It’s a hot, sweaty night in July during High Sierra Music Festival, a four-day music festival in Northern California’s remote Plumas County. The bass beats of trance and reggae nearly shake a cluster of redwoods. Fire dancers undulate in the nude while groups of stoned, long-haired, twentysomethings hold hands in circles around bongo drums and guitars.
But Gabe Kohen, 22, is on call. Calm but determined, he weaves a golf cart with “Medical” printed above the back bumper around hippies and scattered tents like a kid skillfully dribbling a soccer ball. He is responding to the call he just received from a security guard: “Uh, we have somebody tripping over here, by a redwood with a neon-yellow light wrapped around it. . .”
Kohen finds the gigantic naked guy—hairy, pasty and weighing approximately 300 pounds—running around the neon-lassoed tree like Will Ferrell with his ass on fire. A pissed off heavyset teenage girl is standing next to a security guard.
“He was beating up my friend,” the girl says. “He was beating up his girlfriend, Natalie. Look at him: He’s tripping on mushrooms. He can’t even find his clothes. He’s been looking for his clothes for the past hour. Travis, you fucking asshole, if you touch her again I’ll beat the shit out of you, I swear!”
But Travis isn’t listening. He’s preoccupied with trying to rip the neon light off the redwood tree. Kohen walks over to him. “Hey Travis. How’s it going?” he says. “My name’s Gabe.” And carefully, like he’s putting his hand out for a dog to sniff, he lands his palm on Travis’s shoulder. “Hey, man. Just wanted to see how you’re doing. Is everything okay?”
Travis looks down at the ground past Kohen, like an embarrassed kid who dropped something and lost it. “I can’t find my clothes,” he says.
“Your clothes?” Kohen says. “Don’t worry about your clothes. Check it out: Everybody’s naked. And it’s warm out, right? You don’t need your clothes.”
Travis drops his head and studies his penis. Kohen glances down at the circumcised fig as well, and in a tumultuous marriage of emotions, perhaps due, in part, to the bowl he smoked before his shift—when he was just enjoying the bands like everybody else—he feels a flood of pity and waywardness.
“Did you see Michael Franti?” Kohen asks, returning his eyes to Travis’s face.
“He was awesome.”
“That’s what I heard,” says Kohen, and then he sees Travis’ girlfriend Natalie who’s been standing alone the whole time, a few feet away, staring at him. The side of her face is red like she’s been smacked.
“Are you okay?” Kohen asks.
“Yeah,” she says, sliding her hands into her pockets. “He didn’t punch me. We were over at the main stage for Michael Franti and his elbow accidentally went into my face.”
“Well I think we should take Travis back with us to the medical tent. It’s a really cool place. We’ll give him some water. And he can lie down until he gets off the mushrooms. What do you think?”
She says yes but Travis has now taken the neon light off the tree, wrapped it around his head, and is throwing rocks into the woods. The security guard rushes up, grabs his arm, and orders him to stop fucking around. For a moment it looks like Travis might smash the security guard’s face with the rock. Nobody knows what to do.
“I’m gonna kill you,” Travis says. “No. I’m gonna kill myself.” He drops the rock. “That’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna kill myself!”
Kohen and Natalie approach Travis; Natalie takes Travis’s hand, and Travis smiles down at her, grateful. It’s an endearing moment—something Kohen had hoped for, given what he knows about how people react to help from their loved ones on shrooms.
“Okay baby,” Natalie says. “Can you put your arm around Gabe’s shoulder?”
Kohen has specific orders not to bring trippers onto the golf carts—they might jump out while it’s moving—so the three of them totter off, on foot, in the direction of the medical tent, a large canopy situated near the entrance of the festival, stocked with mats, cots, IVs, and, for the peace of mind for the mushroom and acid patients, a Rasta ambience.
It’s 7:30 a.m., and Kohen has just finished his shift. Most people are snoring, recovering. It’s hard to believe this is the same place where, just last night, twenty thousand kids packed themselves into the grassy bowl in front of the main stage to watch
jam band stars Umphrey’s McGee, Les Claypool and Keller Williams. Kohen, harnessing what remains of his Red Bull-fueled fortitude, drags himself over to the tent where his girlfriend, who journeyed up from L.A. with him and whom his rabbi father hates because of her tattoos, sleeps peacefully.
Kohen is five-foot-eight, with thick, dark hair—which his employers insist he keep short for his job—and a beard of two-day’s growth. He’s elfish but handsome, a kind of brown-skinned Israeli mountain man. He’s brooding, but cuddly-looking. Round, but not fat. He has the moody disposition of a man who has convinced himself that he’s seen too much bad stuff for his own good, and he often punctuates his sentences with heavy sighs.
He spent his high school years in West L.A. and Hollywood, drinking and smoking weed at jam band concerts. He wanted to be a hippie. He played saxophone in a group that tried a little too hard to sound like Dave Matthews Band. He would sit in the back of his statistics class and read Jack Kerouac and Into the Wild, thinking he was a rebel.
Unsurprisingly, after he graduated, he decided to backpack abroad. But at his school—a Bel-Air Jewish private school, funded by Wall Street moguls—where every student was assigned a college counselor, the decision was so controversial that it was written about in the school newspaper.
Kohen went far away—to India, Vietnam and Thailand with Youth International, a cross-cultural program that provided an opportunity to build homes, sanitation systems, and immerse oneself in a more primitive way of life. But it was also, he admits, about partying somewhere cheap.
“When I was in Southeast Asia, I was doing volunteer work. But I was also being a bum and just traveling around. I wanted to find something universal that would really help people. I decided medicine was the way to go.”
Most of his former classmates would’ve taken such an idea right to their parent’s checkbooks and used connections to enroll, say, at UCLA’s aptly named David Geffen School of Medicine. But Kohen returned to Los Angeles and enrolled in an EMT certification course. He worked the graveyard shift in the back of a Santa Monica ambulance, taking the vitals of homeless people, alcoholics and elderly people suffering from heart attacks, broken bones, sprained ankles. Many people, he said, just wanted a hospital bed to sleep in for the night. Soon, he landed a job at an emergency room at Kaiser Hospital as an ER Technician.
“Part of my job was cleaning up dead bodies to look presentable for their families,” he says. The dead bodies, however, were less upsetting than the callous way the other ER technicians behaved. Some of them would put body bags around the hospital beds before they knew whether or not the patient coming in was dead. That way, they could just take the body bag and fold it over the body, rather than lifting the heavy body and then doing the bagging.
“I got really mad at the guy who told me to do that,” Kohen says. “It’s like you’re rooting for the patient to die.”
Kohen started to seek work in other places to sate his more humanistic medical ambitions. He had attended music festivals for years. He knew the scene and what the regulars were like. He’d been there himself, experimenting with mushrooms and acid as the quasi-rebellious kid in the buttoned-up Jewish day school where it was cooler to eat sushi on Sunset than to listen to reggae in the woods. So he knew what he’d be up against and began contacting festivals to see if they needed medical volunteers.
Rock Med was a 35-year-old non-profit emergency response service run by the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. In the 1960s, concerts were turning into large-scale events, and legendary concert promoter Bill Graham conceived of a way to make concerts safe. He contacted Skip Gay, the head of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, and the two of them came up with Rock Med.
“[Companies like] MARS and Jah Med continue the Rock Med legacy,” Kohen says. “They’re all ex-hippies. They’ve all been there. They’ve all experimented with those drugs. They’re all very laid back people.”
Jah Med, a little known company, shows its volunteers ways of taking down trippers if necessary, Kohen explains. They demonstrate how to hold patients down in a way that doesn’t hurt or frustrate them—or inspire them to become combative. “The goal is to make them feel safe and comfortable,” he says.
But many of the volunteers are exclusively concerned with physically containing the trippers. They want to make sure they don’t hurt themselves or others. Kohen, however, combines these techniques with a psychiatric approach. He believes firmly that how you speak to the patients affects their temperament, and that the most effective treatment is to shower them with attention and compassion. That’s what separates him from the other volunteers, from somebody like Jake, who has medical know-how, but no experience taking drugs or with people who’ve taken drugs.
At Reggae Rising, a music festival in Humboldt County, there was a guy who took too much acid, began wandering into strangers’ tents, and had to be held face down on a mat in the medical tent. Two medical volunteers sat on his arms—making sure, just like they were trained, that his palms were open, so that it wouldn’t be painful for him—applying only light pressure because the patient wasn’t resisting. In fact, it was almost as if the patient didn’t even notice they were there. He was too busy shouting, “I want to fuck Jesus Christ. I’m Jerry Garcia.”
“Hey man,” Kohen said, brushing the patient’s hair. “I’ve been there. I know what you’re going through. You’re going to be able to figure it out.”
At Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, Kohen simultaneously helped two acid patients: a pregnant woman who brought herself to the medical tent and said her name was Zoe Tree, and a thirty-something guy who’d broken a beer bottle and walked around the festival carrying it like a knife, saying “Beep, beep, beep.”
Kohen instructed the patients to lie down on adjacent mats, even though they were strangers. He said he was going to get them water and blankets and that they shouldn’t separate.
“Medically, there wasn’t much else I could do,” Kohen says. “There’s nothing physiologically wrong with most people when they’re on these psychedelic drugs. The best thing you can do is be real and gentle with how you speak to them. You don’t want them to get really paranoid.”
When Kohen returned, Zoe Tree was singing: “Spider pig. Spider pig.”
“Isn’t that from the Simpsons movie?” asked Kohen, handing her a bottle of water.
Tree smiled and nodded. The other patient watched her closely. Soon he started forming real words of his own. “Dad,” he cried. “Lead me through Babylon and into the light.”
Tree started rapping, “By the rivers of Babylon. . .” With Kohen’s guidance, the rising rock stars made it safely through their trip.
But it doesn’t always go so well. On the last night of the High Sierra Music festival in July, Kohen spent over six hours with a single patient. A little after midnight, a skinny twenty-something with long hair wandered into the medical tent. He was alone and naked. Kohen picked up some fresh blankets and greeted him.
“This is so boring, this is so boring,” the patient said, looking at the ground.
Kohen wrapped the blankets around him and guided him toward a cot. He asked him what his name is, but the man didn’t answer. When Kohen offered him water, the patient took the bottle and sprayed it everywhere. He claimed he was deaf and began mumbling incoherently, as if his tongue was too big for his mouth. Then, out of nowhere, while the other medical volunteers were dealing with another patient, he threw off his blankets and jumped through an opening in the tent. The volunteers rushed outside to find the patient naked, squatting like a baseball catcher in the grass.
“He never came out of it,” Kohen says. “Usually they come out of it. Seven or eight hours later they come back to normal, and they’re able to chill, they talk to you, and then they go back to their tent and sleep. This guy never came out of it.”
Kohen’s supervisor eventually called an ambulance to pick up the patient and take him to a psychiatric ward to be evaluated.
“We don’t want to call the fire department, or the ambulance, or the police,” Kohen says. “I don’t think somebody taking drugs is a criminal offense. And it has such a lasting, bad psychological effect if you’re on a bad acid trip and end up in an ambulance, a hospital, or with the police. But sometimes we have to do it.”
In a pirate-themed bar in downtown L.A., Kohen is sitting with six of his childhood friends. Glasses of beer, plates with cheeseburgers and fries, and napkins smeared with barbeque sauce cover the table.
It’s been two months since he’s worked summer music festivals. He was recently in Ghana, where he worked in the emergency room in a small town’s understaffed and under-equipped hospital. (Before Kohen arrived, the program coordinator asked him if he could bring his own medical equipment, and in a Robin Hood-like move, he “borrowed” equipment from Kaiser Hospital and hopped on a plane.)
These days, Kohen is working as an Emergency Trauma Technician at a hospital in the Valley. He applied to nursing schools all over California for the upcoming spring semester. His first choice is Humboldt County, the marijuana farming capital of California.
Kohen says he’ll continue working at the music festivals there and throughout California when he’s free. But this weekend, he’s taking some time for himself. He’s going camping—and he’s not bringing any drugs with him. Since returning from Ghana he’s decided no more drugs. Well, maybe just a little weed.