It all started with my friend, Ryan, asking us to save Bottle Caps for him. We asked him why, and found out about Wasteland Weekend. A 4 day event in the desert, intended to serve as a living homage to Mad Max and the world created by George Miller.
“You are a crazy person.”
“My idea of camping is a hotel with slow wifi.”
“I am pretty sure I would just spontaneously combust in the desert.”
These are all things I said, back in 2013 when I first heard of Wasteland Weekend. Fast forward to 2015, during which time, Ryan and I decided to see how the amazing friendship thing we had would work as maybe a more than friendship thing. Only now, I was sitting there watching a person, who had previously not been that important to me, but was now extremely important, pack and prepare to head out to the desert.
I was NOT happy. I had seen pictures from previous years. Bandaged eyes, sunburn, and cuts and scrapes. Even worse, he was turning off his phone for the whole time. I wouldn’t even get a “I’m alive!” text for 5 days. While he was gone, I SCOURED the internet for Wasteland pictures. I stalked social media, found people to follow, and inspected every face, looking for the one I loved so much. A friend of mine on twitter was there. And she had her phone on. And lived tweeted the event. The tents, the hanging out, the Thunderdome, a wedding, food, all of it. She painted a very different picture than the ones I was expecting. I started thinking… could I do this? Could I go with him next time?
A year is a long time in a new relationship, but so far, we had meshed together as if we were always meant to be. So maybe. It was a thing I needed to think about. Time passed and we kept making plans for future things. Things 3 and 4 months out. Instead of me expecting to be broken up with at any moment, I was finding myself making plans for things that were a long way away.
Then, one night, slightly drunk, I informed Ryan that I wanted to go to Wasteland Weekend with him. I was terrified. What would I do if it was horrid? How would I deal with the heat and sun? I was torn. I didn’t want to go, but I kinda did. I wanted to SEE this thing. Tickets were purchased. Now I was invested.
I did a ton of research, turning to Pinterest for information and ideas. Planning would save me. Ryan started talking about costumes and tents and masks. Every time the subject came up I wavered and considered asking him to let me out of it. But surely anything can be endured for 5 days right?
We ended up being crazy people and moving in together much sooner than expected, to help us both add stability and peace to our lives. After a bit of work crunch, the preparation for Wasteland began in earnest, as the event was RAPIDLY approaching. I still wavered a bit, in my own head, but I was determined to make the best of it. I bought 4 long sleeved athletic shirts from Old Navy, after all – I wouldn’t have to worry about sun screen coverage if everything was covered with cloth! I got several pairs of pants to “wasteland up”. I started making old key necklaces, bottle cap earrings, and such. I got my camel pack and Ryan attached the awesome shoulder armor he made for me to it.
Suddenly the days were all gone and we were packing for the weekend. I had no idea of what to take, so I ended up panic throwing things in the car. Five bottles of sunscreen sounds about right for 5 days in the desert right? Two bottles of rum? How about a first aid kit, solarcaine for when I got burned, and advil pm for when I couldn’t sleep. The trip down to California City was pretty much me staring out the window an anxious bundle of nerves.
We got down there super late at night and stayed in a hotel, one last shower before we headed out into the desert the next morning. I AM A REDHEAD. I burn in INDIRECT SUNLIGHT. I hate heat. I get crabby when I am sweaty. WHAT.THE.FUCK.AM.I.DOING. I am 90 percent certain the only reason I didn’t panic attack out that morning was I was too TIRED.
People keep asking me – Did you have fun? The answer is not nearly as straight forward as yes or no. How do you boil down a set of completely surreal, torturous, and outlandish experiences down to “Yeah, it was fun.” This is usually followed by a “Well, will you go back?” to which I answer – a solid Maybe***. Yes that’s 3 asterisk contingencies.
So one of the things about Wasteland is – it’s in a desert. It’s not a permanent location. It’s just a large open sandy area. No bathrooms. No showers. No water. There is ONE concrete slab that has been graffitied. That’s it. It’s all in, and all out. The Rust Devils, the tribe I was joining, run a bounty hunting game. They are inside the city walls. There’s city walls built with buses, junked up cars, sheet metal, and ply wood. Outside the city is Tent City. Our camp has to be “on theme” – meaning it has to look post apocalyptic – more specifically very Mad Max-ish. The tribe has been doing this since 2012, so they have a bit of practice.
Wednesday morning starts with everyone heading out to the camp site at oh my god it’s early o’clock and starting to unload the uhaul. Then we put together the three car ports. One is the bounty office, one is the dining area, and one is the lounge. They are arranged in a U shape, along the boarders of our camp. We cover the tops with canvas and netting.Then, along the outer walls, we attached old rusted sheet metal, and wooden fence bits, to form an outer wall. The old busted limousine the tribe owns, The Mutie Beauty, was parked along the left wall, so she would be seen by anyone as soon as they entered the main gate. In the center of our camp, one of our more clever Rust Devils put together a wooden tower, which allows for a birds eye view of the whole city.
Ten minutes in to Wednesday, I am already coated in sunscreen, sweaty, and covered in dirt and sand. I didn’t have goggles, so I just wore my sunglasses. Thank GOD I had prescription sunglasses. I swapped from my normal flip flops into a super old pair of Timberland boots. A pair I almost DIDN’T BRING. I cannot express how glad I am I did. By around 6, we had the camp mostly together. Someone mentioned that we only had an hour or so of sunlight left, and I started to panic again. We hadn’t put our tents up. We were waiting on someone to come back to put their tent up first, and they weren’t back yet. Oh yeah, and at this point the ONLY food I had had was raw hot dogs. I mean, I like raw hot dogs, but after 8+ hours of physical labor, I am fucking hungry and this was NOT acceptable. So I pushed to get the tents set up. After a moment of discussion, people agreed to positions and we got it set up. By this point, I was on the brink of tears. I was tired, physically exhausted, hot, hungry, and 100% out of patience. I was snapping at people I liked and I needed to lay down away from everything for even just 10 minutes.
Ryan got our tent set up, I immediately crawled inside, laid down, dirt and all, and just let myself cry a bit to feel better. Oh did I instantly start to feel better. After about 30 minutes, I got up, grabbed a plastic cup, my bottle of rum, poured a drink and went to rest in the shade. The temperature started to drop and suddenly I had to pee. I had been drinking water all day and sweating all day, but hadn’t had to pee. It was surreal, realizing that I hadn’t had to pee because I was SWEATING it all out. Fortunately the Rust Devils pay for a private porta-potty. So at least THAT was a bonus. Around 9 pm, we finally ate – pulled pork sandwiches. I scarfed two of them down so fast, I barely even remember how they tasted. There was chatting and such, but mostly I remember heading to bed.
Thursday morning came EXCESSIVELY early. It got super bright, then it was already getting hot. I could hear people talking and making noise. I crawled out of my tent because it was too warm and I needed to pee. Getting dressed in a tent you can’t stand up in is NOT an easy task. I walked into the main part of our camp to grab an energy drink and someone, I don’t actually remember WHO, asked me to help them do something. The look I gave them can only be described as WITHERING as I grabbed the garbage can lid we had tied our porta-potty key to, and stomped off. It turns out – this was around 8:30 am.
So it turns out, I am allergic to baby wipes. Or at least the regular ones – not the “free and natural” ones I used on my kid. I was allergic to disposable diapers as a baby, so when I had my kid, I got all the super duper hippy organic stuff even though I generally don’t believe in buying organic. But I didn’t realize this until Saturday. So Thursday morning, I took a wet wipe bath, which included wiping down my face. I reapplied sunscreen and headed back to camp.
People were bustling about setting up the final touches. Dogface was trying to cook bacon, but it was so windy already, the stove wouldn’t stay hot. So – no breakfast. The event starts at noon, so I went to get my costume on, wake Minion up, and get ready for the starting time. Of course, in reality, it was more like 1. I had my camera and took pictures. Our whole camp was there and talking, joking, and having fun.
After the opening parade, we settled in to open for the day. We do bounty hunting, and how it works is – you sign up, we give you a finger, then we take your picture and make a poster of you. That poster is then stapled to a board, and OTHER people can grab your poster, then they come find you. You talk and play rochambo, then if the hunter wins, you give them the plastic finger, and they bring it back to us at the Bounty Office, and we give them caps for it. There are printed Hunter caps and a few Last Chance casino caps. Our neighbors across the street run a casino with caps – playing games like roulette, craps, and black jack. The rewards are things like – shots and such. No real money.
People start showing up. All kinds of costumes and personalities. Skimpy outfits, complete body covering outfits, vault dweller suits, punk rock looking costumes, everything. There was a woman in a wedding dress. A man wearing a loincloth and nothing else. Weapons of all kinds – bats with nails, swords, guns, scythes, etc.
I wasn’t on shift, so I sat in our camp and just watched the insanity. And it was insanity. People would walk up and hug each other, and only once they started talking did I realize – they didn’t know each other. People would walk into our camp and offer us food or alcohol. One of our tribe members pulled out his 5 gallon metal gas can, that was filled with home made rum.
As the day went on, the wind got more and more aggressive. Then the alert went out – a sandstorm was headed in, with high winds. We started securing the camp. Have you ever tried to run a generator or a printer in a sandstorm? It doesn’t work. So we shut down the bounty office and hunkered in.
They couldn’t keep the stove going, so once more, food was scarce. I discovered, thanks to a well prepared tribemate, that Lembas bread is apparently a real thing. Only it’s called Mayday. The afternoon and early evening was spent wearing a pair of over my glasses goggles and avoiding being sand blasted. Luckily for us, our camp was quite secure, and with one minor incident, we didn’t have to scramble. Other camps were not so lucky. Losing towers, having to take down their tents, and effectively being hammered by sand for a few hours.
When the wind finally died down after dark, we shook off what sand we could and settled down for a drink. After much chatting and talking with people who stopped by to visit, we headed to bed, only to discover we hadn’t covered the vent on our tent. So our tent had about an inch of sand in the whole thing.
I went to bed, tired, a bit drunk, but marginally feeling better about the trip than I had been.
Friday, once more I was woken up early, crabby, and exhausted. My face felt tight and swollen, but I assumed it was just the sun. Even though I had not gotten burned, I am still very sensitive, so it made sense. Food was functional, so breakfast sandwiches were had. I got wrangled into doing the opening shift, so I got dressed and ready pretty early.
Then came the two hours of awesomeness. We run a bounty hunting game, and use an app to take the player’s picture, then print out a poster with them as a Wanted Person. So I got to take pictures. I got to talk to all these interesting and fascinating people. Their costumes were endlessly beautiful and unique. After 2 hours, I really didn’t want to stop. I did though, because I was tired and hungry. Although I had been bribed by one gentleman, who asked me to hold his poster for a while. He gave me a shot of fireball for it. Deal!
That afternoon, I took my parasol and walked about with Minion. Minion is Ryan’s “wasteland name” and as I found out, people generally stick to them in a dedicated fashion. It’s almost like roleplaying. I wasn’t Kim anymore, I was Ember. This also lead to a very strange form of fluid hierarchy of power. Logically, I would have been low on the ladder, since I was new. But for some reason, I floated up. I am not sure if it was my extrovertedness, my nosiness, my bright feathered shoulder, or my smile. Hell, it may have just been my blunt and assertive nature. Whatever it was, people were automatically deferential and respectful to me outside of the camp. Inside, it was like being in the middle of a family with a bunch of loud siblings.
As we finished an AMAZING tri-tip dinner, we found out the band, Ahtck was about to perform, so we headed over to that. It’s weird, being at a festival where there are so few people, you can just stand in a loose crowd to watch a show. I am not a fan of heavy metal, but Ahtck is really good and as most of their songs are Wasteland themed, very appropriate. The singer started with a comment on all the Wastelanders we had lost over the year, and I have FEELINGS on that I need to write down later. The concert began and it was probably the best one I have ever gone to. It’s very different, standing to watch a show, when the person you are standing with likes to hold and touch you. Minion kept his arms around me the whole time, but loosely so I could twist and kiss him. This of course, inspired Dogface to yell “GET A ROOM. OR A TENT.” which became a joke.
After the concert, we went back to camp, hung out around our fire for a bit, then headed over to Ghoulcrest, a hunting tribe. They had a two story structure and allowed us to go up to the Members only top section. It was amazing, in the cool night air, chatting with people, and staring up at the cloudless sky. You are so far out in the desert the stars are so clear and easy to see. I could see the cloud of the milky way. Just beautiful and perfect. If I go back, I have to take a picture with it. We returned to camp, drunk and silly.
One perfect example of how the rules had changed – a man walked into our camp, walked up to me, took the lid off a jar and held it out to me. Inside was a red liquid. I looked at it, took it, then asked “What is it?” “Truck Punch!” he replied. “You know, calling it truck punch makes it sound like an alcohol fermented in the engine of your truck right?” I said. “That’s exactly what it is!” he laughed. And I took a drink. It tasted like strawberries, wine, and cream soda.
Here I also met a guy named Tauntaun. I made the obvious joke of “Well – you don’t smell THAT bad on the outside.” since it was likely he hadn’t taken a shower in 3 days at this point. He laughed and said “I will keep you warm at night!” I pointed at Minion and said “That’s his job.” The dude immediately responded in a laughing manner, nodded at me, then told Minion “You are one lucky dude.” Yes, yes he is. And I am one extremely lucky lady.
Here’s where I made a mistake. I hadn’t been drinking as much water as I needed throughout the day. It had been 76 and cool, and we had run out of coke zero. I drank too much and asked a tribemate if it was time to do the Tetanus Shots. The Tetanus Shot is the Rust Devil’s signature shot and the previous TWO days many a comment had been made about “You’re not a Rust Devil until you’ve had a Tetanus Shot.” I felt I had done my time. I was ready to stop feeling like the newbie. UNFORTUNATELY, the mats to MAKE a Tetanus shot were not present. I got upset, for some stupid reason – I think that I felt like people had made this comment, but were now preventing me from getting them to STOP and preventing me from feeling like I REALLY belonged here. I was still just a girlfriend. I ended up a bit more belligerent than normal. Lucky for me, my emotions swang to sadness fast enough I ended up storming off to bed. Minion came to talk to me, and I think I was just at my limit for the day for dealing with anything and everything. He offered to take me to a hotel, and instead I stayed and just went to sleep.
And boy did Saturday morning hurt. I woke up feeling awful. And not just hung over. I was, but that was only part of it. My eyes were practically swollen shut. My whole face was one big swollen puff ball of pain and itchiness. So I walked to the porta-potties, trying to figure it out, went to wipe my face with a wet wipe and almost screamed at the pain from it. That’s when I figured out – I am in fact allergic to regular wet wipes. OW. I headed back to camp and tried to drink some oj to help with the hangover while I thought about what to do about my face. My stomach was having none of that, so I ended up puking my oj back up into the garbage can. Lucky, it was just the oj. The Great Demander, a professional photographer who works the event, happened by and saw me, swollen face and all, and brought me some Benadryl.
Have I mentioned how *nice* everyone is at Wasteland? It’s like one big family. I mean, yeah there are assholes, but here they are clearly enjoying themselves and thus being nice. People are totally willing to barter and trade. Willing to do anything to help. Even share Benadryl.
I spent most of the morning feeling awful, but by my shift in the bounty office, I was feeling much better. The swelling had gone down and I was game for just about anything. The afternoon passed in a blur of sunscreen, good food, chatting with crazy people, taking pictures, posting bounty posters, and just hanging out. It’s also really funny to walk up to people with a bottle of water, hand it to them, then turn around and say, “Fill me up!” as they pour it into your camel pack. Note – building your costume off a camel pack base – excellent fucking idea.
Saturday night, I went easy on booze, but they finally had the stuff for tetanus shots, so I took one of those. It’s fireball, rum, a Tabasco sauce, with the rum floated on top and lit on fire. It was great, until the Tabasco went up my nose. WHEW that burns. We had dinner of ribs and ravioli which were both crazy good. I got to feeling exhausted, so we headed to bed. By this point our tent smelled like dead feet, dead farts, dead animal, and funk. This is where I discovered the problem with trying to go to bed SOBER at Wasteland. It’s SO LOUD. People are playing music, talking, etc etc until late at night. And tent walls do NOT stop it. Minion also decided to start telling me a story about seeing a Tarantula by the porta-potties. I informed him that if he EVER wanted me to come back he needed to STOP SPEAKING IMMEDIATELY.
At 4 am, I forced Minion to walk me to the porta potties, came back and took a Advil PM so I could get SOME sleep.
Of course, at the crack of fucking dawn on Sunday, here goes people talking. Including overhearing a story about a woman who was sexually assaulted, but Wasteland taking care of their business and her. It was a scary story, with the best possible ending. I got up, feeling like my entire world had shifted. I hadn’t cleaned out from under my finger nails in days. I didn’t even try to put on deodorant anymore. My hair had more sand than anything else in it. It shockingly didn’t look that bad. I really wanted a fucking shower. My definition of “dirty” was so dramatically shifted – pretty much unless it was a pile of dirt – it wasn’t too dirty to touch or even eat. My teeth crunched with every bite from the sand in my mouth.
We ate breakfast. Have I mentioned how GOOD all the food at Wasteland was? I am not sure if it was the cooking or the sheer level of hunger I built up each day. Midway through breakfast, here comes a tribe member telling us the wind is going to pick back up. We need to start breaking down now. As hard as it is putting UP a camp in the desert, that’s how hard it is taking it DOWN. In increasing wind. About an hour into breakdown, I felt like I was more in the way that helping, so I went and took down our tent, and prepped our stuff for leaving. It was around that time I noticed… I wasn’t sweating. Like at all. It was 90 degrees, noon-ish, and I wasn’t sweating a drop. I needed to rest, so I sat in the shade of a van, and drank water. The longer I sat, the worse I felt. First like I needed to vomit, even though I wasn’t hung over. Then came the chills. Did I mention it was 90 degrees, I was wearing a long sleeved athletic shirt, and pants? I should not have been cold. I felt even worse, realizing I was sitting on my ass while other people packed up the camp. I got up to help. Have you ever tried to lift something and your arms just said “Nope.”? That shit sucks.
I ended up sitting more than helping at this point. Finally, our camp doctor came over, put his hand on my head, realized I wasn’t sweating and forced me into the uhaul truck to sit in the ac. It really didn’t help.
Around 3 pm, we had nearly everything packed, and headed back to town. We had to haul out all our garbage, so we had to find dumpsters that weren’t overfull. Then we headed to the storage unit. We can’t take this shit home, so we pay to store it there. Once there, I helped by organizing and sorting things and getting it all to fit. I am super at Tetris, so this went really well. About halfway through I started sweating again, and I can’t even tell you what a relief THAT was.
Wasteland is in the desert, and it’s “bring everything in, take everything out.” So we brought alcohol, but somehow, despite drinking the whole time, we brought more alcohol home than we took. Weird.
We finally got everything packed away. The discussion started up about who was driving the uhaul back. I wasn’t on the list, I didn’t have my license, and I had been promised a shower, so fuck it, I was out. I just walked away. Minion caught up with me and we headed back to the hotel. There was the comment though of “I have to get Kim to a shower before she stabs me.” which is making some pretty large comments considering I didn’t have a weapon on me, or anything sharp at all.
We got back to the hotel, and I got in the shower. It maybe wasn’t the best shower in my life, but it was DEFINITELY in the top five. I wiped my face with the wash cloth and it instantly went a dark brown. I just kept scrubbing until it was white-ish again. I washed my hair 4 times, with two rounds of conditioner. Once out of the shower I started rubbing burt’s bees foot repair into my hands and feet, and blood orange coco-butter into my legs, hands, arms, and neck. The lotion sunk in like water into the desert sand.
We went to eat Chinese for dinner. The poor waitress couldn’t keep our water glasses full. This was goodbye. That night I slept like the dead.
The next day we headed home, discussing the trip and events. I talked about what we would do “next year”. So maybe that answers the “Am I going back?” question? *** These contingencies were – 1. Bigger tent. 2. Have our own dry food supply. Our own drink supply too. 3. Camp.SHOWER. This is of course, assuming Minion and I don’t break up. If we do, love you Rust Devils, BUT OH HELL NO. The final tally on Sunscreen bottles was 1.5. I miraculously didn’t get sunburned. I am still digging sand out of my nose and ears. I think my hair may never recover.
Was it fun? There were fun MOMENTS. I wouldn’t call 12 hours of manual labor, not showering for 5 days, constantly battling the elements, not eating properly, having to worry about what exactly electrolytes are and why you need them, and then having severe dehydration FUN. None of that was fun.
Seeing Minion happy? That was fun. Meeting all those weird people, making new friends, discussing costuming, D&D, games, WoW, Savage Worlds, Rum, and drinking until my liver cried – all very fun. Having people compliment me on my shoulder armor? Awesome. Having someone ask to buy my necklace – super cool.
The thing that most sets the ton for how my trip to the wastes was – here I was, a week later, wistfully thinking of my new friends, wishing I could see them, and wondering when I would see them again. Then taking over the Rust Devil’s twitter account and making a plan for how to grow it.
Maybe it was fun.