Cover story: Seniors sojourn at Burning Man


Do you like fires? Huge fires? Rolling infernos with flames 50 to 100 feet in the air? What about playing outside without a care about getting all sandy and dirty? Or wandering around in a really big playground at any hour of the day or night with all kinds of cool stuff to see and explore?

If that sounds interesting, and if you don't mind occasional hugs from strangers or a being in setting where naked adults sometimes saunter by, maybe Burning Man, the annual party in a dry lake bed in Nevada, is for you.

Some 70,000 people joined in the 2015 celebration in late August. "(We saw) very interesting people, all completely laid back," said James Coker, 76 and a resident of The Sequoias retirement community in Portola Valley. "We weren't at all embarrassed to be old folks," said Ginger Harmon, 87 and also a Sequoias resident.

The festival name refers to a wooden humanoid sculpture, usually around 40 feet tall, that is set alight at the end of the festival. The first such celebration occurred in 1986 on Baker Beach near the Golden Gate. It was moved to the Black Rock Desert, a federal wilderness area, in 1990, according to a timeline at The Wikipedia page for Burning Man notes that for 2015, with the height of the foundation included, the sculpture's head was 60 feet in the air.

Mr. Coker received an invitation from his daughter to stay at the Red Lightning tent encampment, one of thousands of small gatherings set up in the temporary community known as Black Rock City. Mr. Coker then invited Ms. Harmon, because "I felt she was one of the few people who would appreciate it," he said.

They flew to the desert by small passenger plane from San Carlos Airport. The sensation upon deplaning onto the sere windblown flatness of the lake bed was one of infinite space, Ms. Harmon said.

For a week, festival-goers inhabit the city – a campground arranged in a three-quarters circle and organized like stadium seating, with avenues, each 40 feet wide, radiating out from a central hub where the aisles would be. The avenues are named for their positions on the clock (5:30, 6:00, 6:30 etc.) Cross streets have more whimsical names, such as Arcade and Ballyhoo, Illusion and Laffing Sal, Ersatz and Freak Show.

It was sort of a freak show, but not in a bad way, Mr. Coker said. There were weird vehicles and contraptions and structures: a sailing ship on wheels, outsized multi-person bicycles, a huge metal grasshopper, a giant dinner fork stuck in the ground.

While actual animals are not allowed – the conditions are too severe – they are represented in sculpture. Based on a photo gallery at the Burning Man website, animals for 2015 included an alligator, dragons, a Canada goose plated with 120,000 pennies, and a frightful head full of snakes recalling Medusa.

As for the human animals, many wore costumes, some walked about in formal clothes, others in their underwear, and some on stilts. "You just kind of got in a crazy mood when you got there," Mr. Coker said. "I found it to be totally inclusive."

"There were a lot of naked people there," Ms. Harmon said. "The majority of people walking around naked (were) beautiful people, part of the art of the whole thing."

"I thought the artwork there was of unusually high quality," Mr. Coker said. He and Ms. Harmon would get up early and visit the artworks before the wind and heat of the day, he said. Some people think of Burning Man as an art exhibit, he said.

Also of high quality were the accommodations, at least for Mr. Coker and Ms. Harmon. They slept in a 10-foot-by-10-foot bed under a down quilt. Electricity and water were supplied, as was fabulous food prepared by a chef, Ms. Harmon said. "I ate vegetarian and I didn't know it could be that good."

If they hadn't been given tickets, they probably would have paid $3,000 for their week's stay, Mr Coker said. The Red Lightning camp had about 100 residents and a spiritual, not religious, theme, Ms. Harmon said. There were daily lectures and yoga, she said, and everybody was very mellow, with no evidence of illicit drugs or alcohol abuse.

"You're just having affection (directed at you) all day," Ms. Harmon said. "It seems real, not put on."

"It was real," Mr. Coker said.

"I just think of all the lovely hugs I had and all these young people who respect old people," Ms. Harmon said.

"It reminded me of the hippies in 1960," Mr. Coker said. "It was so wonderfully inclusive."

Asked who should not go there, Ms. Harmon included people who don't like being hugged and anyone who dislikes being dirty. A sandstorm covered everyone and everything with dirt, she said. Goggles and a face mask are a must.

The music sounded like rock, and the drumming "was as good as it gets," Mr. Coker said. Cellphones generally won't work out there. "I found it such a relief to be totally out of communication. 'Wow! This is so liberating,'" he said.

The actual burning of the Burning Man sculpture took 45 minutes and was done to the accompaniment of drums, cheers and singing, he said. But when the destruction by fire of a walk-in cornucopia-like wooden temple got going, there was total silence for about 20 minutes, he said. After a while, the Buddhist and Hindi mantra "Aum" began making its way through the crowd of 70,000. "That blew my mind," Mr. Coker said.

Burning Man is said to be a white people's festival. African Americans were there, Mr. Coker said, but not in proportion to their demographics. "They were few and far between," he said.

There were children. "They were having so much fun," Ms. Harmon said. "I wanted to go back and be just like them."

A principled affair

Of the 10 principles of Burning Man, radical inclusion leads the list. "We welcome and respect the stranger," the website says.

Next is "gifting." Mr. Coker said he took a credit card with him, but never used it. Buying and selling is not allowed, he said, nor is bartering. If you're enjoying a cold beer, chances are that someone gave it to you, he said. "Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value," the website says.

Advertising and commercial sponsorships are out. "We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience," the website says.

Civic responsibility – caring for the public welfare and conforming to the laws – is a tenet, as is the wilderness ethic of leaving no trace that you were there. "There's not a single ash left in the desert," Ms. Harmon said, adding that she saw someone with tweezers picking things up from the desert floor.

And radical participation. "Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play," the website says. "We make the world real through actions that open the heart."

Ms. Harmon has long been oriented to concern for the environment. "I've spent my life on the left side of good," she said. She has a degree from Stanford University and four children, and for 50 years she guided tourists through mountains, including the Himalayas in Nepal, she said. "My idea of luxury in a tent is just a little different," she said, referring to her accommodations at Black Rock City.

Asked if she would return to Burning Man, she said she is inclined to, "but it might be an 'I've been there and done that' kind of thing."

Mr. Coker's career was in paper recycling, and he also has four children. He graduated from the University of North Carolina and has a master's degree in business from Harvard University. Asked if he will make a return visit to Burning Man, he replied: "Oh, yes, definitely, definitely."

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