By Alec Pruchnicki
In 1986, a group of artists had a party on Baker Beach in San Francisco, topped off by a bonfire with a burning wooden effigy of a man. In subsequent years, the party expanded and eventually moved to a dried lakebed, or playa, surrounded by the Black Rock Mountains in northern Nevada. This year, the party—now called Burning Man—welcomed about 70,000 people, including myself, and a 70-foot-tall effigy.
The festival, which is always held the week before Labor Day, has acquired a set of 10 principles to help guide civilized behavior among the partiers. Other than admission fees, most exchanges are carried out by “gifting” or just giving things to others, including lots of food, drink, artwork, clothing, and occasionally drugs. Since the festival takes place in the desert, people must bring all of the essentials and whatever they need to celebrate. Radical self-expression is another principle and it manifests itself in outrageous costumes, or sometimes no clothing at all, artistic expression, and any behavior that can safely contribute to the overall partying atmosphere. But, the event is mostly an arts festival with many creative works of all types, along with partying, or just getting away from it all through isolation.
My contribution to gifting was t-shirts. A patient of mine, who is an artist, volunteered to create some artwork which I printed on 100 t-shirts. I gave them out to other New York City ‘Burners’ (as we sometimes call ourselves) on the playa and here in the City. The group of friends I went with, including some Greenwich Villagers, had planned the trip for many months and we camped together at the festival. Anyone who complimented my t-shirt as I walked through the camps received one until I ran out.
Burning Man has undergone some changes over the years. Silicon Valley billionaires have discovered the festival, but they mostly kept to themselves and didn’t ruin the counterculture atmosphere, which is mostly composed of younger New Agers (the average age is about 35); there are not many 60-year-old hippies. I even observed improved medical care! Previously, there had always been a few medical tents, staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses. This year, there were actual trailers brought in by a local medical group that was capable of doing X-rays and administering IVs to dehydrated, drunk, overdosed, or injured partiers.
There is plenty of Burning Man information on the internet, but for a more local and personal touch, come to the Burner Happy Hour at the Lucky bar on most Wednesday nights (168 Avenue B, between 10th and 11th Streets). You might even be tempted to make the trip yourself. I’ve already reserved my RV for next year.