FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

This 75-Year-Old Burning Man Grandma Is Killing It

We talked to the septuagenarian nudist about why she leaves her retirement community in Florida every year to go to Burning Man.

Barbara Ann Peterson lives in a senior citizen community in Florida, as 75-year-olds do. Like many seniors, she has six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and can talk your ear off. But unlike most grandmas, Peterson is not yammering on with aimless stories about getting shortchanged on her scratch-offs at the convenience store and using old-school racist terms to describe the cashier. Instead, she’s got one about cramming into a foam shower with 75 other naked people or riding a giant octopus car dressed like a French maid. Every year for the last five years, Peterson has packed up her neon bikinis and left the Sunshine State for the annual two-week Mad Max role playing festival that is Burning Man.

Advertisement

There’s typically something insufferable about hearing Burners tell stories of their acid-fueled shenanigans on art-cation with their fellow web coders, which would explain why people relentlessly mock it every chance they get. But Peterson is far too old for pretension, and it’s actually quite endearing to hear her talk about it. She’s recently taken to social media and her selfie game is way more on point than yours. “I made these by myself and plan to wear them to fantasy fest,” she posted along with the above photo of her handmade Princess Leia-like metal bikini top. “Tutu Tuesday,” reads another one where she is wearing, you guessed it, a pink tutu. There’s also one of her coming out of a big vagina. Oh, grandma!

Peterson is not the only Burner eligible for an AARP subscription, of course. But once we stumbled upon her severely underfollowed Instagram, we had to talk to the purple-haired-septuagenarian behind it. Remember: Burners come in all forms.

Noisey: So you’re in Vegas right now. What are you doing there?
Barbara Ann Peterson: I had to get dropped off here yesterday because the man that I went out with to Burning Man, he had an RV, and it had a major mechanical problem. So I got a ride back with some friends. I have to hang out here two days until I get my rental car. Then I’m off for two weeks to Colorado.

Who was the guy with the RV?
He is 84 years old. This is his 14th year. I met him last year at Burning Man. He has a wife here in Vegas who never goes to Burning Man and I have a husband back in Florida who came once with me to Burning Man and he’ll never go back. [Laughs] I brought my daughter the last four years. She didn’t go with me this year because she just started law school. We were camping at this thing called Party Naked Tiki Bar and I met this guy with this beautiful, big RV and he invited me to get out of the tent and come in the RV with him. So I kept in touch with him all year. Last year, he had a mock wedding. His son came out. My daughter was the maid of honor. It was really funny.

Advertisement

I am being reborn

A photo posted by barbara peterson (@burningman_grandma) on Aug 12, 2015 at 5:16am PDT

How does the RV experience compare to the tents?
Luxury! Total, total luxury. Air conditioning during the day, shelter from the dust storms…

Does that take away from the Burning Man experience?
Not at my age. But I’ve done it both ways.

And you live in a senior citizen community in Florida?
I live in an active adult community, yeah.

Do your neighbors and friends there know that you go to Burning Man every year?
Yes. [Laughs]

What do they make of it?
They think I’m nuts. They think I’m totally off the wall, gone bonkers, and they could never do it. They don’t want to do it. Dust storms, no showers, your hair becomes ridden with clay, you go in those nasty Port-a-Potties. None of the people back in my community would do it.

I’m a nudist, also. I love being there because I can run around naked all the time. But my friends that live in this active adult community, most of them are not nudists. Last year I came back and my hair was pink and they were all like, “Oh my god, your hair is pink!” And I said, “It’s just Burning Man.” And they said, “What’s Burning Man?” And I said, “I can’t explain it to you. Go on the computer. Go to Burning Man dot com.”

Prepared for dust

A photo posted by barbara peterson (@burningman_grandma) on Aug 29, 2015 at 12:09pm PDT

What brought you to Burning Man in the first place?
I had a girlfriend that lived in Miami and her and her husband had been [to Burning Man] for four years. And they have regional Burns all over the country. And in Florida, they have regional Burns twice a year. So my friend said, “Barbara, why don’t you come to a regional Burn and see what it’s all about and what wonderful people they are.” So I tried the regional Burn which was at a ranch in Lakeland, Florida. And I started going to those twice a year for four years. And I started talking to people about their experiences at Burning Man, and they said, “You can do it! You’re in great shape for your age. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it.”

Advertisement

So after I went the first year, when we came back, we made plans to go for the second year, and the third year, and all we did was talk about Burning Man, and buying costumes at Goodwill. All you think about once you become a Burner is when the next Burn is gonna be. And you can’t wear the same costumes you wore last year.

Thursday at burningmzn

A photo posted by barbara peterson (@burningman_grandma) on Sep 6, 2015 at 9:43pm PDT

What are the challenges of going to Burning Man in your 70s?
Well I’m in good shape, but I would think the tremendous amount of ground you have to cover on a bicycle and/or walking at night time. At my age, I don’t go out to the playa at night even though my bike is lit up because there’s too many crazy people out there with no sense of direction, and a lot of drinking and drugging. And then there’s soft spots in the sand. I’ve taken a couple of tumbles and finally said, “That’s it, no biking at night.” So if you’re in good shape, you can do it. It’s not for someone with disabilities, but there are people out there with wheelchairs. Their disabilities don’t get in their way if they really wanna do it.

What are the misconceptions of Burning Man?
I think people think it’s all drugs and they’re out there doing acid and hippies and wild and crazy parties. And yes, there are people that do that and there are many people that don’t. They go out to appreciate the incredible talent of the artists and the art cars they’ve created and the interaction and love of the community. It’s not all drugs and nakedness.

Advertisement

Do you avail yourself of any of the drugs there?
I smoke pot. That’s about it. I don’t do acid or pills or anything. Just pot.

I got my ticket

A photo posted by barbara peterson (@burningman_grandma) on Aug 28, 2015 at 11:35am PDT

What keeps you going every year?
The art. The genius intelligent minds of these people and the labor of putting these art projects together, and then taking them down a week later. You can’t believe these things can be possibly built by human beings.

Oh, another thing I love is the Dr. Bronner foam bath. It’s a big, huge tent you go into and there’s these two shower stalls and all the people get undressed and there’s maybe 25, 30 people in a shower stall, side by side. And then on the top layer, people are standing above and high-power hose them down with ice cold water and then they spray Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. It’s this foam, and it gets in your eyes and you can’t see what you’re doing. Everybody shampoos everybody else’s hair. That is one of the most incredible experiences. You’re all clean and the music is playing and you have a blast!

Pretend I’m a fellow septuagenarian in your retirement community. How would you sell me on it?
I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and this is the most incredible experience I’ve ever had, and nothing else on this planet could excite me more than this event. You know, we live near Disney and I go to Disney now and then to see the fireworks, and I say, “Gah, this is so boring!”

Dan Ozzi is not at Burning Man but he is on Twitter.