Two hours away from L.A., the annual ‘Mad Max’-style Wasteland Weekend immerses festival-goers in a new dimension.
The wind blows clouds of dust through the air. Thousands of people and vehicles creep toward the remains of a city – or is it the foundation of one? Their ultimate destination is Wasteland City, in what is known as Wasteland Valley, a piece of land in the western part of the Mojave Desert. If it weren’t for the modern-day cars making up the procession line, one would think the end time had come and the few survivors were making a pilgrimage to regroup and rebuild.
This is Wasteland Weekend, an annual five-day post-apocalyptic-themed festival. “Ground Zero” – the site of Wasteland City – is in Edwards, California, about two hours north of Los Angeles. When festival-goers arrive at the final intersection of city streets and desert, it’s five miles down an unpaved trail to the Wastes.
The heavily “Mad Max”-inspired event is celebrating its 10th year. What started in 2010 with a few hundred has grown to attract thousands of attendees and it’s sold out for the seventh year in a row.
Every person in Wasteland City must be dressed to theme. That means every volunteer, musician or journalist who steps into Wasteland Weekend must, in some way, participate. It’s an immersive experience where the goal is to look and feel as if you’re in the world of “Mad Max.”
Post-apocalyptic looks: Many Wastelanders take a full-immersion approach to the festival and sport hand-crafted, highly stylized outfits. Photos by Helen Arase.
Attendees are not required to camp in post-apocalyptic fashion or drive a vehicle styled to match the theme, but doing so will move your camp into or closer to Wasteland City and the activities and contests hosted there. If your tribe camps within the city gates, then it must commit to the Wasteland ethos, from the way food is packaged to sleeping amenities.
Those who regularly attend the festival call themselves “Wastelanders” and most are members of a tribe. A tribe is a group of people who are united by a common interest or topic. The people behind Wasteland Weekend suggest would-be tribes form around professions, religions and even something as simple as a color.
Behind the Wasteland Gates and its elite guards is the city; there is Command Center – where staff and information can be found – institutions like the post office or medical aid and the main stage where musicians play throughout the festival.
The Thunderdome is where the Wasteland’s bravest duke it out in mid-air battles. Photo by Helen Arase.
One of the attractions in the city is the Thunderdome. Here, two people armed with padded bats hang from the top of a domed cage and are swung toward each other with the intent to “kill” the other. Standing room is limited, so spectators often climb the dome for a better view.
The Last Chance Casino and other “bars” come alive after dark. Alcohol flows freely in the Wastes, but money has no value here. All the drinks are donated to City establishments In the Wastes, anything of value is traded in bottlecaps or barter. Most come to Wasteland Weekend with their own booze, but after the first day, it’s not uncommon to have someone else’s beer because they traded it for a sword.
At the end of the day, this “Mad Max” music-festival-meets-rat-rod-weekend is about coming together to appreciate the same thing. From the outside, it can seem like a lawless, offensive – the standard greeting is a middle finger and aggressive, “f— you!” – and dangerous five days. However, the community takes care of each other and welcomes newcomers. They build meaningful connections while trying to survive harsh desert temperature swings and winds.
And then they plan to see each other next year.