By Marcus Lavergne
For the past 30 years, people have been celebrating what’s become known as radical self-expression through the burning of a wooden man and several other practices involving art, drug use, music, reflection and more. Throughout the years, Burning Man, a festival now held in the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Nevada, has grown, transformed and continued to attract thousands of “Burners” from across the world.
Burning Man’s journey from its modest beginnings in San Francisco to its enormous presence on the Playa of Black Rock near the small population of Gerlach, Nevada, is accompanied by various experiences and interactions with groups like San Francisco’s anti-authoritarian Cacophony Society. Some of these factors were vital in shaping what Burning Man has become — a weeklong soiree with a net worth of more than $7 million.
Although the festival is highlighted by music, painting, sculptures, and its designation as a popular location for meditation and reflection, it’s always had some controversy tied to it. The event, which was once undisturbed by rules and guidelines, has had to make changes for the safety of Burners, and the conservation of the land and the surrounding towns.
Noise control, the prohibition of laser pointers, and preventing people from urinating on the Playa are only a few significant laws of the land, but Burning Man still has the potential to be a hazardous place, especially for those who come unprepared. The desert climate already acts as a natural danger, and ailments and injuries are far from uncommon.
A 2011 ResearchGate study highlighted several challenges to medical professionals as well as those with injuries. According to the study, 2,307 of the 53,375 attendees were treated in Burning Man’s hospital. Most had minor injuries — the most common being soft tissue afflictions, dehydration, eye problems and urinary tract infections. Thirty-three patients were transported to an outside hospital, 28 by ambulance and five by helicopter. There was one death, and a single cardiac arrest, but the person was resuscitated.
The reality is the event presents ample opportunities for harm and injury. The results of the 2011 study revealed a challenge that professionals are trying to overcome in light of the festival’s growing annual attendance. Last year, the event brought in more than 70,000 people.
Many of these issues were addressed last Wednesday by the University of Nevada, Reno’s medical Burning Man expert, Dr. Gary Johnson. Johnson goes by “Dr. G-man” on the Playa, and last week he hosted his lecture Surviving Burning Man: Notes From a Dusty Doctor where he discussed his history with the festival and how it’s grown since his first experience 24 years ago.
Johnson is an associate professor and the chairman and medical director of the Family Medicine Residency Program. He also works on-site at the Family Medicine Center and Patient-Centered Family Medicine Center. On the side, Johnson’s a veteran Burner who’s seen the event change significantly over time.
“It expanded, it doubled every year,” Johnson said. “Tents were wherever you wanted, cars were driving wherever. People were coming and going, word had got out that you could go up and look at naked women up there. There were no controls, no restrictions, no police, nothing, so as you can imagine problems were going to develop.”
The last year Burning Man was held in the middle of the Playa without proper fencing was 1996. That year, a couple was run over while in their tent, and another man was killed in a motorcycle incident before the event started. John Law, an original co-founder, cut his ties with the event and publicly voiced that the festival should not continue.
After the tragic events in 1996, Burning Man came under the jurisdiction of Washoe County. A set of rules and regulations accompanied the move. Street signs, the police department and fire department were a significant part of the changes to what Johnson referred to as the “lawless town.”
Today, the event has several different resources for people who suffer injuries and also for those who have drug-induced problems. Crisis centers are on location, and mental health experts and volunteers are available to users who have bad trips on ecstasy, LSD and other “rave drugs” that are common on the Playa.
“Personally, I like to work early in the week when there’s less drama,” Johnson said during an interview. “My wife, Holly, is a nurse out there later. She gets [patients with drama] and a lot of them are sort of drug, substance related — people that weren’t used to things and went crazy out there and tried to fly an airplane when they’ve never [flown] an airplane, for example.”
Being both a Burner and medical professional who’s dealt with Burners, Johnson’s expertise is invaluable. Early on in his Burning days he made himself available when other doctors weren’t. Although medical professionals are on-site now, Johnson hopes to see even more volunteers and students out in Black Rock in the near future.
The School of Medicine at the university once provided a chance for medical students to get experience in that type of setting through a rotation program. Johnson is optimistic that it will come back sooner than later.
“I’ve been in contact with the CrowdRX people,” Johnson said. “It requires a legal agreement with UNR to do it. This is a private organization so they aren’t really motivated to do it right now, but they’ve told me they want to do it. It makes sense because you get a lot of free labor.”
The medical staff members usually put in multiple 12-hour shifts during the week. A good portion of the work involves cleaning and suturing external injuries, but more serious injuries and ailments can become expensive problems for patients. According to Johnson, a helicopter ride to another hospital can result in a $25,000 bill.
He warns that some of the best ways to stay safe are to have essentials suited for the environment. Drink water, and take in electrolytes to avoid both dehydration and desalination. Watch out for random rebar which can cause drastic injuries, and beware of the dreaded “Playa foot,” a chemical burn specific to Burning Man. It’s caused by the talc-like sand.
He says vinegar and water can prevent the uncomfortable malady from worsening. Johnson also warns that trying LSD for the first time while on the Playa might not be the best idea.
Johnson’s wife, Holly, explained that preparation is key to avoiding the underlying and apparent dangers that lurk within Black Rock City.
“Burning Man can be the best experiences of your whole life, or it can be the worst nightmare of your whole life depending on how prepared or unprepared you are,” she said.
Marcus Lavergne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mlavergne21.