A Decade of Dystopia – The story of Wasteland Weekend

A Decade of Dystopia – The story of Wasteland Weekend

 

Article by: Geek Girl Alyssa Kollgaard

Ten years ago it would have been hard to imagine the post-apocalyptic community as it is today. The genre of fiction has existed almost as long as science fiction itself (See: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man from 1826, or Danish film The End of the World from 1916) and untold numbers of us across the world have always considered ourselves diehard fans of the genre. Despite these facts, fans of the films, novels and video games had been only loosely connected to one another before the inception of Wasteland Weekend in 2010, although the founders of Wasteland were themselves inspired to create the festival through their attendance of a smaller one-off event the previous year. "Road Warrior Weekend" was originally organized by the pirate community's Scarlett Harlot and drew a couple hundred attendees, leaving the door open for Wasteland Weekend to cultivate a community that was eager for more opportunities to connect. In 2019, however, it’s hard to imagine life without the community built around our shared love.

While Wasteland Weekend is no longer the only such apocalyptic community, it has nonetheless been instrumental in building, supporting, growing and connecting the burgeoning subculture that now has large contingents across the entire United States as well as Germany, Japan, Australia, Russia, Poland and the UK.

In the past decade, post-apocalyptica has seen a renewed interest across our shared culture. Franchises like Fallout, 12 Monkeys, Judge Dredd and Mad Max have had highly successful sequels released, and entirely new IPs like The Last of Us, Metro 2033, The Book of Eli, and Maze Runner have quickly reached cult status. If you add zombies to the mix, this list expands to Zombieland, The Walking Dead, Left 4 Dead and I am Legend (which in and of itself is a reimagining of The Omega Man). Toss in dystopian fiction and this list expands exponentially (the renewed interest in cyberpunk is closely aligned to post-apocalyptica; the venn diagram between the overlapping fans may as well be a circle).

With such a long, rich history it seems odd that we didn’t already have an existing subculture surrounding the topic – but maybe we were just all waiting for Wasteland Weekend.

In the last ten years, those of us active within the post-apocalyptic community have gotten a front row seat to the birth of a subculture in the same way the steampunk community did just a few years prior. We are costumers, propmakers, custom car builders, set designers, event producers, musicians, dancers, fire performers, DJs, makeup artists, writers, fabricators. While there are those who attend Wasteland casually, the vast majority of us are involved in maintaining and living the dream year-round. It drives us. It is a pillar upon which our identities are defined. It has become synonymous with family. We are Wasteland.

So what is Wasteland Weekend, and how did it get started?

Wasteland Weekend is a five-day post-apocalyptic festival in the California desert. The event itself is fully immersive, meaning attendees must be in themed costumes at all times. While not everyone is required to have a themed campsite or vehicle, those within the temporary “city walls” are. The themed area has grown so big over the years that you could walk for ten city blocks and never encounter a mundane car or tent - the bright blue porta potties are the only thing to remind you that you aren’t, in fact, inside a Mad Max film.

The festival itself offers a wide array of entertainment, both official and unofficial. There is live music every night, DJs and dancing, burlesque, bellydance, circus, fire, magic, drag and fetish performances, several forms of fighting including battle robots, armored combat, Jugger (a post-apocalyptic form of football) and even the Thunderdome, a post-apocalyptic film festival, official and unofficial bars, hookah lounges, exclusive members-only clubs, costume, vehicle and swimsuit contests, food vendors and merchants, roleplaying, bounty hunting, tribe missions, a hair and makeup salon, games, carnivals, a casino, a radio station and newspaper, vehicle cruises (even in RC and 1/64th scale). If this list sounds exhausting it’s because it is – there is so much to do over five days there is no hope of ever seeing it all.

While it’s not a pre-requisite to attend, many of the members belong to “tribes” – camps with a central theme, mission statement or purpose. Some tribes exist only as a support system for the logistics of desert camping or are tribes in name although not in unified aesthetic or collaborative building effort. However, the vast majority of tribes go beyond that, many providing additional entertainment for the other event attendees. Entertainment can be anything from tribe missions, roleplay and barter opportunities, a shaded place to escape the heat of the day, additional sets to admire, home brewed cocktails to enjoy in one of Wasteland’s many bars, free pasta/pancakes/coffee (bless you, you know who you are) all the way to fully staged performances and large themed zones that are open the entirety of the event. Many of the most iconic opportunities for fun at Wasteland are hosted by paid event attendees themselves, out of pocket, for no reason other than their love of the community and their desire to give back to it. The event continues to grow and thrive because of a fiercely shared commitment to the vision among its members. A vision that has managed to be upheld and strengthened rather than compromised or watered down like so many other events before it.

The event is so central to so many lives that it goes beyond the five days itself and has become a year-round lifestyle. Wastelanders have ten years of shared history that includes our own handshake, greeting and inside jokes (porto chicken! Fuck you Road Rash!). Ten years of history has created a massive body of lore, some true and some play-acted, that gives Wasteland a somewhat mythical and magical feeling. Alliances have been created, truces broken, enemies vanquished. And while I wasn’t able to nail down an exact number, the community of Wasteland Weekend is considered pivotal enough that somewhere in the neighborhood of ten couples have tied the knot during the event (with more planned for 2019). On the more serious end of the spectrum, we’ve collectively mourned the loss of beloved members of our community, placing their name and image upon our altar and honoring those we have lost each year with a shared moment of silence and respect. Witness.

I have had friends credit Wasteland with saving their lives and keeping them off drugs. I have seen the community give generously from their pockets to make sure friends do not go into financial ruin over medical costs, or to help keep a roof over a head, or even simply to bring a cherished community member to our event. I have seen how our community has quickly created and enforced systems to protect the most vulnerable among us; it is incredibly inclusive of LGBT+ and many have been able to come into their own identities through the safety, love and encouragement of our members. I have witnessed firsthand the way the management team and members alike have dealt with predators with a quickness and efficacy I only wish other subculture groups (notorious for broken stairs) could learn to emulate. Year after year I hear stories of how well practiced enthusiastic consent is among our peoples. And while any event this scale is bound to have some undesirable people and incidents – and Wasteland has had a few – the event staff does more to proactively keep their attendees safe and remove those who would do harm than any official task force I have encountered in the real world. I have seen people give their blood, sweat, tears, money, time, bodies, voices, expertise and skills to this event all in service of the dream. Even I have Wasteland to thank for the birth of my only son.

These stories are not uncommon. It changes lives in meaningful, measurable ways. Ways that will last until we join the others upon the altar.

Not only has Wasteland changed its people, we its people have changed it as well. What began as a plucky little band of costumers and prop builders in 2010 (estimated to be somewhere around 350) has grown to over 4,000 in 2018 and is expected to reach in the neighborhood of 4,200 this year. The concept of tribes was introduced in 2011 and while an exact number isn’t known, it is estimated to be about a dozen that first year. That has already expanded to somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 registered tribes.

The story of Wasteland Weekend

Wasteland Weekend has found such success that it has expanded into several smaller scale events, both official and unofficial. Wastelanders Ball was the second official offering from the management team - a masquerade ball that takes place locally in Los Angeles with looser theme guidelines and a focus on formal attire. The masquerade serves as a more accessible way for people to experience post-apocalyptica before committing to the five day off-the-grid experience. The first event in 2017 was held at Alpine Village (of Oktoberfest fame), but it has since upgraded to the famous Globe Theater in DTLA. Wastelanders Ball did in one year what took far longer for comparable established events like Edwardian Ball, Labyrinth, Myth Masque and Endless Night Vampire Ball.

The crew also launched Wasteland World Car Show in 2016, which focuses on the community of custom post-apocalyptic car builders in a traditional car show setting. It is estimated over 200 individual themed cars participated in the Wasteland Weekend car cruise in 2018, although it started with somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen. The cars are arguably one of the most important parts of the genre, and an entire sub community has spawned around building these monsters of metal. My family is involved deeply enough to have two themed cars, a minibike, and two themed trailers but some families have as many as ten vehicles between them. Yes, really.

In 2019 the creative team behind Wasteland announced that they would be putting on the first immersive cyberpunk festival in 2020 – something most of us have been wanting for as long as we’ve had Wasteland. The WW team already owns the plot of land where Wasteland is hosted, so it seems like an obvious progression to leverage the property for additional events. That being said, it’s still a major investment of time and resources; the cyberpunk event will require almost entirely new sets and props to be fabricated (and I can’t wait to see what the attendees knock out, too). Co-founder Jared also recently announced a temporary cyberpunk popup bar called Neotropolis for later this year, which I imagine will serve as a trial run for the theme. It’s set to feature two fully immersive themed floors of entertainment approximating a cyberpunk cityscape.

If that wasn’t enough, 2019 also introduced Ground Zero – a two-day event for the leaders of established themed tribes to network, attend classes, claim land for Wasteland and ask questions of the event leaders. I am lucky enough to have seen firsthand some of the things in store for the cyberpunk event and to have attended the flagship Ground Zero, so I can say with authority that things are only going to get bigger and more badass. Hold onto your butts.

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

Unaffiliated community-run events have likewise spawned over the past decade, such as shopping focused makers markets, smaller tribe gatherings and parties, post-apocalyptic invasions of other events like Ren Faire, and a two-day winter Jugger festival called Winter Games. And that doesn’t even go into the myriad of non-Wasteland specific post-apocalyptic events that have found success across the country and world since 2009. While not directly related, there is no doubt they have been heavily inspired, encouraged and supported by the efforts put forth by the Wasteland Weekend team. We encourage you to check out some of the other festivals and LARPs outlined below, as well as the popular Dystopia Rising.

The story of Wasteland Weekend
(credit: used with permission from TheApocalypsePost.com)

While pop culture has already moved on a bit from post-apocalyptica, Wasteland Weekend and the apocalyptic fandom don’t show signs of slowing down any time soon. And years from now, when I inevitably join those who came before me in the long sleep, it’s a comforting thought to know that my name will join theirs on the altar, and that my brothers and sisters will Witness me.

While I have many thoughts about the event as a long-time attendee, I was curious to get the perspective of some of the people who brought Wasteland to life. Jared Butler is co-founder and has been with the event since its inception. He also works in the entertainment industry as an actor and in voiceover. Adam Chilson is responsible for leading the majority of designing, planning, storing, transporting and building of the massive sets, although he started as one of the coolest practical effects photographers I’ve ever seen (I’ve been a fan of his since way before Wasteland).

Q+A

Q: How did you first become interested in the post-apocalyptic genre?

Jared A: I was hooked as soon as I saw Mad Max 2 / The Road Warrior when I was young (probably too young to be watching that sort of thing, but maybe that's why it had such an impact). It's not the only movie series or genre that I'm a fan of, but it's right up there.

Adam A: For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the post-apocalypse, and what kind of societies would grow out of the ashes of the old-world. In the absence of civilization as we know it, who would we become? Many of my early influences came from listening to old-time-radio shows, and reading books like Day of the Triffids. Classic movies like the Road Warrior brought this imaginary world to life in ways that have had influenced the genre forever. 

Q: What were you doing before the inception of Wasteland Weekend, and how did you go from that to running a festival?

Jared A: I had a career as a working Hollywood screenwriter and voice actor at the time (still am, when I have time, which I have less and less of these days thanks to the growth of Wasteland). I'm not sure exactly when Wasteland crossed over from part time job to full time, but it took some years.

My friend Karol and I had been working on Mad Max costumes together and he had always wanted to have a Mad Max fan event in the desert. Since we both lived in Los Angeles, the Mojave desert was not far away, so in 2010 we decided to try to have our first Wasteland Weekend and were joined by James Howard in organizing it. Adam Chilson came on board before the 2010 event as our official promo photographer and then he stepped up to co-organizer in 2011 after James Howard departed.

Adam A: In the 1990s I wrote content for RPG and computer games. My first three novels were a blend of cyberpunk and the post-apocalypse, genres that have heavily influenced my art and photography as well. I couldn’t have been happier to find out there was a small, but growing community gathering together in mutual love of the post-apocalypse. With a decade of trade show and set craft behind me, I was eager to jump in and take on some new challenges. 

Q: From your perspective, what is the biggest change from year 1 to year 10? Did you ever expect the event to grow as it has in those early years?

Jared A: As soon as people actually showed up to the first event, I knew we were on to something, and I knew it would grow. The growth is less surprising to me as the LONGEVITY. I didn't think I'd still be doing this after 10 years. I don't say that in a bad way, I'm just surprised. Keeping this chaotic ball of unstable molecules together each year is a combination of hard work, stress, and no small amount of luck. 

Adam A: Thinking back on the early days of event management, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We were all just a group of enthusiastic Mad Max fans, friends, artists, and builders trying to bring a shared vision of the post-apocalypse to life. In many ways that hasn’t changed at all, although I’d like to think we’re a lot better at the organizational side of things now. The event has grown and evolved, in some ways out of necessity, and others from influences of greater Wasteland community. We started out a gathering of a few hundred strangers, and now it’s a gathering in the thousands of friends. 

Q: Tell us about one of your most memorable or life changing Wasteland moments. What has been your proudest achievement with the event?

Jared A: It's hard to say where to start. So many crazy things have happened over the years, from very personal stories to big things like recognition from the filmmakers and actors behind the Mad Max films.

I'll tell you one story that comes to mind:

I often am told nice things by attendees about how much Wasteland Weekend means to them, and sometimes how far they have traveled (from countries around the world) or what exceptional efforts they have made to attend the event. But one man had a story that topped all the others. He walked up to me at the event and told me he had come back from the dead in order to be at Wasteland Weekend. Here is what happened:

He had a very serious medical condition and he was at a hospital going in for surgery. He told his friends that one of his only regrets in his life was that he had always planned to go to Wasteland Weekend and he had never done it. He vowed that, if he survived the surgery, he would finally go to Wasteland that year. During surgery, he died on the operating table and the doctors were able to revive him. When he woke up in the recovery room, he started making plans for his trip. A few months later, he was at Wasteland Weekend, telling me the story.

The last few years, there's always a moment for me, looking out at Wasteland City, especially when it comes alive at night... It's a feeling of awe, humility, and pride. 

Adam A: Some of my fondest memories are of time spent with the volunteer crews that work tirelessly year round to make Wasteland happen. I’m continually humbled by the creativity, the commitment, the infectious enthusiasm from so many people. It reminds me why I’m still doing this after 10 years. Seeing the light come on in a first-timer’s eyes, embracing Wastelanders you only get to see once a year, shenanigans with tribes (which we won’t go into detail about), and getting drunk in the desert with my friends. These are the moments I remember.  

At the end of Fury Road, there’s a quote that says “We who wander this Wasteland, in search of our better selves”. That’s something I’ve taken to heart, and tried to make a part of my daily life. Wasteland has changed many of us, and even though we’re all having fun playing at a pretend apocalypse, the threat of a real one still looms over the horizon. The friends I’ve made and people met at Wasteland give me hope that maybe we’ve got a shot and making the world we live a better place, because as much fun as playing apocalypse can be, none of us really want that future. 

Q: In what ways has Wasteland impacted and influenced the rest of your life?

Jared A: Well, it has made for an interesting intro when people I meet ask me what I do in my spare time. Beyond that, it has been so many positive and negative additions in my life, it's hard to know where to start.

Q: What kinds of things may we expect the future to hold?

Jared A: This year being our 10th is a big celebration for us. We are going to try and top everything we have done before. More of everything, and better. We are not sure what the future holds for Wasteland, but we want to keep improving on everything we do. We are starting a second desert event in the Spring of 2020, that will take place on the same land as Wasteland, but instead of a post-apocalyptic theme, it will have a science-fiction/cyberpunk theme. We're excited about it and tickets for our first one of those should go on sale sometime this October. I personally (separate from Wasteland World Inc) am also opening a temporary cocktail bar in downtown Los Angeles this November that will be a retro-80s noir-future cyberpunk theme. More info on that is at: neotropolisbar.com

Adam A: Wasteland will always be a unique, immersive event for the committed enthusiast. We’re dedicated to keeping Wasteland an event like no other, for adults, in costume, participant driven, immersed in a post-apocalyptic world. Wasteland will always evolve and grow in ways we might not even foresee, but at it’s core, the Wasteland of year one lives on in the Wasteland to come.


Karol was one of the founders of the event in 2010 but has not been involved with running Wasteland since 2014. He is still heavily involved in apocalyptica in general and brings post-apocalyptic fashion to the world commercially under his label Karol B Clothing.

Q: How did you first become interested in the post-apocalyptic genre?

Karol A: My first exposure to the post-apocalyptic genre was a strategic video game called Roadwar 2000, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic US. In the game, you collect vehicles and various resources while also recruiting members to your group.

Q: What were you doing before the inception of Wasteland Weekend, and how did you go from that to running a festival?

Karol A: I organized my first event in 2004, when I was working as a surgical technician. It was a Mad Max inspired car cruise event in the Bay Area. A couple other Mad Max fans saw what I did and started their own local events. I wanted to eventually expand into a desert festival event, but I was intimidated. Ultimately, I was thrust into it when I heard about Road Warrior Weekend Event in 2009 and became intrinsic in making that happen. From there, it was an easy jump into starting Wasteland Weekend.

Q: From your perspective, what is the biggest change from year 1 to year 10? Did you ever expect the event to grow as it has in those early years?

Karol A: It's hard to pinpoint anything specific, but it has certainly grown in every way. There are much more attendees, better costumes, hundreds more themed vehicles, grander tribe camps, and so much more official entertainment and infrastructure.
It's funny, because I actually expected the event to grow much faster than it did. I looked at the data from Burning Man, and we were all a bit too optimistic in the early days about how many attendees we could expect to see, year over year. It seems fair to say that the release of Mad Max: Fury Road was the biggest catalyst in making the event grow, but I think we've all learned that an event like this will always be a humble, niche event that will only attract the most committed people. The costume requirement and the desert camping aspect are at least two things that make many apprehensive about attending.

Q: Tell us about one of your most memorable or life changing Wasteland moments. What has been your proudest achievement with the event?

Karol A: I think just running the event for the first 5 years was my proudest and most memorable moment. It was a lot of work and sacrifice, and I was continually refreshed by the glowing love and appreciation that attendees showed me throughout the off-season. I am honored to have served during what many would say were the event's most intimate and authentic years.

Q: In what ways has Wasteland impacted and influenced the rest of your life?

Karol A: The biggest impact that the event has had on my life has been all of the friends I have made. My social circle has exploded. I have so many friends all over the world that I think will be life-long friends.
Also, now as a clothing designer, I think I will always be making things with the community in mind. I will have some level of post-apocalyptic influence to my designs for many years to come.

Q: What kinds of things may we expect the future to hold?

Karol A: I can't speak for Wasteland Weekend, but I hope we have many more years of fun, and I hope to see us all grow and evolve as a post-apocalyptic art community!

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

The story of Wasteland Weekend

Photos used with permission and thanks. All credits to:

Adam Chilson
Alex Stover
Jeff Vaillancourt
JaW Images Photography

Post apocalyptic map by The Apocalypse Post

All logos and stats provided by the Wasteland Weekend team. Thank you for helping make such a killer community.

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September 07 2019



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