of what will become Black Rock City. With the general state of happiness and excitement, though, there was a tinge of nervousness, too. No matter if you’ve done Fence before and think you know the drill, there’s still danger in the air.

It had been hot, very hot, all week in Black Rock, and this would be a very long, very hot day in the sun. The first group, the pounders, would be carrying heavy metal drivers that, if you weren’t careful, could easily gouge a good-sized chunk out of your head. And you’d need to wrap your fingers in adhesive tape before putting on your heavy gloves, or your hands would get ripped and blistered from all the pounding.

So yeah, while it was exhilarating and exciting and a matter of pride to be part of the first crew building the city, the experience would have a price. If you thought it was going to be easy, you were kidding yourself. Glory doesn’t come cheap.

Some people were here because they couldn’t stay away: Davis, aka Stinky Pirate, had been in Reno, doing an installation of the Space Whale from last year’s Burning Man, and although he couldn’t afford the time this year to work the entire season, he was here for Fence. “I just wanted to get a taste,” he said.

He’d get more than a taste. As Cowboy Carl said about Fence Day, “It looks like fun until you have to do it.”

Boris is the volunteer coordinator for Gate, Perimeter and Exodus, but between now and the event opening, he’ll be stage-managing at the Eclipse festival in Oregon. But he was here this morning, too, because he just wanted to be a part of things.

The pounders get some last-minute instructions from Booya and Starchild, and then one of the medics reminds people to take care of themselves, and each other. One of the telltale signs of heat exhaustion, he says, is crankiness, so, with that as a measure, it would be safe to say that all of us were displaying some symptoms.But in a larger way, the emphasis on safety made the element of danger very real. You could have a good time, but you couldn’t fool around.Just George had his inductees count off, and then he put them in the dust for pushups. (Pushups are a key motivational device for Just George.) Then two separate groups of pounders headed off in different directions from Point One; one group would head down the “shoreline” toward Point Two, the other in the opposite direction toward Point Five on the pentagon-shaped perimeter of the city. Somewhere out in the distance, a distance you couldn’t see in the faint light, they’d meet.

Booya let out a yell as one portion of pounding was finished

Not all the same people are here every year, not by a long shot, but there are a handful of stalwarts. There’s Just George, of course, the drillmaster who’s in charge of the day; Cowboy Karl, the former Marine sergeant who took a break from life as a buckaroo to help build the city. Coyote, the superintendent of the city and its most noted storyteller; Nips, the hospitality queen whose crew of “fluffers” try to keep the crew hydrated and fresh; and some others – Luke and Slim and Panda and D.A. and Smokes and Woody and Scum Bag and John Bastard and Lou and Audry and Witch Doctor and Rodney and Monkey Boy and Toad and Professor Plague, to name a few.

You’re happy to see all of them, but there’s always a twinge when you remember the people who aren’t here this year. You note their absence, you think good thoughts, and you hope they’ve found a better way.

 

The building of the fence is a multi-tiered thing that starts with planting little blue flags in the dust where each of the stakes will go. Then on Fence Day, another team drops a stake near each of the flags. Then the pounders come and push the stakes into the ground, nice and straight and all in a line. The stakes are about 25 feet apart, and, as we mentioned, the circumference of the city is a little more than nine miles, so that’s about 1,900 stakes that need pummeling on this day.

The stringers come next, tying three lines of twine to the stakes, and they are followed by three teams of about 20 people each who will attach the trash fence to the lines on the stakes. Each segment of fence must be unloaded from a truck, rolled out in the dust and then tied to the stakes and lines. Just George estimated that workers would have to tie about 50,000 knots overt the course of the day. And each of those knots would be tied with baling twine that had to be cut into short lengths for the purpose. As one lady who will remain nameless said as she neared the end of a 4,000-foot bale of twine, “There won’t be any handjobs tonight.”

The old timers will tell you that things were tougher in the early years. The fence was a three- or four-day project, and there were only a handful of people there to do it. And while there’s no disputing the fact that four days of this would be almost ridiculously hard, there’s also no disputing the fact that however long you have to do it, this is not an easy thing to do, and it’s a very difficult place to do it.

There was pounding, there was tying, there was singing, there was laughing, there was music, there were stories, there was hydrating, and there was work. On and on it went, around and around the city. But there was a good breeze all day, too, and while the temperature hit north of 100, the wind made it all seem a lot more bearable.

The end came a little later than expected, at almost four in the afternoon. Each year the crews take pride in setting a new record for completing the fence. But there was no record this year, as a redeployment of forces meant that there were fewer people to throw at the fence.

Cobra Commander noted at the morning meeting the next day that things had gotten “tedious and underpopulated” as Fence Day wore on, and that attention would be paid so that there wouldn’t be a repeat next year.

Still, there was pride and joy when the fence was finished. Just George said no one had worked harder in any year. And then the fluffer vans rolled up with cans of ice-cold beer, and no matter the brand, these beers, at this time, were among the top ten best-tasting beers of all time.

The crews partied for a short while, and you looked ahead to the Four Twenty party that would happen in several weeks, when all the work would be behind us. But this right here was pretty much the last time the whole DPW crew would gather together in the dust before the event begins. So part of you didn’t want this party to end.

But it had to end, because there was still lots of work to do today. There was a container to unload, and the fluffers needed to set up for the next day. (And it should be noted that the fluffers began the day the earliest – 3:00 a.m. – and would finish last.)

So the pounders and the stringers and the tie-ers climbed up on the trucks and vans and trailers and headed for the next thing that needed doing. We stayed behind for a little bit, watching them go. And then a Ranger rolled up to see if things were ok.

“You good?” she asked.

Oh yeah, we’re good, we said.

We’re all good.

Here’s a few more pics:

Cowboy Carl

 

Dylan, Just George and Starchilld plot out the afternoon strategy

Booya let out a yelp as one portion of pounding was finished
Luke has a customized pounder

Boomer and Slop Tart would get some air when they were pounding

 

 

Makeout Queen was all business (most of the time).

 

 

 

About the author: John Curley

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, and I'm especially fond of shooting weddings. I'm also the editor at large of the Tasting Panel magazine, which is devoted to the beverage industry. I've also taught a bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on a (house)boat in Alameda, California.

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