Welcome, Wastelander

To the happiest place on Earth

It’s all over. Some idiot somewhere decided it was time to end it and missiles started flying. Cities are all an irradiated, blasted-out mess. Life in the outer-lands is all that’s possible now. Luckily, when the nukes hit the fan, you were out on a long motorcycle tour of the desert and were spared personal oblivion, for now. Hearing of a welcoming encampment in the western Mojave where the gas, water, and alcohol all flow freely, you make your way there on fumes, hoping your fuel will hold out and hoping the scavenged barter goods found along the way will be enough to gain admittance. Searching for a place affectionately called the Wasteland.

Imagine some 1,500 people dressed in ratty leathers and reshaped road signs and boot soles hammered into body armor, wearing goggles, riding around in (or on) ramshackle vehicles, and dancing their hearts out. If you’ve ever enjoyed the movies (books, video games, comics) that take place post-nuclear apocalypse (or zombie, plague, extinction meteor) and wished you could visit there for just a little while, you’ll probably feel at home at Wasteland Weekend. Admission to the end of the world topped out at $100, plus the cost of thrift-store scraps of motorcycle jackets and junkyard bits of tin.

In a kind of Mad Max meets Burning Man world, with fire, flesh hooks, a little bit of nudity, more fire, death metal, burlesque, EDM, and live combat (human and robot), you’ll probably never want to leave. If you love Live Action Role Playing (or LARPing), tribal dancing, camping in the barren desert, and partying with a small city of other freaks, then you will be most welcome. If ever there were an event built for bikers, this is it.

“Festival” is really the only word to describe Wasteland Weekend, set near the town of California City, about two and a half hours northeast of Los Angeles and not far off an old mule team road that stretches to, appropriately enough, Death Valley. It started as a Mad Max fandom convention five years ago, and people have been annually celebrating the end of the world ever since. It has spread and mutated like an irradiated genome to cover just about all sorts of dystopian fantasy. But if you remember it all starts and ends with Mad Max (especially its sequels Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome), you can keep it all straight and dress in fashion.

The 20-acre site is divided into Wasteland City and the camp. Most stuff happens in the city, but the visiting “tribes” have their own events as well. There’s a main stage that is one of the gathering places. It’s host to music at night and various entertainments during the day, like car and costume contests or “jugging,” which is somewhat like rugby with foam-padded weapons. There’s also a fight pit where gladiators beat each other up in matches that are usually somewhat WCW-like in their fakery but fun nevertheless.

There’s a district in the city called Bartertown, which is, predictably, where shopping happens. There are vendors for a wide variety of goods, mostly handmade or surplus military, all fitting the post-civilization theme. True to its name, trading is welcome in Bartertown. People trade costume pieces, services, trinkets, and orange bottle caps. The bottle caps (all stamped to prevent casual forgery) are the coin of the realm (though at least one vendor took credit cards) easily gotten for the low price of a tall tale or other brief entertainment. The most common use for them is gambling at the Last Chance Casino, which features both games of skill and luck played against the house or fellow participants.

There have been rumors that the whole event features open bars, and while technically it is true that you could just stroll up and get a drink, the bars actually run on donated alcohol. To get around having to obtain a liquor license, the event is just serving you your own community booze and mixers. So bring something to share if you like a tug of the jug.

Since this is a four-day party and they’re serving you your own booze, it goes just about 24/7. Right around dawn it’s fairly subdued, but that’s about it. There are quieter and louder areas of the Wasteland, as well as ones that rise earlier or later. Choose your camping spot accordingly.

Motorcycles, especially ones with some attitude, are a natural fit here, and while there were a decent number, the two-wheeled contingent could definitely use a boost—or perhaps just a support vehicle or Wastelander buddy to help ferry supplies. For obvious reasons, the biggest group of bikes were off-roaders, many modified to look Max-ian. However, this should be a no-brainer for any garage customizer with a little imagination. I always hear bikers complaining about how events are so commercialized and restrictive. Well, here’s the antidote. If you feel the need to be surrounded by just motorcyclists, go elsewhere. But if you want the carefree party spirit of rallies past, this is the place.

What’s striking is that this dystopia and the serious artiness of a post-corporate sharing economy that is Burning Man comes out to much the same thing. It brings out the best in people. These are generous, civilized people playing at being post-apocalyptic crazy badasses. The standard greeting in the Wasteland is a raised middle finger, but in reality, these are some of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever run into. One might say the Wasteland is the happiest place on Earth.

Mad Max: Fury Road, a prequel to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, comes out in May 2015. Wasteland organizers are thus expecting a far larger draw for the next convocation. Wasteland Weekend is expected to reconvene outside of California City, California, at the end of September. Dates have not been set, nor have ticket prices, though organizers say there will likely be a slight increase over 2014. Tickets are expected to go on sale sometime in January, starting at about $60 per person. As the event approaches, ticket prices will go up, similar to the sliding Burning Man ticket prices. For 2014, they topped out at $100 per person. For more information, visit wastelandweekend.com or facebook.com/wastelandweekend. Search Facebook for “Wastelander Central” group discussions.

I’m Wasted

I’ve avoided the Mojave Desert my entire adult motorcycling life. Growing up, we’d come out to the desert to ride dirt bikes, and I was over the heat and the dust storms and the sameness of the terrain. But somehow, this experience, even with all of the dust and wind, has changed my outlook. These are some random thoughts and experiences from my stay at the Wasteland: There was a sound that went borp! Silence, then again, boooorp! While the sound seemed like it was definitely moving, but not in the air, we thought maybe an air-powered car (like an everglades boat with wheels). But what came out from behind a line of RVs was a total surprise. A pulse-jet-powered motorcycle moving slowly and with much racket along the sand. We only ever saw it once, but one of the off-roaders reported getting passed by it at high speed. We never saw it again. Maybe it was never really there.

Since this is a private event, the rules are almost anything goes. I dubbed Saturday “Banana Hammock Day,” which if you don’t get my drift was basically men naked except for a kind of G-string sling sort of thing. Scary stuff. A few women wore body paint for a shirt, but other than that, most skin was heavily clad in leather and metal and rubber and maybe a few feathers, which worked well in the cool, high-desert temps.

Things I traded for bottle caps: a view of a pretty sunset picture on my camera (10 caps), a half-eaten packet of dried pork (20 caps), a smile (one cap), directions (one cap).

While some are drawn by the many opportunities to LARP, you see others taking this more seriously, like prepper practice for the inevitable fate of mankind. Using Wasteland both as the party that it is while also preparing for what they see as the certain collapse of society.

There was a Command Center offering makeup, hair, and wearable stuff for those lacking in appropriate gear. There were only a few people who were not really even trying, and most of them were carrying expensive cameras, so were probably members of the press. Organizers encourage participation and full immersion.

Smash Bots are awesome! Like the old TV show Battlebots, they’re remote-controlled robots that attempt to kill each other. Weapons ranged from spinning blades to balls of fire.

It’s A Costumed World, After All

My combination of geek, former renaissance faire worker, motorcyclist, eBay addict, and (most importantly) pack rat uniquely prepared me for a hasty trip to the Wasteland.

I brought renaissance faire shirts, belts, pouches, weapons. The no-tech look of ren faire stuff is a perfect stand-in for the handmade products of the future. There’s a no-weapon provision, but it seems pretty lax, like the ban on dogs. My wardrobe also included:

Vintage flat-track gear. My dad dropped off a box of stuff I was supposed to put on eBay years ago; instead, I took his duct-taped leather race jacket and mounted tire sections to the shoulders with drywall screws, and I wore his crusty old boots. Cool.

Motorcycle gear. So much of this stuff fits right in. A pair of leather pants from River Road, a Bell Rogue helmet, Icon Beltway glove, and some old Tyr goggles. From eBay I sourced a pair of cheap lab coats for $5, scarves from $2 to $5, and a respirator (with the pods taken off) for $18.

Rags. Mostly made out of old clothes, which made for good accessories.

For the next Wasteland, try old and/or mismatched gloves or boots; used motorcycle tires (cut up for armor); worn riding gear and spark plugs as fashion accessory.

Things I Didn’t Do But Maybe Should

Bounty hunting. There was a game run out of a booth in Wasteland City. They hand you a picture of a participant, and you have to hunt them down and return them for a reward. The departure sermon. I heard it was irreverent and inspirational.

Fighting in the pits. I have a combat background, and motorcycle armor is pretty protective.

The Stateline As Mad Machine

Knowing how many cosmetic parts are bolted to a modern metric cruiser, I decided to strip it all away. I got the okay from Honda, so long as I didn’t do anything permanent, like damage it in “some post-apocalyptic fight over fuel,” we were good to go.

I removed both fenders, all the exhaust heat shields, the side covers, the air cleaner cover, the head covers, and fake cooling fins. Since I wanted to protect the shiny bits that were left, as well as obfuscate them, I wrapped the tank and seat with a fitted twin-size sheet and pulled it tight to secure it. I also covered the headlight and handlebars with rags. There wasn’t anything I could do about the one chrome section of pipe or the two remaining shiny side covers, as all those pieces get hot and I didn’t want to burn anything or myself.

Out at the back end, I slipped an old race tailsection over the passenger seat and secured it with a ratchet strap. The rearmost subframe was reversed and made into a luggage rack, while a pair of trashed paintings found in an alley helped hold the luggage onboard. The improvised luggage rack used heavy-duty cardboard, while the stack of cargo was held in place with industrial cling film. On the long ride, I only had to adjust the load once.

Where To Lay Your Head

Best Western California City Inn & Suites

10386 California City Blvd.

California City, CA 93505-6302

(760) 373-1369


Options aren’t vast for staying in California City, but rest assured (and comfortably) that the Best Western California City Inn & Suites has your back with a restful sleep in a tidy, pleasing room. Our experience: Check-ins and -outs were handled expeditiously by the amiable staffers, who provided area information when queried and went so far as to surprise us with a customized map.

The property has newish sheen hosting rooms that are well appointed with cozy linens and pillows. In keeping with the serene decor, beautiful desert photography punctuates the space. All the room’s modern amenities functioned appropriately, and the property’s building and parking areas had an air of safety. A full breakfast is included.

See the website for a list of amenities, such as pool and speedy Wi-Fi. If you travel with hound in tow, you are likely to find dog biscuits at registration and a bark park nearby. Saving the best for last: Best Western Ride Rewards. Ask your reservationist or consult the website for the motorcycle program’s details.