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Set Up and Clean Up
by Coyote, aka Tony Perez

Hey, hey, what do you say - the Coyote knows how the set up goes and it ain't nothin' but being a good host and making sure the table is all set and ready for the biggest city/party in the world! And, of course, because of the bust-in-the-dust environment and the rather fervent nature of this city, the method of that set-up and eventual teardown is, shall we say, "specialized". The set up crew are glorified "Carneys", after all.

Starting several weeks before the initial survey, our work ranch shop is astir with prep work and prefab items being constructed for the playa. Items like shade structures, art pieces and even the Man are built here and the energy of accomplishment is high and satisfying. This was the energy of the ranch when I arrived on the weekend before August first to prepare for the survey and set-up. The permit we are granted from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allows the survey to start on the playa on August first and traditionally has been kicked off with a ceremonial driving of the first spike. This year was no exception with a small and high-spirited gathering of our core group; each of us taking a swipe at a golden spike set at a predetermined location that marks the site for the Man and the exact center for Black Rock City (BRC).

The author, Coyote driving the golden stake. Photo: Dale Scott

Directly after the ceremony, my group and I were left very much alone in the middle of the vast, "dead-level" Black Rock Playa to start the survey. It's a profound feeling of satisfaction standing on a blank slate playa, straddling a four-inch spike, the tallest and first item out there, and in a matter of four weeks watching an amazing city appear out of the dust.

The system that we use to mark all the points of BRC is actually surprisingly simple, but of course the implementation of the system is made difficult by the raw elements and potential for confusion as your brain slowly fries. The system starts out with a transit, a small telescope on a tripod that is centered over the spike, has crosshairs in the scope and swivels on a 360-degree turntable. The crew splits into two groups of two and they go to opposite ends of the city (2:00 and 10:00). They are equipped with laser range finders, which enables them to determine their distance from the tripod that is now known as the Man. When they reach a distance of 2100 feet, I can then, through the use of radio communication, move them left or right until they are in the crosshairs of the scope, wherein I tell them to mark it and they do so with a small wire survey flag.

Every fifteen degrees is one half hour on the clock for radial streets. And in this fashion, the Esplanade is born. With this one ring of flags I begin to recognize the face of home, and an old familiar friend. Intermediate measurements are taken between the half-hours and these become road pegs that guide motorists onto what become circular cross-streets, and create the giant sculpture of the city. The cross streets are 200 feet apart, and upon completing the Esplanade, the crews move out in 200 foot increments until they are out of the range of the range-finders which is usually three or four blocks into the city.

I then enlist a crew of about eleven for one day and we do a grueling but fun task that I call 'The Great Chain Drag'. This method has been criticized as being rather primitive but given the environment and the nature of things, I am convinced this is the most accurate and efficient way to measure the outer intersections of the city. It simply consists of a series of links of 200-foot chain that are stretched into a line by this crew. Positioning myself past the furthest intersection, using binoculars and communicating with the old childhood "telephone game", I can get the crew to line up exactly with the Man. Everyone pops in a survey flag and then we all drag the chain to the next mark. I have no trouble assembling this crew because everyone is usually eager to get off the ranch and walk the playa.

One hundred fifty-three intersections, 588 individual measurements, about 2,000 survey flags and four days later the general outline of BRC comes to fruition. And we've only just begun. After the initial survey, the next week is spent detailing, which takes a crew of eight. Each survey flag marks the center of an intersection; the four corners need to be measured out using a triangular cable system to create a 30 x 30 foot intersection, and the outlines of the blocks, intersections, and roads begin to be clear.

Due to the stipulations of our BLM permit, actual construction cannot begin until the fifteenth of August. Here come the T-stake pounders, the muscle, the sweat and blisters as the city is literally built by hand. One T-stake typically takes 10-15 swipes with a 20-lb. T-stake pounder. With 612 intersection T-stakes, my crew has no trouble sleeping at night. Meanwhile, the beef-cake fence crew of people needing to hammer out personal issues or something, pound out a 7.5 mile fence in 120-degree heat in just under four days; that's about 3,000 T-stakes. BUST THAT!!!

At this time, the road pegs are also installed using crews of two, and thirty foot chain. Using the components of the road pegs and the intersections, a few days and a few tanks of gas will drive the roads in.

Then everything starts happening at once. Here comes an entire fleet of street and road signs. All the artisans flock in with their individual projects and structures. The awesome Center Camp café goes up like a coliseum that's rigged like a cat's cradle and, by the way folks, Center Camp is measured with a screw driver, a tape measure, a bundle of survey flags and two people during lunch.

Working with a new sifter. Photo: Will Roger

Meanwhile, the work ranch blossoms out with the warmth of routine and solid friends for life are formed. The breakfast siren goes off at 7:00 AM, we eat, the chief of staff has a few words and announcements, people find their various job placements, we go to the site and bust ass, eat lunch at noon and let the heat of the day pass at the work ranch. Starting up in the afternoon, we bust ass at the site again and quit around beer-thirty, usually between 5:00 and 6:00 PM. We eat at 7:00 PM, watch yet another spectacular sunset, then it's sweet, deep sleep.

When the table's all set and fine-tuned, we bring in, assemble and set-up close to 200 hundred lampposts, or spires as we call them. This is like putting the candles on the cake, serving a visual effect that brings the grand curve of BRC and her promenade into focus. This is more of a skilled labor phase that breaks down into two parts. The spire assembly and repair crew operates an on-site shop located at the DPW Depot; I take a six-man crew and the assembled spires and pound them in. Four cement stakes measuring 4 feet in length get driven in with 10-lb. sledgehammers and then are screwed to the base of the spire with battery operated drill guns. 200 spires, four stakes apiece - you do the math, now we're working on the railroad. This is the largest task of the city grid set-up and takes four to five days but the desired effect is achieved and they stand tall and elegant, and will incidentally withstand the high wind punishment of the Black Rock Desert.

Without a doubt, the single most incredible aspect of BRC is that it actually breaks down and gets packed away for the winter. An entire city, population 26,000, disappears. Someone please tell me where else in the world this happens. The evaporation of this city is due to the thankless cleanup job, and it's interesting to see who sticks around to do the dishes.

First let me extend an enormous amount of gratitude and thanks to the literally 90% of the populace who picked their camps completely clean. The first time I witnessed this I was brought to tears for there was hope for the human race after all. But even with this amount of response, the teardown and cleanup job is titanic and takes the entire month of September.

Photo: Will Roger

After the momentary interruption in this project called the Event, the gathering of troops and restoration of their focus requires a good deal of energy. There's a very different mood in the camp after the event, and a lot of this is attributed to the lack of impetus that the oncoming event provides for the setup. The setup holds an exciting spot in the limelight as everyone is building and all are watching as this grand sculpture erupts from the playa. Hammers are flying, cameras are clicking and interviews are being conducted with the masters. Now, the spell is broken, the news reporters have left, a massive exodus of hangovers are heading back to their jobs and the man is dead. When roll call is taken the next day, a different line of inspiration is drawn from an environmental respect that brings on a special bond amongst the remaining crew. In some ways, this motivation is as rewarding as the setup and fuels our morale.

It was said to me that all you have to do to tear down is take the setup agenda and turn it upside down. It's a weird feeling to be taking out the millions of screws that you just put in. But over the years we've gotten better at considering the teardown as we set up. It gives BRC a certain traveling circus feel.

Things like shade structures and camp structures are put together with duplex nails that can be quickly pried out, and the structure is used again next year. The spires, for example, can be disassembled on the field with relative ease, packed onto trucks and shipped back to the ranch for winter storage. All building and structures are required to be taken down and hauled off the playa in two weeks' time, so our lives become a world of trailers, hitches, loading and unloading of trucks and that slow lumbering drive down the same stretch of highway again for the umpteenth time. That makes for a lot of crazy-looking Burning Man loads rolling by. After that we get a few big box Ryder trucks, grab what now has become a genuinely motley crew and go on what we call "stupid stuff patrol" picking up big stupid stuff. You know - burnt sofas, entire carpets, oh-joy!-a-big-wet-mattress, gobs of lumber, hunks of failed art parts, a broken down scooter with a swordfish head on it - all the "it's broken, let's leave it" stuff. We need to see less and less of this junk each year. Bags of garbage, mounds of filthy, dusty whatever, everything cruddy, dusty, heavy and awkward. For us it's lots of slivers, lots of barked shins, lots of dust masks, lots of Gatorade.

Removing the burn blanket which protects the playa under the Man. Photo: Rivka

Of the many pioneering aspects of BRC, one of the big ones is burn scar management and removal. We have been developing ever-improving methods to handle this and have actually set standards that others must now follow. Burning down something is one thing, catching this fire and erasing its mark is quite another. Through the usage of high tech burn blankets and sand we've been able to wipe out the footprint of a 100 foot burning structure (the Man, of course.)

We've also developed a system of community burn platforms that flank the Esplanade. They are constructed from corrugated metal and welded frames and sit up on cinderblocks. The results are amazing and will only improve each year.

After several days of stupid stuff patrol, all the big objects are gone and we start the last phase of clean up which is the largest, most brain-scrambling and grueling task of the project. It's called the line sweeps and entails removing all the MOOP from the city. For those of you who've just joined us, MOOP is an acronym for "material out of place" which is really just a creative way of saying litter. And the only way to effectively accomplish this is the old fashioned method of walking along, stooping and picking up what is now known as MOOP and putting it in a MOOP bag. It generates a lot of frustration because it never ends: always one more gum wrapper, always one more wood chip, always one more beer cap. We do this by walking in a line on a block-to-block system and after about fourteen days of shadeless, dust blasting toil, essentially every square inch has been poked, raked, picked and shoveled clean. Blocks are also numbered and charted for camp identification through GPS.

Some of the bigger challenges are busting the up-to-three foot deep dunes that form around any structure that was there during the event. These dunes can hide entire carpets, 4x4 beams and we even found a bicycle hiding in one. It's a lot of back breaking monotony and keeping the crew motivated becomes a huge task. It can be very disheartening to hear the collective groan of a sun-baked and sluggish crew as they happen upon an entire field of blue spray-painted twigs and crumpled leaves that have spread into millions of blue bits and then trampled into the clay. It's hours of squatting and grumbling but it gets done because it has to get done. All through the line sweeps, or Zombie Walks as we call it, I was wishing that pistachios would go back to being red like they used to be. The Coyote knows about pistachios and it is the number three MOOP next to wood chips and cigarette butts. Somebody please tell me why.

Photo: Will Roger

The BLM inspection deadline fell on October 4th this year and we all shared confidence and optimism because we knew that the condition of the playa had been restored to an even higher standard than required. The feelings of pride and self-satisfaction match those of the setup when we looked at the playa and saw that the city was truly gone! After a flying-colors inspection pass, it was time to pop a few champagne corks back at the ranch and I, myself, smoked a cigar the size of a table leg.

Much of the crew leaves soon after this, largely due to the closing of the kitchen, but some remain because the work continues perpetually. Winterizing, organizing and the continual upgrading of the work ranch itself needs to be done.

In Burning Man's past, when it had come time to turn in my radio and break this magic spell by returning to the world of pavements and advertising, it was always done with sad farewells. But this year, I am visited with a new perspective of the continuation of an attitude and way of living which is spreading like, well…fire. And my 'farewells' have turned into 'I'll see you soons'. Next year just got a whole lot closer and I'm all over it because in the set up and teardown world of Black Rock City, the Coyote knows.