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Off the Beach and Into the Playa

Since the first Burning Man celebration in San Francisco more than 25 years ago, the anti-establishment art and music festival has really grown up. This year, the call of the Playa—the festival’s name for the stretch of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that’s now its home—drew a crowd of bigwig burners, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Anne Hathaway, Sean Combs, MTV founder Bob Pittman and two intrepid members of the Hamptons social set, who recalled the event for us.

Ready for takeoff

Waking up in the desert

District dance party

Robot Heart rave

The author on the Playa

Henry Chang’s Mr. Fusion

Biking on the adult playground

Playa Wear

Burners in costume

Sunset at District

“How’s your ‘Burn?’” might just be the most frequently asked question at Burning Man—and mine was indeed fabulous.

Burning Man is a not-for-profit weeklong festival that takes place every year in the desert of Nevada, where participants explore art, community and self-expression. It started in 1986 when 20 people gathered on a San Francisco beach; when it kept growing in size, it moved to Nevada in 1990.
Remember when you were a kid at Disney World and were totally awestruck? When you’re a “virgin burner” you feel like it’s Christmas morning every morning of the festival. Burning Man is a big hippie commune where the ideals of the ’70s are vibrantly alive, if only for a week. No money, no red-velvet ropes; everything is shared and all are invited everywhere.

Burning Man teaches radical self-reliance with its “Bring what you need or find what you need, but give more then you receive” message. At the core of its values is the principle of taking care of the Playa. The worst thing you can do at Burning Man is to be irresponsible with your MOOP (“matter out of place,” i.e., anything that isn’t a natural part of the environment). Urinating on the ground is a sin. And you leave “no trace” afterward, as this amazing, 70,000-person party in the desert is cleaned up to the point where you’d never know it had even been there.
When I was a virgin burner in 2009, about 43,000 people attended; in 2013, there were 69,000 people at the sold-out event. In my opinion, having more people has improved the art and music, as the more well known the festival becomes, the more accomplished artists and DJs it attracts. The downside is that there’s been more theft and police presence.

This year, our 60-person camp was called PsyClone, and it was just about the coolest place I’ve ever been. I got to meet entrepreneurs, famous actors, people who work in politics, fellow doctors (I’m a psychiatrist) and amazing artists, all in one tented campsite. At about a quarter of an acre, the camp was very small, consisting of RVs and tents in the back and a central area for socializing, plus sofas, a refrigerator, a homemade shower and a barbecue. At the front of the camp, major pieces of art were set up to attract visitors.

Each camp applies for space from the Burning Man administrators about six months ahead of time. The event organizers decide your location depending on how you plan to contribute and how clean you left your space the previous year. To attend Burning Man, you don’t need an official camp—you can just show up and pitch a tent—but know that you’ll likely be in a less-desirable location.

As the summer wound down and Burning Man time approached, I told my friend Paul Forsman, a photographer from Bridgehampton, that I was going. A few days before I left, he said, “Hey, I’ll meet you there.” He had no ticket and nothing arranged. There’s nothing to buy at Burning Man—absolutely everything has to be brought in. I’d gotten an RV, food, costumes, water and all my other supplies months prior to attending. Tickets to the sold-out event had to be obtained through an online lottery, which kept hopeful attendees waiting all day. How is it Paul could just show up? His response: “I’ve always been lucky like that.” I was amazed. After hitchhiking a ride to the Playa on a prop plane, he got there and ended up taking astounding photos.

At the Playa, I had the pleasure of meeting Henry Chang, who stayed in my camp. Henry’s an artist from Las Vegas who designed a giant harp with strings made of lasers. When you touch a laser, your hand glows and a note plays. He also designed the most astounding art car I’ve ever seen. Made out of stainless steel and with all the inner workings of the engine visible, it has giant wheels in the back. It took Chang two and a half painstaking years to create this car, and wherever we went, we were stopped as people’s jaws literally dropped.

The photographer Spencer Tunick camped with us and did one of his fabulous naked photos in the desert. There also was a wedding in our camp, complete with a glow-in-the-dark wedding dress—talk about a luminescent bride! During the Women’s Parade, I watched thousands of glorious females decorate their breasts and ride across the Playa to the cheers of appreciative onlookers. There was a message behind the revelry: that the safety of woman is crucial in all societies, and that the Playa should be an example of a place where women can be free, but also safe.

As a psychiatrist, the most fascinating part of Burning Man for me is how people move around the Playa. Robot Heart is an amazing camp that sponsors one of the best dance parties each year. Robot Heart has a huge truck with enormous speakers and an incredible whopping generator to power the music. At around 3am, the truck rolls out into the Playa, and within minutes, 10 art cars follow and surround it, leaving a big space in the middle. Next, the bikes come, and, like thousands of ants, people flood the scene until there are no fewer then 10,000 dancers moving to the music. As the sun peeks over the horizon, people strip off their coats and watch the glorious sunrise, cheering.

Coming back home to Southampton, I thought fondly back to my experience living in a world where no money is exchanged and no one is left out. However, the sadness I felt quickly faded as I set out to surf in the early autumn air of the Hamptons.

There truly is no place like home.