The end of the world may involve feature spikes, shouting and War Boys – but the Wasteland Weekend post-apocalyptic festival turns out to be just as much about creativity, community and kindness
An edited version was published in N by Norwegian magazine, September 2019. Photography by Myles Pritchard
In the Best Motel in Mojave, a railroad town in the Californian desert, two grown men are panicking. They’ve made a mad rush to Bob’s Army and Navy Surplus Store, close to little town’s famed airstrip and spaceport – but it hasn’t solved the problem that is haunting them. Namely, What does one wear to the end of the world?
The two men are photographer Myles and me – and we’re acting like two teenage girls before a prom, except that this is more of an anti-prom. We’re preparing for Wasteland Weekend, a five-day post-apocalyptic festival where anything goes, except for jeans, t-shirts, branding – or anything that wouldn’t look right in a world where the oil and the water have run out, and humanity is scrabbling for survival in the desert dust.
The Theme and Costume Guidelines section of the festival website runs to 2,800 words and emphasises, in horrifying capitals, “FULL IMMERSION”. So I’m hacking at a Primark t-shirt with scissors, and trampling cut-off jeans into the car park at the somewhat misnamed Best Motel, with its empty swimming pool and abandoned Lincoln car. Aviators or desert goggles? Headscarf or neckscarf? Are these novelty bullets too cheap looking? How do I look? Will these people accept us? Why are we here?
The drive to the festival site is no less intimidating, following a dusty dirt track to nowhere, with the world’s largest borax mine shimmering on the horizon, guided only by map coordinates, because there’s no civilisation for miles around. When a wooden sign finally appears through the dust, a succession of men and women in beaten-up shoulder pads, spikes and desert goggles bark orders at us: chiefly to “slow the f*** down!”
When a wooden sign finally appears through the dust, a succession of men and women in beaten-up shoulder pads, spikes and desert goggles bark orders at us: chiefly to “slow the f*** down!”
We park our four-wheel-drive car in the Nuclear Winter, a parking area for attendees without tribes, not far from an older gentleman called Gramps, who’s wearing a tin hat and will later tell us he’s more into anarchy than Mad Max. Then we start walking around, which is a bit like being the wide-eyed kid in the 80s movie, arriving in the big city for the first time…
Firstly, there are madcap vehicles everywhere, trundling through the dust: a little car with tractor wheels at the back and normal wheels at the front; a yellow school bus that’s now the Cruel Bus, festooned with weapons; a desert buggy driven by bald, white-painted War Boys from the most recent Mad Max movie, with a tortured-looking, tattooed girl in a cage swinging at the back.
A lot of people seem to be shouting. Every so often, someone will shout “War Boys!”, to which all the white-painted hoodlums will shout “War Boys!” back in unison. A girl walks past in a robo-rabbit mask with a built-in vocoder, and says something that sounds like hello in a muffled robot voice. One girl is wearing a ram-horn helmet and a bra made of shells.
At the entrance to the main festival area, I’m looked up and down by an imposing guard, who looks like she’s ready for an S&M roller derby and is holding a staff that’s also a retro microphone. She’s called Neon, and she’s part of the Nuclear Bombshells, a Vegas tribe that runs a raucous burlesque stage by night. Her rules of entry are simple. “If you’re wearing blue jeans, you’re not getting in,” she tells me. “And if you don’t seem into it, I’ll make you roll in the dirt.” When she lets me pass, I feel a rush of gratitude: I’m a Wastelander now.
The whole festival is made up of hundreds of tribes, most of them with fictional backstories, who have set up more than 500 temporary structures across the 80-acre site, from stages to geodesic domes and tented hideouts that resemble military camps. Many of the tribes exist outside of Wasteland Weekend, but for most this is the nub of their existence.
The Ghoulcrest Hunting Club have created a faux-grand corrugated iron hunting lodge, which is open only to people who complete bounties given out by the Bounty Office. The Caution Tape Carnival have created a mini post-apocalyptic fairground with human equivalents of the claw game and Whack-A-Mole. The mostly leather-clad, tattooed Wasted Saints have built a kind of Wild West saloon for nightly shows that involve burlesque, nails and a gentleman called Dr Copperchops. Each tribe would be worthy of a feature.
On the third day, I get the story of it all from Jared Butler, a screenwriter and voice actor, who leads the organisation of the event along with Adam Chilson, a photographer and movie FX artist. We’re in the Wasteland Beauty Salon, which specialises in war-like face paint and mohawks – and Butler is getting made up for one of the nightly car cruises. His walkie talkie barely stops buzzing, but in between dealing with issues like a delivery van man who doesn’t have a costume (answer: “Get him something to wear”), he tells me the story of Wasteland Weekend.
It all began in 2010, when Butler decided to host a Mad Max-themed mini-festival in the desert, along with nightclub promoter James Howard and Karol Bartoszynski, a Hollywood costume designer who had run a series of car cruises for replica Mad Max vehicles.
“For that first one, there was just one themed tent, a few cars, a couple of DJs and a fire performer,” he recalls. “And we had no idea if anyone was going to turn up. But it was unique in that specific costumes were mandatory, which helped it look amazing in photographs. People just saw it and were like: Wow!”
The post-apocalypse has changed beyond recognition over the years. In 2011, with Chilson joining the team, the event doubled in size, and the concept of tribes was introduced, led by the likes of the Last Chancers, who started the Last Chance Casino, with its roulette wheel made out of an old car wheel. This year, there are 3,800 attendees, including a thousand-strong army of volunteers and performers.
Having previously leased the land for the festivals, for this year the team bought this 80-acre stretch of desert, giving a permanent home to the festival, even if this year’s structures will be taken down after the event. There are plans not just to grow Wasteland Weekend in size every year, but to launch offshoot events in Europe and possibly China, starting with the UK. “We had no idea that it would get this big, which is just so humbling,” says Butler. “Somehow, the idea resonates with people, now more than ever. All we did was light the fuse – everyone else brought the creative magic.”
Somehow, the idea resonates with people, now more than ever. All we did was light the fuse – everyone else brought the creative magic.
That creative magic is almost overwhelming. Over the four days, we see a thousand-strong car rally, a post-apocalyptic swimsuit competition, and various games of jugger, a kind of post-apocalyptic rugby with skulls and weapons, inspired by the 1989 movie, The Salute of the Jugger. We see wild bouts in the theatrical Mad Max-inspired Thunderdome, a huge dome where Wastelanders are launched at each other on bungee cords; and almost-as-epic thumb wars at the Thumberdome, a tiny miniature version.
“This is my third year here, and every year it gets bigger and better,” says Miss Monster, aka mask-maker Melita Curphy, who we learn is the woman beneath the Robo Rabbit mask. “It becomes more of a challenge each year to do something special, because everyone gets more inspired. It’s this amazing cross-pollination of ideas.”
But it’s not just a fancy dress parade. It’s a fully self-supporting community, which adheres wholly to the post-apocalyptic conceit. There are not only elaborately costumed medics, mechanics and engineers with names like Two Beards and Kit, but there’s an official tour guide, a post office manned by a dreadlocked girl called Trouble, and a 24-hour radio station created using scavenged poles, which was the brainchild of The Swede (yes, he’s Swedish).
In the back of the Wasteland Communications Corp tent (home of the radio station and post office), I meet Deadline the editor, who is putting together the next day’s edition of The Wastelander newspaper, a yellowing daily sheet printed in typewriter style. A former Air Force photographer, it’s just his second year at Wasteland Weekend, having offered to produce a daily rag on his first visit.
While yesterday’s edition leads with a story of a nuclear launch key ending up for auction at the Last Chance Casino, and an influx of refugees to the Wasteland, today’s stories include the undefeated performances of a gentleman called Smash in the Battle Cage, and the curious metal detector findings of The Stray Engineer. As with all things Wasteland, it’s a fabulous intertwining of reality and fantasy.
The philosophy of the paper, Deadline informs me, “is to provide information quickly, reliably, and with as many swear words as possible.” But his own philosophy on the event is cuddlier. “You see guys with mohawks, tattoos and spikes, but then they turn out to be these really interesting, kind people who will do anything to help you out. Weirdly, this vision of a post-apocalyptic Wasteland is as close to paradise as I can imagine.”
I hear, and experience, similar things throughout my time at Wasteland. “Coming here was really like finding my tribe,” says Throttle, a female War Boy, who spends a large part of her year as a vet assistant, “dreaming of Wasteland. We build a whole city, and this totally cohesive vision, where we let go of reality and create something new. I’ve never met a group of people like this – it’s the end of the world, and it’s just so nice.”
And, weirdly, it is nice, even for me. Despite all the effort, my outfit is low-grade (Myles is more of a post-apocalyptic natural), and I can’t quite commit to a Wastelander name with the requisite sincerity, dilly-dallying between Snakeoil Skinner and The Scribe. But people are incredibly welcoming, and tend to give Myles and me things without expecting anything in return. One night, we are treated to a hearty hog roast at Legio X, a Roman-themed tribe; on another, we’re fed fluorescent blue Anti-freeze cocktails made by The Shaman at Unkle Lele’s Pitstop. One morning, a woman called Rabbit hands me a $10,000 dollar bill from the Bank of Hell, with her name written on it. I’m not sure why.
One afternoon, before things kick off at the Last Chance Casino – where Wastelanders gamble for the bottle tops that are the main Wasteland currency – I meet Big Disco, the casino’s talismanic croupier. He is wearing his regular uniform, a grubby, 1970s suit covered in broken CDs. He tells us about the ethos of the casino, which has grown from two tables and 12 people back in 2011 to become a madcap carnival of post-apocalyptic roulette, wheels of fortune, and a DIY bar that offers drinks and bottle tops in return for stories or jokes.
“The casino is first and foremost about having a place to bring the party,” says Big Disco, who is famous across the Wasteland for his comic patter and inability to shuffle. “But it’s also about acceptance and tolerance, and we’re big on consent culture. We want it to be a safe space, where absolutely everyone feels welcome.”
Big Disco, who until recently ran a video engineering department in his real life, admits that he defines himself by being “a minor celebrity at this event in the desert. I’m an extrovert, so I eat it up – I just get to be an even more ridiculous version of myself. But what I find fascinating is that I see other people finding different parts of themselves being these characters. Out here, you really can be anyone.”
I just get to be an even more ridiculous version of myself.
And it’s true. Amid this massive outpouring of creativity and community spirit, you can be Wasteland Elvis, or Immorton Joe, the terrifying baddie-in-chief from the latest Mad Max movie. You can even be a journalist in a ripped Primark t-shirt, who finds the whole thing altogether less weird, and infinitely more inspiring than expected. If this is what the end of the world looks like, then bring it on.
Meet the Wastelanders
Ellinthris the wandering merchant
Ellinthris’s pack, which she carries a little like a snail shell, is a thing of wonder. It’s a hundred pounds of pure creativity that contains a gun, ammo, a baseball bat, a sheep skull and a set of old billiard balls, most of which she’s traded. She’s got a sketch book, for when she turns the pack into an ingenious shelter and draws peoples’ portraits, and a set of haunting wooden masks. This being the post-apocalypse, she’s also offering “free air” through a plastic tube.
“I made all of this in a weekend,” says Ellinthris, through her mask. She comes from Ventura, California, and learned her skills while making a haunted house with her father – as you do.
When a woman in a hat made of bottle tops comes with a bounty for Ellinthris (this kind of thing happens in the Wasteland), she reaches into her pack for a game – a primitive kind of tug ’o’ war involving little wooden crates and a strip of red wire. As a crowd gathers, Ellinthris makes wisecracks to the audience. When the wire becomes taut, she gives a cursory flick of her wrist and the bottle-top woman is yanked forward from her crate. “Better hunting next time,” Ellinthris calls after her defeated foe.
Outside of Wasteland Weekend, he’s Jim Dorsey, aka Tank, or Dog Tank, or Jim the Pool Guy, after the pool servicing company he runs in New Jersey. In a former life, he was a professional wrestler and the tour manager for punk group the Misfits (“there were riots every time we played Chile,” he says).
But out here, Jim Dorsey switches off his phone and becomes the great Lord Humungus, the chief baddie in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
He first came in 2011 as a relatively humble post-apocalyptic police guard. “But people saw my body shape and everyone was like: Dude, you have to come back as Lord Humungus,” he says. “So, at 40, I hired a bodybuilding coach and got in the shape of my life – all for this. The next year, I came back and people went nuts for it.”
With his deep, gravelly voice and almost robotic movements, Dorsey makes a convincing and slightly terrifying Lord Humungus – so much so that Kjell Nilsson, the Swedish weightlifter-turned-actor who originally played the character, gave him his blessing online in 2013.
“Out here, I just become Lord Humungus,” he says. “I own it.”
“When I first came to Wasteland Weekend six years ago, I was like: Oh no, I’ve got this horribly wrong,” says Wasteland Elvis, a Los Angeles web developer in so-called real life. “I’d thought it was like a Hallowe’en party, and hadn’t quite got the post-apocalyptic memo. But people loved it.”
Today, Wasteland Elvis is a festival icon. “I’m the last Elvis impersonator on Earth,” he says. “And though I’ve pretty much worn the same costume every year, I’ve made it more Wasteland-y over the years. I took a blowtorch to my glasses because they were too shiny, and I’ve gradually added bits to the belt and kneepads, as well as making them look more weathered.”
We meet Wasteland Elvis with Cigil, a former colleague in real life. They are, they say, a “tribe of two”, and they also exist outside Wasteland Weekend. “We do a weekly karaoke session together in Los Angeles,” says Cigil. “He’ll sing Elvis songs, I’ll do No Diggity. And we’ll go on little camping trips with our favourite tribes. There’s one in Florida where no cars are allowed – only lawnmowers.”