Marchay member Gary Mueller is best kind of duality: a successful entrepreneur and investor, and doting father of five on the one hand, and creative free spirit on the other. For over ten years Gary has been making the annual trek to Burning Man, not as a tourist but as a hard core Burner. He goes before the start of the festival to help set up Robot Heart, a hugely popular and respected music camp established by Gary’s brother George and a group of friends. While the festival is billed as a fusion of art, music and self-expression on a desert moonscape, many perceive it to be a lost week of bacchanalian delights. Which is it? Fellow Marchay member Alina Cho (a self-described “indoor girl”) has no idea what goes on at Burning Man, so she sat down with Gary for a tutorial on what to know (and bring) for a first timer to the Playa.
AC: Hey Gary. Let’s start with the practical. Can anyone go to Burning Man? Because from what I understand, it’s grown so much and tickets are so coveted they’re impossible to get now. How many people go now? And again, can anyone go?
GM: Absolutely anyone can go. You go to burningman.org — you have to create a profile, register and then go to the ticket auction.
AC: Ticket auction?
GM: There’s an auction and whoever gets tickets gets the tickets and this year there will be 70,000 people. I mean, since I’ve been going it’s grown from like 18,000 to 70,000 people. They probably had demand for three to four times that, so it is hard to get a ticket…
AC: And how much does it cost?
GM: This year, they were $390.
AC: What do you get for that? And when is Burning Man?
GM: You get entry, that’s all you get. Burning Man is always the week before Labor Day including Labor Day, so it’s seven days.
AC: Then you get an airline ticket… where do you fly to?
GM: Most people fly into Reno. It’s three hours outside Reno. There is an airport at Burning Man. It’s called BRC. It’s a dirt strip, but there’s a fully functioning airport. They create a mini tower.
AC: So you can fly in privately?
GM: You can if you want. No one flies jets because it’s dirt, sand basically. What I usually do is fly to San Francisco and then there’s a pilot that a few of us work with. I’m a pilot, but I wouldn’t fly in there myself. We work with a pilot who flies a small plane, a six-seater. We fly direct into the playa from San Francisco. It’s a two-hour flight.
AC: So, tell me, how does an entrepreneur, investor, father of five get to Burning Man?
GM: Like with most stories, I think with Burning Man it involves someone who says to you, “You’ve got to go to Burning Man” – which was my brother. So, my brother first went to Burning Man 13 years ago. As soon as he went, he said, “Oh my God, you’ve got to come to this.” And then the next year, he went again and he said, “You’ve got to come to this.” And then he went again. And then he and a group of friends were part of a core group that started up Robot Heart and I went after that and was blown away.
AC: I would imagine no day is average, but for someone who’s never been, what am I going to see on an average day?
GM: That’s the thing about Burning Man is you see so many different things, and you can see anything from great art, to great music, you can walk into some math camps that’s run by a few Stanford professors. You can talk about quantum mechanics with them or you can say, “Oh, I want a — there’s a post office, there’s a bicycle repair place, there’s a roller rink there.”
AC: And this is all built…
GM: By different people.
AC: Who are attending.
GM: Yes. So, almost everything is created by the attendees. Burning Man, the organization, puts in place the infrastructure. But, it’s really the people attending who create the event. So, Burning Man builds this big man that is burned on Saturday. Then, there’s a temple that’s created every year, and that part is sponsored by Burning Man. The other thing about Burning Man is you’re free to wear whatever you want.
AC: The photos you see…
GM: Outrageous. What’s fascinating is how there are a lot of fashion people who go.
AC: I know.
GM: Let me just step back again and say, it’s also the freedom. You’re not typed as a person, either. I remember watching one person who’s a pretty well-known computer scientist out there, he kept telling people who he was. Out there, no one cares. It doesn’t matter. It’s a beautiful thing. You get very caught up in how what you do defines you. Out there all of a sudden you’re… you’re free from that, you’re in an incredibly creative environment, you’re surrounded by all different kinds of people who have come from all over the world to be there. Yeah, there’s a lot of partying, having fun, and all that. But that puts you in a state of mind, too, where you’re thinking about life and the world and happiness, or you’re just contemplating this piece of art in front of you and you think, “Wow, that’s kind of neat.”
AC: What do you pack?
GM: Everything you need, you’ve got to bring in. What most people do is they rent an RV in Reno. Because we’re part of a camp, we have food trucked in, but we take care of that at the camp level. Eighty of us come together and different people do different things to make the camp work.
AC: But if you’re the average person going for the first time with no connections…
GM: You get an RV in Reno, you go to Whole Foods and you load it up with food for however long you’re going to be there.
AC: For the week.
GM: For the week. You, ahead of time, get some fun, funky stuff you might want to wear and you just come. Make sure you have some warm things, because most people don’t realize that it’s the desert, and at night, the desert can get cold.
AC: And then rely on the generosity of others, because there’s a lot of gifting, right?
GM: Correct. You definitely want to bring things to…
AC: Give away.
AC: Such as …
GM: If you like whiskey, bring a bunch of bottles, and offer people that. If you’re an artist, make some cool, funky things to give out.
AC: There’s no money exchanged at Burning Man.
GM: There’s not. The only thing you can buy is ice and coffee at center camp.
AC: The bathrooms, the showers… ?
GM: The bathrooms are port-a-potties. I try not to use my RV bathroom because I go out there for about 12 days and it’s in the desert and you don’t want any issues, as it were. But a lot of people do. It’s just my personal preference.
AC: Where do you shower?
GM: Oh, you don’t. To be fair, at our camp, we have a shower truck. If you take an RV, a lot of people will shower every third or fourth day. The desert is incredibly dry. Even though you think, “Oh my gosh. It’s hot.” I have never experienced, for example, body odor.
AC: What is the biggest adjustment, would you say, for someone who’s never been to Burning Man, besides not being able to shower?
GM: Not being able to shower might be for some people.
AC: It certainly would be for me.
GM: It’s different for everyone, but I can give you some of the main themes. First of all, you need to stay very hydrated. That’s one common problem. People have issues with is dehydration. There are a bunch of medical tents with medical staff to help with such issues.
AC: Oh, really?
GM: It’s one of the biggest issues. And number two, it’s an extreme condition, and I wouldn’t recommend Burning Man for someone who doesn’t do well in an extreme condition. If you really do love creature comforts and that type of thing, I might be a little hesitant. What I tell a lot of people to do is go for two, three days the first time. Don’t go for the whole week.
AC: The festivities are around the clock, right?
GM: It’s totally around the clock. You don’t sleep much. I think my first time there I went for four days and I think I slept a total of maybe six hours.
AC: What about your kids? What do they think about Daddy going to Burning Man?
GM: They say, “Daddy’s going to party in the desert for a week.”
AC: What do you say to that?
GM: I say, “Exactly. This is daddy’s time. This is daddy’s vacation.”