Who said there’s nothing appealing about a post-apocalyptic wasteland? While some Bible thumpers get off on warning their fellow citizens that the end is nigh, there is a subcultural counterpoint that annually plans for, creates and immerses itself in a highly stylized end-of-the-world adventure — all based on the iconography of the Mad Max film series. Meet the participants of Wasteland Weekend, a group of creative individuals who dress in fetishistic warrior gear, trick out their vehicles into war machines, and spend five days partying down with live music and performers, costume contests, car cruises (no racing or demolition), games, crafting workshops and, of course, a Thunderdome.
While the Death Guild Thunderdome — a competitive arena wherein combatants suspended by elastic straps swing about, grappling with and bashing one another using padded sticks — began as a Burning Man tradition, it became part of Wasteland Weekend in 2015. Beyond that, L.A.-based co-founder/event director Jared Butler stresses the distinction between the festivals. “Yes, people build camps like they do at Burning Man, where there's a lot of artistic expression that goes into it, and we certainly have a lot of members — including staff members — who do both events, but … there's quite a bit more to it in terms of a comparison. We only have one theme, and it's an immersive themed event rather than just having a festival where people can do some artistic expression. … The idea is not so much to feel like you're at a desert music and arts festival but to feel like you're inside of the Hollywood version of the apocalypse.”
This is not to say that Wasteland Weekend is a role-playing event. “Role play implies that everybody is playing a game to certain rules and everyone is playing a character, and we don't really do that,” Butler says. “There are people who choose to do types of role playing while they're out there, but you can certainly just go out there, bring a tent with some friends, and enjoy the atmosphere … [as if it were] a post-apocalyptic Renaissance fair.”
Naturally, one couldn’t celebrate a post-apocalyptic party without insanely stylized vehicles. Among this year’s anticipated 4,000 Wastelanders — many from Los Angeles and San Francisco, and others who travel in from throughout the country — hundreds will bring customized vehicles to showcase and parade at the event’s ninth annual gathering this week. “I think there's maybe two vehicles that are owned by the event itself, a few that are owned by staff members, and then the rest are brought in by other Wastelanders,” Butler explains. “We've got people who come out that have never built a vehicle before in their lives — and never thought they would — and get inspired and just build in their garage somewhere in the Midwest all year and then haul it out. And then we've got professionals who have been on race teams before, people who work professionally as mechanics, people who build cars for Hollywood. We get everything out there.”
The vehicles of the Mad Max film series showcase highly imaginative designs, but at Wasteland Weekend they are just the starting point. “In our car contest, we have categories for replica vehicles and for original creations, because they're really judged differently,” Butler explains. “There are people that try to re-create the look of a Mad Max vehicle down to the bolts in terms of accuracy, and then there are people that just use that … as a jumping-off point [and] run with their imagination.” Alas, Max’s iconic Pursuit Special is a minority. “We don't get too many. … The Australian Ford Falcon that's used as the base model for that car is pretty rare in the United States … especially since it goes back to ’72, ’73. We've had, I think, three or four over the years, and so we don't normally have more than one or two out there at a time.”
The event’s low speed limit prevents overzealous Wastelanders from feeding their engines nitrous oxide and dangling from their vehicles in a race to Valhalla. “If people want to go off-roading in the desert, they're free to do that on their own time, in other locations nearby; there are plenty of off-roading locations in Mojave,” Butler explains. “We allow people to leave the event, and then what they do — as long as they do it safely — is up to them.”
Other perks of Wasteland Weekend include appearances by Mad Max film personnel. In the past, the event has earned the blessing of Mad Max director George Miller — who once gave Wastelanders a video greeting from Australia. The event also has hosted various actors from the films. This year, Nathan Jones, the 6-foot-10-inch Australian bodybuilder who played Immortan Joe's son Rictus Erectus in Mad Max: Fury Road, will be in attendance.
Butler and his team keep a cap on the event so that it doesn’t grow beyond their control, and every year, Wasteland Weekend sells out, including this year (though Butler hints that there may still be an opportunity to get last-minute rush tickets). If nothing else, this demonstrates that while some people spend their lives worrying about the end of time, others gleefully prepare for it and then have to fight for a ticket.
Wasteland Weekend takes place Sept. 26-30, in Edwards. For more about the event, including ticketing information, visit wastelandweekend.com.