The Real Origin Story of the World’s Largest Post-apocalyptic Festival
By Karol Bartoszynski
Whenever people find out I was one of Wasteland Weekend’s co-founders, they often ask me how I came up with the idea for the event, or how it started.
I usually give people a pretty short version of the story. This is the long version.
Mad Max Fandom
I became a Mad Max fan after watching The Road Warrior on TV in 1990. My friend was super into the cars, but I found myself gravitating towards the costuming. I was pretty obsessed.
Here’s me on Halloween during senior year in high school.
In 1996, I was in the military when the internet became mainstream. One of my first searches on Yahoo! was to see if there were any other Mad Max fans in the world. I was pleasantly surprised to find Peter Barton’s Mad Max FAQ website & dozens of fans posting on a guestbook.
That website eventually became MadMaxMovies.com & had a forum. Hundreds of Mad Max fans regularly discussed the movies there.
I got stationed in South Carolina & my dad moved to Florida. I decided it would be fun to try visiting some of the Mad Max fans I met online during my road trips to see my dad.
I think I only ended up visiting one guy in northern Florida, who was making some of the earliest replica badges & replicas.
I moved back to California & kept collecting info on Mad Max costuming & stayed active on the forum. I took a trip to Australia & got to see many of the film locations.
Mad Max Events
A couple years later, in 2002, Australian fans successfully organized a small event called Back to the Max in Broken Hill, where Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) was shot.
Around this time, word started to spread about a group called the Death Guild who dressed up, designed Mad Max type cars & built a Thunderdome at a festival called Burning Man. A lot of Mad Max fans got excited & started to look into attending.
In 2003, a few Mad Max fans went on a road trip to Dearborn, Michigan for Ford’s 100th Anniversary celebration. Mad Max’s famous interceptor was a Ford & there were a few of these rare Australian cars there. The small group of fans who showed up had a great time & shared their stories on the forum.
There was also news that Mad Max fans in Japan were holding their own events.
Road War USA
With all the buzz & excitement of Burning Man & Mad Max fans getting together in real life, I set out to organize the first Mad Max event in the US.
I envisioned a convoy of Mad Max cars, driven by costumed Mad Max fans, driven down the freeway in a homage to the big tanker chase in The Road Warrior. I called it Road War 101, after Highway 101 in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived at the time.
I decided I wanted all the cars to listen to the same soundtrack at the same time, so I invested in a small, custom-built FM transmitter. I painted snakes on my red Toyota pick-up & even went to Burning Man in hopes of recruiting some Death Guild members for the event.
On Halloween in 2004, eight people in four vehicles left the Pacific Bell Park (today called Oracle Park) parking lot in San Francisco & followed a semi-truck for about 45 minutes to Santa Clara. We were very privileged to have a Mad Max interceptor replica from Oregon in attendance.
We stopped at an In’N’Out restaurant at a mall for lunch & had a small car show as more people showed up for the aftermath. It was a humble beginning, but it went off without a hitch.
Remember the Alamo
Upon hearing the news of my first successful Mad Max event, Chris Fenner of San Antonio, Texas decided he wanted to join in on the fun. The event was planned for April of 2005.
Joining the franchise, he named his event Road War 151. Not wanting to be outdone, he managed to book Road Warrior actor Vernon G Wells (Wez) for an appearance, as well as get a local theater, the Alamo Drafthouse, to put on a Mad Max movie marathon.
The event started at a local bar on Friday night, where we found out that the movie marathon was canceled, due to a cease-and-desist letter sent out by Warner Brothers. Apparently, the management had not gotten the proper permissions to screen the films.
The next morning, everyone gathered at a Harley-Davidson dealership to get dressed up & ready for the convoy to the theater. After announcements by Fenner, about 25 vehicles started following a tanker truck into the city, with Vernon G Wells riding shotgun in a Texan’s Mad Max interceptor replica.
Our ride down the four-lane highway was fun but uneventful. Many of us were dressed in military uniforms & one truck had a zip gun mounted in the back. We were a menacing bunch.
But we were still surprised when about a dozen police cruisers were waiting for us at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. They claimed they had received numerous 911 calls, claiming a militia was trying to take over a tanker truck with rocket launchers.
The San Antonio police detained us & spent quite some time perusing their book to figure out what to charge us with. In the end, 11 of us were taken into custody, with the truck driver arrested later. We called ourselves the Texas 12.
I spent the night in jail & got bailed out the next day before my flight out. We got charged with “Obstruction of a roadway,” which was all apparently based on the false testimony of a witness, who claimed that we had slowed down traffic. A few of us hired lawyers, but the case was thrown out a few months later for lack of evidence.
The Road War Legacy
Road War 151 proved to be a tough lesson not just on coordinating with the police, but also a lesson on how the media can really fail to represent you in an accurate & fair light.
The general public was obviously more than happy to ridicule our event after news outlets announced that a group of people were arrested after attempting to “reenact scenes from the Mad Max movies.”
Sadly, this same thing happened again in 2015 after a fan died during a gathering in Australia.
Needless to say, the arrests & the public response put a damper on our plans to put another event on. This could have been the end of it all.
But, like a trooper, I decided to start planning yet another California event for 2006. I told reluctant & mocking fans that if they didn’t want any chance of getting arrested this time, they should try this other event out. It was a link to the My Little Pony Convention.
Unfortunately, I ended up having a tough year personally & decided to cancel my plans.
Road War Northwest
In 2007, Washington resident & co-owner of MadMaxCars.com Dee Vyper decided to step forward as the next torch bearer of the Road War event franchise.
I flew up to Seattle in August for the first annual Road War Northwest, which today continues to be the longest-held annual Mad Max event in the the world. Its success cleared the air for more Mad Max events to follow.
I rented a motorcycle & attended our vehicle display at the annual LeMay car show in Tacoma. From there, we did our traditional semi-truck convoy down the highways of Washington to a drive-in theater, where we watched the trilogy.
Actor Vernon G Wells was again able to join many of the fans at this event.
The Mad Max Financial Conference
I returned from Road War Northwest with a desire to take these events to their ultimate location: the desert!
In December of 2007, a friend & I went to Nevada to scout a few locations for a possible event.
Coincidentally, within a month, a financial executive from Florida contacted me to help him with a Mad Max-themed financial conference (yea, weird, right?). He loved putting on themed conferences & had done Austin Powers & Cuban themes in the past.
We met outside the Loews Lake Las Vegas Resort and I began to put together a proposal for what I could deliver, including fans’ vehicles, actors, props & costumes. I had so many ideas. I was really excited.
But with the Great Recession of 2008 looming, he ultimately decided there was no budget for anything we had talked about. Instead, he welcomed us all out to the resort without pay, which I brusquely declined.
The conference went ahead in August 2008. One of the cool things we had brainstormed came to pass: attendees driving rented sandrails through a pyrotechnic-laden desert landscape.
But as I could tell from the highlight video that was released that the rest of the “Mad Max” conference was pretty half-assed & out-of-touch.
Cute hired hostesses in branded… yellow… polo shirts.
Video highlights of investors wearing fake tattoo sleeves set to Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day.”
Yea… OK, boomer! Haha.
See what’s left of the website here:
I still wanted to throw my own Mad Max event in the desert, but it was intimidating. Restrictive state regulations. Permits. Licenses. Porto-potties. Hiring emergency medical personnel. Ugh!
So my friend & I started looking to possibly piggy-back on a regional Burning Man event in Nevada: Dark Skies – The Singularity Event. If they can host the event, then I can just invite a bunch of fans to show up & set up a camp!
But then the dates got pushed back. And then they moved it to Arizona. It was too much of a mess to keep up with.
Around this time, I get an email from a Mad Max fan named Jared Butler regarding a Mad Max costuming question. Since I had recently moved to Los Angeles, I invited him over to check out my collection of random Mad Max items.
We continued to stay in touch & eventually started working together on his very screen-accurate Mad Max costume. (Jared is now the executive director of Wasteland Weekend.)
Road Warrior Weekend Event
In early 2009, rumors started circulating on the forum that someone was putting together a Mad Max event in California. I was taken aback – because if someone was planning an event like this, why hadn’t they contacted me yet?
So I found the organizer, a bubbly, self-proclaimed Pirate Queen who called herself Scarlett Harlott. Apparently she had come up with an idea to do a Road Warrior-themed event after watching the movie & drinking with friends one night.
Naturally, I offered to help Scarlett & offered my resources to make this happen. But there were already red flags showing up – like her announcing an appearance by Vernon G Wells without ever having contacting him.
Our first meeting was a scouting trip to Barstow to take a look at a patch of desert she had in mind for the event. It was a dirt road flanked by hillsides. This wouldn’t do – we needed something flatter.
My first thought was to hold the event at a popular filming location – a dry lake called El Mirage. She contacted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), while I started promoting this first Mad Max event in the desert to my friends on the forum.
Meanwhile, Jared & I started working on a couple of audio projects. A professional voiceover actor, Jared acted & directed, while I edited the audio.
The first project was for the Mad Max fan community – a Main Force Patrol police radio chatter audio track written by our friend Paul Miller. It was a fun script & we hired a number of local Australian actors.
While we were at it, I suggested the second project. Since I already owned an FM transmitter from my Road War events, why not create a radio station for this new Road Warrior Weekend Event? (Plus, I was really itching to compose a few cheesy jingles!) And thus, Wasteland Radio was born.
Then, the rug got pulled from beneath my feet. Scarlett stopped answering phone calls or emails. It was May & the event was in November. We were selling tickets. But no one could get a hold of her.
I became very stressed. I couldn’t reveal my concerns while at the same time promoting the event & depending on my friends in the Mad Max community to buy tickets & contribute to the event.
Everything is falling apart.
Finally, in August, as I threatened to leave & expose the charade, Scarlett started to regularly respond to emails, or at least communicate through friends.
Now, with some financial & administrative support, I start taking charge of the event. Jared & I throw together a promotional photo shoot at El Mirage.
I meet with the BLM & discover that El Mirage was never a viable event location. They show me Soggy Dry Lake in Johnson Valley & I agree to make that the new location.
With Scarlett having the final say, it’s a nail-biting last few weeks to see if she can get the permits in on-time, get the required insurance & sign the papers. We get the official BLM approval 2 days before the event! We make it by the skin of our teeth.
I arrive at the event & act professional. This is the first time in over 6 months I have seen or spoken with Scarlett. The event only attracts about 100 participants but the response is ecstatic. Everyone has a great time & they are already planning for the next one.
Vernon Wells & Virignia Hey make an appearance. And I was able to play a greeting from Emil Minty (Feral Kid) he recorded for me. There was even a gyro plane flying overhead.
I start telling my friends that we should definitely do another one, but without Scarlett. We started planning.
The Birth of Wasteland Weekend
About ten of us had a “secretive” meeting at Macaroni Grill (yea, I know) in Huntington Beach. The name of the shopping center served as the name of our new secret group: the Bella Terra Group.
Based on some feedback, Scarlett had assumed it was better to do the event every other year. I used the ticket data I had to contact attendees & do a survey, which confirmed most people wanted to see an annual event. It also just made more sense.
At one point, the concern was brought up that we shouldn’t continue using the same name for the new event. A bunch of ideas were thrown around. Jared suggested Wasteland Weekend and we agreed.
We also decided to make it an event that was beyond the scope of just the Mad Max movies, even though that should remain the key inspiration for it.
Within the Bella Terra Group, there were a few of us who contributed the most time & work on the event. This was James Howard, Paul Denton, Jared Butler & of course, me.
Jared & I were always on the same page & he already knew the ins & outs of what I had to do to make Road Warrior Weekend Event happen.
Paul stepped up to handle the event’s layout & structures.
James brought the San Diego goth community & had so much initiative, that he’d get things done before I could get to them myself.
That’s one reason I felt safe to move back to the Bay Area for a while to pursue a new career direction.
But just as I moved away, the event’s future came under question. On August 14th, 2010, an off-road truck ran off course & flipped, killing 8 people at the California 200 in Johnson Valley.
The BLM was suddenly inundated with meetings & they had to start investigating the crash as well as rethinking their supervision of future events.
A month after the crash, even after meeting their new heightened requirements, our event application was rejected. We were only a month & a half from the first Wasteland Weekend!
When I asked for a letter explaining the rejection (to help explain this unique situation to our ticket holders), all I received was a letter putting all the blame on us. Wow.
I started scrambling to find a new venue. I pulled up Google Maps & pored over the satellite images. I drove down to the Mojave desert & started writing down the phone numbers written on the fences of quarries.
I made a call to another BLM office in Ridgecrest, which managed an adjacent stretch of the desert. Instead of encouraging us to file an application (which is typically filed 6 months in advance), they referred us to California City. “They have a lot of land,” they said.
So I dialed 411 & asked for city of California City. The operator transferred me to the city clerk, who answered & was very helpful.
Within a week, we were given a tour of a couple sites by the chief of police, who showed us H Park. And within a couple weeks of delivering our application, we were approved!
On October 22 – 24, the first Wasteland Weekend happened. Our main stage was a Penske rental truck. And we had really no perimeter fence, or official security team.
We had nearly 400 attendees. It was a success.
The Associated Press & G4TV came out to cover us.
A photographer named Adam Chilson came out to take photos & vend (Adam joined us in 2011 as the event designer & now co-owns Wasteland Weekend with Jared Butler). Adam also put together a promotional photo shoot for the event beforehand.
But we knew we had a long road to go to make the event everything we wanted. In the end, it took us about 5 years for the event to achieve the level of our hopes & dreams. Every year since then has just gotten better.