Much of Southern California has been built on real estate speculation. California City, or Cal City, 160 miles north of Los Angeles, was one such dream by Nat Mendelsohn during post-World War II’s economic exuberance. Touted as a city that would rival Los Angeles itself, Mendelsohn assumed that expansion into the desert would continue when he laid out plans for the community. It was located in proximity to Edwards Air Force Base, Palmdale, and Lancaster after all — cities where aerospace marvels such as the Space Shuttle were to be built later. Mendelsohn graded the desert for streets and created pipeline infrastructure. Some plots did sell, but the dream did not catch on. Defined by geography, it is California’s third largest city, yet it has only 14,000 residents. Consequently, Cal City is often nicknamed “the city of streets to nowhere.”
As if drawing on this bottled energy and the tinge of an environmental apocalypse that wafts across the town on hot winds, Wasteland Weekend is a “Mad Max”-inspired festival that has occurred since 2010 on Cal City’s fringes. Today, co-owned and directed by Jared Butler and Adam Chilson, it is a temporary tent-city situated in the desert about a 30-minute drive northeast of Cal City. Wasteland Weekend is intended as an immersive experience that blurs the boundaries of being on a movie set and preparing for survival in a world where gasoline and oil have become gold, myrrh, and frankincense. They fuel the leftover machines of a pre-apocalyptic world that once took gas-guzzling for granted.
Seen via satellite imagery, the graded desert roads suggest a complicated geometry of incisions, perhaps imparting secret knowledge only attained when viewed aerially, like Peru’s Nazca Lines. Or, alternatively, the landscape appears to be scraped of buildings, as if an apocalypse did occur, devastating the desert town in the vein of a B-movie, sci-fi thriller.
Human-built towns absent of humans are real, though. The Ukrainian town of Pripyat is a still life of a post-nuclear disaster ghost town: the result of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant meltdown. But, in Cal City, the only day or reckoning that befell it was the flop of a real estate developer’s blueprint for a master planned community. However, the town feels less in decline and in limbo instead, as there is a sense of pent up energy from decades of hope and belief in the possibilities of what can be done with so much land at hand.
On a map, Wasteland is at the intersection of Rice Avenue and Tulane Street, and would appear to be surrounded by a dense community based on the other numerous, named streets. However, once outside the populated center of Cal City, the street names are nearly meaningless, as you are driving through a barely demarcated desert in reality. My two companions, Naida and Archer, and I have directions but the only markers along the way are low-lying wooden stakes with optimistically planned street names inscribed on them. We know when we are getting close because of the sand clouds kicked up by the other Wasters descending on the temp-tent city too.
Upon entering through the campsite’s main gate, and then driving along The Road, it is evident that Wasteland is divided into tribes, such as The Rain Dogs, Blood Ravens, and The Rust Bunnies, and is where, as stated on the website “all factions, gangs, and fractured remnants of society come together on neutral ground to trade, barter, party, and make new alliances.” Like medieval times, most of the tribes are stationed outside the walls of the official Wasteland City. The names of the makeshift streets that create tribal quadrants reference the latest “Mad Max: Fury Road” film, such as Valhalla Highway.
The three of us wear our best attempts at post-apocalypse costumes, which are required of everyone, even if from the media, in order to maintain an immersive experience. I am wearing an altered navy-blue, Dickies coverall suit, on which I spray-painted a stenciled motif of a hand all over, topped off with a spray-painted blue dot at the center of each palm. My hope is to suggest that I am a member of a mysterious, post-apocalyptic cult. The Dickies are ripped in a manner that suggests numerous struggles through years of self-reliance and acts of violence that I would rather not have to recount. I did have a hard time manipulating the durable Dickies fabric. Despite my fantasies, I bear resemblance, more than likely, to an auto repair mechanic than a near-future, cultish, survivalist. Nonetheless, my friends and I aim to fit into this future. In order to maintain a collective fantasy, the Wasteland Weekend website has a strongly worded FAQ on costume guidelines:
“We hope we’re not destroying any fantasies here, but zombies and mutants are not real. Therefore, zombie and mutant costumes are not welcome at the event. However, radiation burns and radiation sickness ARE real, so you certainly could lean toward that type of look if you’re so inclined… Nearly any franchise that would be recognizable as something outside of the post-apocalyptic genre needs to be avoided. Star Wars, Batman, Disney, etc.”
Two weeks after Burning Man, northerly located in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, the mid-September timing of Wasteland Weekend is also just one month before Cal City’s Renaissance Festival, which takes place in mid-October. It is an outdoor, semi-immersive event too, but the costumed fair-goers focus on England during the reign of Elizabeth I, when the Renaissance flourished. It would seem that early fall is time of alternate histories for this small town of 14,000 people. Perhaps the city council is auditioning differing ways of governing, as they consider the best path forward for humanity?
For a future world full of auto-industry detritus and worship of chrome, a very noticeable element is an overall orderliness and cleanliness, along with friendliness. The rule is pack-in, pack-out. There are no trashcans. To me, it’s a testament to how good will and a few simple guidelines can encourage self-government, even if for only four days. There is giddiness in the dry, sandy air over having very few rules. It could be even considered a Libertarian’s fantasy of sorts. Also, the smaller the number of people, the less possibility of anonymity, so one has to be conscientious about how one interacts, that is, you have to deal with your own trash. You cannot think that a tax-supported infrastructure, such as in Cal City, will pick up after you.
Another observation of Wasteland Weekend is the seeming lack of diversity at the event. A person of color occasionally emerges from the tribes, but it is rare. Also, it is dominantly male-female partnering, at least from appearances and body language. I imagine that these results are not intentional but rather a result, in part, of economic advantage and social capital. After all, an admission ticket is $135, plus travel and food expenses could easily add up to a thousand dollar price tag for a group of fantasy survivalists.
On Friday night, a local drag queen, Lady Vajayjay, does perform on stage in Wasteland City, a welcome contradiction to my impression on diversity. Performing to the music of Evanescence, Lady Vajayjay wears a tattered white dress, as if one of “Fury Road’s” Immortan Joe’s women on the run, wrapped in white, signifying purity, guided to salvation by Furiosa in the movie. Then, at one point, she raises a decapitated head in the air. She pours blood all of over it, her face, and her exposed, faux breasts. In the context of Wasteland, Lady Vajayjay becomes a legendary, bloody, shamanistic vagina. After her performance, Wasteland co-owner Jared Butler steps on stage and announces to the crowd, “This is Wasteland’s first drag show!” There are loud cheers!
Afterward, the crew and I find our way over to the Thunderdome, a geodesic structure mimicking the one in the 1985 film “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” Here, Wasters climb the structure and cheer combatants, who are harnessed in an apparatus that allows them to jump and soar, while they beat one another with cushioned weapons.
Later, we drive back down Rice Avenue, barely able to see without streetlights, but the stars are very bright and visible. We call out constellations as we head back to our room at the Best Western in Cal City — the joy of grit lasts for only so long. I see other Wasters wandering the halls there too. Sometimes you can’t tell who’s who: a Waster, dreaming of an alternate future for their real self, or a long-term, contract employee, with whom I had an elevator conversation, also dressed in tattered jeans and a faded shirt, at the nearby state or federal prisons, two of the major employers in the area.
Next day, Saturday morning, the overall costuming sensibility is more noticeable in the daylight: barely clad women and heavily armored men. It’s such an overwhelming aesthetic that, despite the opportunity to represent oneself differently in a future with few rules, I find gender stereotypes reinforced. In other words, there’s an odd kind of conservatism to this future: women as sex objects and men as the breadwinners who are emotionally armored, literally and figuratively. In general, the cosplaying women project a sense of self-empowerment, presuming that they will be warrior-survivor partners alongside the men in a new violent and erratic world, but, albeit, while posing as if on a sci-fi book cover geared towards a presumed hetero boy bookworm.
Despite these received meanings in the present being projected further into the future, I can feel the pride that participants have over the ingenuity that they’ve employed when constructing costumes, applying makeup, creating wild hairdos, along with tinkering and repurposing mechanical and electronic objects. They make menacing gerrymandered weapons of the future that they often mount on equally customized cars. I would be curious how a Latino or Chicano post-apocalypse might be envisioned; perhaps one where customized lowriders are emissaries from a future Aztec world? I am also reminded of the pride of Cuban DIY mechanics that, like Dr. Frankenstein, can revive the metal body of a 1947 Nash with a 1990s Hyundai engine as its new brain. Whether present day or in a post-apocalyptic future with limited resources, an expert tinker has a high, chrome-plated seat in the social hierarchy.
As we leave Wasteland and Cal City, heading back towards cities with more familiar names and building-lined, paved streets, places where citizens allow themselves to think they are anonymous within a larger population, I understand that Wasteland is not about a fantasy of salvation. In other words, I do not believe that there’s an underlying subtext that only an apocalypse will eradicate today’s turmoil.
Rather, the immersive event, in spite of its fun in the desert, does cultivate the idea that allowing ourselves to tinker with our personas and our technologies can encourage unapologetic fantasies as paths towards bettering ourselves and, by extension, picking up trash when we see it. Cal City’s roads to nowhere actually lead us back to a place in ourselves in which we realize optional outcomes. It is just you and your V-8 engine, surviving together, absent the security of a city’s infrastructure, which may be the real Wasteland: a machine the size of a planned community, like Mendelsohn’s, for insatiable and desensitizing consumption.
For more information on Wasteland Weekend visit the event's official site.
*This article has been updated for accuracy and clarity.