A girl jumps under my umbrella

On Monday, I returned from AfterBurn, a three-day event in Florida that’s similar to a small Burning Man. Here’s a little vignette from Sunday night. I didn’t have my camera at the time, but send me a message if you want to see the rest of the AfterBurn photographs!

Where it all happened

Where it all happened

At 9 pm, I’m holed up in a tiny tent, listening to the pouring rain and feeling sorry for myself. It’s the final evening of AfterBurn, and they are supposed to burn the temple at 9:30.

I doubt they’ll be burning anything in this downpour. But I hear music at the nearby Camp Funk Evolution, so people must still be having a good time.

“Hey!” I think. “I borrowed an umbrella!” I stick my big blue umbrella out through the rainfly and push the button. Shwoop! My head stays dry as I step out, right into a puddle the size of a small lake. Five seconds later, a lively woman I’ve never met before jumps under the umbrella and introduces herself as 9-Volt. “Where ya goin’?” I ask her. “Shangri La La. How about you?”

I tell her I’m going wherever she’s going, and we zig and zag across the property, find a tent with a DJ, and start dancing. A few minutes after we arrive, the DJ announces, “We’ve got a real treat for you tonight. Gather round here and watch this drummer.” Everybody crowds into the tent, but luck has placed me right in front.

What an experience! The drummer’s near-solo performance whips the crowd into an excited frenzy and leaves me shouting for more. Like Cinderella’s prince, I must find this man again! Luckily, with Facebook, it’s not hard: He’s Mike Gray, of the Screaming J‘s, and I’m his newest fan. That’s short for fanatic, you know.

Thank you, 9-Volt, for leading me there. Thank you, Jon Z, for posting your video of Mike’s performance. Thank you, Shangri La La, for creating the magical space. And thank you, Dad, for loaning me your blue umbrella.

Got a minute? Visit the Screaming J’s website, which has a couple of excellent videos and really captures the boogie-woogie piano. Then book your ticket to Vero Beach — they’re playing here on December 4!

Maddox Ranch, in Lakeland, Florida

Maddox Ranch, in Lakeland, Florida

You have to have a tent

I set out yesterday from Vero Beach in Bon-Bon, my Toyota Matrix. I packed everything I’d need for the drive to Seattle via Las Vegas, including a folding bicycle, an inflatable kayak, clothes, art supplies, and two boxes of Strangers Have the Best Candy. I also brought lots of pillows, three teddy bears, a brand-new Therm-a-Rest pad, a couple of blankets, and a sleeping bag. I can make a cushy blanket fort in the back of the car and sleep anywhere.

In the late afternoon, I saw a sign for Withlacoochee River Park. It seemed like a nice county park, about 5 miles off the highway. I circled the camping area, which was mostly empty, then followed the sign to the office.

A young park ranger was outside the building as I got out of my car. He greeted me with a smile and asked how he could help me. “Is this where I pay for a campsite?” I asked. “Yes, it is,” he told me. “What kind of site do you need?”

I shrugged. “It doesn’t particularly matter.”

“Do you have a tent?” he asked me.

When I said no, his smile disappeared. “You have to have a tent.”

I continued smiling. “I can just pay the RV rate,” I said. He looked at my car and shook his head. I couldn’t figure out how they could have a rule against sleeping in the car, but I was determined to figure out a way around it.

What if I put my sleeping bag on the ground next to the car? Nope. What if I rigged a tarp as a tent? Nope. What if we called it a Toyota Matrix RV? Nope. At that point, he suggested that I wait for his supervisor.

While I waited, I thought about telling them my tent was six feet tall, pink, and went by the name of Harvey. Unfortunately, the supervisor who appeared was much more humorless, so I stayed quiet about having an invisible tent.

Condescendingly, he showed me the written rules, which said that I had to have a “commercially-made, flame-retardant tent.” When I told him my car was a very small RV, he rolled his eyes. “That? No way.”

I just waited. Finally, he said, “If you insist, I will call my supervisor, even though it is after hours on a Saturday evening, and I will have to call him at home.”

I nodded and said, “Would you, please?” He picked up the phone and called his supervisor. “I am so sorry to bother you at home, after hours, on a Saturday, but there’s this lady here who wants to camp…” His tone spoke volumes. “And she doesn’t have a tent, and she’s just driving a car.”

The man on the other end of the line said something. Then he said, “That’s what I told her, but she insisted that I call my supervisor, after hours, on a Saturday, at home.” He hung up with a smirk.

I put on my most gracious smile and said, “Thank you very much,” then I turned and went out to my teeny-tiny RV and drove back out to the road.

I pulled out my phone and ran a search for nearby campgrounds, and a listing popped up just a few miles up the river. When I clicked on the Sawmill Camping Resort, the first thing I saw was the photo on the homepage. It featured three hot guys, two of them shirtless. This was not your every day campground. The list of amenities included a pool and several nightclubs. I read further, and found the statement “…the premier gay and lesbian community in the Southeast.”

I called to make sure they had a campsite for a person without a tent. No problem. I didn’t tell the woman I was straight.

In the camp store, the young woman took my credit card and gave me a wristband. “You do know this place is, um, alternative, right?” I just nodded.

When I asked where to set up camp, she wasn’t certain. “I’ve had this job for five days,” she told me, “and I actually haven’t been back there yet.” She was referring to the 120-acre community on the other side of the fence.

When I drove through the gate, I was unnerved to find that there were no other women “back there.” Just me and a few hundred guys of all ages, doing what everybody does on vacation: Relaxing. I stuck out like a sore thumb, but I felt completely safe.

More importantly, I felt completely welcome. As the FAQ said, in answer to the question, “Are Women allowed at Sawmill?” ”YES!  We are open to anyone who is open minded.”

It’s OK that I don’t have a tent. It’s OK that I’m not gay. Saturday’s curious turn of events reminded me that being surrounded by open-minded people is more important to me than anything else.