Surveying Black Rock City

Surveying Black Rock City

During the ceremony of the sledge and the spike, many of the faces of those who help Black Rock City emerge from the dust converge to collectively drive in The Golden Spike: the first penetration of the playa, the center of the city and marker for The Man, into the earth. The ceremony ends with Coyote, the superintendent of Black Rock City, christening the spike with a champagne bottle and beginning the transformation of the playa into Black Rock City.

The bottle splinters into 1,000 tiny pieces, only to be immediately MOOPed a half a moment later by the hardworking volunteers of the DPW.

After Golden Spike, most folks return to the Saloon to continue the celebration, while a few return to their outposts, near or far, to continue chiseling away at the tasks necessary to bring Black Rock City from dust into greatness only to vanish, without a trace, once again.

However, there are a handful of folks who stay behind and begin working on one of the largest pieces of art at Burning Man, one that can be seen clearly from space… the city itself.

Ever wonder how they precisely measure the hundreds of waypoints and stations spanning miles of intricately concentric interconnecting streets that converge to form Black Rock City?  The inverse cartography that is plotting a city from a map, a science and art form that throughout the history of civilization has almost always been done the other way around. It’s all done by a tight knit crew called Survey — when Black Rock City is at its youngest, with a population of just 16, and all the worlds of possibility that are Burning Man are nothing more than a collective dream.


Once the sermon and ceremony of The Golden Spike are complete, the Survey crew begins laying out the points of the city, from which the endless possibilities of Burning Man will spring to form. This year it is unbelievably windy, with rocks endlessly pelting you. The Survey kids were happy, because this meant people favored brevity in their speeches, and they could get to work faster. With a tape measure in hand, Coyote and his crew made their way 300 feet from the spike and, with a flag, they marked the spot. Forming the radius that dreams of being a circle, they trace their way around in a ring, and when they’re done they’ve marked the first circle of the city, the burn circle, the outer ring of the Fire Conclave that will surround The Man. Next they will build The Octagon.


This simplistic structure sits upon what will be the base of The Man – and the geographic center of the city and the clock’s center from which the spoked streets of the concentric city will emerge. For the next week, as they chart the city, The Octagon will serve as the center of operations as well as basecamp—the real First Camp of the playa.


Coyote is the leader of the pack. He’s been surveying the city since 1999 when the first survey crew put down a Golden Spike – back in the days when they used to plot out the city by standing hand in hand, forming long lines with their bodies, and by dragging long chains through the dust. These days they have more sophisticated ways of doing things.

The day starts just before dawn when the crew’s chef, Spoono, chimes out that most welcomed phrase “Coffee’s on!” Name a remote place on the planet with a restaurant and he’s worked there, from Antarctica to Death Valley. “Oh yeah, my first night at Furnace Creek, I had a bar of Irish Spring in the car, and I found the next morning it had melted.” Every year around Christmas he gets flown to Japan to impersonate Colonel Sanders. It’s a weird world we live in.


Spoono Stephenson., photo by D.A.

With the first light, while the rest of D.P.W. are curled up all cozy in bed, the Survey crew begins their day. Coyote mans a transit plumbed true to The Golden Spike at the center of The Ocatagon. He measures the horizontal angles of the o’clocks, while the rest of the team breaks into pairs that precisely plot and mark the distance of each street. They start with a jump circle, halfway between the man and the Esplanade, the innermost street of the city, then they plot the intersections of the Esplanade before making their way through the alphabet of city streets.



Standing upon the flag, acting as a mark for the team on the next street to read the distance, literally using their bodies to plot the points of Black Rock City. They measure distances from hundreds of yards away to pinpoint accuracy – to the inch. Phoenix Firestarter affectionately refers to the work they do with Survey’s slogan, “We walk circles in the desert and shoot lasers at each other. Walking circles in the desert!”

They each have their own routines and methods for executing this madness.

Coyote is a wonderfully stubborn perfectionist, who insists on double checking everything himself and systematically walking through his calculated and cultivated routine. He uses a nautically themed wood and brass magnifying glass for prescribed precision, strangely appropriate charting distances in the dry lakebed of Lake Lahontan.



Grouping into teams of two, they fan out along a street across the hours of the city. On the first day, veterans are paired with new crew members and the torch of knowledge is passed to their apprentice. D.A. helps Trainwreck (Can you guess how she got her name? Yep. Literally from a train wreck.) site her rangefinder at Coyote as she measures her first point. When she lands the mark, precise to the inch on the first try, she celebrates her first ringer of her first day.



D.A., Irene & Phoenix Firestarter are all ‘bitter enders’. They come out for Survey and then, so they say, they are just “Killin’ time tell resto” when they will coordinate the Playa Restoration efforts leading up to the BLM inspection, insuring Burning Man leaves no trace. They are at the threshold of the gates of this other-dimensional zone from when they open until they close again. Before and after The Man, The Temple, First Camp, the Depot, the Ghetto and the First & Last Chance Saloon, the drum and bass camps, the stadium lights of the BLM compound that could blind the sun and the endless sea of fire and lasers – they’re there and at the ready. This is their favorite time to be out here, when there’s nothing but an uninterrupted panoramic view of the Playa and endless open sky between you and the spotted Calicos and old Ridgeback. At night you can clearly make out the milky way, the most amazing shooting stars you’ve ever seen, and the lights of Gerlach far off in the distance.



Irene does some yoga while Molly marks 8:30 and Esplanade.

Molly with the 8:30 and Esplanade flag, and the most adorable little sledgehammer you’ve ever laid your eyes on.


Hey Booyah, what time is it?


Booyah, Molly and Irene.





On the first day of Survey, the weather is fair and the Playa is in amazing condition, with incredibly few dunes and beautifully uniform desiccant cracks; it’s repaired itself well over the last year and recent rains have firmly packed the surface. The crew works from dawn until the heat of day makes visibility conditions difficult for making readings, what they refer to as ‘The Shimmer’. Returning to town for a few hours during the heat of the day, they return in the early evening for the second half of their workday. A beautiful sunset marks the end of the workday. As the radiant sun sets, the colors of the sky melt into an opalescent rainbow and Chloe Latchkey cuts in on the radio “Khhh… I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it if it get’s any more beautiful. ”


The second day of Black Rock City Survey proves more challenging with the introduction of some wild weather. The morning is hot and still and rarely is there a cloud in the sky. The second half of the day is set in striking contrast with overcast skies and strong winds. The sky looks completely different every 20 minutes. As night falls, the weather seems to calm… until it starts raining. This is a first for Survey, who camps lean and light.



It’s wondrously breathtaking to take in the open expanse of the playa. The emptiness is stunning. The playa is in amazing condition; it’s repaired itself well over the year. As we walk the city streets in the summer sun there are incredibly few dunes, and in some place the dry lakebed feels hard as concrete. The uninterrupted view.

As the radient sun sets the colours of the sky melt into an opalescent rainbow, Chloe Latchkey cuts in on the radio “Khhh… I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it if it get’s any more beautiful. ”

window in time


Mark ‘Crankypantz’ Pankratz Burning-Man-Survey-007


Dead By Dawn drives the fluffer van, oscillating from team to team and insuring the crew gets plenty of hydration, salty snacks and other treats.



Burning-Man-Survey-017Your intrepid narrator, Shalaco Sching.



  • Joseph / 7 August 2015 7:07

    Boring. Wait no – I mean exiting. Exciting!!!! Yeah there are pretty great photos. a glimpse into the culture of early early BRC.

  • Joseph / 7 August 2015 7:08

    I only said boring because I’m jealous.

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