Getting the Lay of the Land

A funny thing happened on the way to Burning Man this year.

A bunch of people came out early to stick little red and blue flags all over the desert floor.

Yes, yes, this is all part of the plan. It’s called Survey (and Placement), and it’s when teams of people get out their measuring sticks and laser sighters and plot out the exact spot that Black Rock City will occupy this year, and where the camps that have pre-registered will be placed in the city.

It’s all very demanding and difficult, of course, and the calculations and systems and equipment used to determine all this has been described elsewhere in these pages, in far greater detail and with much greater accuracy than your humble correspondent can provide.

No matter. It is our intent simply to provide a glimpse of the people who are out here doing the thing they do, what it takes for them to do it, and what happens to them in the process.

As you may know, Survey begins the day of the Golden Spike ceremony when, at the conclusion of the festivities, the Survey crew, led by city superintendent Tony “Coyote” Perez, shoos away the revelers so that they can get down to business.

First on the list is establishing the circular fire perimeter, which is the line you have to sit behind when you are watching the Man burn. Then, for their own benefit in plotting out the city, they put down a “jump” line, which increases the odds that the distances measured between the fire perimeter and the beginning of the Esplanade will be accurate. And then comes the Octogon, an eight-sided, open air wooden enclosure that not only marks and protects the spot where the Man will be built, but also provides shelter to at least some of the people who live on the playa during Survey.

Coyote’s burn barrel

It is a special, almost sanctified time for the chosen few who land a spot on the heralded team. You can’t just show up and say hey, I want to help, can I stay with you guys? Although this has happened a few times, including this year, the team is usually comprised of people who have a long history at Burning Man, which often includes years of volunteer service. Take Jen Erator Forbes, for instance. She’s done just about all there is to do out here, including volunteering for the Org, being an art grant recipient and, in general, an endearing, engaging presence for 20 years. And this was the first time in her 20 years of Burning Man that she was on the Survey team, And as she said other night, after a long evening of drinking, eating, singing, telling stories, laughing at jokes, and generally reveling in the company and the place, “This is easily the best thing I’ve ever done here.”

And that really is the way it is. It’s pretty impossible not to love it.

Don’t get us wrong: it’s not easy. You start your day on the Survey crew well before dawn, because when the heat of the day arrives, it becomes impossible to measure distances accurately because of the shimmering heat waves that emanate from the desert floor.

So you get up before dawn, stow your sleeping gear, and have a bite to eat. So you’re up before the sun rises, and this often comes after a night of enjoying each other’s company, which, as you might have guessed, often involves an adult beverages. So even with the best of intentions, you might not be starting out the day at the top of your game.

The Survey crew likes the nighttime version of bocce ball

In addition to the night’s stories and jokes, you might also be treated to singing and dancing. Singing when Dan Abbott of the Hobogoblins gets out his guitar and shares some of his songwriting work, or when Dylan Blackthorn of That Damned Band breaks out his accordion or guitar and lets his booming voice echo across the playa. Or maybe there’s just an impromptu dance party when someone decides to play DJ on the sound speaker.

And that’s pretty much the scene every night: The sky is full of stars, it’s perfectly quiet (unless of course the wind is howling), and you are with some of the people you love most in the world, talented and inspiring, some you’ve known for years and others you’d like to get to know better.

Is it all sweetness and light?

No, it is not.

This year, especially, the conditions have been a challenge. The cli-fi fires ravaging human and animal habitat throughout the west have clouded the sky with thick brown smoke. It is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

Beautiful because everything and everyone seems filtered by a gentle cast of ochre, and if the smoke is really thick, it can lower temperatures a good 10 degrees. Heartbreaking because you cannot be unaware of the toll the fires are taking, and you fear that this is the new climatic life of our world.

It is also disorienting: The mountain ranges that ring the playa have disappeared in the smoky haze. It’s too easy to head off in absolutely the wrong direction, even when you think you know your way around out here. It’s not unlike the time after the Man burns, and you’ve lost all frame of reference in Black Rock City.

Combine this with mostly triple-digit temperatures, and doing tasks that can be both taxing and repetitive, and there is no way that at some point something or someone is going to get on your very last nerve, and you are going to lose it. Hey, it happens. Hey, it happened. And hey, it will happen again.

That’s how families work, no?

Families also call each other now and then, and the last couple of years, when cell service has gotten almost disturbingly good on the playa, it has allowed the crews to make “drunk dial” calls to the folks not present this year, for one reason or another.

Among this year’s recipients of late-night calls were Molly, who apparently started the tradition of doing beer shooters to start the day. “If you love Molly, you’ll do a shooter!” There was Marian Goodell, one of the founders and CEO of the Burning Man Project (we cast a wide net), who didn’t pick up but for whom we left a detailed update of the current situation. (Sorry, Marian, it all made sense at the time.) And then there was Coyote himself, who had gone to bed a little early (for him) and was sleeping on his cot some 40 feet away. “Hey Tony, what are you dooooing?”

It’s no doubt a good thing that Tony gets his rest. He’s in charge of this collection of broken toys on the playa, and there was a disquieting moment that called for action on Monday. Although rain would help douse the fires here and elsewhere, rain on the playa can be a catastrophe. Cars and trucks become instantly mired in playa mud. There is virtually no way to get back to the highway when a sudden downpour hits you a couple of miles out in the desert. And to get stuck out there without full survival gear and a limited amount of food would not be a good thing.

Around 4 in the morning on Tuesday, Tony awoke with a start to feel raindrops pelting his face. “And they were big ones,” he said. So he roused the troops and they did an emergency evacuation in the predawn darkness.

When there was no one else around in camp as the sun came up, Phoenix consented to making a picure

As it turned out, there was no cause for alarm. Even though powerful storm cells can form almost without warning, this was not one of the big ones, and no damage was done. But it was safer to be able to make that determination safely back in Gerlach rather than be stuck in the desert, perhaps for days.

Because of the smoke in the air, it has been almost impossible to distinguish sunset from a sunrise this past week. The sun turns a vibrant red as it sinks toward the horizon, and the moon has been rising in various shades of red and copper. There was a lunar eclipse visible in other parts of the world on Friday, but here, we’ve been getting the same visual effect virtually every day.

And the playa? Hard as a rock, flat as a pancake, with virtually no crust. The area got very little rain this year, and the sun has been baking it into a hard shell all spring and summer. “I feel bad for anyone who has to drive a tent stake,” Phoenix said.

In the most fundamental way, Survey is the antithesis of Playa Restoration. We’re out here now, watching a city emerge, slowly, in the vastness of the playa. In Resto, of course, we get to see (and help) the playa come again, as it inevitably will. But for now, everything is in front of us. There’s a trash fence to build on Friday, although Just George, Cowboy Carl and their crews have been out putting down their own flags in the ground, too.

In short, it’s the season of getting ready for the getting ready. There are relatively few people in town, although the numbers will swell dramatically in the coming days.

For now, out here in the early morning light, breakfast is done, the crews are loading into their trucks, and there’s a city to lay out. And you’d better get going fast, because there are only a few precious hours before the heat shimmers will come back.

Tonight there will be a little bit of a party, as the people in town will be invited to come out and celebrate another completed Survey. Tomorrow morning the Octagon will come down, not to be seen again until the 4:20 Spire goes up, marking the end of the work season.

So last night was it, really. It was the last, small-scale night on the playa, a group of souls in the Octogon, huddled against the night wind, looking up at the stars, maybe thinking about what lies ahead.

Here are some more pics:

When there was no one else around in camp as the sun came up, Phoenix consented to making a picure
It’s been hard to tell sunsets from sunrises, but the stars provide the clue at night

After 20 years, Jen is pretty happy to be here
The Octogon protects the Spike and provides shelter for the crew
Bocce balls at the ready

Dylan found some leftover moop


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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