“Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind,” (www.burningman.com) is the first line on the history page of the Burning Man website.  Clearly attempting to uncover the mysteries of the festival, which is held two hours away from civilization in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, was going to be more difficult than originally anticipated.    The only solution is to seek out some the mysterious attendees of the festival and discuss what exactly the whole thing is about.  

Meet Jack and Robert Arnow.   What is most interesting about these two is that they are father and son attendees.  Jack, a retired math and science professor, and Robert, a 33 year old graphic designer, appear to be regular guys living an ordinary life.  However, they have made over 14 trips between to two to the hot, dry desert of Nevada at the end of August to partake in the Burning Man Festival.

“People don’t feel they are in normal life,” says Robert, “It feels like everything is in that moment and everything else is irrelevant”.  One of the first things Robert describes are the art cars that look like giant cats, dragons or floating boats that drive around the desert letting people jump on and off.  Out of this world are a few words that come to mind immediately.  In fact, the burning of a 100-foot, man shaped structure made of wood and lights marks the end of the festival.

Robert had been attending the festival for a couple of years before introducing it to his father.  Robert describes the festival as a community of 50,000 people that gather in the desert and create “conceptual but not conceptual” art pieces of all sizes and genre, “There’s a lot of emphasis on community and people connecting”.  The weather can be harsh with hot days, cold nights, and dust storms.  Robert explains that this also creates intense experiences that help people connect with each other.  Jack adds that the sense of community is even felt outside the festival.  He becomes emotional as he retells a story of his truck broke down on the way to burning man and there were people in a junkyard in Reno who helped them fix everything for free. 

Robert describes a year where he and a friend created a 1950s style diner and served grilled cheese for whomever wanted one.  He also has helped create a 25 foot seesaw and a vehicle he describes as the “Snuffalupabus”.   Anyone who attends the festival has to make sure they have all the supplies they need before entering the desert.  There is no money in the desert and everything is free.  People can rely on one another in case they run out of food and water, as there are no stores in the middle of the desert.

A little less reserved than his son, Jack has immersed a large chunk of his life in the Burning Man. “The attack on your sense is overwhelming and endless” explains Jack, “Your senses are constantly on the go.”

Jack used the internet and found a group of people his age that were going.  He explains that he is what the community at Burning Man an elder because he is one of the oldest attendees of the festival.  Jack and his fellow elders camp together.  Elders are looked up to and constantly sought out for help and even counseling. Younger peoples look to elders for someone to listen and share stories.  The elders have more in common than all the youth.  

When asked about his first trip to Burning Man, Jack says, “I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in.  An older person who doesn’t party, do drugs, or dance”.  So to give back to the Black Rock Desert community he does magic card tricks and gives massages.  He proudly states, “I’m not shy at all, and hands out several photos of himself wearing very little and wearing hand made costumes while at the festival.   Robert blushes and seems a little uncomfortable about his father’s scantily clad adventures.   Jack notices and says he doesn’t do anything around his kids he isn’t comfortable with, and when asked about his wife he says, “My wife doesn’t go, it would be her nightmare.  It’s too hot and she’s more laid back and likes her privacy.”

With a little of the Burning Man mystery now dissolved, the obvious question about drug use arises. Both father and son agree that there is a lot of sex and drugs at burning man. “People might be having more intense experiences because of drug use and some of it could be better appreciated on drugs, but you can have a good time sober,” says Robert.  Jack adds,  “Do whatever you want to do because you want to do it, don’t do it because anyone else wants you to do it.  It’s what you make it, but you could make it almost everything. Anything you plan to do, don’t count on it.”

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