We Got Ourselves a Fence

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.

Just George addressing his troops in the morning

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.

The pounding commences

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:

Getting safety instruction is serious business


Putting out the stakes next to blue flags that surveyed the route


All the rolls of fence had to be unloaded and tied together


The stringers tie three lines of twine to the stakes


The mountains were mostly obscured by smoky haze






At the end of the day, workers are rewarded by doing pushups. A lot of pushups. Just George can do a lot of pushups.
As we were finishing for the day, a modest whiteout covered us in dust

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.

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.

35 Comments on “We Got Ourselves a Fence

  • Permit says:

    Shape of a pentaGON
    A pentaGRAM would have a circular outline and trash fence cutting through the city.

    Report comment

  • Hi John. Great images. I’m a photographer coming to BM this for the first time. Hope to meet you. Jamie Fishman

    Report comment

  • Martien says:

    Hi John, Nice to read the story that you wrote so Lively. Together with the beautiful pictures it’s a little bit if we were there. and I will look differently at the fence when I come to BM than without your story!
    Thanx! Martien

    Report comment

  • Tucker says:

    The trash fence works really well when the wind is only 3 feet high. But otherwise, it makes everyone feel good to pretend that it works.

    Report comment

  • Lilly says:

    Do the workers have to go back to jail after it’s finished?

    Report comment

  • Mark McCormack says:

    Unfortunately I won’t be attending this year. But, I did want to say THANK YOU! to all those that take time out of their schedule to build, manage,dismantle,and stowe away the city.
    Being a -9- time burner, I look forward to John’s progress reports and pictures of black rock city coming to life. What I don’t like, are the obvious political statements thrown into the articles… please keep the political statements out of the articles! Otherwise, it’s just like reporting the progress of any other city across the U.S. and as we all know Black Rock City isn’t like any other city in the U.S. or for that matter, anywhere else in the world!!!!

    Report comment

    • john curley says:

      Shut up and dribble? Nope.

      Report comment

      • Mark McCormack says:

        With the shut up and dribble comment, I assume that you think I am a Republican. I am just saying leave politics out of Burningman. The playa is a place to get away from the constant barrage of the real world political problems, and should be left that way.

        Report comment

      • L-Train says:

        Hey John,

        You’re not doing it wrong.
        Keep the radical expression in Burning Man.

        Love your work,

        Report comment

      • john curley says:

        I appreciate your civility, Mark, thank you. But I’ll politely decline to take your direction about what to write about. Maybe you disagree, but I’ll keep writing what I want to write, or I won’t write anymore, because what would be the point?

        Report comment

      • Old Fart says:

        I agree with Mark. Reading the wall comment , mixing thoughts of BRC with the default world made my stomach sink. And that’s not a feeling I like when I’m thinking about Burning Man. It makes me sad not happy. Serious bummer. I almost didn’t read to the end. I kinda wish I hadn’t, because then I wouldn’t have seen the comments, which made me sadder still. Telling someone to “shut up and dribble” doesn’t sound like the John Curley I know. Having a bad day?

        Report comment

    • john curley says:

      I should add that I don’t believe Black Rick City is apolitical. In fact there’s a great diversity of political thought here, some of it very high profile. And now you know at least some of what my politics are,

      Report comment

      • Mark McCormack says:

        And I will keep reading your articles, cause i like your reporting. Keep up the good work! It’s all good, no hard feelings.

        Report comment

      • MAGA says:

        No one cares what your politics are, until you start spewing it and attaching it to Burning Man in some kind of weird official capacity. The Wall just got 10 feet higher.


        Report comment

  • Special K says:

    Loved your article and photographs. I did a work weekend for a regional burn recently and was amazed by all the work that went into just that “little” event. The work it takes for BRC to open the Gates is mind boggling. Thank you and every single person on the crew. You are all amazing!! I appreciate more then ever the power of people coming together for TTITD.

    Report comment

    • john curley says:

      Well dang, this has really gone places I wish it hadn’t, and I’m sorry it did.

      First off, I’d like to withdraw the political comment. I agree with you all, this ain’t the place, and in fact is against the rules here in blogger land. There aren’t supposed to be ANY political posts or commentary, and I had a momentary lapse that I regret. Burning Man is for everyone everywhere, and the org is adamantly nonpolitical here on the Journal, and it was my bad to go there. It was a throwaway line, one that would have been better thrown away.

      (But Special K, my reply wasn’t what you think it was. The “shut up and dribble” line was lifted from an online spat between Laura Ingraham and LeBron James, and it referenced her desire to have athletes stay out of politics.)

      In this space, on Burning Man’s site, my political commentary was misplaced, and I regret it. Politics is a side hustle best left outside.

      Thanks all for your understanding, and here’s to moving onward and upward.

      Report comment

      • Mark McCormack says:

        Thanks john. I guess my original request should have said leave the politic’n to the upper mgmt big Whigs in San Fran. Lord knows they have to wade thru a shit ton of it. Lets leave the playa to a place of peace and love.

        I look forward to your next article(s), as it brings me back to a place of comfort and relaxation. When I read them, I feel like I am right there on the playa.

        Report comment

  • fidel says:

    If Burning Man is for “everyone” why do I see no people of color in any of those pictures? Why is it not called Burning Person? Why is it gender specific?

    Report comment

    • White Rabbit says:

      The people of color are elsewhere waiting for Burners to express their white guilt in terms of aid to the victims of whatever.

      “Black people don’t like to camp.”
      -Larry Harvey

      Report comment

  • Luna Crow says:

    I’m sorry so many trolls jumped on this so quickly.. Thank you for doing such a great job – as always – of documenting the experience!

    Wish I could be out there too.. the FOMO is strong. Thank you also for giving those of us on the sidelines a little taste <3

    Report comment

  • john curley says:

    Thanks Mark, thanks Luna!

    Report comment

  • Jason K says:

    THANK YOU fence crew! This article about plastic fencing is getting me too excited to know that Burning Man is actually happening in a few weeks. Super excited and equally excited about the crews that put in the hard work to make this possible. Thank you and see you all soon!

    Report comment

  • Partypants says:

    ANSWER; Orange. QUESTION; Name the color of a fenced wall, a president, and an apple on shrooms. -Thanks for making BRC great again! UGE hugs!

    Report comment

  • Dragnet says:

    Thank you so much for the fence. George and Carl have been awesome allowing me to respect the fence as I create some wacky art out there. This year will be my ninth project, literally on the fence and I gotta say the fence is the art, not the license plates, cameras or this year tennis Racketz I place on the stakes. I have tried to honor the labor of your crew and encourage people to help with its construction. I marvel at the consistency, am impressed with its durability and I have never ever seen a downed stake! I love the article here john, and the photos, they reflect the pride and joy of a team effort that too often flies under the radar. My eclectic pieces each year are the skin that morphs from your dusty skeleton. Huge respect for each of you.

    Report comment

  • Chill says:

    Wow! What an amazing amount of planning, coordination, and teamwork involved to get what most might see as a simple little fence! Of course, I knew the trash fence didn’t erect itself, but I have an even greater sense of appreciation of the Fence crew. This will be my 8th burn and I will be sure to give more respect to its purpose and the blood, sweat & tears put into making it all happen. Great job!

    Report comment

    • Fence Lover says:

      The fence is really just there to make everyone feel a bit better when trash flies out of their camp, like it’s a trash magnet and the wind never blows the other way. So much emphasis is placed on the fence just for this reason. At the end of the week, you’ll find a few things around the base of the fence, things that roll but don’t get airborne. We’re saving the planet, totally.

      Report comment

  • Lani Bee says:

    While I can appreciate the idea of a fence meant to capture trash, and all the team work and effort it takes to put it there, the downside is that the fence itself is made of trash.
    How many uses can you get out of the massive orange plastic fence with its miles of strings and wires? I guess my question is ‘is it worth it, or does the fence make more trash than it saves?’

    Report comment

  • Ι like it wheneѵer people come toɡether and share ѵiews.
    Great website, keep it uρ!

    Report comment

  • Honey Bee says:

    What a glorious motley crew!
    Thanks for all you do!

    Report comment

  • I think that it is so interesting to read about how a fence is put up in extreme conditions. It is fascinating to also read about how experience pays off when doing this. These are all good factors to consider when looking to rent a fence.

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.