Just George, the leader of the operation, declared the Fence finished at just after two in the afternoon on Friday, and just like that, the time of open playa came to an end, and the outline of Black Rock City took shape.
The trash fence is laid out in the shape of a
pentagram pentagon, and if you walked all the way around it, you’d have covered nine miles, and that’s a hell of a lot of fence. And remember, please, this is not a fence meant to keep people out. It’s simply a way to keep trash from blowing down the open playa when 70,000 or so participants show up a little more than three weeks.
As the crews neared the finish line out near Point 4, Dylan began counting: “59,997; 59,998; 59,999 …” He had estimated that it would take 60,000 pieces of string to put up the fence, and who was going to dispute him?
You could take a crack at the math if you like. You start with the stakes that are dropped on the ground every ten feet for nine miles. Then those stakes are pounded upright into the hard desert floor. Then the stakes are strung with three lines of twine, to which the orange trash fence is attached. Oh, and all that fence didn’t come in one giant roll. No, the pieces had to be unloaded from trucks, kicked out straight, then tied together, then tied to the stakes.
Piece of cake.
And consider that you have to do all that work in the weird amber glow that just won’t dissipate, even as fierce winds kick up at night, making you think that change is on the way. We’re not trying to be self-absorbed here; we know that the smoke is a relatively inconsequential byproduct of the heartache happening elsewhere. But it’s a constant reminder, even if minor, that something is not right.
Then again, if you look at it another way, there’s really no need to have 200-plus people out here putting up a trash fence. It could all be done far more efficiently, no doubt. You get some pneumatic drivers and a couple of crews and you’d have a lot fewer people with blisters all over their fingers. But what fun would that be? It wouldn’t be nearly the same kind of experience, and as you know, a lot of what happens here is about the experience.
Just George talked about it the day before, when he was laying out the logistics.
“You may have noticed that I am wearing a Gate t-shirt,” he said at the morning DPW meeting. “Every time I say DPW family … the esprit de corps … what I’m talking about is all of us in this room, all the supporting organizations. Tomorrow is our day to get out and establish what we are. … This is where we bond. This is where we get to know each other. This is the best day, the day that establishes all the days, all the weeks, all the months out here. … Let’s get out there and put up a fence and have fun. Hooo Ya!”
And there was a thunderous “Hooo Ya” in reply.
A military man, Just George knew that he had to find a way to appeal to a younger generation of workers from the DPW, Gate, Emergency Services, Fluffers, Commissary and all the others who took part in Fence day. Cowboy Carl had told him, “You can’t get up in front of them and wave a piece of cardboard like you’ve been doing for the past 10 years!”
So George held aloft a big piece of aluminum insulation and declared: “What I’ve got here, ladies and gentlemen, is a BRIGHT SHINY OBJECT!” The crowd roared its approval, and now that he had their attention, he laid out the details:
- 03:00: Sylkia’s alarm goes off, signaling that it’s time for her and her staff to start getting food ready.
- 04:00: Nips and the Fluffers, who help keep workers hydrated and on their feet, go to work, stockpiling drinks, getting snacks, making sure there’s plenty of sunscreen.
- 05:00: The dawn patrol, the hard-ass group of 80-90 people who will pound the stakes, heads for the desert. (That’s well before the sun comes up, if you’re keeping track at home.)
- 05:30: The dawn patrol eats on the playa (enjoying the provisions that Sylkia and her aides have prepared).
- 06:00: The pounding commences. One crew heads north toward Point 2, the other east toward Point 5.
- 06:00 – 07:00: The main body eats chow in town at Bruno’s. This includes all the stringers and tie-ers and fence-kickers and everyone else.
- 07:00: Main body departs for playa.
- 07:30: Main body has boots on the playa and gets to work.
So that was the plan, and by damn it worked.
Well, there was one little hitch: One of the trucks that carries the metal stakes that are thrown on the ground broke down. But the Auto Shop also had a sizeable contingent on hand for Fence, and they got the thing running again without much time being lost.
There were some other tweaks to this year’s operation, as well. Chaos had decided to push back the big Transpo day, when the containers stored at the work ranch get trucked to the playa. Pushing that operation back made it less likely that people on the Fence crews would take off after the first glorious hours and go do their own things.
And that plan seemed to work, too. The day started with a couple of hundred people working on Fence, and it finished with about that number, as well. And the job was finished by two in the afternoon; last year it dragged on hours longer.
The crews were also helped, in a way, by the smoky haze, because temperatures stayed below triple digits. It might not have been the healthiest air, but it could have been a lot hotter. The sun wasn’t even able to break through the haze until almost 8 am.
All that said, you still have to wonder why anyone would want to do this at all.
As Professor Plague put it, “It really does suck. … It’s like the biggest Tom Sawyer job in the world.” The words sound harsh when you read them, but they didn’t sound that way when he said them. It was the end of the day and he was holding a beer, and there was a fair amount of pride and satisfaction layered in there, as well.
But during the afternoon, even with the operational tweaks, you could see the exhaustion and effort and sweat in the people’s faces.
It made you wonder about the new people on the crews, and there were a lot of them – Cobra Commander said about 30 or 40 of the 200 were rookies.
“I know no one,” a new guy from the auto shop said. “But I knew there were going to be a certain type of people. … People like me, outcasts of the regular world, the ones who never seem to fit in. … I don’t really have the words. I knew it was going to be awesome, but it’s a hundred times more.
“I was sitting there one day, June 18th, and the Jackrabbit showed up [the Burning Man newsletter]. The third item down was job openings. … Hey look, they need auto mechanics, hey sure, have this hat in the ring.” And now here he was in the early light with a bunch of strangers, about to build a big long fence. Was he nervous? “No. Yes but no. Yes because there are a lot of unknowns, but no because it’s the unknown that I like.
“I’ve heard lots of stories, you know, the playa provides, this and that, but there’s some kind of magic here, because it even reached out and grabbed me. Because literally, within 10 days … between June 18th and June 28th when I stared work, in those 10 days, I packed my house, moved my wife, child and five cats into a new home that I just rented in Spanish Springs [outside Reno], rented a truck, moved all my equipment …’’
And here he was.
Goatt, one of our resident philosophers, was talking about the ordeal that is Fence, and he referenced a book, “Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon,” by Spider Robinson. He quoted a passage, about the ethos of the bar, saying: “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased. Thus do we refute the laws of entropy.”
We thought about it, and we thought about what sense it made in the context of doing this great, big, difficult thing together, and we thought what a shining crazy crew we get to be around. And we thought, yeah, Larry might have used that as a nice jumping off point to discuss for an hour or two, and that made us miss him a little more.
Here are some more pics:
And here are some more (click to make them big):
Editor’s note: A previous version of this post included a reference that was political in nature, and has since been removed. As a policy, the Burning Man Journal and the Burning Man Organization do not engage in political banter. We are open to and accept all points of view, and the political tone in this post was a mistake. We’re sorry, it won’t happen again.