Next week more than 40,000 people from around the world will migrate to Black Rock Desert in Nevada to create a week-long community where clothing is optional, illicit drugs are common, and fantastical artwork is everywhere. Dr. Marc Nelson will be one of them at an event called Burning Man.
He’s not there just as a spectator. In fact, no one is. One of the tenets of Burning Man is that everyone must contribute in some way – to the art, to the community, to whatever aspects of the event and its logistics that best suit you.
Normally an emergency medicine physician at Kaiser Medical Center, Oakland, Calif., Dr. Nelson volunteers as one of the medical chiefs at “Black Rock City” during Burning Man. He and a volunteer team of 300-400 emergency responders help keep the peace and keep people safe, providing free medical care in three tents to anyone who needs it, and with the help of an ambulance and an air-evacuation helicopter if needed. All kinds of health-care providers pitch in as Burners (as participants are known), including a heart surgeon, anesthesiologists, neurologists, family physicians, nurses, emergency medicine specialists, and mental health providers.
Dr. Nelson loves it partly because he gets questions that he doesn’t encounter anywhere but at Burning Man (named after a giant wooden sculpture in the shape of a man that goes up in flames in a ritual bonfire at the end of the week). One time, a mother asked if it was okay for her to delay driving her child 120 miles to Reno, Nev. (the closest sizable city) for a dialysis appointment until the next day, so that they could stay and witness the Burn that night. Another time, a man who was on the diuretic furosemide (presumably for congestive heart failure) asked if there would be any drug interactions if he took the hallucinogenic drug called Ecstasy. Not your usual ER topics.
The desert setting brings its own challenges. Hot sun, desiccating windstorms, and fierce sandstorms can injure Burners. The sand on the Playa, as they call the land there, is very alkaline, which feels wonderfully soft and silky to walk on but causes severe burns for the unsuspecting – an injury so common it has its own name: Playa Foot. And when someone comes into a medical tent to report someone else who seems to be unconscious or in trouble somewhere on the 100-square-mile site, getting directions isn’t easy. They’re, like, over by the structure with the funny man on front where there was this person kind of spinning around and maybe with a bar nearby. It’s often fastest to ask the person to escort the medical response team back to the place in question.
The huge sculptures can pose risks but create much of the enchantment that brings Burners back time and time again. One of Dr. Nelson’s favorite groups, the Flaming Lotus Girls, create a giant fire-breathing sculpture each year, such as a dragon with movable parts that wraps itself protectively around an egg. Another group built a life-size version of the game Mouse Trap. “It was amazing,” he recalls.
Best of all is the feeling of community, he says. Some people set up free pancake houses. There are free espresso bars. Massages. Hair washes. Foot washes. Happy hours. One time he walked into a tent to find an entire Irish pub recreated inside and spent all evening there.
When it’s over, and the Man has been burned, everyone returns to the “real world” and their “real lives.” Until next year. And in the meantime, they try to carry that feeling of intentional community with them throughout their daily lives.
For a hyperkinetic glimpse of Burning Man, check out flickr user DavideDC’s photo montage from Burning Man 2008.