Outside our tent, the sonic blur of a couple dozen massive sound systems was loud enough that I could feel competing bass lines throbbing on the ground, which wasn't really ground but a half-inch-thick layer of talcum-fine dust, eager to swirl into our ears and eyes at the slightest provocation. Inside the tent, my three-year-old cuddled his stuffed kangaroo, oblivious to the commotion. I read him Green Eggs & Ham, and then we nodded off to sleep. I was missing some high-quality, nonstop bacchanalia, but I didn't care. It was fun to be sharing an ordinary moment with my son in such an extraordinary place.
We were at Burning Man. And I'll tell you straight: the reason I brought my preschooler to Burning Man is not that I'm some super-mom who never needs a break from her kid and doesn't love to party like a grown-up. It was because I wanted to go, and I didn't have any volunteers for a weeklong babysitting gig.
I'd been before, sans child, so I knew full well the truth of all the rumors about pot-laced Fruit Loops and people wearing nothing but a strategically placed taco shell, funneling cheap, lukewarm booze into their mouths till they dropped.
But I also knew it was going to be a convergence of people who value spontaneous acts of untethered creativity. In past years, I'd seen a lavish, wooden pirate ship; a huge, steel, fire-breathing dragon; artist-made seesaws and swing sets that rivaled the government-issue stuff. I'd seen a sense of neighborliness I've rarely witnessed elsewhere; people biking instead of driving, going an entire week without buying or selling anything. People who believe so strongly in art and fun that they're willing to haul a week's worth of food, water, shelter, and silly clothing out to a barren lakebed in Northern Nevada to share good times with 40,000 strangers. Those were the things — and people — I wanted my kid to see.
But there were real-world concerns to be addressed if we were going to witness all this magnificence. Like the skin-scorching dry heat and the prevalence of adult activity.
Burning Man works a lot like a real city. It has streets, a public works department, emergency services, and makeshift, noncommercial versions of every kind of business you can think of — movie theater, bistro, hair salon, boutique, and, yes, sex club after sex club and bar after bar.
Just as you'll keep your own kids sheltered from all the sex, drugs, and drunken idiocy that will probably occur in your own city this weekend, it was every parent's job to do the same thing at Burning Man. That turned out to be easier than I thought it would be. If the vibe in a particular place was too lascivious or too drunken for kids, we simply moved on to the nearest tree house or lemonade stand. We stuck close to home a lot of the time, home being a few square blocks called Kidsville, where a few dozen families set up camp for the week. By showing up, these parents agreed to take the Burning Man tenant of "radical self-reliance" even further by having to be radically responsible for their kids. A few weren't. There are stories about the occasional parent who rolls into Kidsville, makes some half-witted assumption about nonexistent babysitting services, and heads out to go dancing. The fun-loving, community-minded people of Kidsville have their limits, though; parents who are that irresponsible are asked to leave before they can even shake off their hangovers.
I wasn't too worried about the climate. We were Nevadans. We were used to the heat. And my son had already been camping in the Black Rock Desert a few times. I knew he'd be sufficiently willing to consume juice boxes all day and hang out in the shade with the other kids, jumping on trampolines and playing with Legos.
I was, however, gritting my teeth to a fine powder worrying about what would happen if we didn't get enough sleep. The slightest deprivation sends my normally sunshiny demeanor straight to hell. I made it a point to try hard for eight hours a night, and if my son fell asleep in the bicycle trailer while we were wandering around at night, I gave myself a one-hour limit to get us back to the tent and get to bed. Burning Man is loud, but a combination of earplugs and perpetual exhaustion did the trick. Our official count of stupid arguments caused by grouchy Mama in need of a nap was three. Same as in a normal week. Mission accomplished.
I'll be honest though, I was a little jealous of all the grown-ups who trounced around without curfews, the ones who got to marvel at the lunar eclipse, watch the unofficial, premature torching of the man, and dance till sunrise. But if you've been a parent for any length of time, you're used to parties raging on without you. I downshifted to kid gear, and, as often happens, I was impressed a few times by how much fun it turns out to be running around looking at things from a preschooler's-eye-view. The highlight of my week was the night I packed a couple kids and a pile of pillows into a big wagon and pulled them around to all the fire-spewing sculptures and fire-spinning dancers we could find. They giggled and squealed for a couple solid hours, and I felt privileged to be able to show them that there were adults out there who could make blueberry smoothies in a bicycle-powered blender; who would haul an entire roller disco to the desert; who could assemble a camp called "Whoville," where they dished out salty helpings of actual green scrambled eggs with diced ham, forever imbuing our daily reading ritual with yet more pizzazz. Adults whose powers of imagination could compete with even that of a three-year-old.
Still weighing your Labor Day vacation options? Take this handy quiz to assess whether bringing the kids to Burning Man is your cup of tea:
This is what I think of camping:
A) I prefer the privacy and comfort of a hotel room.
B) Camping is OK, as long as I can stay clean and the weather is nice.
C) I'd rather wake up in a tent than a house, even if billowing dust, relentless sun, and a relentless techno beat are competing to see which can wake me first, and I've been training my child since birth to love the outdoors as much as I do.
Here's how I'd describe my cleanliness standards:
A) I strive to maintain a clean and sanitary environment for my child.
B) I'm OK with the 5-second rule.
C) I'm OK with the 5-day rule, and I could, in a pinch, reclassify a hot dust-and-jelly sandwich as a nutritionally complete meal, and if I really had to, I could live with the idea of kneeling on the floor of a 135-degree porta-potty so my half-toilet-trained 3-year-old can stand on my knee to use the urinal.
Bringing a child to the Nevada desert in August is:
A) Totally irresponsible. The risk of dehydration from intense heat is a serious matter, and I don't want to put my child in a risky situation.
B) Something I'm wary of. I'd like to be confident before I try it that I have enough water, sunscreen, shade, and juice boxes, and that my kid won't freak out.
C) Totally acceptable. There were children in the Nevada desert for thousands of years before there were air-conditioned houses. Besides, the risk of dehydration from intense heat is a serious matter, and I don't want to send my child out in the world without knowing how to prevent it, so that if he wants to have excellent adventures in beautiful deserts, he'll know how to do it safely. Besides, that's why God made Otter Pops. And RVs with little freezers to keep them in. And Gatorade. And people with the good sense to keep their kids fed, hydrated and rested even in situations where it takes some extra effort.
This is what I think of altering a toddler's bedtime:
A) Bad idea. Causes meltdowns.
B) Bad idea. Causes meltdowns. But if it's for something really fun, I can let the bedtime slide a little once in a while.
C) Bad idea, causes meltdowns. But if there are blinky, neon fish cars and gargantuan, fire-spewing monsters roaming the night, it's worth it to me to spend a week beforehand transitioning into a later sleeping pattern so my kid can gawk at them and our nerves can remain relatively intact.
My idea of good entertainment on a family vacation is:
a) A portable DVD player and a couple Disney movies. I like activities that keep them occupied.
b) Books and games. I like to activities that are engaging.
c) A few props and our own wits. I don't let any Barbie-waisted princess tell my kid what to sing. When there's an occasion (like, say, the obnoxious dust storm that gave way to a calm, sunny afternoon with a full double rainbow spanning the entire sky) we just climb on top of the nearest Winnebago, make up a few verses, and belt them out. I like activities that are earth-shatteringly awesome.
If you answered mostly A's, you prefer a saner vacation. Burning Man will be more trouble than it's worth.
If you answered mostly B's, your curiosity is piqued, and you see the point of all this sublime silliness. Read the discussion boards. Talk to other parents who've been to Burning Man. Read the survival guide. Read it again. Find out what "exodus" and "the Burn" and "white-outs" are, and have plans for dealing with them.
If you answered mostly C's, pack up the station wagon and meet me in Kidsville.
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