The Burning Man festival has long attracted people to northern Nevada's desert for a week of radical self-expression. Now, Reno Public Radio's Will Stone reports that long-time "burners" are bringing their kids along to participate. But many burners questions that decision, saying that sex and drugs are everywhere and the fun should be reserved for adults.
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Burning Man, the week long festival of radical self-expression kicks off later this month in the Nevada desert. It attracts college students, aging hippies, tech CEO's, and suburban soccer moms. As the event has grown, so has the number of families bringing kids. And as we hear from Will Stone of Reno Public Radio, the burner community is conflicted about being family friendly.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: Zella Johnson was 4 years old when she experienced her first burn.
ZELLA JOHNSON: I keep a lot of stuff that lights up here. They're, like, bracelets that light up at night.
STONE: Now at the ripe age of 9, she and her twin brother are veterans of the playa, the dry lake bed where the countercultural festival takes place. She produces a pair of feathered goggles, part of her furry Burning Man ensemble.
Z. JOHNSON: You have to wear goggles on because there can be sand blowing everywhere.
GUY JOHNSON: We've got our bikes pretty dialed in.
STONE: Zella's father, Guy Johnson, who's a real estate agent here in Reno - he's showing off their garage, packed with generations of tricked-out bicycles. This year he's constructed a yellow pedicab.
G. JOHNSON: The pedicab trailer has an umbrella on it, and I've also just a couple of days ago installed some speakers so that my passengers can have some music.
STONE: Ask Zella why she likes Burning Man and she lists dozens of activities that sound right out of an elaborate kid's birthday party.
Z. JOHNSON: They took a giant playground equipment thing and filled it with foam. So you'd climb up on it, and then you'd fall into a bunch of foam.
STONE: She also has tales of peanut butter and jelly buffets and bouncing on trampolines in KidsVille, a family-friendly camp. Johnson and his wife, Lorri Nielsen, a nurse practitioner, say some people judge them harshly for bringing their kids. Burning Man attracts over 60,000 people, and many are there to let loose which can include nudity, sexual behavior, alcohol and drugs.
LORRI NIELSEN: People think everyone out there is running around naked, and that's really not what it's about. The occasional person you see like that but...
G. JOHNSON: Black Rock City's just like any other city. I mean there are kid-friendly activities, but on the other hand there's also adult-only - adult oriented activities and camps. And, you know, we just don't take our kids to those.
STONE: While most burners say it's about the spiritual and artistic experience, some, like Matt Peek, feel it's still not appropriate for his own two young daughters.
MATT PEEK: The nudity is one thing. I'm certainly not a prude but little girls - and for that matter, little boys - don't need to see naked men walking around.
STONE: Peek would never tell others not to bring their kids, but he's volunteered in the middle tent there and seen intoxicated children. He recalls one time a mother brought her young son to him.
PEEK: Her story went something like, he said he grabbed a cup of something that he thought was juice and it tasted like gasoline, and then he started acting weird, and she brought him to the tent. What the hell was she thinking he would find in a red cup?
STONE: Along with safety concerns, some burners want it to be adults only because they feel having kids out there inhibits them.
JIM GRAHAM: If that's what you're looking for, then Burning Man is not for you. You might want to go find something else to do because this will always be a family-friendly event.
STONE: That's Jim Graham, who works for Burning Man. He says, actually, kids have been at the event since the mid '80s when it began, and anyone 12 and under gets in for free. But there are certain parts of the playa where minors aren't allowed. Back at the Johnson-Nielsen household, Lorri Nielsen says oftentimes parents come up to her asking, what's it like to bring your kids?
NIELSEN: You know, when they first get there, they're a little timid 'cause all the art is interactive. So, you know, here we're always like don't touch that. Sit down, behave. What do you hear at Burning Man? It's Burning Man - do it.
Z. JOHNSON: Climb on it.
NIELSEN: Mess with it.
STONE: And that freedom is what appeals to so many burners, regardless of age. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Reno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.