Baby Burner Tells All

by Whatsblem the Pro

Haley Dahl, 18, has been attending Burning Man since she was 9.

Haley Dahl, 18, has been attending Burning Man since she was 9.

Where the subject of children attending Burning Man comes up, controversy follows. Strong opinions run the gamut, from people who believe that radical inclusion necessarily means juveniles too, to those who look askance at parents who bring their children to an adult party in a hazardous environment, or even call the practice a form of child abuse.

We’ve explored this topic before, but there’s an important demographic that remains unheard in the controversy: children who grew up going to Burning Man.

Haley Dahl is eighteen years old, and has been going to Burning Man since she was nine. She lives in Los Angeles, where she rocks out with her band, Sloppy Jane.

I met Haley on the playa, and she promised to write to me after the burn and tell me all about her experience growing up in Black Rock City. This is what she wrote:

When I was a child and my family was still an unbroken unit, we would take trips to my Grandpa Yab’s country house in upstate New York every summer. I have only a few vague memories of these traditional family retreats; holding my Raggedy Ann doll in a bed that smelled like leaves, walking in the forest with my grandpa to go see butterflies, and a sense of normalcy that I at this point in my life feel totally disconnected from, because once upon a time in 2004 my dad approached me and said “so this summer we have a few options. We can either go to the country house, or we can do a weird mystery thing that I’m not going to tell you anything about.” And this was how nine-year-old me ended up at Burning Man.

We went, just my dad and I. I remember at that point there was still no cell phone service in Gerlach. We left the last gas station in Nixon and called my mom, her voice quivered on the phone when she said goodbye to us right before we went over a metal bump that signified the end of cell range. I’ll never forget the way she sounded, it was as if she thought that we were never coming back. And I guess, in a way, we never really did. We never went back to the country house. And as we passed through Gerlach, my dad pointed into the desert and said “that is where we are going.” And I said “you mean by the giant cloud of dust?” He looked at me and said “the cloud of dust is where we are going.”

When we got in it was dark. We went to Kidsville. The mayor was wearing a top hat and a diaper. We walked to Center Camp and we thought it was all of Burning Man, and we were totally blown away by it. We put up our tent, it blew away. We spent the rest of the week in the car. I had no costumes so I painted myself blue and wore a mylar emergency blanket as a toga.

The next day we walked around and I remember feeling so overwhelmed by all of the colors, the costumes, the art, it was a world I felt like I had made up in my imagination that had materialized in front of me. I teared up and it made my dad panic. He asked if I was doing okay and asked if I was going to need to go home. I looked up at him and said “thank you for bringing me here.”

Haley Dahl, age ten

Haley Dahl, age ten

I think Burning Man is an excellent environment for children if you are willing to be a parent. Not a fly-little-birdy-go-experience-life-Mommy’s-on-acid kind of parent, but the kind of parent that actually DESIRES to treat Burning Man like a family vacation. Let me explain that a little better; I have talked to a lot of adults who have said “oh, so your parents gave up their Burning Man experience for you.” That is not how I feel about it. My parents are not polyamorous drug-takers or heavy drinkers. They weren’t “giving up” the right to go to the Orgy Dome; they wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway. So it was pretty easy for them to steer me away from anything too raw. I think having attended Burning Man as a child was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It gave me a very strong sense of self at an early age, I entered middle school with self-esteem and totally did not give a shit if I was ostracized for it because I knew I was cool as shit. And in case you didn’t know, that is incredibly rare for a middle school girl.

THAT BEING SAID, I STRONGLY SUGGEST AGAINST BRINGING YOUR FUCKING TEENAGE DAUGHTER TO BURNING MAN. Bringing your child to Burning Man as a child is awesome because they get to spend their early developmental stages being told that it’s totally fine to be an individual. Once your kid is a teenager, especially a girl, I think it’s advisable to take a few years off.

People really like to act like Burning Man is a really safe environment where everyone has evolved past normal human bullshit. That just isn’t true. I’m an attractive young woman who has lived in both Los Angeles and New York, places known for having high scumbag populations. It is safe to say that I have experienced more blatant sexual harassment confrontations at Burning Man than I have anywhere else I have ever been.

Because I attended Burning Man as a child, I grew up pretty fast mentally, and because of hormones in food (or something) I grew up pretty fast physically too. I was an old fourteen, and that was around when Burning Man started becoming less safe for me. People like to pretend that because it’s Burning Man it’s totally okay to catcall and/or be aggressively sexual towards women. That is not okay, especially if the woman is in fact a fourteen-year-old girl.

I remember being drunk and in one of the big dance camps and making out with some random guy. I said “how old are you?” he said “I’m twenty-five.” I said “I’m fourteen.” He paused, looked slightly surprised, and said “I won’t tell if you won’t. . .” and thus began a long saga of disgusting men taking advantage of my naivety and teenage drunkenness.

Haley Dahl, age eleven

Haley Dahl, age eleven

Fast-forward two years to my (now ex) douchebag post-2009 burner boyfriend in his five-hundred-dollar fire-spinning attire drunkenly spitting at me and screaming in my face about how I didn’t know how to experience Burning Man because I wouldn’t let him be free and sleep with other people.

The main problem with growing up at Burning Man is that Burning Man grows up with you. It’s not the home it used to be. The increase in popularity and rise in prices has turned it into a playground for bourgeois assholes who like to act like taking ecstasy and cheating on your wife with a nineteen-year-old white girl wearing a bindi and a feather headdress is enlightenment.

I will always wonder if Burning Man has really changed so hugely since my childhood, or if I am just seeing different sides of it because I’m older now. I’m sure it’s a combination of the two, but ever since Bad Idea Theater closed I’ve spent all of every night at the Thunderdome. . . because if I wanted to go to a fucking rave I would just go to downtown L.A. and pay ten bucks instead of five hundred, you know?

Anyway, by the time I was seventeen I was bored of drugs. Now I’m eighteen, I’ve quit smoking, I don’t drink much, and I go to the gym every day. I never go to parties and I’m not even going to college because my career has already started. If there is anything that Burning Man has robbed me of (other than a fucking normal life), I’d say it robbed me of my twenties. I watch Fraser. Enough said.

Do you have a first-hand story about growing up at Burning Man? Tell us all about it in the comments after you check out Haley’s band, Sloppy Jane, playing the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood:

28 comments on “Baby Burner Tells All

  1. Hi Haley,

    Thanks for your important comments. I’ve been to Burning Man once and my 15 year old daughter really wants to go this year (2015). We are very close and stick together, but you’ve made me realize we need to have some important talks before I move forward with this. I was hoping this might be the last year that she would be seen as a young person, but clearly that’s unrealistic. Thanks again!

    Raine

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  4. Thanks for sharing. Let me share a related story as part of the conversation. One evening this year on the playa I ran across a young woman alone, barely dressed out in near the mid-playa fire installations. Like a single hetro I try to see what’s up. She’s inebriated and wants to touch everything. That’s cool, but how young is she? “Fourteen,” she answers, but then tries to say, “ha I’m really 26.” I decide the first answer is right closer to being right so my mission is to get her back to her dad’s RV. However, noticing my altered behavior she pouts and says “you’re board with me. You don’t think I’m pretty.” I had no answer. Faking sexual interest try to get her home some was unacceptable (she hadn’t even total where she was camped). I didn’t want to leave her in her state, but that’s just want I did. I hope she art car delivered her home safely.

  5. Hi Haley. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us and giving some thoughtful responses to the comments that followed. BRC (like the rest of our planet) is a work in progress and we are but imperfect beings. Hopefully communication and discourse can help to speed along the evolution of some of the thoughtless and/or predatory men that roam the Playa. At the very least, honest stories like your’s help to make the more naive participants aware and hopefully safer out there.

    Hope to meet you in the dust sometime. : )

    • Playa sound camps are all ages dance clubs. That rarely exists in the default world, outside of raves. Combine alcohol /whatever with adult looking drunk partially clad minors and adults at night in a dance club and the result is predictable-grown ups coming on to or hooking up with teens maybe unknowingly. Carding prior to kissing while intoxicated isn’t likely.
      Teens lie about age and don’t have ID. Parents never leaving kids sides ain’t Gonna happen. The solution is making BRC an 18 and up place but stubborn hardheads refuse to do that.

  6. It’s interesting and sad to read about your bad experiences out on the playa and the kinds of abuse woman in particular have to endure. For some reasons a lot of people seem to think that when they go to Burning Man they should, or are expected to go ape, 24 hours a day, hurt people along the way and that’s okay. I think they miss the point that Black Rock City is a temporary “Civilization” based on the Ten Principals. I’m a 6′-2″ tall, 58 year old male and no one messes with me at Burning Man not because I’m mean but just because I tower over most people. Every year I see people, mostly young ladies, who seem to be dealing with having been abused in some way and I feel bad about their situation. I wish we could figure out a way to create a Burning Man environment where everyone respects one another and boorish behaviors are a thing of the past. I know there will always be perverts on the playa but at the very least abuse of participants should be minimal. I guess my idealism is unrealistic considering the vast majority of the BRC population is comprised of people not accustomed to dealing with sleep deprivation, fatigue, dehydration, AND alcohol and drug abuse (abuse meaning they can’t handle it). Thank you for your post and follow-up comments.

  7. My 3 kids have gone 3x. 4 yr old girl, 7 and 9 yr old boys in 2007 and then they went again in 2009 and 2010. The first 2x they came Monday – Thurs am. In 2010 they got to stay for the burn. (Remember the massive white out after that burn? surreal) Pretty awesome all 3x. We did a Kid Burn with a mini man on Weds eve each time also. Fire spinners, mutant vehicles and about 200 people the 2nd and 3rd time.

    My kids have been around Burning Man related stuff their whole lives and quite frankly there was very few times, when we were out and about, that I had to steer them away from something I didn’t really want them to see.

    It definitely changes your burn but in ways that were incredible and fun and amazing. Staying put in camp all night after they went to sleep was something I hadn’t done before.

    Seeing the Happy Birthday Cake mutant vehicle at 3am when they had just gotten there for the first time was pretty magical. Oh yeah, it was my birthday and the first time they had been with me on my actual birthday! It slowed down and sang happy BD to me. “Oh MY Gosh Dad! Was that for YOU?” . . . “YES, yes it was!” as my heart exploded with love. This was about 20 minutes after they had gotten there and they were way to amped to sleep so we went on a walk / bike ride to see the man.

    That being said if they came again the only way I would let them go out without me would be if they were with a group of friends with the condition they stay together. No way would I let a teenage girl OR boy go out alone. We have a pretty big camp and people we knew very well would take them out on adventures and have a blast with them. They say they want to go again every year.

  8. I’ve always thought little kids on the playa was great. That being said, good parenting is a must for this. Do you burn differently when you have a small child with you out there? I hope so. Doesn’t mean it can be a bad experience for them or you. You can still have a blast, while opening your child’s eyes up to some very unique experiences. My camp mates usually cringe when they see a young’un out there. As long as the parent is responsible, where’s the problem? You need to remember that done right (not drinking/drugging/raving the night away) the burn can have a very positive impact on a child.
    While it certainly depends on the kid, I do agree that Burning Man isn’t probably the best place for teenagers. Had I been brought out there at 15-16 it would have been hell on my parents. But again, some kids are much better behaved/mature/responsible then others.

  9. I just want to briefly say that I think I was a little hasty with the “DON’T BRING YOUR TEENAGE DAUGHTERS” line. I didn’t by any means intend for that to be a hard boundary. I got a lot out of my teenage years at Burning Man, I just feel like people need to be aware that there are a lot of creeps and dangerous things, and that teenagers are usually testing their boundaries, making Burning Man even more dangerous than it usually would have been. Especially if said teenager hasn’t been going for his/her/their whole life. If you do indeed want to bring your teenager, I just think it’s important that you sit them down and talk to them about the kinds of things that go on. Talk to them about how it’s important to not trust all strangers, even if everything seems safe, and above all talk to them about the importance of the consent of all parties in even mildly sexual encounters. And safe sex, of course. I don’t think my parents did anything wrong, but I think that knowing what I know now there are a few things I would have told 14-year-old me(that I will definitely tell my little sister who is just beginning to enter teenage years) and that I wish a lot of other girls my age who had just started attending burning man were aware of.

      • No. I was like every other freaking teenager on the planet. I didn’t tell my parents what I was doing. When I got a little older it was clear that I couldn’t spend all of burning man with my mom and dad, because that’s natural. My parents gave me more freedom but expected me home at night and gave me a walkie-talkie. And I, like most young highschoolers do, used that freedom to go be stupid and angsty. That’s just how teenagers are, and I don’t blame my parents, I just think people should be more considerate and should focus on educating a little more before bringing an emotional wildcard(see:teenager) to burning man.

      • also, I just want to say, before someone plays the *so this was all your doing and your fault* card, I want to point out that just because I was being a teenager who was trying to experiment doesn’t mean it was in any way okay for full grown men to take advantage of that. I never lied about my age. Not once.

  10. Thanks for sharing! I’ve gone every year and since I was 17 and now I’m 24. I think it was a great experience for me the first couple of years because it gave me confidence in my beliefs and a realistic (positive) image of my body. I was not very naive though and stayed away from drugs/raves/dudes. I went with my first boyfriend from high school and we really bonded. Now, I’ve met my current boyfriend on the playa and we’ve been together since 2008. Playa love can last! (It’s just work.) Thanks again 🙂 *dusty hugs*

  11. Great article! I was talking to Haley a bit while we were in the massive crunch to get in. We were “parked” in front of the RV that her and her friends were in. Very nice to talk to and extremely insightful, but already a jaded old burner. Of course it won’t ever stay the same, but there are a lot newbies (including this 2nd year burner) that view it as a precious, and many times, sacred place and want to keep it from going in that stereotypical direction of “that orgy in the desert” just as much as anyone else who respects the event. As long as there are jaded old burners and people with good intentions, Burning Man will keep evolving but never fully into the likes of the drug induced sex party that too many people already see it as.

  12. There are times when I lose the thread of what I’m supposed to be experienceing at Burning Man, then I see the look of wonder on some kids face and go “oh yeah”. That being said, I think parents should really listen to Haley’s comments about not bringing your teenager. I think you also have to decide if the responsibility (remaining sober an watching your child) of bringing a child to Burning Man is the experience you want. If not, maybe you should get a babysitter and leave the kids at home. Also, you need to remember you have to remain vigilent. You can’t decide because your child has been going for a couple years they have it wired and you can let go the cord. You have to be responsible for your child every minute you are there. I’ve seen families enjoying the Burns and found it enhanced my experience and I’ve seen a mother with blown pupils trying to ballance her child on her bike, and that really worried me.

  13. Sounds like it worked for her to attend but she’s still angry about something, perhaps being let out on her own to attend a camp and drink, unless she snuck out and has not taken responsibility for her actions. Trying to think of who was wearing diapers 10 years ago as I may have been the mayor then, but never wore diapers. Bet BM has a lot of mayors.

    • Uh yeah she was probably upset that she trusted people at the playa only to be manipulated and used by an older man. So here she is now as an adult giving out advice that hey burning man is a loving place but weirdos and people who take Advantage of others are out there. The only people who have an issue with this are the manipulators themselves

      • Take some responsibility for yourself and your loved ones. People who think the playa is much safer then any larg event or small city are naive. Getting shitfaced drunk and high with strangers sometimes has bad consequences. Lose the politically correct bullshit. Some people become assholes and will take advantage. Some of them are men. Be aware.

  14. Wow that was really insightful! Personally I love seeing children at Burning Man. They make me so happy! They’re like little bundles of joy. Like Hayley said I think Burner festivals are the perfect place for kids to simply be themselves without any social constraints and it’s a great way to build self esteem and character. All the Burner kids I’ve met have been sooo awesome! I wish I was that cool and self-confident when I was younger. I grew up thinking that you had to act or look a certain way to fit in hence I had self esteem issues till I went away to college. I think it’s great that parents give their children the opportunity to grow up in such a welcoming and creative environment. AS LONG AS THEY’RE RESPONSIBLE PARENTS! If you’re taking your kids to Burning Man there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Don’t be a drugged out hippie and leave your kids to run around. And make sure your kids wear earplugs or headphones. Don’t want hearing loss to start that early. It sucks that Hayley’s parents continued taking her as a teenager. Def agree it’s not smart to take your teenager to burning man. Once your kid is old enough to really really understand why the adults are acting that way then it’s time for you to plan your family vacations somewhere else other than BRC. Past 12 years old, your kid shouldn’t be going to BM. You’re totally exposing them to the possibility of sexual and drug abuse.

    • Hi it’s Haley!
      I just want to put it out there that I don’t blame my parents for bringing me to burning man as a teenager, and I also don’t regret going. They were dealing with totally new territory, they didn’t know what kind of person I was going to be and had never raised a teenager before, and I was not an easy first. I wouldn’t trade my years at burning man for the world–even when I had to learn about assholes.
      I just think that it’s important to weigh the personality of your teenager against the things they will face at burning man.
      At least don’t build up the idealism to the point where they feel comfortable taking drinks from total strangers. That’s all I’m sayin. I will always be grateful that my parents took me to Burning Man, and I really think they did their best.

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