Pulling up onto the Playa in his gold Lexus he is met by volunteers with green hair and colorful face masks. They open the door for him and tell him to get out and roll around in the dirt. My Dad is initiated into Burning Man.
“I guess it was their way of saying ‘here is the sand- you better get used to it,” he laughs with me. Covered in dust, with alien like goggles on his eyes and an orange bandana covering his nose he stood at the mouth of a giant circle. A circle made of people that have come from all over the world to watch a wooden man burn. Wearing my mothers hat. Wearing her wedding ring.
My dad is a pretty regular guy. A former Naval officer, he works steady hours as an Registered Nurse for Kaiser Permanente in the intensive care unit, and watches sports on his down time. He never really did anything wild or crazy. But after the recent passing of my Mom, I knew that this experience could be a chance for him to branch out from his straight-laced lifestyle.
“Burning Man was good for me because it gave me a little bit of a shake up, and I needed a shake up.”
My mom and dad met while they were both in the Navy, but because my dad was an officer their relationship had to remain a secret until my mom was discharged and they got married. My mom was a kind soul who was raised Catholic and taught me and my brother to live modest lives and keep a religious faith. She didn’t let me wear make up growing up and made me and my brother go to Sunday school. My mom was my dad’s soul mate and he took care of her throughout her illness. It really was a labor of love.
“Your mom would have really frowned on the idea of me going to Burning Man. If she was still here she would have wanted nothing to do with it.” he says. “Your mom and me were pretty conservative and quiet you know- we would just come home watch our sitcoms and be comfortable.”
“When my friends brought up the idea of going to Burning Man I had no intention of going- I thought it was crazy I thought only crazy people go- but then they told me about what was involved and I met all these people that had gone for years, some older than me.”
I was also thinking that my Dad would be out of place at Burning Man being 54 years old now with greying hair. But almost half of those who attended Burning Man this year were over the age of 35 according to the 2013 Black Rock City Census.
My Dad was going with a group of seasoned burners under the tribe name “Dragon Ass”. He met with them a few times for Burning Man meetings to prepare for the trip. They helped him pick out various outfits for the trip- including the essential red tutu and fishnet stockings.
“You need clothes you can ride your bike in because that is the only way to get around really.”
Most importantly at Burning Man you do not want to be what they call a ‘dark wad’ which is someone who isn’t lit up at night. There aren’t any lights except for the lights you bring. My Dad strapped neon blue and green tube lights onto his body and bicycle and wore a fanny pack filled with batteries.
“Burning Man is so cool because there really isn’t a show- the people are the show” he says. “The techno music really added to the tribal atmosphere.”
Alongside the immaculate art installations that are scattered around the Playa there is a temple that is set to be burned along with the man at the end of the week. This year the temple was designed by Greg Flesimen and Melissa Barron of Oakland, CA.
The “Temple of Whollyness” as it was titled, for my Dad was the most spiritual part of Burning Man. Burners write messages to loved ones or leave letters of farewell, knowing that it would all be burned away within days.
“I brought Mom’s favorite scarf, you know the green one, and left that on the altar along with a message – I wrote a few messages. I went to the temple like everyday to go read the messages. The first time I didn’t know what to expect and I lasted all of five minutes before I had to walk out of there blubbering.”
“But people there they would see you crying and they would just come up to you and give you a hug and tell you how much they loved you. There was a real sense of community and love. I shared my loss with people and people shared things with me. The messages on those walls were messages I could identify with.”
The reasons people go to Burning Man are as colorful and different as those who attend it. For my dad it started off as a trip to just try something new and have a good time, but it transformed into something more. The temple was able to serve almost as a wailing wall for him and the people around him. It was a place to find closure and comfort among others who were strange but not quite strangers
After talking with my dad about Burning Man I don’t think he has changed too much. He was always kind of that guy who would always sit in the same seat at the sports bar on Sundays. Those things haven’t changed- but he does seem to be more accepting of people and more willing to try new things with his life. Just the shake up he needed.