It Ain’t Nothing But a Number: Camp Aging Insurrection Puts Ageism in Its Place

I’m always on the lookout for stories about Burning Man, and one day an item from Senior Housing News lit up my phone. It was about a group of retirees planning to go to Burning Man for the first time, thanks to a program organized by Juniper Communities, an assisted living organization with facilities in several states.

I tracked down the trip’s organizer, Cindy Longfellow, a cheerful and curious woman in her mid-50s. Cindy had never been to Burning Man but was on point making sure her crew of 15 seniors — four were over 80 — had a safe, fun and memorable time, all while making a bigger statement about the vibrancy and vitality of older people via their camp, Aging Insurrection.

(Photo by Cindy Longfellow)
(Photo by Cindy Longfellow)

Though they paired up with a more experienced camp, organizers still used common sense when deciding which residents would be best suited for an adventure like this. “We wanted to be inclusive, and yet we couldn’t take someone whose health would be problematic in an extreme environment,” Longfellow said. “A 20-year-old with asthma is not the right person to go to Burning Man, and that’s the same for someone in their 70s and 80s.”

So how did they fare? Longfellow reports back below, and I’d like to throw in a symbolic fist-bump for Best Camp Spirit. If you were lucky enough to stumble upon their Generational Coloring Party, you were immediately enveloped by their generosity, delight and kindness. The setting may have been novel, but the spirit was as strong as ever.

A group of folks involved in the world of senior living first conceived of the idea of doing an anti-ageism camp at Burning Man back in the fall of 2015. Essentially, we felt that ageism was one of the last remaining “-isms” that was still perceived as acceptable and even “okay.” Consider, for instance, greeting cards that make aging seem somehow both funny and depressing at the same time. There has been limited recognition of the positive side of aging. We felt that Burning Man might be an interesting place to explore the theme of anti-ageism.

The 10 Principles of Burning Man truly provided the underpinning for our anti-ageism campaign. Some of the most compelling for us include radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, and immediacy. The Burning Man mission seemed highly consistent with the goal of anti-ageism.

(Photo by Cindy Longfellow)
(Photo by Cindy Longfellow)

Ultimately our idea came to fruition in Camp Aging Insurrection. We were a camp of nearly 20 that was part of the wider Cla$$y Village of nearly 70 folks and included all ages from the 20s to the 80s. Our oldest camper (pictured here in a hang glider simulator) was 87!

During our planning, we were fortunate to be connected to Camp Kidsville and Mia Quagliarello. Mia was instrumental in the development of our Joining the Generations Coloring Party, which offered opportunities for the community to speak out about anti-ageism and their thoughts on aging in general. The Joining the Generations coloring party included multiple venues for creative expression including a large mural, mandala painting, and wisdom hut fence, where folks were asked to write their thoughts on white ribbons left to flutter in the wind.

We were amazed at the participation and the incredible energy at this event. We had a group of kids from Mia’s camp join us as well as kids from our “neighborhood,” including one little girl who came back almost every day to add a bit more color to the mural!

(Photo by Lynne Katzmann)
(Photo by Lynne Katzmann)

At the height of the event we had probably 60 or more people in camp — conversing, creating, and sharing in our fun peanut butter and jelly bar. Truly this event was everything we hoped it could be!

Post event, the sharing and creativity continues to resonate. The mandala canvas has been stretched on a frame and will be hung as part of the dedication of a new outdoor deck at a community in Denver which serves folks with behavioral health challenges. The mural is being donated to a senior living community which also has a daycare on-site. And we are transcribing all of the wisdom from the ribbons and plan to pull that together in some fashion so that we can share it with the community beyond Burning Man.

We were thrilled to be part of Burning Man 2016, hope to be worthy bearers of the Burning Man ethos. We will be back bigger and better next year!


(Top photo by Lynne Katzmann)

About the author: Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello is a San Francisco-based 'Burning mom.' By day, she does curation, community and social media work at a startup; by night she's either working on her blog, Disco Nap, going out to see live music, or snuggling up with her two kids.

70 Comments on “It Ain’t Nothing But a Number: Camp Aging Insurrection Puts Ageism in Its Place

  • Sprinkman says:

    I Love this and will look for them next Burn

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    • SherpaC says:

      Hopefully we will be around the same address next year – 7:45 and H street. Come one, come all!

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      • Lee Myerhoff says:

        Hi,
        I just turned 85. Until 2014 my wife and I attended 8 burns. Had she not died, we planned on going 2015. We drive up in our rented RV, and camp with Children of Chaos- with at least one other octonegarian and several other older burners and many younger burners. We were invited the first time to celebrate my 70th, by our 4 boys and their wives. We originally camped with “The Elders” but found C of C more compatible for our personalities. I’m glad to see that more elders are enjoying BRC. But we do not use any special places or events. I will be back again next year to enjoy the people, the art, the dust, the heat, riding my bike for 6 days and meeting like minded devotees of the 10 (now 11) principles. I cannot express the joy we have experienced having family and friends being engaged and smiling.
        Lee Myerhoff for Lee and Jackie.

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  • Cindy Carter says:

    I drive Gerlach’s senior bus, we go to BM every year. A couple of my seniors are over 90, most are in their 80’s and the rest are 70’s. We would love to stop at your camp next year. They would love this.

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    • SherpaC says:

      That would be great! I talked with someone from the Gerlach Senior Center, but we just couldn’t get things together for this past year. Let’s connect in 2017!

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  • Katy Tahja says:

    The first newspaper story I ever wrote about Burning Man was called “Elder on the Playa” 5 years ago. My daughter brought me in 2012. I discovered Mobility Camp and have returned every year. We have lots of seniors. Come visit us next year, right behind Center Camp. If anyone wants to know more about being disabled and coming to Burning Man contact me…
    BookFairy Katy

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    • SherpaC says:

      Katy, that would be great to talk with you and visit your camp. Our seniors this year only had limited mobility challenges, but that could be quite different next year. My father was disabled and a huge disability activist in South Dakota. He would be first in line for your camp if he was still with us.

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    • B.J. Ebersold says:

      Greetings. We attended in 2011. Although we “did our homework” we did not know about Mobility Camp. In route from NY I had emergency foot surgery in SD. In Gerlock I traded my wheel chair and walker for crutches. At BRC we chanced onto Mobility Camp and met the Rat Lady. I have told her story a zillion times….about Service Rats. My partner has limited mobility and we took the wagon ride to see the out-lying art. We hope to get back to BRC and would like a contact e-mail to find out more about Mobility Camp. Happy Trails. Blue Jay

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  • Teri says:

    I’m 59, my first burn was three years ago in 2013. I went again in 2015. I absolutely love it. The extreme conditions put you outside your comfort zone, which is a good thing now and then. The feeling while there is… the most incredible magic. That will keep me coming back as long as I can. )'(

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    • SherpaC says:

      Me too! I understand now why if you go to Burning Man once, you will go again and again.

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      • bleurose (Jon Rosen) says:

        My first burn on the playa was 2002 (Floating World) when I had just turned 51 and been divorced for a year. My ex and I had talked about going but she didn’t care for the idea so we always dropped it. I had no other obstacles in 2002 and I went and this past year was my 11th trip out of 15 years (missing 4 along the way). I turned 65 this year and expect I will be back next year as well. I work with DMV and I can tell you that ageism is much rarer on the playa than in the default world. I am sure it happens but I guess I have been fortunate, having camped over the years with two big theme camps both of which embraced my participation.

        I’m glad you and your crew made it and hopefully will all (or at least most) come back. I will be on the lookout for you!

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  • Way Nervine says:

    It’s wonderful to see so many not losing their youthful spark. I’m 60 myself and believe BM and bms are essential therapy.

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  • John Barkow says:

    I’m 68 and I have celebrated my birthday at Burning Man each year since 2003. We camp in the walk-in area near the airport and each year invite foreign first timers to camp with us and we supply the basics like shelter and bikes. So, campmates have sung Happy Birthday to me in many languages. I’m always the oldest one in the camp and if you read the census my age group is in small numbers but the experience keeps me coming back. I’ll try to remember this camp next year and stop by. Burn on.

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  • SherpaC says:

    Thank you Mia for sharing our Burning Man journey. We learned a lot this first year. All of our neighbors and village-mates were incredibly kind, helpful, and just plain wonderful to be around. They all gave us great advice and counsel to make our camp an even better one next year.

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  • The Oracle says:

    F* yeah!!

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  • Dr.K says:

    I am a 66 year old Burner. I have been going for the last 4 Burns and will continue until something stops me. I camp with my son and his camp (he was unable to make it this past year) They are mostly in their 20s and early 30s and I was nervous the first time, wondering about the acceptance I would receive. The age difference disappeared immediately. I have since made good friends with a large group of people, many of whom I stay in touch with through out the year. Black Rock City is for anyone who can open themselves to the experience!

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  • Dr.K says:

    I am a 66 year old Burner who has been attending for the last 4 years. i camp with my son’s camp that is composed of people in their 20’s and early 30’s. I was a little wary the first time wondering what my acceptance would be like. The age difference disappeared instantly.
    I now enjoy the friendship of a large, diverse (understatement) group of people that I am in touch with year round. B.R.C. is for anyone who can open themselves up and share in the experience.

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  • Andy Daniel says:

    Radical inclusion all the way! No reason to miss Burning Man simply because of age, and when physical limitations start to play a part,

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  • Susan Brackney says:

    Having camped across the street from these folks, they were a delightful addition to the neighborhood. I’m 62 myself and have been burning consecutively since 1999. This year in camp we had a 4 year old from England, here for the first time with her parents who actually met in our camp, and my 86 year old father who came out on the burner bus. I think my dad summed it up when he answered my question “what did you like most about your experience?”. His answer was “the people”. Age is irrelevant as long as your heart is open.

    Susieclue

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    • SherpaC says:

      Susieclue we love you! So glad to hear from you. You and your fellow campers were wonderful neighbors and shared so much burner wisdom with us. We can’t thank you enough. Your dad is spot on.

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  • Lynn~ says:

    This was very cool to read. I am visiting your camp next year. I will be returning for my ninth Burn celebrating my 60th Year of life on Earth. Can’t wait!
    Lynn~

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  • MamaBeav says:

    I’m 64 and would love to go to the playa, but haven’t gotten any takers among my friends. This article gave me hope that I might just find kindred seniors if I go solo.

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  • QueenB says:

    I’m 35 and many of my favorite Burners over the years have been 50+ years old. They’ve always worked their asses off to be there, usually even more than most. I’d be missing so much of life if it weren’t for them. They are badasses, as I’m sure are all of you! Burn on!

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  • Richard J. Good Sr. says:

    How do I get in touch with this group? 2016 was my 15th year at BMan and I am 85. Went to Playa info and asked if there were any senior groups, Was told they did not know of any and directed me to their computer area to look for myself-did, Found nothing. Was with a group from Las Vegas where I live. Would be most interested to join the group.

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    • SherpaC says:

      Richard – we would love to connect with you and have visit or join our camp in 2016. Not sure if I am supposed to publish my email here, but will find out and get it to you and everyone else who wants to stay in touch.

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  • Rio says:

    Ahh. So cool. Our camp ranges in age from 67 to 23 to 5. I’m 63, wife is 55. We burn intensely. Every year we challenge our younger campmates to dance with us ’till dawn. We make it but they don’t. HA. Light weights! Except for that we make no allowances for age. Good to know we still have at least another twenty years!

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  • Meat Hunter says:

    Me? I am age 72.

    I have attended three Burns (2014, 2015 & 2016) and I have traveled & camped by myself each year. Two of my Burns, I drove the 2.300 miles (one way) solo and I am planning on driving it again in 2017.

    Although it is a 4/1/2 day drive; which is a bit of a journey and not just a casual drive for me; Finding and attending Burning Man has been well worth it and so much more.

    The event has lifted me out of the “Doldrums of Retirement” and has created for me a whole new circle of year-around friends and something to look forward to the next year.

    I have no idea how many more Burns that i have in me (that is not my call). I just take it one year at a time and every Burn is a blessing.

    And, for this, I am very grateful.

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  • K. says:

    I’m 59, and 2015 was my 16th burn. I hadn’t thought of myself as a senior yet, and although most of my friends are youngsters (30s & 40s), none of them treat me as one, thankyouverymuch! Burning Man has been a huge part of my life, and a blessing.

    I’ll definitely hunt you all down next time I’m out.

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  • Dr. Bungee says:

    This last burn was my 21st, I’m now legal at BM. I’m 63 years young. Over the years I’ve done small art projects, helped numerous others with their things, and been involved with various theme camps. This has evolved into being a theme camp lead. My wife has evolved from being somewhat anti burner (“why do you spend so much time and money on that stuff”), to now being an integral part of our camp. Our camp consists of some old farts (50’s and 60’s), to a section we call “kids camp”. The ‘kids” generally consist of my son, his friends, my niece and her cohorts. They are in their 20’s and 30’s. It’s energizing to share this experience with them. When people ask me “How was your burn?”, I reply “It was a great family vacation”.
    This year, I met a guy from Turkey, who commented on my Underdog T shirt. I said, “You’re not old enough to know Underdog”. The conversation evolved into a discussion about how the generations in the US don’t seem to intermingle as much as in Turkey. I believe that this is probably somewhat true in the Default world, but it’s different at BRC. But isn’t everything different on the playa?
    I’ve recently heard a term for a group of people called perennials. It means people who can cross over different age groups, and are able to relate to everybody. This describes a lot of people at BM.

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  • JV says:

    Love everything about this.

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  • Gary Stone says:

    I haven’t missed a Burn since my first in 2005 at age 62…do the math! I’ve always camped with an organized camp…5 or 6 different camps over that period. Last year I was with a bicycle repair camp (Elliot’s Naked Bike repair and Piano Bar) and what a great time! Really giving back by assisting folks getting their prime mover, their bike, back in action! And, yes…all of our bikes were naked!

    Cheers, Dragon

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  • JudyinBoston says:

    Are you coming back next year? I want to join you! Sound like fun and rewarding and the best of Burning Man. This was a great idea.
    JudyinBoston

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  • Sound Man says:

    Love This Camp! Very ambitious! And love the sentiment of hilighting seniors as full playa participants.

    I just would like to say that, as an active 62 year old who has been coming to Burning Man for the last 16 years, Burning Man doesn’t need any kind of “Burners are sort-of ageist” movement. And yes, this is not the direction of the camp. I just want to say that Burning Man for me has been radically inclusive of slightly older folk, and it is one of the reason that I keep on coming back.

    My playa name is “Sound Man”, but I’m think’n of changing it to “Flash”, so that when I’m 90, with my cane, folks will go, “There goes Flash!”

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  • Darian says:

    58 and Burning Strong. Love the beautiful people and communities of the Playa. Yours sounds fantastic. I will look for you all next year. You are my kinda people!!!

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  • Mystry-San Diego says:

    I am 61 and enlivened the playa these last 8 burns with my delight in just being there. I joined the Playa Choir 3 years ago. 2 of our singers are in their 90’s. And they come back year after year. Another choir member has only missed One ! 1! burn. Ever! She’s seen it all! I am enriched by the youth, empowered by the art, and totally readjusted by the dust. I love it, hope to meet many of you and if you have a Facebook page for 50+ Burners, I would love to stay in touch. Much love

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  • RayVan says:

    First burn, 1998 at 50 years old, now 68 and have attended 17 times. I keep going, and will for as many more years as I can. Whatever I can learn about myself, every year at TTITD there is an awakening to a deeper part of me or a shock into something totally new. It is vital.

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  • Laurie says:

    The next time somebody asks “what is Burning Man?” I’m giving them this article to read! Love this!

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  • Shirley says:

    Anybody know of groups or individuals in Denver? Planning my first burn on my 65th and would love to talk to local young at hearts.

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  • I am 65 and this was my 12th burn out of 13 years. I think I am the oldest person at the playa still ‘living in a tent’. I am very able, dance (Especially at Planet Earth), ride my bike and love the warm weather. (Lots of LA blood still in me). I would love to visit your camp next year. Also would like to help a day or so. EG: If there are older people out there, that could use a friend to walk across the playa with, or ride a bike. After a bike scare three years ago, (In the BM emergency for hours) I also do prefer to have a companion out there.

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    • SherpaC says:

      We definitely recommended the buddy system at night. Although not one of us ever felt frightened or threatened at any time, quite the contrary. We still felt it was important to have a buddy just in case of an accident like yours. So glad you are well.

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  • Blueschaser says:

    Age is only a number—has nothing whatsoever to do with attitude! In February of 2013, perusing Youtube, stumbled upon sidebar clickbait for something called Burningman. Within a week, Jill & I were committed to going (despite fact she’d previously camped exactly ONE night in her life). Celebrated my entrance into my 60’s that August in BRC; our involvement has only grown every year since. 2016 saw us putting in 6 shifts with Gate and volunteering again with Elliot’s Bike Repair too. (Howdy, Dragon!). This camp had an age spread of FIFTY years.

    And a shout-out to the Med volunteers. I knew I was seriously out of sorts after arising on day 5 of the 11 we were on-playa. Off I went to outpost 1/2 block away; battery of physical tests couldn’t pinpoint exactly what condition my condition was in. Dehydration? Electrolyte crash? “At least you didn’t have a stroke…” remarked one Doc. WHAT? ME? (of course: the one year I forgot to get medivac insurance!) Soon sent to main med tent on Esplanade for observation, they didn’t notice anything unusual either. All total professionals, especially as the crush of patients increased throughout the morning. I’m released, guzzle some electro solutions and resume burning. Had couple of minutes of bizarre behaviours in succeeding days, enough to compel me to see internist when back in reality. A month after Exodus, a multitude of tests confirm I had a small stroke out there on 8/31. And a new clot in a retina a week ago. Have had to enter a host of new doctors to contacts list—never thought I’d know this many specialists….Still well, still vertical, still working, some additional meds and>>>>>>>still planning on a 2017 return to BRC! Age: only as old as you feel. And one big Thank You also to all my campmates at Elliot’s. 700 bikes returned to open playa use—I’d say “Mission Accomplished!”
    JP

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  • Lindo says:

    It is heartening to hear from so many 50 + burners. I wish that the on-line images of BM would better reflect the presence of people of all ages and body types. There is a plethora of young, very fit women that dominate the internet visual landscape. But the Playa is not limited to that one archetype of human beauty. I loved being 56 and free to express myself in clothing appropriate for the climate.

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  • Sir Haberdash says:

    2016 was our first burn and I was 68. I’ll be there every year until I drop in place on the Playa! Move over 20-somethings or you’ll get left in our dust.

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  • Valerie says:

    I am just shy of my 63rd birthday and 2016 was my 12th burn. I was contemplating about how much longer I could attend Burning Man, when I met a man who was 82 and had been going for 20 years. He started when he was 62 so I certainly have at least 20 more burns in me. It sure put things into perspective!!

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  • First time burner! Bailey here. What a time it was. the giving economy was in full force for Aging Insurrection.

    Thanks to all our friends and camp neighbors for helping us start the anti-aegism revolution…

    It was an experience I’ll never forget and I hop to have again… And thank you AARP for helping see it though!

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  • Norman Brooks says:

    I’m 71 and this was my 11th Burn. My son invited me the first time and it has become a family tradition. I hope I never miss one.

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  • Aurora says:

    I sat next to 4 of these lovely ladies on my flight to Reno. It was my second burn and I was accompanying a 10 year old girl to her first burn. 3 generations of burners represented in one row on the airplane! We had such a lovely flight. I never made it to their camp but I am so happy to see they had a wonderful burn!

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  • Mother Of Dragons says:

    What a wonderful contribution to the playa! I will be sure to look for them next Burn

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  • kathy wiseman says:

    I am 72 and this year was my second burn. I love it and plan to return each year. I would very much like to know the details of this camp and others with elders. I would certainly like to look for them next year.

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  • David says:

    2015 was my first year and I was 61. I’ve never had such an amazing time in my life. Went again in 2016 and will probably go every year if I can. I spent hours with young people who were total strangers who came up to me wanted to talk and do things together. It worried be a bit before my first burn and went on eplaya to ask people about it and got the same answer from everyone. Nobody cares about your age and they were right.

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  • Playa Nai'a says:

    After five years as a team leader for my local burn (Maui), l retired (school principal) and was cajoled into going to TTITD. Loved it! My second year changed my life (ending 22 years of celibacy), and l attended every year since– until this year, when my presence was mandated in FL, to support my fiance’s move to Hl. Are we planning to attend together? YES!
    BTW, l can often dance long after the youngsters fall down becausr no alcohol or drugs. Jus’ sayin.’
    Oh, in case you want to meet us, look for the domme, leading her sub by a chain! XOX

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  • Wizard says:

    My next door neighbor, at my first burn in 2001, was a 70 year old woman who was a joy to camp near. Years later, I stumbled across the “The Elders Camp” which had a presence on the playa for several years in a row before going dark. No one under 55 was allowed to camp with them lol

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  • Gail Walden says:

    Awesome! I attended my first Burning Man in 2015 and look forward to going again this year. I’d love to hook up with your camp and be part of it. How? Do you meet during the year? I am in the East Bay of San Francisco. Are any mid-year get-togethers planned?

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