Wasteland Weekend 2019
Article by: Geek Girl Alyssa Kollgaard
Images by: JaW Images Photography
A week has passed since Wasteland Weekend, and the dust (both literal and figurative) is just beginning to settle. Returning to the real world is a wild adjustment after a week in our desert of make believe, far removed from society. And while I could go on and on about this year’s event specifically, I wanted to break my normal format and instead give you a list of the 10 reasons Wasteland Weekend is my favorite event of the year in honor of their milestone 10th year.
If you somehow still aren’t familiar with the event you can check out my recent article detailing its history
, as well as my coverage of years 2012
Living in Los Angeles we have an abundance of awesome costumed and geeky events, festivals, masquerades, conventions, special interest groups, societies, clubs, pop-ups and permanent attractions. So what makes Wasteland Weekend my favorite of the bunch?
1. It’s Inclusive
Sure, a lot of communities claim to be inclusive, but who among us hasn’t seen the toxicity against people of color, the disabled, women, LGBT+ or people who don’t fit the traditional “sexy” mold? Barely a week goes by where I don’t see some exclusion or prejudice-based drama in the cosplay community. God forbid anyone dare to cosplay while fat or black! Tabletop was mostly considered a cis white male space until a few years ago, the recent diversity thanks largely in part to celebrity support and shows like Critical Role. Gaming is still a largely noxious and unwelcoming scene for women, despite them making up 52% of the population.
Many of our geeky and costumed subcultures strive to be inclusive but haven’t hit the mark or remain overrun with gatekeeping and general negativity. Some of the subcultures that were originally created by the most vulnerable to be their private safe spaces have since been assailed and appropriated by the same people who forced them into these spaces in the first place.
Wasteland doesn’t have any of that.
While the event takes place in the Californian desert, people attend from around the globe. We’ve got people on every end of the religious and political spectrum from the leftest left bleeding-heart liberal hippies to the rightest right 2nd amendment trucker hat conservatives (white nationalists, however, are wholly unwelcome and removed if they get caught attending). There is a large contingent of both active and ex-military. Preppers and pretenders. Starry eyed 18-year-old teens to grizzled seniors spending their twilight years giving zero fucks. Scanty outfits and nudity regardless of gender or body type. There are gay bars, fire, fetish and drag shows across the way from innocuous libraries, temples and film festivals. There are dozens of bars and a non-insignificant number of teetotalers. There are furries, Burners, metalheads, punks, hippies, off-grid vagabonds, cosplayers, Juggalos, models, mechanics, whatever. I have seen dozens (yes, multiple dozens) of trans attendees who used Wasteland as their coming out because it was the only place they felt comfortable, supported and judgment free.
People who would have absolutely no cause to interact together in any other circumstance form lasting bonds of friendships at Wasteland. Our only commonality is our love of the post-apocalyptic genre. The dirt makes family of us all.
2. It Is Community Built
While the team behind Wasteland created the solid foundation for an incredible event, it’s the attendees that made it what it is today. Many of the biggest camp builds and most beloved activities come not from Wasteland itself, but rather the paid attendees. Some of the oldest and most iconic parts of the temporary city are built and operated by the Wasteland Crew, sure – The main stage, the city gates, the Atomic Café, the film festival, the hair and makeup studio The Body Shop, the dance area The Pit, the med tent and command center.
It wasn’t until the concept of tribes was introduced in 2012 that the event took on a life of its own – the stages built by tribes Wasted Saints and Nuclear Bombshells became so popular that they are now both considered official event stages by Wasteland Weekend. Leaders across multiple tribes banded together to create the seedy underbelly of The Den - a courtyard with entrances leading into half a dozen bars and themed camps, with impressive signage and go-go dancers in cages marking the main entrance down an artificial alleyway. The same is true of Goodneighbor - the friendlier entertainment district where the casino, movie theater, library, karaoke bar, carnival and burlesque camps live. The Wasteland Communication Corporation has live radio broadcasts and writes, prints and distributes daily newspapers onsite (I still don’t fully understand the logistics of how they pull it off). Collaborative lore, missions and quests span the entirety of the event and can involve multiple dozens of tribes and participants. Some tribes spend the entire year leading up to the event arranging these ambitious challenges and large theatrical moments. This year’s Facebook tribe meme war in the weeks leading up into Wasteland spilled into the event itself, leading to some truly hilarious pranks.
While there used to be a clear delineation between in “the city” (the themed only camping area) and outside the city walls (non-themed camping), the line is much blurrier now. You can walk the full length of the event and never stop encountering incredible car and camp builds. Some of the stuff on the outskirts of the event is as impressive as anything inside the walls, and no matter where you wander there is something amazing to see. We’ve all collectively had 10 years to build; every year the landscape gets more believable, the builds get more impressive, the lights get brighter and the fountains get taller (although there is some legal disagreement as to what actually constitutes a fountain).
3. There is Something for Everyone
While it’s true that Wasteland Weekend attracts a certain type of individual, we aren’t exactly pulled from a single mold. While Wasteland is a heavy drinking event, there are also groups that cater specifically to those who abstain. For extroverted party types there is karaoke and unlimited opportunities to dance. If you prefer to be an observer, you can sit and watch a movie, watch live bands or stage performances. You can shop or barter. There are contests of skill and contests of debauchery. If roleplaying is more your thing, you can take part in one of the many lore-based quests and missions. You can manhunt a bounty or go on a friendly trade route. You can start your morning with coffee or with booze and yoga. You can race vibrators or customized Hot Wheels. You can gamble in the casino or try your luck gaining entry to one of the exclusive clubs or backrooms. There are even several different opportunities for baptisms and religious services. Hell, stay in your camp all day if you want. Even that is fun at Wasteland (although a missed opportunity if you ask me).
The types of activities are so vast and varied it is impossible to not find something that appeals to your specific interests. You might even say Wasteland has too many choices. It is impossible to do and see everything you’re going to want to do and see, no matter how you like to roll.
4. It’s Fully Immersive
Wasteland isn’t a convention, where only a percentage of people are in costume and the environment is at odds with the outfits. It’s not even like a LARP or re-enactment event where although all individuals are in costume there are no strict requirements about themed camping areas vs non-themed camping areas (so you never really believe that you are in a medieval village). It’s not even like Burning Man, where most people are in costume and there are fantastic art builds wherever you look, but there is no central theme tying them together cohesively.
Wasteland Weekend requires its attendees to be in costume 100% of the time. Only themed cars can drive within the city gates, and any tribes setting up camp within the walls go through a rigorous approval process to make sure they are upholding the theme and standards. And I tell you, when the sun begins to set and there is desert around you on every side, and the silhouette of the Thunderdome is in the distance, the lights of the Atomic Café shine down upon you, the husk of the genuine Exxon Valdeez (may she rest in peace) to your left, and fire illuminating the Wasteland sign to your front…its easy to forget this isn’t the real thing. It’s a carefully curated experience that I am not sure exists many other places (Uranium Springs excluded).
5. It Grows at its Own Pace
One of the worst parts of being involved in an event this amazing is that it’s usually unsustainable. Burning Man has suffered from commercialization, $10,000 plug-n-play camps and invasion of Instagram influencers to the point they had to explicitly address their community about it this year
. Comic Con has priced out many of the original attendees with their exorbitant hotel fees and ticket prices (if you are lucky to make the cut in the waiting room roulette, anyway).
Wasteland Weekend could certainly be much bigger than it is if they wanted, but they specifically add only a few hundred each year. This not only makes it an easier adjustment on the infrastructure but likewise assures that the veteran attendees who grok the vision always greatly outnumber any tourists. Every year people will come to the event who don’t really get it, or who will argue ad nauseum about why the rules just don’t apply to them and they should be able to be a dragon or post-apocalyptic Batman because it happened in the comics, man. Every year there is one asshole who dresses as Where’s Waldo, or One Punch Man, or a Folsom style rainbow fetish pony, or a dickhead in a tie dye cape with a megaphone. I can give you these four examples explicitly because they are so rare, so out of place, and met with such fierce condemnation from the community at large that they either never come back or learn to integrate into Wasteland culture. We are fiercely protective of what we have built – which is why the event has managed to maintain its integrity and the experience remains undiluted. On the other hand….
6. We Love Newcomers
No, really! While every community has at least a handful of “back in my day” curmudgeons, these doddering old fools are absolutely the minority and not the rule at Wasteland. We have a highly populated Facebook group dedicated to answering event questions and giving costume advice to first time attendees. This year featured an entire camp setup that gave away themed clothing for free for anyone who came less-than, as well as played host to a newcomers questline that served as an ice-breaker. Another tribe offers free distressing services on site. Anyone who declares themselves a first year at the event is met most often with choruses of “Welcomes” and “Fuck yous” (our version of hello). My tribe this year gave out hundreds of dollars in gifts to first timers in the hopes of making their first experience memorable. And if you are a veteran attendee than mostly likely you have begged, pleaded with, bullied and dragged your friends to the event in the hopes of converting more Wastelanders (spoiler: it usually works).
While there are some exclusive VIP experiences, the vast majority are attainable by first years who put in the time and exist more as a reward for participation and less as an exclusion for being an unknown.
One of us, one of us, gooble gobble, gooble gobble.
7. Its Run by Real Fans
The people behind the event aren’t just money grabbers looking to cash in on a fad – they are true, diehard fans of the genre. This means the leadership has established a set of thoughtfully curated theme rules that set the tone for the whole event. Every performer, volunteer, staff member, band, DJ, and themed tribe is fully vetted by the creative team in order to uphold, support and strengthen their vision. They get what fans love about the apocalypse because they love the apocalypse themselves. They don’t just pay it lip service – Wasteland Weekend is a love letter to the genre, skillfully written on a parchment of dust with ink of blood, sweat and guzzoline.
8. The Feeling Lasts Year Round
Wasteland Weekend is only a 5-day event for most. If you’re hardcore you may be part of setup or teardown crew, or a member of a big tribe that needs some extra days to set up your huge themed camp. Even though the event itself is a relatively small blip on the calendar, we manage to stay connected as an active community year-round.
There are dozens of special interest Facebook groups spanning everything from fitness, car-building, crafting, selling, female support, dating, missed connections, tribes, planning, lore and RP…I personally belong to no less than a dozen Wasteland-specific groups I actively post to. There are also tons of smaller offshoot events, both official (Wastelander Ball, Wasteland Car Show) as well as community-run get togethers (post-apocalyptic bar crawls, photoshoots, fundraisers, parties, marketplaces) and non-affiliated events that nonetheless grew out of the success of Wasteland (Uranium Springs, Winter Games).
9. It Promotes Self-Reliance While Supporting its Weakest
Ever been desert camping? It will fuck your shit up if you’re not careful. If you need the creature comforts of running water, a flushing toilet, a stable internet connection, air conditioning and refrigeration, then Wasteland may not be for you. We expect you to provide your own sleeping arrangements, figure out transportation, pack out your own garbage, wipe your own ass, bring as much food and water as you will need, and generally handle your shit. The desert is a harsh mistress and it will quickly turn against you if you’re not prepared to take care of yourself. Nobody out here is going to be your mother and you’re in for a quick attitude realignment if you expect that to be the case. At the same time…
We don’t want that to deter you if you have true needs. Limited mobility? People will absolutely give you rides all weekend – some people even specifically advertise their taxi services. Prone to heat stroke or sunburn? Please share in our shade. Got your period unexpectedly? We got you, girl. Met someone you dig but don’t have protection? There are several tribes and individuals who come with an arsenal of free goods. Didn’t think to bring water with you on your long walk from camp? Ok, try not to let it happen again, but ask literally anyone and they’ll make sure you don’t go thirsty. Got a medical emergency? The medical tent is staffed 24/7. Need refrigeration for your insulin? Stop by command center or the RV block. There are entire groups dedicated to spoonies of Wasteland and it’s an incredible support system. Every one of these examples is something I saw this year alone – our community is incredibly giving of their time and resources when the circumstances call for it.
10. It Turns Trash into Art
Nothing is wasted at Wasteland. In the apocalypse when no new materials are created, you have to make do with what you’ve got on hand. It’s kind of odd to think about, but the Wasteland community is keeping garbage out of landfills and instead giving it new life. Very little of what we work with can be considered “new” – we are dumpster divers, thrift shoppers, upcyclers and zero wasters. Watching how people take pieces most were consider trash and transform it into surprising and beautiful ways is one of my favorite parts of the community.
Article by: Geek Girl Alyssa Kollgaard
Images by: JaW Images Photography
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October 14 2019