Baptism of fire: how I took my three-year-old to the infamous Burning Man and lived to tell the tale
So you're going to spend the week in the desert with a three-year-old, surrounded by hippies on acid? What about the paedophiles, kidnappers, rapists etc? Why can't you go to Spain like a normal person?
These were some of the questions people asked me when I told them I was bringing my daughter to Burning Man. Suffice to say, none of them have ever been there.
Despite the fact that it hit the mainstream some years ago - just after my last visit back in 2010 - there are still many misconceptions about this annual festival.
For the uninitiated among you, Burning Man sees around 70,000 people gather annually in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, around 12 hours from Los Angeles, eight hours from San Francisco and several hours from human or animal life. It's a harsh place, where daytime temperatures can reach 45 degrees and at night the mercury can drop to four degrees or less.
Then there's the dust storms, dust tornadoes and alkaline sand, which is so dry you become tumbleweed by the end of the week-long event.
One would wonder why I would want to bring a three-year-old there.
Well for starters, kids have always been part of the Burning Man community. Ever since it was founded in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco, Larry Harvey, co-creator of Burning Man, who passed away earlier this year, insisted that kids were welcome.
He put it beautifully: "Anyone who takes kids out there knows it's a wonderland for them and they can experience wonder in the same way and at the same time as adults. Well how often can you get to do that? Instead of lodging them in front of the TV?"
Burning Man is all about radical inclusion and Harvey insisted that separating demographics was not the ethos of Burning Man.
Just to give you some background - Burning Man is not a festival. Instead it's an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and self-reliance.
Unlike say, Electric Picnic, where you buy a ticket and acts are booked, at Burning Man, no acts are booked. There's no corporate sponsorship, no logos and what happens is up to the people who come. The only show that the organisers put on is the burning of the 'man' himself and the burning of the temple. The rest is up to the participants, and the show they put on is the most impressive I've seen in my life.
There is no money exchanged, so you bring everything, including gifts, as this is a gifting community. There are no velvet ropes, no busybodies with clipboards asking, "Have you got a wristband?"
Burning Man is a decommodified space that values who you are, not what you look like or what you have. There is no dress code, just radical self-expression, hence the naked folks, people dyed green, or dressed as Santa, or whatever they hell they want.
Then there are the art cars, also known as mutant vehicles. These are motorised creations that look like ducks, dragons, houses, furniture, boats, trains, animals or just about anything imaginable, which pump out music as they prowl through the desert.
When you buy a ticket for Burning Man, you essentially pay a non-profit for insurance, security, building costs, set-up costs, land, and some arts bursaries. You don't pay for vendors, acts, whatever. Tickets now cost $425 each for the eight-day event, but often touts get their hands on them and people pay up to $2,000.
Burning Man is shaped like a big three-quarter circle, enclosing a circular, dry lake bed - also known as the Playa - where the wooden man and mind-blowing art installations live. By day, they are impressive; by night, when they light up, they are sublime. Around the Playa are camps which are numbered, while the streets are named alphabetically.
You can't just rock up to Burning Man willy-nilly and park somewhere, and you can't just walk in the gates either. You physically have to be in a vehicle and you really ought to join one of these camps, of which there are thousands. Some people choose to rough it on the outskirts, but that's deeply unpleasant, as you have no amenities or shade. Also, you're very far from everything. Burning Man is 10km squared, at least, so it's huge.
The camps have bottled water, kitchens, showers, shaded areas, entertainment spaces, art cars, bars, stages and whatever else. Most visitors pay a camp fee, ranging in cost, as camps are run by volunteers, who have to bring all that crap to the desert, which is no mean feat.
I had been to Burning Man twice before, and swore I'd go back each year for eternity, but life got in the way. However, this year, eight years after my last Burning Man, the opportunity arose. A wonderful artist friend in the US, who makes huge flowers for Burning Man, organised a golden ticket for me. Kids are free till the age of 12, so if you have a ticket, they do, too. Tickets are like gold dust and now sell out instantly.
Previously, I had contemplated Disneyland with my daughter, but the three-hour queues and $10 sodas weren't that enticing. If I had gone to Spain, I would have been on holidays alone with my daughter and would have had to deal with her peccadilloes regardless. As any parent knows, it doesn't really matter where you go, kids will pretty much behave the same everywhere.
Plus, as a single parent, I find Europe very insular, unlike at Burning Man, where you become part of a community of like-minded folk.
We stayed at a kids' camp, which was filled with wonderfully non-judgmental people. I met a single mum, who drove 5,000km from Tampa, Florida; and two families, totalling 11 people, who drove 1,200km from Joshua Tree, California, in one RV, with four flat tyres along the way.
"Our camp is the best family camp ever," said my friend Raven, a mum of five who was part of the large RV party.
She invited us to stay with her family in Joshua Tree afterwards, and we took them up on it. That's how Burning Man works. It was so refreshing to meet people who don't pass remarks on how you live your life. Burning Man is not America, but at the same time, it is. I'm always impressed by how Americans celebrate big ideas, rather than crush them. In Ireland I often find that those least willing to leave their comfort zone are the quickest to scrutinise those who do.
"So what do you do at Burning Man all day?" my sister asked me. After all, it's eight days long. A 'normal day' would see Romi and I get up in the morning, eat breakfast with the random dude who was staying in my RV - yes, we planned it first, but hadn't met before the Burn. He was great - a friend of the camp organiser.
Then we'd either go on one of the trips organised by said camp leader - silk screenings, checking out the 747 jumbo jet on the Playa, visiting the man or the temple - or we'd head out by ourselves and see friends or go for a cycle. I convinced Romi not to take her teddy out of the RV, as losing him would definitely mean never seeing him again, or us spending the rest of the week looking for him, which would be unadulterated hell. She understood.
My camp organiser brought a bike for me, and another person on the group brought a kids' trailer. The bike had a flat tyre, and I didn't get around to fixing it for a while, so Romi and I walked a bit, too. That was slow going though, as she'd stop everywhere - a random pink art car; the big teddy bear on the street; the rainbow in the middle of the desert.
Everything was candy for Romi. Literally. People were handing out sweets and gifts willy-nilly. She was so stimulated. Like me, my daughter doesn't like to be bored. Funnily enough, she didn't ask questions like, "Why is there is a big dragon driving past playing music?" It was normal for her brain. At night, we'd eat and maybe head out in the camp's art car to discover the Playa by night.
There was a comfy bed in the bottom of the car, so the kids would sleep or sit at the edge driving past the coolest stuff you'd ever see. The Playa after dark becomes the best dance floor in the world - a magical arcadia that has to be seen to be believed.
It's hard to imagine art cars driving around the desert, but, essentially, you stop off and hang by the car and maybe go off and dance or, in my case, take some photos. The kids are always minded that way. Someone is always at the car or wherever. Parents are very cool and will have sleepovers with other kids in their camper vans and tents, but Romi was happy out with me.
My daughter and I were blessed with our community in the desert. We cooked food and shared stuff. It was great, bar the bit where I got sick and my tooth fell out. It got stuck back in, but it annoyed me no end. Plus the burnt lips and the altitude sickness. Burning Man is no walk in the park.
That's why you don't just end up there.
Some say Burning Man is for the privileged one-per-cent, as cost and effort mean it excludes a lot of people, but I don't see it like that. The people who go there work their asses off all year, but also like a challenge in their spare time.
They don't expect handouts, so you get a great crowd
of balanced, open-minded people who don't get messy drunk or so high they're licking the back of their necks. Well maybe they are, but certainly not like you'd see at an Irish festival.
I didn't meet anyone dodgy, except one guy who looked like Peter Stringfellow eyeing me up at a 'sex-positive' camp. Do people have sex-negative camps? Either way, I wasn't too smitten by him and one other dude. That was it. That's not to say I can vouch for the other 70,000 odd people, but certainly these were the only two I got somewhat of a seedy vibe off.
Generally, the intensity of preparation means assholes or bad drunks don't get it together to go. This is a good thing.
Because it's in a such a harsh, distant place, planning for Burning Man is intense, especially as I had my daughter's trip to curate too.
Finding an RV; getting the tickets; sorting music; filling out the ESTA visa forms for the US; sorting camera stuff; camping gear; making my old-skool music playlist (I was offered to DJ at some of the camps); bringing clothes for extreme temperatures; gifts for the camp, which I ended up losing; finding the camp; shopping for a week; trying to create costumes for us both, none of which we wore. The list was endless. I may as well have been going to the Karakoram Mountains for an 18-day trek.
But despite the fact that I was meticulous in my preparation, I still managed to screw up. Most notably at the airport on the way over to the US, when I left my bag with all my camera gear somewhere in Duty Free and only realised I had done so once we were on the plane. So rather than fly without it, I decided we needed to be offloaded.
My poor child was so good throughout the long trip via Toronto to LA, and I felt bad for putting her through such stress, which was exacerbated by the fact that we had to wait an hour for our luggage at the end.
Travelling is not meant to be this stressful, but Burning Man is a beast. You have to earn your Burn. Just getting there is a nightmare, and many times, I questioned whether or not I was completely insane. Funnily enough, my daughter had fewer tantrums than I did. Romi is very open-minded and loves new experiences.
A one-day break in LA, followed by a two-day 1,000km drive up to Black Rock City, meant that by the time we got there, we were utterly exhausted. Well I was; Romi was great. She loves driving and flying. I'm the one that has to do everything; she's grand.
Normally, you should leave at least five days to aclimatise before you go to Burning Man, especially with a child, but it wasn't possible, and we were up each morning at 3am for almost a week. That said, seeing my daughter ring the bell, a Burning Man tradition for first-timers, made it all worth while.
After the massive checkpoints and queues of RVs and cars - which you can be stuck in for up to eight hours - and after you get checked for stowaways, you are greeted by lovely, dressed-up people, who stand beside a huge bell. My daughter rang it at around 10 o'clock at night, screaming with joy and doing snow angels in the sand.
Sign of gratitude
Compared to my previous Burns, this one was quite vanilla, especially as I felt sick for several days. Rather than wander across the Playa on acid, like some of the guests, we were in bed on a few nights by 8pm.
Luckily the camp beside us had house music blaring all night long, so whenever I woke up, I mustered up a fist in the air as a sign of gratitude. By the way, Burning Man doesn't stop, so if you don't like loud music, especially house or tribal techno, it may not be your thing.
But it's not just music and mayhem. It's also a spiritual pilgrimage. I don't want to sound like a mercenary, looking-for-handouts, modern-day hippie, but when you go to the temple, you know that you're not at a festival.
The temple at Burning Man is where people bring photos of loved ones who have died and it's incredibly moving. There are messages and memorabilia everywhere within the stunning wooden structure and people weep around them.
I brought some photos of my friend, with whom I had spent two previous Burning Mans and who has since died. Needless to say, it was a very emotional experience. I first hung a photo of her in one part of the temple, then decided I needed to put the others right in the middle. We used to call her the Queen of the Playa, so I thought it was only apt. She was placed right beside a photo of Larry Harvey. I think she would have loved that.
The temple gets burned on the Sunday night, in a very sombre, but beautiful, ceremony. We didn't stay for the Sunday because of time pressure, and getting out of Burning Man on Monday could take up to eight hours.
It was a shame, but you simply can't do everything, especially when you have a child. Luckily, I've been before - even though it was much smaller last time- but I'm in my 40s now, so I don't have to party until dawn, even though I'm not afraid of the idea generally.
A lot has changed at Burning Man, and not everyone is pleased about it. Romi and I had the pleasure of meeting Jerry James, who built the original man - 8ft in height, back in the summer solstice in 1986 - and burnt him with 10 friends and Larry Harvey on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Apparently Harvey turned around to him and said, "We're going to change the world." Jerry didn't believe him.
Before this year, Jerry hadn't been to Burning Man in 11 years, and the change was overwhelming. "Bigger isn't necessarily better," he mused. Burning Man evolved quickly from a small gathering and within four years, it started taking place in the Black Rock Desert. Jerry showed me a photo of him and Harvey checking out the location back in 1988. I was so happy to be allowed this glimpse into history.
Though first a few hundred people attended illegally, by 1997 it had grown to 8,000 people, who paid $75 for the privilege. Many times it was nearly stopped, but organisers held on. Unlike other events, they give it a different theme each year and let it grow organically.
In 2009, there were 43,000 people, but you could still buy tickets at the gate. By 2011, it was sold out for the first time and now, many say, it has lost its soul. Social media is to blame. But on the other hand, unfortunately, things simply can't stay the same even, though I would have loved to have gone to the earlier Burns.
Jerry wasn't impressed by the amount of fuel that was burnt in this year's annual burning of the man, which, dare I say it, was very impressive all the same.
It's a mind-blowing spectacle and everyone in Black Rock City gathers around to see it. Once it's all burned, naked people dance around the fire in a pagan-style ritual. The next day, they pick up moop - matter out of place.
Burning Man is built on 10 principles, one being, 'leave no trace.' It's spotless and you wouldn't see as much as a corner of a chewing-gum wrapper on the ground. Irish festival-goers should take note.
The other principle of Burning Man is radical inclusion, so even celebrities like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Johnny Depp, or the likes of Paris Hilton and Heidi Klum, who fly in by private jet or helicopters, are as much part of the community as anyone else.
Again, some don't agree that this is the case, because celebrity camps are 'private', unlike most others, and they bring butlers and cleaning crews.
"I heard that one guy flew in a chef and paid him €200,000 to cook lunch and dinner for his guests," one crew member informed me. We all shrugged. Hmmm. "But that's Burning Man," I was reminded.
"Part of the ethos is that it goes into whatever direction it goes and that's a good thing," an artist who created a massive octopus enlightened me. Things simply can't stay the same, even though I really hope boring narcissists stay away. I'm being territorial, I know.
So was it worth it?
Well, there was the 2,000km trip, there and back, plus a 300km detour on the way home, after I stupidly allowed someone else to dominate my schedule due to tiredness and being off my guard. Then there was the heat and the Playa dust and the lack of running water in the RV after a few days. Then there was the altitude sickness, the two small nervous breakdowns and one large one - all of them mine.
It's not really a relaxing holiday, it's expensive and it takes weeks to recover, but the fact that we had no phones, no Wi-Fi, no connection to the outside world was so great.
We met amazing people, like the lovely chap who shared our RV, my campmates, my friend who got me my ticket, plus the people you meet along the way.
Heath Ledger said Burning Man was his favourite place in the world. Seeing my daughter chase bunny rabbits across the desert at sunset, made me think he might just have been right.
Photography by Barbara McCarthy
Sunday Indo Life Magazine