Survey Lays the Lines of Black Rock City

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

There is a clockmaker who lives in the desert. He says he is making the world’s largest clock.

“Black Rock City is a clock, God damn-it ― biggest in the world,” says Tony Coyote, Black Rock City’s Superintendent.

Its hands stretch over a mile and are made of people walking circles in the desert, pointing lasers at each other to measure the distances between the hours and etching the face of the clock upon the desert floor. This is the process of surveying Black Rock City, and it’s completed by the Survey Crew who over the course of a week will measure every point of consequence from Lustrate Street to the Temple and beyond.

There is no other city like Black Rock City. A city that rises from and returns to dust, that redraws its annular alphabetical streets every year. Emerging from the single point of The Golden Spike at the center of the Man Base and drawing a line to the Temple which is traced to an arc, a circle, a series of concentric circles, and evolving into a hustling bustling metropolis of 70K complete with federal compound, airport, fire department, emergency medical services and midnight poutine.

Terry “Retro” Schoop redraws the city plan, then Survey Crew manifests the design etching the city into the dust in the Radical Ritual of the seeding ceremony. The lay lines for the city are drawn and the working class town of DPW descends to build the infrastructure soon attracting artists to this small town before the tent-opolis of Black Rock City emerges.

The Survey Crew is a small encampment with a City plan. Their humble camp takes shelter in and measures the city from the Octagon.


Though many cities are similar, no two cities are identical. There is a city unlike any other city, it can be found in the dry arid endorheic Pleistocene lake bed of ancient Lake Lahontan.

Burning Man begins with a single point, The Golden Spike at the center of The Man’s Base. A point becomes a line to Temple, then an arc, a circle, 14 rows of concentric streets and the radical ritual of the seeding ceremony is complete.

“We start with South. That’s how the whole cities oriented. South is 4:30. So if I go to 0, that’s the Temple. I’m thinking I can get a team of three and a Kushman to get the four cardinal points which will set your promenades,” Coyote says with the vigor of a man with the conviction of experience.

Survey Crew members describe the process of laying out Black Rock City in their own words.

Trailer Park Romeo

The most important circle is the jump circle. Everything radiates out from there.

The range finder is accurate to half a yard, so that half a yard has play. So a half a yard here and a half a yard there will throw things off a little bit and give things the wumps. So, for 400 I’ll start at 400.5 and bring it in to keep readings consistent. I didn’t mansplain that, did I?

Booyah hammering in a screwdriver into an apperatus to square up intersections

There’s definitely crews that benefit from being out here. My first real position was Road Peg Manager. It was a joke. I changed the title to Road Peg King.

Roadworks initially began as the cone trailer So, I started by keeping track of the cones and the inventory and that expanded to coordinating with the water trucks because that made sense, and that expanded to putting in haul road and putting in Gate Road, facilitating the airport and that expanded into putting in safety perimeters for large art projects all started with me being the lowly Road Peg King.


All the promenade points are all spires, Roadworks puts in all the road pegs and intersections. Everything we do on survey is super relevant to what we are doing on roadworks. It’s really helpful to put in the city and then do our job.


I was touring with a freak show — 999 eyes — in 2005. I got here on Fence Day, and that was my first time volunteering, that was pretty fun. I knew a bunch of folks from DPW who had been traveling with the circus and Bonsai said… what would it take to get you out here? … ‘I need tickets for me and my whole band,’ and that was back in 2004. I first came as a participant.

I got involved in Survey when I was working in Metal Shop, I got assigned to the Spire Shop, and Tony came by the shop and needed and extra hand.

Spires is a pretty cool job, an institutional art project. I like lining things up in a row, and I have the eye for it. I’ve done sculptural installation since I was 16 years old with my father who worked in metal. I picked up carpentry over the years. I love pieces with repeated patterns.

Dusty Promenade (Photo by Zipporah Lomax)

Professor Plague

I’ve gotten a better understanding of the city’s layout and how things ought to be from doing Survey. The first couple years on Spires, I didn’t really appreciate the plan. I was just like… “Go over there with a sludge hammer.” I wasn’t really thinking big picture. But after doing Survey, you can see the larger significance of the spires, rather than, “We’re putting this up to mark this corner.” The way you place things draws the eye and the attention, and I think it has an effect on human behavior.

The keyholes are particularly fun because there’s a secret spot once the spires go up where that slant comes together. When the spires are laid out properly, there is a single point where you can stand in the keyhole and just turn your head, and you’ll see a single spire rather than a row of spires, and during the event I come and hang out there and just watch, and you can see it channels people’s movement and sense of space and how they crowd together. That’s my favorite part of the city.

It’s fun to get really accurate points so the spires will go in precisely… and probably nobody will notice it… but it’s satisfying to get completely straight lines which are normally constructs in the real sad world. Euclidian geometry doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the real world.


I work on Survey, and then I also manage Playa Restoration. So I make a recommendation for the city placement based on my experiences in Playa Restoration.

People forget why we do certain things. The Surveying process is built on traditions that are handed down. Typically we pair up the most junior and senior crew members for training. But it’s something we should really write down because people forget why we do things a certain way.

When I first started, my partner wouldn’t let me do anything. All they’d let me do is carry their flags. So, it was a joke that I was her squire. But there’s a point to it, and it became a thing. Now the squire plays a supporting role, carrying, marking and planting flags so the spotter can just focus on their mark when they are measuring distances. Ringers came about when someone nailed the distance on their first try. That’s when we realized, “Whoa, you can do that? RINGER!” Then we all started getting them.



We build the structure from which the Chaos hangs…  and then it’s over. Chaos goes… structure goes, and it returns to dust.

It would be so much better if people just learned to let go. It all works out, even when it doesn’t — it just didn’t happen the way you wanted. If people just learned to surrender and lean into it, it would all work out so much better.


About the author: Shalaco


Follow along with me on my adventures as Black Rock City returns to dust. I run around with a camera and talk to people. Check out my Burning Man Vlogs here.

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