The Signs Are Good

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Heather, Jen, and Abby were out at the work ranch getting signs ready for Black Rock CIty

Don’t you love reading the Burma Shave signs on your way into the city? And aren’t you grateful that you can look up at an intersection in the middle of the night and figure out exactly where you are?

There’s a charming and hard-working crew to thank for that, and we made a pilgrimage out to the Burning Man work ranch to see how they do it.

The first thing that strikes you is the order of magnitude of the work: There are thousands of signs to be stenciled and printed and assembled. There are spray cans everywhere, and a giant computer printer is spitting out vinyls that have to be trimmed by hand, then mounted onto metal backing.

And with Opening Day breathing down their necks, you’d think the stress/frustration/tension levels would be well into the red zone. But nope. Not here. Jen, Heather and Abby are bent down over their work, but they clearly enjoy each other, and the task.

They are ensconced in a tree-shaded corner of the work ranch, which is about 10 miles down Route 447 past the entrance to the event site. It’s out beyond where the highway pavement ends, and the only thing you can hear is the rustling of the wind and the music playing softly from a boom box in the corner. It is not a bad place to be. 

“They let us play,” Heather says of the designs for the signs that will delineate the streets of the city. She and Mel and the others have come up with a three-dimensional spaceship design for the Cargo Cult theme,  and each of the other street sign designs  seems to reflect the good-naturedness of the crew.

The spaceships will be landing soon
The spaceships will be landing soon

[Public service announcement: The sign shop folks would like to remind you NOT to take the signs as mementos, at least not till after the event. Yes, they are great souvenirs, but until everything is over, they are vital to the health of the city. Think of it this way: If you or someone you care about needs help, you’re going to want to be able to tell people where you are, and if the signs are gone, that’s going to be a problem. So don’t take the signs until the event is over. Thanks!]

Many of the people on the sign crew are long-time Burners and long-time DPW. Mel has been around since 2001, and Heather arrived the same year. Abby’s been DPW since 2006, and she joined the sign shop in 2007. Mel, Heather says, “has a brain that incorporates the whole city,” and she’s able to anticipate what will be needed year to year.

Abby is peering at a big computer screen as we chat, with a sizable printout of fonts at the ready. She’s a former copyeditor, and she might worry more than most that no typos get past her. “There’s at least four sets of eyes on everything we do,” she says, “so not much gets through.”

Still, there’s a lot that needs to get done. It’s not just the signs that mark the city’s intersections, but also all of the emergency notification signs, plus whatever the various departments need – Artery, Rangers, ESD, Transpo, Roads, and all the rest. They’ll produce thousands of signs every year, with amazing grace and collaboration.

So if you’re lucky enough to get a sign on the way out, know that good karma comes with it. But only if you wait until the end.

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The office at the ranch where the signs are made
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Abby does a lot of the formatting, and she also watches out for typos
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The font list
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Vinyl patterns have to trimmed by hand

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The chart that keeps track of how many signs are needed where
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A tree grows in the desert, and the sign shop enjoys its shade
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The road back to Black Rock CIty from the work ranch
Heather, Jen and Abby were out at the ranch getting signs ready for Black Rock City.
Where the wild horses roam
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A signpost planted in the city
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“They let us play” with the designs, Heather said
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The sign for the J streets
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Jen getting ready to trim the vinyl
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Abby greets visitors with a smile

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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