It wasn’t that I’d always dreamed of going to Burning Man. I had taken my daughter on another epic outdoor adventure, complete with snowfield traverses, sketchy river crossings and unexpected miles of just-a-little-farther. It was no surprise when she wrapped up that trip by asking, “Can’t we just go look at some art like normal families?”
We’re not really a normal family, but I knew just the place where such people actually look at art. So I got online and found us some tickets to the legendary desert art cultural movement known as Burning Man.
Because all good parents take their kids to a naked party of radical expressionism, electronica and mind-expanding substances.
Having never been to Burning Man, I guessed there was much research to be done. First and foremost, we found a special camp within the temporary city of Black Rock where children and families are especially welcome. They have snow cones and a rule that excludes midday orgies, which I assumed were everywhere else.
“Oh my,” the vitamin lady said at the health food store, “You know there are naked people there.” She was very concerned, but I proudly noted that my European child had, more than once, witnessed several grown German men playing volleyball in the nude because they could. She was far less emotionally scarred than I was. How they haven’t made it an Olympic sport yet, I do not know.
We raided all the thrift stores, declared our camp Queens of the Night Sky, packed our bags and headed for the Nevada desert. We had read the guides and understood the basics: Bring sunscreen, leave absolutely no trace – that means your gray water, too – don’t forget the goggles, and we said leave no trace. We felt as prepared as rookies could be.
Logistically, we were. Emotionally: We had no idea.
In the middle of the desert, 70-some-odd humans in campers, cars, planes and parachutes descend upon the playa in a cloud of white dust, thumping bass and a sense of community I have never witnessed. From a barren landscape, up rises an entire city of organized streets, impressive order and a port-a-potty logistical miracle.
There are the things one hears of: stop-and-go traffic upon entry, whiteout dust storms, nudity, pasties, men in tutus, art, music, psychedelics, but nothing that I have read or seen comes close to portraying the visceral experience of being there.
The only thing more awe-inspiring than standing in the middle of the bustling, thumping, whirring, laughing scene was watching my 11-year-old daughter take it all in. It was a sense of wonder, excitement, curiosity, compassion and social responsibility I have seldom seen in the same year, not to mention the same hour.
Every hour of every day was just this kind of delightful excursion.
“Do you have a reservation?” the maitre d’ asks. I am standing in my flip-flops, feet white from the playa dust, holding a cup of coffee. The sun has just come up and the row of port-a-potties before me has no line. I blink. The man is wearing a tuxedo and a top hat. He has a white towel over one arm, a neat folder in the other.
“No?” he says. “Well, let me see what I can do for you.” Just as he finishes speaking, we hear the clap-clank of a door slamming and a sleepy-eyed camper wanders off. “Oh look! Something just opened up!” he cheers as he shuffles me toward the john.
I registered for the Burning Man 50 K, showing up before 5 in the morning to a crowd of happy runners, just like at any race except a brave few were naked. (My favorite being the guy wearing only a watch, shoes and a pulse band around his chest.) Thousands of acres of candy-colored art exhibitions lit up the horizon.
It was pancake flat, four loops around what is known as ‘the deep playa’ – or the part of Black Rock City that is dedicated to the art. The famed art cars came out to set up temporary aid stations while the spectators sang, danced and offered margaritas. I ran most of the race next to a man in his 60s wearing a pink bikini. He was an English teacher, a grandfather, a veteran, and had run more miles in his life than I could dream up. This, he said, is one of his favorite events. The art keeps the mind busy.
There is no commerce at Burning Man, so the sense of generosity and the way our culture has somehow unlearned the art of receiving was palpable. My daughter and I, wearing frocks and goggles, riding our bikes through the streets with grins and a conversation that was constantly stimulated by what we witnessed, were overwhelmed with the offers. Snow cones and unlawful waffles and bluegrass concerts and yoga classes and church services for name-your-denomination.
She went to every activity she could cram into her day: robot building, recycling how-tos, tutu tutorials, blind fruit tasting, art car tours, the giant hammock, the roller skating rink, the farmer’s market. Then she made a dozen new friends: children from all walks of life, from all geographical locations, thrown together in the same village of little people.
In the mornings, I would walk through the quiet camp (possibly the only quiet place at Burning Man) and see piles of gypsy children sleeping on trampolines in a mess of blankets, tangled limbs, stuffed animals, dusty faces and dreams.
I watched each day as my daughter’s horizons expanded into a world where anything is possible, all ideas are accepted and kindness is a given. It was a world where the individuals mattered, the community mattered, the planet mattered. But not much else did.
What did not matter to her: what someone’s job was, whether they had clothes on or not, their religion, or if they drove a Tesla.
“It’s hot today,” she said, grabbing a spray bottle of water and her hat. “The girls and I are going to stand on the corner and spray people who want it to help keep everyone cool.”
I took my granny’s ashes to the temple along with the memories of a decadelong marriage that bruised both body and heart. I left my notes there on the wood to rise into the cosmos with the flames, hopeful they would dissipate like my pain. The wooden temple was the temporal vessel of a thousand hurts and losses, a place that pulls the tears from your eyes, reminds us that suffering and joy are not that different from each other, and that each of us knows them both.
We’ve taken a lot of vacations around the world, but nothing opened our hearts or awakened our souls in the same way. Burning Man works hard to avoid a label, and perhaps that is just right. It is what each of us takes away from it. For my daughter and I, it was a gentle reminder of the beauty of humanity, of how profound and important our connection to each other is, and that, without exception, all are welcome.
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