And Here We Go

As the sun came up, the operation was well underway
As the sun came up, the operation was well underway

On the very first day in Black Rock City, the playa became a work site. It was not unexpected, but it was amazingly sudden. Where the day before there was only open playa and some flags in the ground, today there are roads and containers and traffic cones. The real hard work has begun.

There are a ton of DPW people in town. As the mission has grown, so has the workforce. Many folks are holed up in a trailer park in Gerlach, and the night before fence day is like Christmas Eve and New Year’s eve combined. There’s an almost religious affection and belief in this giant communal effort, and there’s the sheer joy and celebration of just being here again. So there’s excitement, and there’s awe.

“Can you feel it?” Slim was asking. “Can you feel it about to happen?” Yes we could, and we weren’t alone. Last call was 9 p.m. at the Black Rock Saloon, the private DPW bar in town. As Stinger put it to people who were rolling into town late, “Welcome to Burning Man, I’m going to bed.” But it was impossible to shut off the adrenaline. There were laughs and stories in the trailer park. But sleep was a good idea, because 4 a.m. was going to come early. And it did.

Just George tries to run things with military precision
Just George tries to run things with military precision

You may have heard that fence day is a back-breaker. But the not-so-secret secret is that it is also a blast. Imagine: Get up at 4 a.m., muster out to the playa in darkness, and then have bacon and coffee as light starts to color the sky. It’s another beginning, another new year. There are familiar people here, and lots of new ones, too. But there are also people you knew well who aren’t here. Just like in your real-world life, people come in to your life’s orbit, stay awhile, then move on. Or you move them on because the relationship doesn’t work anymore. The leavings are poignant and it’s not like you don’t think about them anymore, but they’re not here and you’re moving on because it would be ridiculous not to. You don’t have a choice.

So you drink your coffee and you eat your bacon (or go veggie if you prefer), and then you set off to pound the stakes that will hold the trash fence in place, with lots of whooping, singing and hollering the whole time.

The fence isn’t the only thing that happens on the first day on the playa; it’s just the most dramatic and picturesque. In baseball, they say that chicks dig the long ball, which is to say, they like home-run hitters. The stake pounders are a little like that (although unlike baseball there are many chicks in this mix). But the thing is, the stake pounders are the home-run hitters. They wrap themselves up in their colors to ward off the chill, they tape their hands to keep the blisters away, and they carry heavy metal pounders that make them look like Neanderthals, looking for something to club.

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Mostly, they club the stakes. Nico Peaches was demonstrating the proper technique before they started, “so you don’t wind up hitting yourself in the head like our good friend Mr. Curley.” That would be me, and yes, there is definitely a wrong way of handling the pounders.

And even with the fence, there’s lots besides stake-pounding that happens. Crews have to roll out in trucks and drop the stakes on the ground. Others have to throw the rolled-up bales of fence along the route. And after the stakes get pounded, even more people have to tie string to the stakes, and then the fence to the string. And they have to do it for 9.5 miles. And they have to finish in a day.

Amazingly, all the stakes are in the ground by 8:20 a.m. There’s a brief pause for celebration. Oh, and pushups. The guy in charge of fence operations, Just George, was in the military for 20-plus years. He runs things with military precision. (Or at least he tries to; let’s face it, there aren’t many military type in this outfit.) Nevertheless, every time a job gets done, you get to do pushups, because that’s the way George did it in the military, and dammit it worked just fine there, and it seems to work just fine here. So you finished the stake-pounding? Great, do some pushups.

After the stakes are in and the sun is high in the sky, the energy level has fallen. Some of the fence people have peeled off to work on other crews, because so many containers have been dropped that it’s time to get going on other projects. So by the middle of the afternoon, when you’ve already been out there for a lot of hours, and it’s up near 95 degrees, and there’s still a long way to go, you need to just put one foot in front of the other and keep going.

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The other thing about fence day is that it’s not just about the fence. The explosion that puts the city in place has only gotten bigger, and more efficient. It’s like someone pours Jameson’s on the playa, and containers sprout like mushrooms overnight.

But it is not nature at work, it’s people. Out at the work ranch, ten miles or so past the event site on 445, the transportation manager, Cuervo, is watching as containers and trailers get loaded onto semis and hauled out to the desert. There’s a LOT of stuff that needs to get out there – 120 containers, 50-plus living containers, 60-70 private containers, 28 semi-trailers, building sheds, gate kiosks, art pieces, and a whole assortment of the jankyest art vehicles you’d ever want to see. The yard looks like Dante’s used car lot. “They have to show that they can start up,” the no-nonsense Cuervo says as he walks the yard. “Otherwise it’s a waste of time.”

Time is something Cuervo doesn’t have much of. Everybody needs everything right now. So he has arranged things so that the first stuff that needs to go is the last stuff stored in the yard. “There’s really no map of it,” he says, “but it’s all in my head.”

A big partner in the operation is Courtney Trucking, which does a lot of the hauling. “Willie’s the man,” Cuervo says of Willie Courtney, who’s loading containers onto trucks for the trip to Black Rock City. Willie is also Bruno’s grandson. Bruno’s tentacles are everywhere in Gerlach.

The trucks come roaring onto the playa, kicking up giants plumes of dust as they come off the highway. They navigate to the right spot, drop their load, then head back to the ranch. The drivers go back and forth, again and again, all day long. By the end of the day, there is stuff everywhere, and people climbing all over it, starting to get things in place. The power yard is piled high with boxes of wires, and huge generators are also in place. One of the first things you need out here is electricity, and this is where it comes from.

Cuervo knows where everything is stored at the work ranch, and it's his job to get it to the playa.
Cuervo knows where everything is stored at the work ranch, and it’s his job to get it to the playa.

Charlie, the new Burning Man event manager, of course has been given the playa name “The God of Burning Man.” He seemed to know that the best way to get to know the operation was to participate in every part of it. So there he was out there with the fence crew as they were doing the pounding and the tying. As it turned out, he had done a good job of taping his hands and made it through the ordeal without a blister, a major accomplishment. And he got to know the people who were out here doing all the work. “Blessed are the cracked,” he said affectionately, “for they let the light in.”

At around 3:20 in the afternoon, the last pieces of the fence were about to be finished. Just George yelled that if they could get it done in the next two minutes, they’d have set a new speed record. So even though it had been a very long haul, people hustled to the end. The last segment was tied, and celebratory cans of PBR were cracked open. And then of course everyone got down and did a bunch of pushups.

“You all never cease to amaze me,” Logan said the next morning at the packed meeting in the back of Bruno’s. It was the beginning of another day, another day in the heat and dust. The fence along Gate road was going in today, and Just George needed help. Logan implied that as many hands as possible were going to be needed, because it’s a tough hot job and it doesn’t get the attention that fence does. “Don’t say that,” George shouted. “It’s going to be easy!”

And no doubt there will be pushups.

So we are really launched now. Noses are to the grindstone, shoulders are to the wheel. There’s everything to do, everywhere, and there’s not much time to do it. So why would anyone want to do any of this, much less volunteer for it? It reminded of us of a New Yorker who was complaining about the noise and the crime and the hordes of people in the city that makes life so hard there. “So why don’t you move?” we asked. “Move? Move out of New York? What, you think I’m crazy? I love it here!”

It’s kind of like that in Black Rock City. It’s nuts and bizarre and impossible and difficult and hot and dusty and just plain crazy. And there isn’t anywhere we’d rather be. Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light.

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Rows and rows of containers are waiting to be hauled out to the playa
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Willie Courtney used a Hyster to load containers onto waiting semis
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Cuervo has a simple rule about art cars: They have to run.

 

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A record was within reach at the end of the day
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With the record achieved, it was time to celebrate
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And after the celebration, it was time for pushups
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Fence crew, 2013
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After pushups and PBR, Stinger gave Porn Star a hug

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

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