How Fence, Survey and Flagging Shape Our Mighty City

“It never ceases to astound me how fast just a blank lake bed becomes a city or becomes our home — a familiar place that we all know and love so well.” -Tony “Coyote” Perez

Long before our ephemeral city takes shape, crews walk the barren playa, surveying the land — from Man Base, to Fence, to the city streets. Three crews — Survey, Fence and Flagging, delineate and shape what will soon become a wild and exuberant home for 80,000 dusty beings.

This is significant work, done with precision and love.

We caught up with members of Black Rock City’s Department of Public Works, Flagging and Survey crews to hear them speak about the significance of these early days, the meaning of their work, and how it felt this year.

Stakes being dropped at dawn (Photo by Profiles in Dust)

First the Man Base and the fence points are placed. Then, Survey rolls in to map the city, from Temple to the back streets. How’d it go this year?

Coyote (Black Rock City Superintendent): It was perfect survey weather… just a little bit of cloud cover to take the sun out so you’re not getting beat by the sun. That also takes the shimmer off the playa, so your visibility remains intact through the morning and then just a slight little breeze to keep everybody just awake and alive. 

We were able to survey in all of the city grid in one day. I’ve never been able to do that. Incredible, of course, because we have a good system and a good crew, but mostly because we weren’t able to just keep on working. We haven’t been able to do that in years… we’ve been chased off the playa by storms, heavy dust, just anything the playa can throw at us. But this year it said, “You are free to go.” 

Survey begins, 2023 (Photo by Terry Pratt)

Friday, August 4, 2023, was Fence Day — a day when it’s all hands on deck. This year, all aspects of Fence Day were completed in nine hours, start to finish — the day began before sunrise and ended at 2:04 pm. Approximately 2,175 stakes were pounded into the playa by hand, spanning the 9.5 miles of fence put up around the outer perimeter of what will become Black Rock City. More than 26,100 square knots were hand-tied from bits of string, one by one, to the fence, holding the netting in place to help catch MOOP and delineate the outer city limits.

What does Fence Day represent to you?

(Photo by Profiles in Dust)

Ghost (Fence Crew Manager): It represents the joint union of every department being hand in hand, being on the same page, doing what we can to make something beautiful for other people. Working for Burning Man in a lot of ways is an act of service. There’s just nothing like it in the world when you can change another person’s life. So everybody getting in and doing the work and feeling the ground beneath their feet and the pain in their shoulders and the out of breath, it just puts you that much more in touch with what it’s really all about.

This is the only group of people that I would ever attempt something this large with because we’re all capable and we’re all willing. And when you become willing, you’re open to new experiences, you’re open to learning, you’re open to figuring things out, and that’s where real growth begins. So I’m really proud of us. I’m really, really proud of us.

Ghost at Fence Day, 2023 (Photo by Robert Pierce)

Coyote (Black Rock City Superintendent): Well, the cultural significance is it’s one of the few times of the year that everybody’s on the same crew and building one thing together. And that is huge for morale. And it’s also the first actual physical building that happens in Black Rock City. And it really takes the land. That’s when the land becomes ours, becomes our playground. It encloses it, and that’s when everybody actually gets out and sweats, gets physical. And when everybody works together and with their hands actually pounding the stakes in and tying the fence up, it really brings the comradery together.

Starchild (Solar Program Manager and Fence Day Lead): For me, it’s just a monumental task. And really the way I explained it on Fence Day to everyone was what Carl used to say: the old ranchers and all the people out here that kind of make fun of us or don’t like us being out here or whatever. Any of them who have ever seen us build the fence have some level of respect for what we do, because they’re amazed at how quickly that fence goes up.

Crow (Ranger Operations Manager): The thing that keeps me coming back and excited for Fence Day over the past 20-plus years is the people — it’s the group effort, the mission of this group of people, the shared goal. Fence Day is another one of those integral check boxes, when this all starts to become Black Rock City. When our two teams meet — fence and transpo — it’s kind of like the railroads going across the country — they meet, it’s defined, there’s clear boundaries for the city now.

Leeway (Department of Public Works Personnel Manager): It’s a large outburst of energy and enthusiasm from a large group of people, and we’re all doing it together. It’s an incredibly immediate experience. It’s very collaborative. It’s very physical. It takes an intense amount of coordination and focus. Fence Day is that moment where we all kind of strap on our particiPANTS and just get out there and decide that we’re really doing this thing. There’s no going back. We’re on the rocket, we’re buckled in, the fuse is lit. Here we go, lift off!

(Photo by Profiles in Dust)
Pounding in stakes (Photo by DA)

How did it go out there compared to previous years?

Starchild: It was the smoothest Fence Day in memory, and it was one of the most gorgeous days I’ve ever seen on playa, ever — cloudy in the morning with that sun peeking through. And then we had clouds for most of the day. One of the pounding teams said that they had a cloud that followed them literally all day, all while they were pounding. There was just one cloud over the sun that just seemed to be hanging out in just the right spot. 

Honestly, I wouldn’t say it was the best day of my life, but it was certainly up there. Really, it was so good. And that speaks to the vibe out there and just everyone’s energy in general.

Nipps (Nevada Operations Personnel Manager): The feeling of being out there at sunrise, doing this thing, is always amazing. We watched the sunrise together, everybody taping up their fingers facing the horizon. It’s always just the most beautiful experience because of the camaraderie, seeing everyone out there together, all making new friends and building these relationships that we will definitely have for the rest of their lives, which is pretty incredible.

Crow: My two sons, Connor (11) and Lucas (7), actually made it out with me for the first time this year to help. On my final run out with the truck, I let them hop in the truck and we got there just in time for them to sprint over to the last bit of fence that was coming together, and they tied the last two or three knots themselves. It was a really cool moment.

Cowboy Carl was a mentor to the Department of Public Works going back to 1997, and had been leading Fence Day since the very beginning. What was it like to be out there without him for the first time this year?

Nipps: The big change this year was the absence of Cowboy Carl. We lost him a few months ago, so that was definitely a challenge. But we had Starchild really bring that back for us — the way you should dress and just some of the Carlisms that we all know and miss. As a family, we really came together, and I know Carl was out there with us. 

Coyote: He was definitely a guru amongst us and the steady presence, everybody was the most, he was more popular than a homecoming king. Everybody loved Carl. You could hear his voice and you could just feel his presence, his lead flowing… if I want to blame the good weather on Cowboy Carl and the heavens, I’ll do it fine.

Ghost: Carl was my mentor and a friend. To many people out here he was a father, a priest, a wise ole cowboy. He was an impressive, and patient man who the fence crew misses dearly. With every clove hitch we teach and tie, we keep his memory and influence alive. Burning Man itself would’ve been vastly different without him. It’s important people know the role he played in making us become one.

(Photo by Profiles in Dust)
(Photo by DA)

Over three weeks, from Survey to Build Week, Placement’s Flagging team steps in to measure every foot of our metropolis and place the 1,600 camps that will inhabit Black Rock City. What’s it like to lay the groundwork for Black Rock City?

Muppet (Placement Production Coordinator): I am the Map Boss of Black Rock City. That means that I have one of the highest level views of the map of the city involving the city plan, the placed camp locations, all of that kind of information in one place. I work with the map pretty much all year. So I am intimately familiar with Black, Rock City and how it exists in the world.

Flagging is the process of taking just a piece of paper with a map on it and turning it into a representation in real life, so a camp can show up and be shown, “here is your space, it’s this big, it’s the dimension approximately that we told you, and here are the corners of your site.”

I like to say that the flaggers are one of the hardest working teams that no one knows about because it’s such solitary work. It is very different from a very community focused DPW. The Flaggers obviously have their community, but when you are out there working, you are completely by yourself… It’s so meditative and contemplative in this really beautiful way that it’s very special.

(Photo by DA)

(Cover photo by DA)

About the author: Burning Man Project

Burning Man Project

The official voice of the Burning Man organization, managed by Burning Man Project's Communications Team.

4 Comments on “How Fence, Survey and Flagging Shape Our Mighty City

  • Dr. Logan says:

    This is moving and beautiful. Thank you.

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  • chrisTnAtion says:

    So grand to hear that the energy on fence day was as remarkable as it was! Your mention of Cowboy Carl brought a tear to my eye. Thank you for that. I didn’t get to meet him, but it’s stories like that which I aspire to become… a legend;) **don’t we all?! Thanks EveryBODY for your efforts in erecting our playground parameters~ 1600 camps! What a feat! What a canvas! What an incredible community of creative geniuses! XO

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  • T.Todd says:

    gorgeous reflections on this core function of our magical Playa. thank you for sharing them.

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  • dragnet says:

    Will certainly miss the big guy Carl……this will be my 12th project on the trash fence at point 3……thank you so much for putting up the fence year after year…..this year Ill have tennis rackets without strings with animals inside…….i cant do what i do without the efforts of the fence crew….it is truly the biggest art piece at burningman, the fence you all put up so solidly…..Ember’s creation reinvented annually

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