The Point of Black Rock City

Black Rock City is an Impossible City in the true nature of Italiano Calvino’s Impossible Cities. One impossible aspect about Black Rock City, and part of the nature of a city that is born every year, is that you can visit it at different times in its growth and development. Each and every year I visit, Black Rock City it is younger and younger. You can never visit New York when it was a colony or San Francisco before the gold rush, but you can do that with Black Rock City.

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

What do we do with this? Photo John Curley

This year was different, it was the first year Black Rock City’s Superintendent Coyote was without his trusty hammer. “It’s in a glass case, in the Renwick, across the street from The White House. I still can’t say that without laughing.”

Yes, there is a single point to Burning Man and Black Rock City, at least it starts off that way. It all begins with the Golden Spike.

Photo courtesy of Gini.

The Golden Spike, the center point of Black Rock City, has been set. There is already a village of some 250 workers off playa setting the stage for Burning Man. For a moment they all meet at what will be the center of the city to set the first point and then depart, leaving the Survey Crew to lay the lines and waypoints of what will be Black Rock City.

Ever wonder how Burning Man’s largest art installation, the city itself, looks so perfect from above? A small encampment of 21 surveyors lay the lines and waypoints of the 5.62 miles city plan. Walking circles in the desert and pointing lasers at each other, dialing measurements down to an inch, in the inhospitable Black Rock Desert in just seven days.

Black Rock City Weather Report

The smoke from the tragic California & Nevada wild fires has overshadowed the playa with a thick haze. The playa looks even more alien with the mountains completely grayed out by the smoke.

“It was such a thick overhead it felt like we were indoors… like a big dome stadium.” Coyote, Black Rock City’s Superintendent, exclaimed to me over lunch.

“We weren’t even casting a shadow until the afternoon. There were no clouds– we were shaded by smoke.” chimed in Phoenix Firestarter.

“You always expect this place to surprise you with a new look or a new kind of light and even after 20 years today was very unique. The way the mountains misted. It kinda reminds you that it can always surprise you. It can always show you something brand new. And it felt like this mystic, kinda strange, perfect still.” Mused Brukka.

“It was so quiet you could hear people talking down the line. I’m hearing their conversations at 80 yards with just regular voices. That’s two streets away.” Krankypantz recalled.

Surveying conditions were optimal and the small crew was in good spirits as they rose before dawn— working before the heat of the day sets in- in their search for Black Rock City. Despite the smoke obscuring the mountains, visibility was good on playa, the weather was relatively cool and the playa is firm and level from 10 o’clock to 2 with nay a dune in site.

Survey live and work in The Octagon, sleeping beneath the stars both taking shelter and sighting measurements off the first structure on Playa before the perimeter fence is erected.

Looking down the line through the transit.
The Octagon from above, Coyote manning the transit at it’s center.
The line extends over a mile from The Octagon to the outer streets.
Professor Plague and Danjob searching for H street.

“Survey is the process of laying out the points that will become the center of each street of Black Rock City. Luckily, we get to plan out the entire city all at once. Most cities they grow gradually. We have the advantage of being able to enact an entire city plan and make it consistent. A lot of cities that you would be more familiar with have developed slowly over time, so they don’t make a whole lot of sense. This city is planned to be temporary so we can make it a lot more organized then a regular city.”

– Professor Plague


The Lines

D.A. & Winston searching for 9:00 and B.

“I think this is the search for Black Rock City. We’re finding it. It’s waiting to be found. It’s out here somewhere. We’ll find it. We’re drawing circles and lines in the dust through points. And right now we are looking for 9:00 and B. It’s here somewhere. I think it’s right here.”

– D.A. Playa Restoration Manager

“It’s pretty funny each year to see everyone try and figure this out again. How many years have we done it and we’re still just trying to figure it out? ‘What are we doing? Okay, a peg and two flags or is it one?'”

– Brukka




“Last night the wind was coming in from the East. Coyote said it had ‘that look’ of inclimate weather so most of the Survey team evacuated the playa at 4am. I left the desert for town a few hours later and there was a tiny bit of rain at the shoreline. It was the first morning we could see the clouds– not just smoke. It was the first beautiful dawn we had all week and then the weather was great all day.”

-Phoenix Firestarter


“It’s a triangulation type deal. We’re trying to get a square off a center point. So, we do a traingular method and square it to the Man. Which she’s going to do right now. And when it’s square to the Man they put in the corners. Two people site in from either side while the other person flags the corners. And then we go on to the next one and repeat 200 times.”

– Coyote

Hand crafted artisanal intersections.

Athibat(left) & Phoenix Firestarter Lay in intersections.
Phoenix Firestarter sites in intersections off the Man.
Intersections from above.

When the sun sets and it’s too dark to see, the crew has dinner, play glow in the dark bocci ball, and tell stories and sing songs around the burn barrel.

Once the lay lines have been set for Black Rock City the seeding ceremony is complete and the structure has been created for the chaos to flow and all the impossibilities of Burning Man.

Now we’ve got ourselves a fence and a city to build. DPW, HEaT, Gate & Power will set up the major infrastructure, and the community builds the city. It has begun. Are you starting to get excited about Burning Man? Share what you are most excited about in the comments!

Black Rock City’s Survey Crew (Trailer Park Romeo not pictured, someone please photoshop him in.)

Building art for Black Rock City this year? Art is hard work. Share your stories. Select stories will be shared in the journal.

Follow along with me on my adventures as Black Rock City rises from the dust. @shalaco, #BuildingBRC, #BRCsurvey. Keep your eye out for a short film about Surveying Black Rock City.

Want to help build Black Rock City? Here’s how to volunteer. 

The center of Black Rock City.

Photo Gallery

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.

12 Comments on “The Point of Black Rock City