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Burning Bound


A few weeks ago, overwhelmed by the whole process of finishing our house, not to mention writing a book, I determined I had to go somewhere before the summer was out. Not necessarily on “holiday” as such, but somewhere I could enjoy myself and maybe test myself, get back into the groove with other people, reconnect with ideas and attitudes I’ve long held dear but have recently tended to minimize due to the general pressures of life, and maybe catch some music and/or art in the process.

I initially turned my attention to the European music festivals, especially Bestival on the Isle of Wight, which looks like so much varied, family-friendly fun. But it’s already sold out – no surprise given its phenomenal line-up – besides which, it takes place the weekend after Campbell starts middle school, by which time we’re hoping to be actually living in our new house and knuckling back down to things. And anyway, nobody who’s not seriously rich in America can afford to go to Europe right now, and I’ve done music festivals. I love ‘em, but I do’t want to cross the Ocean for them anymore.

An aerial view of Black Rock City, 2006; photo by Geoff

Then I thought of Burning Man, which I’ve so often told myself I want to attend but which, like dozens of other events that take place annually around the world, I keep putting off to another year. Burning Man takes place in the Nevada desert over the last week of the American summer, concluding on Labor Day (the first Monday in September). As someone who’s never attended before, I’m not going to try and explain Burning Man to anyone, but I’ve always been attracted to the fact that, rather than a commercial music festival, it’s an exercise in self-sufficiency and free expression. While you have to buy a ticket to attend, it’s otherwise completely non-commercial, with absolutely no vending (apart from coffee and ice, the proceeds of which go to charity). Nor is there a ‘main tent’ or ‘dance tent’ or such-like. Rather, 30,000 people come together to camp in the desert, bringing all the supplies necessary to survive the harsh climate for a week; they bring art pieces that range from home-made costumes to, depending on transportation, generator-powered museums and cathedrals; they form theme camps and villages, they share supplies, offer gifts, tend to each other’s needs, have themselves a damn good time, watch the ‘burning man’ on the Playa on Saturday night and then depart again, leaving no trace of their attendance other than faint lines in the sand.

Like Campbell isn’t going to have fun with this…

I was sold – if that’s the right choice of commercial word! The ticket was affordable, I had a plane ticket credit waiting to be used, I had a tent, and I had the desire. But the more I read, and the more I saw how many people brought their families, indeed how many children treat Burning Man as if they were spending Christmas at an alternative Disneyland, the more I wished I could bring my whole clan. I talked it over the wife who, though she knew nothing about Burning Man, reacted with real enthusiasm, especially once she studied it for herself. But we agreed that it was too late in the planning stage to rent an RV and drive cross-country and that we didn’t have the resources, financial or other-wise, to fly ourselves out there with a toddler. She suggested I go alone both to enjoy myself and scout out all our needs for next year – making a promise that in 2008, we’ll do our long-intended, too-long delayed, cross-country RV roadtrip, with Burning Man as our destination.

I bought my ticket. But as I kept reading and studying, and joining various Burning Man newsgroups and discussion forums, trying to figure out where and with whome I would camp, the more I kept coming back to Kidsville. I realized that a) the event sounded perfectly designed for Campbell’s artistic instincts and mentoring skills, b) that with children under 13 admitted free, taking him with me would only cost the airfare, and c) that the parents who look after Kidsville totally have their s**t together and sounded like they could offer both the necessary support and the relaxed attitudes that would make my first Burning Man a thrill.

…Or this. Visit http://www.oz.net/~geoffsi/burningman.htm for more photos from previous Burning Mans

I tentatively invited Campbell to check out some of the pictures of mutant vehicles and on-site art structures, suggested he read about the event for himself and the next I knew, he had volunteered himself as my companion. To be sure he wasn’t jumping in blind, I spent the next few days throwing all the “cons” at him, including the lack of facilities (including Internet!), the potentially harsh weather, the need to camp on our own supplies for a full week, the lack of proper showers and toilets. If anything, these warnings just hardened him, and the more he saw the Kidsville parents offering to introduce him to fellow “geek kids” with mutual interest in robots, legos, Monty Python and video games, the more he was set on attending. Suddenly, a kid who has shown no interest in ever camping again wanted to help me erect our tent for a dummy run. He’s been asking all the right questions, studying the maps, reading the Survival Guide. He’s spent the last week thinking about costumes and art projects. In the meantime, we got him an airfare for less than it costs to go to Europe; once there, he’ll cost less to look after than he does at home. After all, there’s no commerce at Black Rock.

I can hardly contain my excitement about the trip, and I totally look forward to having Campbell as my companion: coming up on 12, he’s at an age where he can be as much of a friend as a child; he loves other kids, especially younger ones, he’s open-minded and highly creative, and I can’t see how we won’t have way more fun together than I could have had on my own. The wife and I are still planning a week to ourselves before finally moving into the new house; even better, after always putting our plans off until the last minute, we have next year’s summer vacation planned already.

Saturday night, the man burns. This picture by Gabe Kirchheimer

Campbell and I fly out August 27th. I can’t wait.

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