Hey! We Have a Fence!

They did it again.

Those of you who frequent this space, following along as Black Rock City begins to take shape, you’ve seen this before.

Hundreds of people, some leaving Gerlach under cover of darkness, rolled out to the desert today to put up a fence. (And as ever, it’s not a fence to keep people out, it’s a fence to keep trash from blowing down the playa, part of the mandate to Leave No Trace.)

By the time we rolled out to the playa a little before 5 a.m., the coffee was ready, and so were the breakfast burritos (sour cream and other sauces available at the end of the table). There was a vegetarian option, too. We asked about the availability of gluten-free, non-GMO naturally sparkling flavored mineral water, and we were assured that they’d have some next year. Seriously, though, Nips and her Fluffer crew are insanely competent, deeply caring, and absolutely indispensable.

In a happy departure from the past several years, there was no smoke from distant wildfires choking the air, and the dawn was brilliant and beautiful.

Viewed from afar, the whole Fence operation is a ridiculous thing.

Nine miles of plastic trash fence, installed in a day, by hand.

Nearly 2000 t-stakes pounded into the ground, by hand.

About 60,000 pieces of string holding the fence in place, all tied by hand.

It marks the very official kickoff to the build season, even though all this week, the Survey crew, Gate crews and Placement crews have all been busily stabbing wire flags into the ground, the better to figure out what will go where when the people and the camps and the art arrives.

We think the transformation of the playa really happened on Monday, when the survey team put out cones to guide people from the highway to the city. Until then, it was tough to figure out where you were going. The playa is big and empty, and it’s all too easy to get lost. At night, it can be downright scary trying to get there or back.

But when the orange cones went in, all nice and neat and straight, things felt safe. You pretty much didn’t have to worry about getting lost anymore. The empty desert wasn’t so empty anymore. (Unless, of course, you journeyed far up into the Black Rock Desert the night before Fence, the last night it would be completely dark for quite some time; then it still would take you half an hour or so of white-knuckle driving and repeated course corrections to get your bearings.)

It’s been hot all week, upper 90s, and it has been irritatingly windy a lot of the time. Fence Day was more of the same. But still, the fortunate few who did the tying and the pounding will tell you how grateful they are to be here, even as they trudge around the hot nasty desert, trying to do their jobs as sun bakes their brains.

Tony Coyote, the superintendent of Black Rock City, likes to say that the city is the largest piece of art on the playa, and we tend to agree. The city is laid out exquisitely, and in such a way as to foster interaction in the neighborhoods while still allowing plenty of open space to wander and explore.

And talk about participation! It’s not just DPW that builds the city and makes the engine go, although there will be upwards of 800 DPW in dozens of departments on site as the event gets underway. No, it’s all the people in Gate, Tech, Placement, Rangers, Greeters, EMT, on and on and on, who all have a hand in creating the blank canvas that the rest of you will paint on. For all of them, all this hot, dusty, sweaty, crazy-making, difficult work is a gift for you.

Just George, the operations chief for many previous Fence Days, is not here this year, taking care of an ailing relative. He’s missed terribly, of course, but Cowboy Carl, the former Marine sergeant, will be the first to tell you that he’s perfectly capable of running the show. Carl is an archetypal character; white shirt, blue jeans, off-white cowboy hat and ice-blue eyes that alternate between sparkling and piercing. He says outrageous things on a regular basis, but most of the things he says somehow make sense. He brooks no crap, and he’ll tell you exACTly what’s on his mind, in language that couldn’t be scripted any more sharply.

“People say, ‘How do you come up with this stuff,’” he says, “and I tell them I shut my brain off and let my lips start flapping.”

“Pushups are optional this year,” Carl said yesterday, which was a bit of a rebellion. For years, Just George would “reward” his crews for a job well done by having them do pushups in the dust. “You can do them if you want,” Carl said, “But you don’t have to.”

This is still a super quiet, very remote desert town, but at this time of year there are all sorts of things going on, in addition to and including Burning Man.

The Rocketeers are out there at the far end of the playa again this year. And dirt bikers are out exploring, too. A couple of them stopped in to Bruno’s to ask about the condition of Jungo Road, the deeply pitted dirt “road” that leads from Gerlach out past Razorback Mountain. “Make sure you have spares,” they were told.

Next weekend the Friends of Black Rock High Rock will have their annual campout for the Perseid meteor shower, although the sky has been full of shooting stars all week. Gerlach is touted as having some of the darkest skies anywhere in the country, and when you are out at night, you are amazed at how the Milky Way stretches across three quarters of the sky.

The setting has always been a part of the Burning Man’s appeal, of course. The vastness and emptiness invites you to fill it up with whatever you can imagine. And doing it in such difficult conditions naturally bonds you to the other people who are out here doing crazy things.

In a lot of ways, Fence Day is a microcosm of Burning Man itself; you do a very difficult thing in a very challenging place, have a blast while doing it, and become bonded more closely to the people you are doing it with.

But still, again, on the face of it, looked at from a distance, this is nuts. Most of the people out here doing all the work are volunteers. So you wonder, why do you do this?

We’ll let D.A., the Playa Restoration manager and the person most responsible for the organization’s compliance with its Leave No Trace ethos, take it from here:

“The first thing, instinctually, I want to say, I love this,” he says. “And then, for me, this is more than just Fence, Fence is like a bonus part of it. For me, my role with Resto, I really feel like I am at service to the whole thing. … I’m at service to the unquantifiable goodness that is happening here. I mean, there’s good shit happening! … Everybody says, oh, Burning Man, woo woo, but … I really feel like people are meeting each other, and they’re collaborating. And they’re collaborating out in the world, and world becomes a better place for it. And we are just helping that, and feeding that, and supporting that. And that’s all that matters.”

I think I should point out that D.A.’s thoughts weren’t the written response to an essay question; this was D.A. talking extemporaneously, just as the sun was rising, at the start of a long, hot day.

Fence day begins the three-week rocket ride until the Burning Man gates open and 70,000 participants come pouring in. Fence day is 80 people traipsing around a nine-mile loop, stake pounders in their hands, yelling encouragement to each other, running from one stake to the next.

Fence day is Sylkia showing up early with food for the troops, then driving a truck pulling the Porto Potties around. “I get to do the whole cycle,” she laughs. “I bring it out, and I bring it back.”

Fence day is deep conversations, and Fence day is impromptu dance parties along the line. Fence day is fabulous outfits and blisters on your fingers and your feet. Fence day is getting your 10,000 steps in before 9 am.

People will rightly complain about the impossibility of doing all this. It’s too far, too hot, too empty. But through the dehydration-induced crankiness, even the crustiest DPW roustabout knows in their heart that something amazing is coming this way, and we all will be doing our best to get ready for it.

Notes: About the playa conditions: Folks who have been coming out here for years have never seen anything like it. Much of the surface of the desert is covered with what look like broken pieces of pottery. Apparently there was rain after the Fourth of Juplaya, and for whatever reason, the surface water dried in a unique way. Some of the chips crumble easily; others will cut you.

Bottom line? We don’t mean to scare you away, but all that surface crust is going to get pulverized when everyone arrives. Which would lead you to think that there will be epic dust storms this year. Plan accordingly.

The official finishing time was 1:45, yet another new speed record. Hey Just George, ever heard of Wally Pipp?

Here’s a bunch more pictures:


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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