How we spent our summer – no vacation.
To be involved with the Department of Public Works of Black Rock City, one must spend the summer sweating out the laborious task of building and removing our fair city. Every year at job’s end, when we return to our various homes across the land, every one of us will tend to bristle when someone inevitably asks, “How was your summer vacation?” Just showing them our hands usually answers the question. It is indeed a labor of true love when we yet again troop out to the playa for another season to hammer in and dig out another megalopolis of fire literally by hand. Why do we sacrifice our summers in such a way? No one can say for certain, but the answer might just have something to do with the sunburst of satisfaction that one feels when stepping back to see the freshly built city raging at full blast. Then we experience a wholly different but still equal satisfaction when looking out upon a completely empty and restored Black Rock Desert about a month later. Again in 2004, Black Rock City lived up to its title of “The Magic Disappearing City”!
How was our summer vacation? It was an honest summer’s work.
Politics that surround our event are constantly putting up road blocks and creating growing pains. The nature of things dictates that this pattern will not soon end. It made a complicated and potentially very expensive venture out of the once-simple job of housing the DPW work crew — up to 130 members or so — on the 200-acre Black Rock Station property 12 miles north of the event site. Alternatives had to be explored fast. The most viable option was to house the crew in the nearby town of Gerlach by leasing a small trailer park from a local merchant. This arrangement was to cover the time from the 2 weeks of setup until we could occupy the BRC site, and then after we had to vacate the site for the 3 additional weeks of clean-up. Talk about strange bedfellows! The population of Gerlach almost doubled while we were there. But as can be the nature of people, we quickly learned to get along, and right away people were even enjoying the drastic change in routine. All in all, the situation generated very few complaints, and the local sheriff was quite pleased to go the whole time without making any arrests. For the record, let it be said that 2004 marked the first time in Gerlach history that “tall” bikes were ridden down main street for a 6 a.m. breakfast call — truly a sight to behold.
Also notable for 2004: It was the sixth time that DPW has set up the circular “clock” formation for the city grid. Through many years of trial and error, the systematic nature of the project has been improving in its efficiency, with minor adjustments every year as the city continues to grow.
It all starts with a fresh survey of the city. There are over 600 individual measurements made over a 10-day period, including the 7.5-mile perimeter fence line, the Man, the four corners of 187 road intersections, the hundreds of intermittent road peg guides throughout the city grid, the Center Camp area, two plaza areas, the Esplanade, four promenades, DPW depot, sanitation’s location, entrance roads, the Gate and Gate road, police services, a full airport, walk-in camping, various art pieces, and over 200 locations for lamp spires. After 6 years of practice, we’ve definitely made perfect; we can practically set up the city with our eyes closed.
The overall set up went very smoothly this year. The weather cooperated for the most part and we were ahead of schedule. Even the day of rain didn’t set us back even though it shut down the playa for most of a day. The perimeter fence, gate road, and walk-in camping combined require over 6,000 hand-pounded fence posts. This year, we had the fortunate assistance from a couple of professional fence installers who showed us a more effective and people-energy efficient way of installing fence. With the new technique, we were able to install the fence in a record setting 2 days. Spirits were definitely high at the end of the second day, This allowed us to jump to other projects a day earlier than we anticipated.
As with any city, maintenance of Black Rock City tends to be a round-the-clock endeavor. Operating and managing much of the large equipment on site, DPW is in high demand through the entire duration of our time on the playa. There were a couple of windy days that produced pretty impressive white-outs but it didn’t wreak too much havoc so the maintenance was minimal this year. It did create a lot of work for the fence crew, though, as they go out to the fence on daily rounds collecting the trash that gets caught in the fence. The wind made for much more trash and several rounds had to be done during those days.
It’s a matter of necessity, of ecological respect, and a strong stipulation required for our continued use of the Black Rock Desert that we return the site to its natural state every year by removing every last trace of our event. This substantial task spans a short 30 days during the months of September and October. With 4 square miles of area to cover, and a city population blossoming to 35,000, the job has to be well-orchestrated with a crack team, leaving very little room for mistake. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issues us a site inspection date, usually in the first week of October, as the changeable and sometimes extreme weather during that time of year puts the pinch on everything. Even brand new vehicles tend to start breaking down from extended exposure to dust, and so does almost anything mechanical. Harsh working conditions can make crew morale a big challenge. (Even duct tape fails out there!)
Just like a circus train, most everything is either on wheels, or it can be packed into containers that get forked onto the backs of flatbed semi-trucks. Large amounts of non-reusable lumber get burned on our burn platforms, and artists and participants work hard to get their camps and sites clean. The burn platforms proved to be a bit of a problem this year as the amount of burnable trash exceeded the platforms’ capacities. We started directing people to the Man site and also David Best’s Temple site where the burn area would allow for more trash than the platforms. When the platforms get overloaded, the overspill ends up falling onto and burning into the playa. Burn scars are a big NO-NO and difficult to remove without effecting the playa too much. We are looking into different designs this year that will hopefully improve the situation.
The Black Rock Desert is an awesome, unique environment. One of its strongest virtues is its absolute desolation, with its completely barren surface. Returning the lakebed to its natural state means removing absolutely all evidence of our full-blown city of campers. Someone has to pick up, by hand, virtually every cherry stem and bottle cap, what we call MOOP (Matter Out Of Place). The only way that this task can be accomplished is by taking a crew of about 30 to 40 and walking along in lines, going block to block, and bending over constantly to pick up this MOOP. It’s a painstaking process but very effective in getting the job done. In fact, we are so effective that, in the past, we have consistently come well under the inspection standards set by the BLM. Alas, the BLM narrowed the standards by half for 2004. We still came in under the bar, but not by much, and we didn’t do as well as we had the year before. The larger city and larger population proved to create a much larger MOOPing task than we’ve had before.
Even though BRC remains the cleanest city by far, we feel it slipping back in the wrong direction and only you, the population, can help keep us above the bar by making sure to LEAVE NO TRACE. Participants need to hear again that “Leave No Trace” is not just an empty slogan. With the increasing population and a wider variety of people attending the event, more litter and debris are being left in the communal areas. We are already looking into things that can be done to help reverse this tendency. Word of mouth has always told the tale; help us help you – if you do your part to keep the litter off the ground, we can do our part to remove the city infrastructure and pass the inspection so we can all continue coming to Black Rock City.
Git ‘Er Done!
DPW spent a very busy, efficient, and well-oiled super summer making miracles and building and tearing down what seemed like full-on mountain ranges. And things are only getting bigger year by year. So, now we’re back to planning for another great year of building our community infrastructure, and another summer out on the playa gettin’ ‘er done better that any vacation could ever do.
See you in Black Rock City ’05!
Tony (Coyote) Perez
Black Rock City, NV.