By Zélie Pollon
August 30th, 2009
People said I was crazy to take my young son to Burning Man, and maybe they were right. Burning Man is intense. Really intense. The week-long arts festival takes place on a desert flat in northern Nevada, in an environment that can force you to eat and breathe dust every day, can sap every drop of moisture from your skin and whose alkaline desert floor can eat your feet like some man-eating virus. It can be sweet and sunny one minute, and then slam you with an unrelenting sand or rainstorm the next. Dehydration is a major concern, so is sunstroke, not to mention the possibility of a nasty sunburn. So why did I – a single mother already stretched thin – decide to drive my tender 17-month-old 3,500 miles across the country to endure such hardship?
I took my son to Burning Man because, despite the sometimes harsh elements, it’s one of the most creative, beautiful, spontaneous celebrations I’d ever experienced, and I wanted him to experience it too. I took him because Burning Man aspires to be and often is the kind of community I want my son to be around: one based on collaboration, cooperation and a system free of commerce and capitalism. It’s one where people are creative and most often kind, generous and helpful. Sure, there’s a party element that you can either join in or leave behind. The partiers usually thrive all night, while families pass their time in daylight, and rarely the two would meet. In fact there’s a village dedicated solely to those with little ones: Kidsville, where entertainment included clowns, trampolines, costume making, and group trips into the desert to witness amazing, indescribable art.
Ok, so maybe there was a part of me, just a little part, that needed to prove to myself that I could do it, that having a son was not going to make me give up every one of the more outlandish experiences of what I’d begun to call my “past life.” On the contrary, I knew my son would love the sights and the people, the celebration and theater of it all, and I wanted to share that with him.
Burning Man is a camping trip like no other. Everything you bring in must also be carried out, which means, among other things, that there are no convenient garbage cans for those redolent diapers! Bicycles are the main mode of transportation used to explore a temporary city so expansive that in 2008 it became the third largest city in Nevada. There is nothing to buy, save some drink selections and ice, so my car was loaded down with food and water for a week, camping gear for any possible weather, and of course the indispensable costume selections.
Due to various traffic delays and the interminable play stops for my son, we arrived a day later than planned. This was a blessing in disguise, as opening day of the festival had been hit with a sand storm so severe all traffic was stopped for seven hours until the whiteout cleared. “A seven-hour sandstorm?” I repeated upon hearing the news. I entered the festival grounds relieved to have arrived, but hoping I hadn’t just made a terrible decision.
We set up camp before night fell, and collapsed into bed.
In the middle of the night an enormous art car passed by Kidsville blaring some disco tune. At least it wasn’t techno, I thought, calming my son back to sleep. Then I made an additional note to self: tomorrow, find baby earplugs.
We set out early the next day by bike, my boy sitting comfortably in his wee rider attachment, safely between my arms, taking it all in. He looked at me questioningly when the enormous bus decorated as a radio passed us by. “That’s right, honey, it’s a huge rolling radio,” I told him. That was easier than trying to describe the man painted from head to toe electric blue, or the fire breathing trucks, or the garden made up of hundreds of colorful silicone “flowers”.
Soon he stopped questioning and instead pointed and yelled things like, “Chicken!” for the beaked and feathered Icarus man or whatever else he saw in the extravagant human creations. My son reminded me that sometimes defining things limits them; he was creating his own world out of the sights and sounds of Burning Man. By the third day he would wave at the lovely people blowing him kisses, or lift his arms to the musical beat when a loaded art car passed us by. His favorite stop was a shaded trampoline covered in soft pillows and facing the road, where we could watch for hours as the circus passed us by.
My car had been too full to include a stroller, an omission I realized was making his daily naps impossible. But in true Burning Man fashion, a passerby (who didn’t even have kids!) mentioned that she just so happened to bring along a jog stroller, assuming she could give it to someone. Another person by chance brought a bike trailer that he generously attached to my bike, then disassembled and packed in my car for the ride home. With these, he consistently took two naps a day.
My son familiarized himself with the cooler, loved his morning eggs as he looked out over the desert, and jumped when I mentioned it was time again to go for a ride. He eventually agreed to wear his goggles and didn’t fight wearing shoes, even when the rest of him could go naked. He started gaining vocabulary, starting with “playa”, as the desert floor there is called, followed by “sand”, “bicycle” and finally, “Burneen Man”. We explored the art installations, ate snow cones and drank fresh squeezed orange juice, dipped in people’s small pools and stopped to meet every other child we came across.
The day we experienced our worst sandstorm was the day we also experienced an amazing show of humanity. As the roads became white with fine blowing sand, we were taken in by a huge camp from New York. Their tent had served as an immense disco the night before and the campers surely hadn’t slept a wink. But seeing a young one inspired a collective effort: to make sure we were quickly tucked away in a tightly-enclosed tipi, that we had enough water and snacks to wait out the storm, and that mom had a good cup of coffee to start the morning right. During a pause in the storm we made a break back to our camp, holding a small metal momento – a gift from our saviors – and a memory so dear I shall never forget it. Burning Man isn’t for everyone, but for me and my son it became a wonderful way to look at and experience the world.
I admit there were moments when I wondered if it was all too much for my young son, if the heat was too strong or if despite precautions, the sand might damage his little lungs. I spent so much energy – and rightly so – minding his hydration level, keeping him cool, comfortable and well-rested, that sometimes I wondered if it was worth the effort being there. Any mother knows the energy and time it takes to care for a child. Now put yourself in the middle of the desert with camping gear and no running water. Port-a-potties are down the road, and the art installations are certainly not childproofed!
Then I’d think of the look on my son’s face as we set out by bike; climbing on a set of beautiful metal flowers reaching toward the sky; sitting on the steps of a “temple” high above the desert floor, jumping on a trampoline or watching dancers rock on by. His shrieks of joy as we turned around a carousel and the love on his face as he and another young girl pushed a huge ball made entirely of Winnie the Pooh bears around the “center camp” area. With that, any doubts melted away. I was offering my son something exceptional, and what I hoped would be the first of many exceptional experiences in his beautiful life.
Other parents would stop me daily to ask how my son was coping with the elements. They wanted to know how he was handling the heat and the dust, how he was reacting to the art, and most importantly, was I “finding time to party?” (absolutely not, but that wasn’t my goal). They wanted to bring their own children and they were inspired to see our smiling faces. I told them what I’d tell anyone: to come with a support group, especially if you’re a single parent, and perhaps with some other friends with kids. If you can afford it, come in a camper, as a tent can feel mighty light under the weight of a sandstorm. But come. Definitely come.
Photo by Zélie Pollon of her son at Burning Man, 2008.