Here's What Happened When I Took My 56-Year-Old Mom To Burning Man

Never before had I seen her like this.
The author and her mom at Burning Man.
The author and her mom at Burning Man.
Matt Christensen

When people ask me about Burning Man, the most succinct, honest response I can give is, “It’s my favorite place on Earth.” So it’s no wonder why I wanted to share this special place with someone special to me: my mom.

I gushed about my Burning Man experiences for three years, and she’d always smile and respond with, “It’s a bucket list item for me.” Part of me wondered if she was simply showing support for something I loved despite not entirely understanding it. The other part of me wondered what it would really be like to go there with her by my side. It was hard to envision. Still, I told her she was welcome to join and it would be a week unlike any other in her life.

This isn’t a typical choice for a mother-daughter vacation. Mainstream media depicts Burning Man as a drug-fueled, naked hippie rave filled with celebrities because that’s what people want to believe. Presenting it as a cultural experience or an emotional journey of personal growth doesn’t receive as many page views.

I find the time to party there, but that’s not why I go. For me, Burning Man is about the mind-blowing art, encountering the pure goodness of strangers, and the beauty in approaching life with an open heart. So why wouldn’t I want my mom to have that experience, too?

Getting a ticket for her all came down to the last month before the Burn in a sale appropriately named the “OMG Sale.” Burning Man released their last wave of tickets in early August, and I sat on my apartment floor with her on the phone, my stomach feeling uneasy as we waited for our slim chance to purchase her a coveted ticket.

I got through to the final webpage and jumped up from the excitement. “Mom, I got one,” I blurted out. “Do you want me to purchase it?” She said yes, and I yelled into the speakerphone, “You’re coming to Burning Man!”

My 56-year-old mom was coming to Burning Man.

Immediately, and with only four weeks to go, I began planning for a plus one and sending her series of emails on what to buy. At Burning Man, it’s impossible to purchase necessities; instead, you have to bring them with you. From clothing to medicine to water to food to sunblock, we had to pack everything.

While I focused on the planning part, I ignored the mental preparation. A week before we were set to depart for the Burn, she began to express serious reservations about the whole thing. Am I too old, too fat, too introverted?

“I think this is probably a big mistake,” she told me, her voice tinged with anxiety.

Like mother, like daughter. I knew the feeling because I had it myself a few years earlier. For months I stressed over preparing for this mysterious week in the desert. Even as I packed the car with all my supplies, I had zero desire to go. No one could describe what Burning Man was like — I just had to be there, they said. This terrifying unknown of a week loomed a little closer each day, and I would have canceled if it hadn’t been for the money I already spent.

“This is normal,” I assured her. “It feels awful right now, but once you get there it will all make sense.”

It often takes people a few days to adjust when they arrive in Black Rock City for the first time, and understandably so — it’s a fantastical place which looks more like another world than a dried lakebed. We ventured out after setting up camp our first night to help her get a grasp on the city layout. “There’s The Man,” I pointed, “and beyond it is the Temple. And if you look in the opposite direction, that’s Center Camp with all the flags.”

Even in those initial hours, my mother appeared unfazed, navigating through the traffic of EL wired-bicycles, braving epic dust storms, and scaling larger-than-life art installations. She adopted a “yes” attitude, taking part in anything that came her way. Shooting rubber duckies with a laser gun? Cruising up to the art car playing Ozzy Osbourne? Tequila shots? Yes, yes, yes.

“She adopted a 'yes' attitude, taking part in anything that came her way. Shooting rubber duckies with a laser gun? Cruising up to the art car playing Ozzy Osbourne? Tequila shots? Yes, yes, yes.”

Still, I worried constantly about her experience. It felt as if our roles reversed — I transformed into a nervous parent sending her child off to college. What if she has a terrible time? Will people be nice to her? If things are going badly will she tell me? Anytime we did something together, I wondered if she was enjoying it as much as I was. Anytime we spent time apart, I wondered if she felt excluded.

At our camp, we ran a bar which was open from noon until the early morning hours, and anyone could stop by, have a drink, and make conversation. After my bartender shift came to an end one night, my mother waltzed up to say hello. I checked the time — 3:45 a.m. — and asked her what she had been up to. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” she responded with a sly smile.

Yes, Burning Man was all making sense for her.

Some evenings we explored that wild city together. We ate dinner at an elegant French restaurant where the host was covered in nothing but fuschia glitter. We went to a movie theater and watched “The Wizard of Oz” set to Pink Floyd’s album, “Dark Side of the Moon.” We painted large elephant figurines and laughed at our terrible art skills. We hopped onto a double-decker art car covered in light-up trees and watched the world float by.

One night, we sat under a cluster of LED lights which resembled fireworks. We donned diffraction glasses and marveled at the array of colors bursting above our heads. I called out to my mom, and a nearby woman in her 30s overheard us.

“Wait, you’re her mom? That’s so cool!”

My mom smiled in response to the woman, reacting to the type of enthusiastic welcome she hadn’t felt in a long time. Her earlier fears were far, far away.

It was pretty cool, I realized. I hadn’t merely taken her along for the ride — she happily joined without expectations or judgment. Burning Man is an exhausting seven days, and even with a broken shade structure over her tent, questionable camp meals, and a low-key fear of heights, she did it all with an eager smile.

Matt Christensen

The best experience for me wasn’t something we did or saw, though. I had always viewed my mother through a lens of how she related to me. But at Burning Man, I could remove the identity of “Mom” and instead feel like I was there with a friend. I got to witness her in a world where she didn’t have to police what she wore, a world where strangers would tell her she’s beautiful and she would smile, a world where she had no care other than following her heart in that very moment.

She hadn’t changed, but she got to feel the freedom of simply existing without the stress of work, the expectations of society, and yes, even the responsibilities of motherhood. Never before had I seen her like this, and it was a tremendous gift which makes me love Burning Man, and her, even more.

“I could remove the identity of “Mom” and instead feel like I was there with a friend.”

On Sunday, our last evening, we sat down to watch the final large structure at Burning Man be set ablaze. The Temple is the place where people leave mementos, photos and notes of the things they wish to leave in the flames, giving them peace to move on.

In a crowd of 60,000, no one spoke. The only sound was the crackling of the fire and gentle gusts of wind which created dancing twisters of dust and ash. We all felt hypnotized by the surges of orange and red in front of us, but I managed to take my eyes off of it momentarily and glance to my right.

My mom sat cross-legged in the dust of Black Rock City, peering over the rows of people in front of her, and tears overflowed from her eyes. I wanted desperately to reach out and hug her. All I could do though was stare at this person I’ve known my whole life and realize I didn’t know her completely until now.

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