The Strangest Desert Festival In the World Makes Everyone’s Mad Max Dreams Come True

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Photo: Tod Seelie
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It’s 11 a.m. deep in the Mojave Desert, the sun already laser-boring into everything it touches, and Bob is driving the stagecoach a hair too fast, speeding down Fury Road while tidily dispatching his not-first Bud Light of the morning. The whiskey still fixed to the stagecoach’s roof rattles as the scenery whips by: People draped in chains and spikes and gas masks and armor. Cars bristling with mounted machine guns and animal-skull hood ornaments. The Last Chance Casino, the chaotic streets of Bartertown, a six-foot-tall T-rex skeleton stuck in the dirt in front of someone’s camp, caught in a permanent, cheery wave of one stubby arm. A motorized coffin—mounted on a golf cart chassis, as it turns out—whips by, the driver’s goggles barely visible over the wheel. Everyone waves.

Bob—in his 60s, bald, white-bearded, permanently delighted—tosses his can and screeches to a halt. “Climb aboard!” he roars, and a couple strangers do, clambering on top of the horseless, motorized stagecoach through its sunroof. We take off again, nearly running headlong into the back of a cop car. Both the cop and Bob are unperturbed.

“I don’t think drinking and driving applies out here, does it?” he asks no one in particular. (Update: The Wasteland Weekend founders reached out to stress that drinking and driving is very much still illegal at the event and the rules against it are strictly enforced.)

A couple of us climb off, woozy—we sampled some of the whiskey earlier, kicking like a mule with every sip—and Bob roars away, generating his own dust storm as he goes.

There was a limited period of time—after the Cold War ended and before the 2016 elections, maybe—when it was mildly funny to be flippant about the impending end of civilization and the burning, acrid wastes we’ll all soon inhabit. But as The Smiths and several million Americans could tell you, that joke isn’t funny anymore. Still, though: the post-apocalypse is a nice place to spend the weekend. This year, some 4,100 people trekked out to an enormous, dusty patch of rocks, scrub, and dirt near Edwards, California to do just that.

The roots of the event now known as Wasteland Weekend date back to 2009, when around 150 Mad Max fans decided to take a camping trip in the desert. They dubbed it Road Warrior Weekend, but in 2010 some of the attendees set their sights larger: the Wasteland founders envisioned a desert festival experience, “based heavily on the Mad Max films,” they wrote, “but incorporating other iconic pieces of post-apocalyptic pop culture.”

In practice, what that looks like is a wildly creative array of people in an equally dizzying array of post-apocalyptic costumes that people spend the whole year painstakingly constructing. (Costumes are required, and the few people who don’t wear them—mostly out-of-place Burning Man bros and hapless journalists—look like real assholes).

Most Wasteland attendees use Wasteland-specific nicknames while they’re out in the dust, and camp together in “tribes,” with coordinated costumes, elaborately-themed camps, and, often enough, complicated rivalries with other tribes. (People who are more interested in fantasy and cosplay can engage in an elaborate bounty hunt, spending the whole event chasing their targets.) There’s an all-gender, gloriously weird swimsuit competition, an array of bands (most of them astonishingly bad metalcore and industrial acts), burlesque, fire-dancing, and even a “teetotaler meetup,” for people whose commitment to sobriety extends into the apocalypse.

There’s also a “battle cage,” whose fights are somehow even more brutal than they sound, with a culminating bout where the participants use real steel weapons and spectators are extremely careful to keep their fingers well out of the way.

People bring their own food and water; the two concessions to civilization as we know it are port-a-potties, which begin to look increasingly apocalyptic themselves as the weekend progresses, and the cops. They’re Kern County Sheriff’s deputies, who’ve been dispatched to watch over the event as it grows larger, and even they seem to feel self-conscious after a while. One morning, I watched one of them put an armband of sorts around his head in a feeble but touching attempt to blend in. (Different tribes trade bottle caps with elaborate designs to represent them; this year, the cops also brought their own to hand out.)

Various tribes bring different entertainment offerings too: the casino and a small carnival are both run by different tribes, and so is the large and fully functional Thunderdome, where fighters face off every night, strapped into harnesses, suspended in midair, whacking each other with foam-tipped weapons. (The dome was created by Death Guild, a tribe that first began running it at Burning Man 20 years ago and started bringing it to Wasteland soon after the event began. Every year, they build the dome more or less by hand and tear it down the same way. Jalopnik camped with them. They’re very hospitable.)

A lot of Wastelanders live in Las Vegas or Los Angeles, veterans of the entertainment industry or the casino business. They’re talented builders and entertainers and hospitality professionals, and out here in the dust, there’s an exuberant sense that they’re using their professional skills to build something they really care about. For some of the attendees, though, the real point is the cars.

The first full morning of Wasteland, a tribe called Chaos Engineering, focused on building and making, held a little social gathering, what they termed the Black Thumb Meet and Greet, where the people who build and make things got together to chat. Some of them had been waiting years for the chance, catching a glimpse of some extraordinary machine and looking in vain for the person behind it.

A lot of those machines were made in whole or in part by Spud, one of the most respected Wasteland builders, and something of a legendary figure. He and his wife Ares live in the desert full-time, completely off the grid, trucking their own water and running their entire household on solar power. They’re such Wasteland devotees that three years ago they were married in the Thunderdome; Ares wore a dress she Frankensteined together out of other, lesser dresses.

Spud spends virtually the entire year building Wasteland cars, though he’s also a professional mechanic in his limited free time, with a shop that also runs off solar power. It’s clear where his passion lies. “There’s zero creative limits,” he says, fondly, looking at a go-kart. He strapped a jet engine to the back of it; later in the weekend, they’ll fire it up, as everyone scatters, holding their ears. “No limitations on what can be done, what can be used.”

That said, Spud does have a few limits of his own: He built one exact Mad Max replica car and hated it. “I’ll never do that again,” he says, sourly. “It stifles creativity.” For him, a highlight was the year he and some of the Chaos Engineering team built an entire car from the ground up in a day and a half: someone brought a Jaguar body, someone else brought a motor and transmission from Detroit, and they put them all together and got it running before the sun went down on the second day. They fondly dubbed it “Demon Kitty,” and for Spud, it was proof of something beautiful.

“If you really put your soul into something,” he says, “You can achieve the unachievable.”

The motorized things—“Please don’t call them fucking art cars,” Spud pleads— people bring to Wasteland are usually not so speedy, though, but rather the culmination of years of dreams and planning and work. Sometimes, regrettably, they even have to buy a part or two.

“In a real apocalypse, you might get away with more raiding and scavenging,” Ben Greenbaum said, rather wistfully, resting in the shade of his camp, sitting next to his wife Dani. The two are the founding members of Chaos Engineering; a few years ago, they moved from their native Canada to Arizona, where they have 26 acres to put their creations. Dani makes jewelry and hair ornaments, and Ben is a software engineer, but he’s learned a lot of other skills. (“I have nothing to offer society if the power turns off, you know? So I’ve learned to hunt and butcher.”)

“You do have to buy things sometimes,” Ben says, referring to car-building. “But most of us try to avoid it, just on principle.” Anybody with money can make a cool car, he and Dani agree; the real achievement is building a unique one, out of found materials, what Dani calls “the challenge of making something out of what people would consider junk.”

At one point, I ask a question about the current president, and Ares pops out of her trailer to briefly yell at me. There’s a fairly strict rule against discussing politics at Wasteland. “We all have shared interests,” Ben says.“We don’t have shared beliefs. Being here is a chance to drop all the outside-world bullshit.”

It does seep in, he acknowledges, scuffing the dust a bit with his toe.

“Some people do feel closer to the apocalypse than four years ago,” he says, wryly. “I don’t know if that makes this more fun.”

Nobody “races” at Wasteland, unless you count the vibrators: A whole team of rather antiquated ones were put in chutes and raced downhill. (“Harry Twatter” got big cheers, while “Adolph Clitler” was, reassuringly, soundly booed.)

But besides the Black Thumb meetup, there are plenty of car-focused events: a stately parade around the Wasteland grounds and, separately, a car show, where people line up in neat rows in a field behind the main stage. Ostensibly they’re out there for judging and awards—“Most Battle-Ready,” “Best Survival Vehicle,” “Best Air-Pull”—but also to get a good look at each other.

“You look badass,” one sunburned guy says to another; the second one is lounging on a snowmobile that’s been given wheels and a 40 mm cannon on the front.

“Thanks, bro,” the snowmobile owner replies; his Wasteland name turns out to be Beast, and he’s the president of the Raging Ferals, a Wasteland-only motorcycle club. He spent four years planning the snowmobile, and two months building it.

“Where else can we make something like this?” he says. “We get things from the junkyard, we build things by hand—it’s just you, your ideas. That’s the only limit.”

The way the cars come together can feel like it involves the ragged yet miraculous scavenger’s hand of fate. Take the one, for instance, that began with a plane crash. In 1992, a Rockwell Commander—a little two-seater—took off in Boulder, New York, then promptly crashed onto a freeway. According to flight records, nobody was harmed, and the ruins of the plane soon embarked on what seems to have been a strange and winding journey, bringing it eventually to a scrapper in Southern California. He, in turn, knew just who to call: a man whose Wasteland name is Warsaw, then 22. Warsaw bought the now-wingless plane for $200, dragged it home to Barstow, California and left it in the front yard of his parents’ house.

“I had it for six years, laying there,” Warsaw says, grinning. “My mom didn’t like it much.”

Four years later, Warsaw was laid off from a contract job with the Marine Corps. “I had an unemployment check, a shop, and the time,” he says. “And I’d always wanted to do something like this.”

Warsaw’s dad is a machinist and he’d grown up at his feet, watching his father before becoming a diesel mechanic for the Marine Corps and the Army himself. When he finally realized what he wanted to do with the plane, he spent six months plotting it in his head, then another three putting it together. He mounted the plane onto the frame of a 1986 Ford F-250. He attached a Harley Davidson baffle, a Honda Civic exhaust pipe, lug nuts from a Humvee, and, of course, a nonfunctional 25 mm autocannon. He welded the car’s enormous grill himself, sketching it out on the ground with chalk and string before roll-bending every piece by hand.

Warsaw says his dad supervised most of the work, “telling me to calm the fuck down” as needed. He’s been sick, Warsaw explains, too sick to come out to Wasteland himself. But he was still thrilled when Warsaw’s car won Best in Show two years ago.

Mech is Wasteland’s head mechanic, overseeing the Red Rocket Garage, and is part of a tribe called Canes Machina, who travel together in a gigantic, weapons-studded 1968 Ford Galaxie 500. Among other things, it has several old Russian anti-aircraft guns attached to the roof.

“They’re de-milled, if the ATF is listening,” Mech says, winking broadly. As we talk, he’s wearing a loincloth, duct-taped together, along with football pads and puppy ears, dragging reflectively on a cigarette.

“There’s an expression of oneself that comes through any vehicle,” he says. “It shows what kind of survivalist you are. There are fighters and trader vehicles,” he says, gesturing at a covered wagon nearby. “Then there are raider vehicles, ones that have hauling capacity, guns blazing, a high rate of speed.”

But to focus on the cars, rather than what they represent, is missing the point, Mech adds. “Wasteland isn’t just a car show. It’s a way of life year-round.” His tribe, who mostly live in Fresno, meet weekly, to dream about what they’ll build next and “to pull our hair out over what we can’t afford. We spend all year building and creating and figuring out how to get it here.”

And the actual apocalypse ever hit, he says, with a light shrug, “we’ve accumulated a lot of junk that would be handy. A gas mask is a gas mask, you know?”

He smiles, almost angelically. “If the bombs fell today, we’d be like, ‘Fuck it, let’s party.’”

All of this—the cars, the costumes, the choking dust, the binding heat—has created something as real, as lasting as any other community. At dusk one evening, things briefly quieted down, people heading to their tents to grab another layer of clothes. A group of War Boys—the bald, white, unsettling beings from Mad Max: Fury Road—marched down the street together, stripped to the waist, glowing faintly in the gathering dusk, like phosphorescent jellyfish. The lower edges of the horizon turned rose-pink. A small, trickling line of people ducked under the thin yellow rope marking the western edge of the Wasteland site and headed up a hill covered in rocks and scrub brush. At the top was a memorial, a metal screen covered in the names of Wastelanders who’ve passed.

Jared Butler, one of Wasteland’s co-founders, stepped up to the screen. He removed his cowboy hat, took a pull from an open bottle of whiskey someone handed him, and took a moment to collect himself.

“They don’t do this at Coachella,” he said, after a moment. “People on this wall, they came out here and they found something no could have predicted.” When the event began, he added, “we didn’t know people would create new friends, families, new lives.”

He stopped again. There was audible sniffling throughout the crowd.

“There’s something missing in this world for a lot us,” Butler said, finally. “And some of us, we find it out here.”

Anna Merlan is a Senior Reporter with the Gizmodo Media Group’s Special Projects Desk. Tod Seelie is a photographer and journalist whose work can further be found at his website and on Instagram.