Burning Man is an incredible experience for families. It is a place where hard-core individuals bring the imagination to reality on a large scale. I don’t say hard-core loosely here either – the environment can be very harsh and one needs to be up for it. My first burning man experience was in 2009 after living outdoors in a treehouse and then a tent for 1 year and 1/2. I had been sure I was tough enough to cruise in to burning man comfortably with my tent and usual camping gear without a problem but was largely schooled upon arrival. The desert sun is HOT, the nights can be very cold, and the dust is no joke. But somehow 70,000 people manage it each year, and the challenge of managing it is 1/2 the fun. “Radical Self Reliance” is one of the 10 principles of burning man.
For Trekker and I Burning Man has become our big yearly family tradition. Now 3, Trekker has been to 3 burns. Its not easy for the single parent- occasionally one may really wish they had someone else to go get more ice for the cooler – but when prepared, it is all doable (well, except the ice) and totally worth it.
That said, this year we came late and left early. We usually do come late because we usually get a last minute ticket and get prepared last minute (which I vow to never do again, again) but we usually also stay late because it takes a while to adjust to the dust and once we are finally settled in, the whole thing ends so we stay to make up for the time we missed and avoid the lines getting out.
But this year we did not adjust.
This year we had planned to camp with some friends in a camp outside of “Kidsville“, and because of that, and due to an on-the-fly decision to leave a little more space in the car this year, I didn’t bring a few of the important supplies I usually bring when we create our own camp within the 5 acres of families that is Kidsville.
We arrived at Block Rock City this year to immediately be stuck for hours in white-outs at the gate. Trekker had become a reasonable amount of whiney for a 3 yr old too long stuck in a car-seat by the time we found our friends’ camp. Our friends weren’t at the camp when we were arrived but we met another camp mate and with very few words exchanged it dawned on me that mixing a potentially whiny 3 year old with potentially hungover adult strangers is probably not the best idea for anyone involved. We got back in the car and drove to Kidsville. We had caught a ride in an RV the previous week with another mom and son duo, Stephanie and Logan, from Atlanta to Salt Lake City, and the Stephanie had mentioned that there may still be room near her campsite in Kidsville. Fingers crossed, we slowly inched our car through costumes, bicycles, dust, and mutant vehicles to Kidsville. We found Stephanie and Logan just before they boarded a pirate ship. To our relief the answer was still yes.
We found our spot, got out of the car, and immediately Trekker best-friended the 3 yr old girl in the adjacent plot which allowed me the space and headroom to unload the car and set up shop. I knew we had made the right choice. Kidsville is the best, if you have kids. The adults around are viewing children through the forgiving, parental safety lens and the kids form immediate bonds with each other and run around the campsites like little dust tribes. My friends at the previous camp are also loving, caring , responsible adults who would have been awesome with Trekker but something about having 5 acres of kids around is a real relief at burning man. Plus, the kids love it and you get to meet other interesting parents.
Regardless, this year we were ill-prepared for our own camp and left after a mere 3 mostly dust-filled days. Most of our discomforts were physical. I will outline our major discomforts below as both a reminder to myself for next year and as a real-picture description for others who are researching coming to Bman with kids, solo or not.
discomfort #1 for us was the dryness. Dust is one thing. But Trekker and I have been living in extremely humid climates since his inception so our arrival in the Reno area usually feels a bit harsh on our bodies. My eyes usually puff out and this year my whole face swelled up to the point where I convinced myself I have some sort of desert-induced diabetes or a thyroid disease or numerous other great internet-search finds. Considering the fact that I suddenly gained 20+ pounds over 6 months last year, I might not be far off. (Though this could also be the result of doubling my eating habits during pregnancy and nursing and then stopping nursing… time, and maybe a new exercise routine, will tell.) But also this year Trekker’s lip also got so chapped that it bled. That is the day I decided to leave. He was happy to stay and play but I had a hard time being uncomfortable myself and seeing his little face crack. Most of these discomforts could have been avoidable if we were better prepared. Trekker’s 1st year I had brought a full misting system that had kept us in the glow, and his 2nd year we used a portable lime-infused weed sprayer for a constant mist and counter balance to the playa’s alkalinity. Both other years I had also set up a large Monkey Hut over the car and more, providing shade, privacy, and now I also believe must have created a bit of a humidity trap. But this year the misting nozzle for the weed sprayer was broken, and the misting system and monkey hut were in storage. I brought a small humidifier but it required electricity so I couldn’t run it at night, lest run the car battery dead.
#2 discomfort (related to #1) no Evaporation trap. Playa camping is not like normal camping- grey water does not absorb into the playa so you can’t just brush your teeth and spit on the ground, you need to have a proper facility set up. Trekker’s 1st year we inherited a hanging shower and a baby pool to shower in which captured the water and allowed it to evaporate under the hot desert sun in the day time. We used this system the following year too. But this year I’d planned to use the shower set up at my friend’s camp so I didn’t bother bringing it. This meant that sponge-bathing was our only option, and teeth brushing was confined to smelly port-a-potties, or put on hold. Unfortunately sponge-bathing on the playa is not very effective as the sponge gets filled with dust on the 1st wipe and there is nowhere to wash it off. Some people keep themselves clean with baby wipes. This isn’t a very environmental solution but it is effective and we usually do a mix of both. However, this year I grabbed baby wipes last minute from 7-11 on our way out to the playa but it turned out the 7-11 wipes have some percentage of alcohol in them. Drying, drying, and more drying. Another thing about bringing baby skin to the playa- we usually do a routine of cleansing, then oiling, then balm-ing, especially feet, and it had worked terrifically in previous years. But this year in all his 3 year old rebellion it was nearly impossible to get Trekker to wear shoes for more than 5 minutes so with dusty feet and no way to wash fully them before the balm we were definitely heading towards some cracked feet- another reason to cut losses this year.
#3 discomfort: (though this could easily be bumped to #1 in the moment) – No camping toilet.
While the majority of Burners on the playa are using the port-a-potties with no real issue other than the expected temporary disgust, the majority of parents on the playa bring their own RV, with good reason. You can’t really time adult and child bathroom needs to match up, so double the trips to the port-a-potties = double the disgust. But worse- we were 2 blocks of dusty winds away from the port-a-potties which is very inconvenient if your child is sleeping and you need to go, and also very inconvenient if your child needs to go after you’ve done your best to clean both of you up before bed time. And then there’s the “don’t touch anything” stress while being crowded in the port-a-potty together which usually beats out the “stand right outside this door and don’t wander off” stress that would arise from using the loo by yourself while potentially inebriated strangers fumble around in line near your child. We never had any thing go wrong but our port-a-potty dependance was altogether inconvenient and uncomfortable. We usually bring a camping toilet of some sort but this year did not plan that right.
#4 discomfort: getting around.
Trekker’s 1st year (when he was one) I pulled him around in a bike trailer. It wasn’t easy, but he was small enough so it was doable and worth it. He could fall asleep in there while we were out, and it was a safe place from the dust and wind when he was too young to keep his mask on by himself. His 2nd year I made one of my best parenting investments thus far- the tike toter which turns a bicycle into a two seater for up to 50 or so pounds. Our misting weed sprayer fit right under the 2nd seat, attached via bungee, I wore a sombrero that shaded both of us, and with his dust mask easily adjustable within my reach we cruised effortlessly all over the playa, chasing mutant vehicles, pointing at and discussing the art as we went along. It was awesome.
This year that tike toter was back in India so we were back to the trailer. Trekker is bigger now (40 pounds) and my knees hurt! I tried to embrace the challenge but getting around this year was sluggish and not nearly as enjoyable.
#5 discomfort: no monkey hut this year. In truth I would like to move away from the traditional Burning man “monkey hut” I’d set up the previous 2 years, mainly because they aren’t always stable during dust storms and because the giant tarp and long pvc ribs take up a lot of space in the car when en route, but that said a monkey hut would be preferred to no hut/ shade structure at all. This year’s set up was to transform the Honda Element seats into bed for sleep at night, and keep supplies in a tent. This left us with a shadeless outdoors as our “lounge.” While this was doable since the neighbor’s RV provided shade at the right time of day, it was less comfortable than the previous years when supplies, car, and “lounge” were all sheltered under the shade and privacy of our monkey hut. Plus, having no dust free place to play during storms other than the car was a bummer and Trekker ended up playing in other kids’ RVs a lot of the time. Renting an RV would definitely be the most comfortable option but they are costly and there is something about getting to and from the playa in a small car with everything we need to survive that is more appealing to me. A van might be more practical though.. I’m also looking into these shiftpods which seem to offer the same dust-free insulation as the traditional burning man hexi-yurt but are much smaller to travel with. Might be worth the investment in the long term.
#final discomfort: So, besides issues with using the toilet, bathing, shade, privacy, and getting around, the final discomfort due to unpreparedness I experienced on the playa this year was cultural. Not with the culture of burning man but with my lack of preparedness to integrate within it. Burning Man culture is about radical self reliance but is also much more than that. It is about creativity and a culture of gifting. Radical Acceptance is also a major tenant and so I doubt many are spending much time judging each other (though some people do actually walk around with megaphones dissecting other’s costumes and behavior and this is usually pretty hilarious, and Radically Accepted.) But if one were to judge one’s own self on their burn, it would be based on what they bring. With no money exchanged, what one brings to burning man can be in the form of gifts, volunteering, creativity, joy, or whatever else one puts value in and wants to share. Parallels between the non-monetary culture of burning man could possibly be drawn with the non-monetary culture of Auroville, though volunteering may be considered somewhat of a currency in Auroville, whereas in burning man there is no trade at all, only gifting. Sometimes just being one’s fully expressed self is gift enough. Some people arrive to the playa via parachute and I consider their graceful flight down a visual gift to us all. This year at burning man, though we did enjoy some magical moments on the playa, I felt the joy I had to offer was too often limited by my physical discomforts. I did not feel 100% my fully expressed self. For gifts we brought our usual Whole Foods baby-food veggie juice pouches, which though not creatively handmade, I do see as valuable as they provide quick nutrients and liquid in a physically hostile environment. But I’d wished to bring more creativity this year now that Trekker is less work (in some ways). I’d had dreams of creating an art car last year for this year but of course there was no time to apply nor prepare for that this year. So it came down to costumes. Trekker is still just small enough to fit in a bicycle basket and having recently introduced him to E.T. I really, really wanted to ride around the playa on a bicycle dressed like Elliot with Trekker riding in the front basket dressed as E.T. I found my Elliot outfit the night before arrival at Walmart but the sturdy baskets I’d found online were all sold out in stores when we arrived. 🙁 So no ET this year and considering Trekker’s rapid growth rate I suppose I’ll have to lay that dream to rest (unless I have another one 😉 !)
That said, we have also recently opened up the world of original Star Wars movies in our family which did inspire another height-appropriate costume. I worked as fast as I could at the picnic table of a KOA campground en route to the playa to create R2D2 and C3PO outfits for us from duct-tape, foam, cardboard and a trash-can lid. These outfits proved to be fun in moments, like while standing in line for lemonade at Center Camp and when searching for a Jedi Temple we’d heard that a 5 year old kid had received a grant to build, but they weren’t quite sustainable enough to last through the burn. C3PO was incomplete at best, and constantly in need of re-duct-taping (which isn’t easy when the tape gets dusty) and R2D2 was a little top-heavy so Trekker usually only lasted in that for about 7 minute spurts. While I’m not completely dissatisfied with the outcome, I do believe with further advanced planning (i.e. not getting a last minute ticket again) I could probably pull off a more refined and comfortable-to-wear-for-longer-periods version next year, depending on how much Trekker grows…
(R2D2 and C3PO in front of child designed “Jedi Temple”)
In final, I am glad we cut our losses in the name of comfort and that I got to see FIVE rainbows on the drive the next day – one of them a double! (too bad trekker was asleep), but I do regret that we didn’t get make the usual rounds to catch up with old friends and continue certain traditions like watching the temple burn with our friends on the Dusty Cobra. Fortunately we did get to hang with some friends at our friend Shilo’s latest piece and we made new friends with a family from Vermont who we rode around the playa with on our last day, which happened to be beautiful and dustless, to see all the art.
(The fine folks of the Dusty Cobra pictured above gave Trekker his playa name “Hummus”, year one, then made Hummus an honorary member complete with badge, year two. We usually watch temple burn with them and were sad to miss that this year.)
(a hilarious lady dressed as a French Maid, “dusting” the art piece. I asked “are you dusting?” she responded, while dusting away, beer in hand, between dust storms “I’ll tell ya, I’m not taking on any more contracts this year, this weeks been too much!”
Notable moments from previous years: