Mark Henry knows cars.
The owner of Heaven and Hell Automotive in Garden City, he works on hot rods and custom jobs. But for a few days in September, his automotive expertise turns toward a different goal: survival.
Henry is a three-year veteran of Wasteland Weekend, a four-day celebration of the post-apocalyptic genre held in the desert outskirts of California City, California. Sept. 25-29, the festival charted its 10th year celebrating the grit, leather and mayhem popularized by the Mad Max franchise. In fact, Mad Max is the reason Henry arrived at the Wasteland in the first place.
"I have been a Mad Max fanatic since seeing the The Road Warrior when I was 15," he said. "I grew up watching spaghetti westerns, and the idea of Max really hit home for me: a lone warrior looking for a righteous cause."
Wasteland Weekend is like a Mad Max film come to life in all its roaring, sweating, sand-saturated glory. Thematic costumes are mandatory. The War Boys that guard the City, where all the music, special events and theatrics take place, turn away anyone in jeans and a T-shirt. Instead, the order of the day is "wasted" clothing: shredded cloth, worn armor and faded leather.
The vehicles of Wasteland Weekend, beat up and rusted over in just the right ways, are modified to reflect the muscular aesthetic and intimidating weaponry of the post-apocalyptic genre. An official car rally shows off gearheads' handiwork, and attendees go to great lengths transporting their favorite vehicles to the California desert. Henry is an enthusiastic participant, having built the Heaven and Hell Interceptor in tribute to the iconic Pursuit Special muscle car of the Mad Max franchise.
There's something more to Wasteland Weekend beyond the weather-beaten aesthetic. This is a festival where a four-letter word or upturned middle finger is as common a greeting as hello. Yet the experience is built on an underlying presumption of kindness and cooperation, with plenty of bartering, "clans" trading emblems, dog tags and specialized patches, and a spirit of kindness. That's what Henry finds so compelling. The community that only asks participants to keep an eye out for their fellow survivors. It's a treacherous post-apocalypse, after all.
"Everyone there is truly family," said Henry. "No one cares where you're from, what you do for a living or anything else. They just accept you for who you are."