The first time I went to Burning Man, I was 50 years old. People often ask me how I discovered Burning Man, probably since I don’t fit the (unfortunate) typecast of a raver who wants to go out to the desert to do crazy drugs.
I am a perfect example of dispelling that stereotype since doing crazy drugs or listening to EDM has never been something I’ve had an interest in doing. I’m just a person following one adventure to the next, one step at a time.
How I learned about Burning Man
The first Fall, when Ken (my adventure partner) and I were still first dating, he talked about some photos some friends had posted on Facebook. Then, he asked me if I had ever heard of Burning Man.
I had vaguely heard of it – my mother is artistic, and I swear she had told me. So my impression was of an art festival in the desert, like the balloon festival in New Mexico. When he asked me if I would go, I remember saying, “sure, why not? Sounds like an adventure.”
Ha! Little did I know what was in store due to this innocent reply.
Just before my 50th birthday, we went to a Burning Man fundraiser (it was on a Wednesday!) The Burning Man organization was shifting to a non-profit model. The founders toured the country to involve the community in this new direction. The event space was a converted Baptist church in Harlem. The chapel-turned-home was in itself unique and worth the trip.
The event featured an interview with Larry Harvey, the first founder whose spark of imagination built a wooden man for a beach bonfire over 30 years ago. Looking back now, that’s a pretty impressive way to be introduced to Burning Man – by meeting the founder.
A life-long people watcher, the party was like being in a candy store. Almost everyone there had some creative or unique outfit or clothing item. There were fire dancers – women hula hooping with rings of fire. I remember being fascinated by their fishnet stockings having holes due to heat that got too close.
The rock star Sting was there, along with his wife, Trudy. I tried to be the “cool NYer” who leaves celebs alone, but I couldn’t resist trying to get a photo. So with the sly over-the-shoulder camera phone shot, I tried. However, just as I pressed the button, someone’s elbow accidentally covered his face. I didn’t dare try again, but I have a fantastic shot of his short hair!
We started talking with one couple, who spent time telling us about the process for getting to Burning Man and how to attend in an RV. They had so much good advice, such as getting started with planning and reserving a vehicle in January when the prices were lower; renting from a city not too close – the closer to Reno, the more expensive the rental.
The couple also advised us about finding Facebook groups to join the community and Virgin Outing events.
We followed up on the advice to learn all we could about Burning Man. The best tip was finding the local events called “Virgin Outings.” The first one we went to was a boozy brunch in Manhattan.
That’s where we met Bobby, aka “Bobby THE Virgin.” He received this “playa name” (or nickname) before his first time attending Burning Man because he kept asking the New York email group tons of questions.
After Bobby’s first Burning Man week, he returned and decided to give back to the community by holding local educational events, connecting people who’d never gone with people who have and would answer all the questions in person.
Bobby took us under his wing and helped us prepare in many ways. Since then, Bobby and I have become great friends, and he calls me his BBFF (Burning Man Best Friend Forever). After my first burn, I joined him in holding the Virgin Outings in New York throughout the year.
Joining a camp
One of the people we met at that fundraiser in Harlem was a lovely woman head-to-toe dressed in an 1800s-period costume. She looked so elegant and was so well-spoken. She told us about how Burning Man has “theme” camps and the principle of gifting.
I don’t remember a lot of the conversation, but I remember being so impressed that her camp had three shipping containers filled with costumes that they gave out.
My mind could not wrap itself around the vast quantity of costumes or space they would take stored in the huge containers.
In the winter before our first Burning Man, my adventure partner and I started exploring who we would feel comfortable camping with for a week in a hot, dusty desert. When Ken and I first met, we had no friends in common, so it wasn’t like we would “automatically” join our friends. But, thanks to Bobby, we attended different camps’ events to meet people.
We settled on one called Kostume Kult. This camp is the one that the elegantly dressed woman described to us! The funny part? We didn’t recognize her at the camp meetings, where she wore “normal” clothes and a tool belt (she was part of the camp build team). So it may have taken us a year to make the connection!
The woman, Lolly, is such a fantastic costumer that several times I didn’t recognize her at parties – except by staring closely at her eyes (looking beyond the fun false eyelashes!). We enjoyed this creative crew of campers who often get together in New York beyond Burning Man.
Over the years, we camped with Kostume Kult and became part of the management teams – me with the year-round crew and my partner leading the builds at the main event in the desert.
Burning Man at 50 years…young
Per the Burning Man census (with self-selected responses), the median age of attendees is 36. About 20% are in the 50+ range (up from 16% in 2014, my first year), and add 19% for the 40+ age range. Of the 80% who attend from the United States, about 8% are from New York.
Given this kind of stats, no wonder many of the people I used to work with didn’t know about Burning Man. Or that I didn’t know much about it either.
I never considered this adventure to be an age thing. The couple who told us details about RV rental are older than us. The founder of Kostume Kult is also our age. I know I am not great at guessing how young or old people are, so often I don’t assume someone will behave a certain way based on chronological age.
Some former friends had implied to me that attending Burning Man was part of my mid-life crisis. I disagree – turning 50, I had so much fun that I saw this as more adventure.
Would I recommend attending Burning Man to other women “of a certain age”? Hell yes! I adore expanding my base of knowledge of humans. In addition, this community has a wide range of people I would not have met if I had stayed within my social and work circles.
The principle of “radical self-expression” coincides nicely with the timing in a woman’s life where she’s often ready to let go of internal judgments and other people judging her. Burning Man encourages all kinds of exploration and creativity. At this age, women have a solid set of life experiences that enhance the “doer” mentality that burners deeply appreciate in the harsh environment.
While I can’t say that I had one life-changing “Aha” moment because of Burning Man, I have shifted my sense of who I am over the years. From a people-watcher to a participant. From admiring art to becoming a creator. From wearing a corporate costume daily to wearing a tutu on a Tuesday.
Burning Man is not just a huge party where young people only do crazy drugs. Instead, it’s an inspired community filled with highly creative people and a place where you can explore new things and uncover your authentic self.
I’m glad I discovered Burning Man at 50 years old. And that I will find it again for the *nth time this year. It can be transformational, even when it’s one adventure at a time, one step at a time.
Knowing that this event is welcoming to people of all ages, would you consider trying something new, something different, something creative, by attending?
Wonderful story Stacey!
We are a start-up online 0ver-45s womens mag called Tonic and we are scouting for stories we can run on our site. Thing is, we can’t pay but we are happy to link back to your site. This tale of Burning Man is one we would love to have on our site with a pic of you. We would request to make edits where the words are less relatable (the bits about Burning Man fundraisers and “virgin outings”, for example). Please let us know what you think via email and do have a look at our site. xx
Thanks! I’ll send you an email