When the sky burned and the cities of the old world imploded, spilling their starving millions out into the wasteland, the bikers seized the moment. In the midst of the Great Die Out, they formed roving cannibal bands and grew strong on human flesh. One by one the gangs merged, consolidating their power, until they alone prevailed. Now the dread motorcycle gang Machine Army rules the wasteland. And I, it.
At least that’s what I tell myself as I steer my stripped-down, 70 cc dirt bike through the orange sand of the Painted Desert. The sun blasts down, turning my leather battle jacket into a sweat-drenched inferno and my pupils into pinpoints. Thank God I’m wearing goggles, even if they’re caked with dirt and tropical on the inside. Wooden shacks pass by, doors creaking in the wind. Then the raw shriek of a muffler-free big block V8 splits the air, and an armored ‘77 Monte Carlo bounces into view, riding high on oversized, All Terrain tires and spitting black exhaust. A lone figure, swathed in rags and a leather cowboy hat, sits atop it. It’s the Rev’rend Lawless, on his infamous Rev Rod. Oh God, I think, skidding to a halt and raising my hand in cautious greeting: It has begun.
It isn’t every day I get to be General Car Killer, Maximum Leader of the cannibal biker gang known as Machine Army. Which is why once a year I drive the 15 hours from Santa Rosa, California to Uranium Springs, Arizona. Each May several hundred post-apocalyptic enthusiasts from across the United States gather there to indulge their end-of-the-world fantasies at a week-long festival known as Detonation. In an age where Burning Man represents the penultimate corporate desert party, Detonation provides revelers with a grittier, more personal experience.
We spend the week in post-apocalyptic attire, driving around dented off-road vehicles, conversing with tribemates and friends new and old, admiring the creativity of each others’ costumery, vehicles and campsites and—perhaps—occasionally breaking into insane soliloquies about the merits of eating cooked human flesh. It’s a small-enough event that a person can meet most everyone there in the course of a week.
This is why Uranium Springs may be my favorite town in the entire world.
I use the word “town” lightly, because Uranium Springs doesn’t officially exist. It’s 100 percent off-grid, located on 40 acres of private land deep in the Painted Desert in the northeast corner of Arizona, off Interstate 40 out past Meteor Crater. It feels more like a movie set than an actual town—a smattering of pallet shacks, gutted travel trailers, tents, wooden towers and bombed-out vehicles that arose out of the dust in the past eight years, hand-built by festival founders and attendees.
The origins of the post apocalyptic genre stretch back to the Mad Max movies of the late ’70s–early ’80s. In 2010, a Mad Max-themed event called Wasteland Weekend began in the Mojave desert outside California City, Calif. September, 2019 will mark Wasteland Weekend’s 10th year. In 2015, Fury Road, the fourth movie in the Mad Max series, reignited the franchise and introduced a new generation to the genre. Now, small PA events are popping up around the United States and the world. Detonation is my favorite.
The irony is that, in this age of real-life, slow-motion apocalypse—the plasticization of the oceans, increasingly destructive wildfires and the disintegration of political truth—pretend apocalypse in the form of old-fashioned marauders-in-the-desert escapist fantasy spells good times for so many. It’s the 21st century-version of the Wild West, where motorcycles replace horses and gasoline replaces gold.
The Machine Army camp is a 50×50 plot of weedy sand. Plopped in the middle of it is a tire fort constructed of 105 discarded tires I purchased on-site for one dollar each from Richard Kozac—neighbor to, caretaker of, and quite possibly the very soul of, Uranium Springs. He hauled them in from the nearby town of Holbrook, 20 miles away, in order to make an extra buck, or rather a buck and change, which I gladly paid him.
Every year I spend an hour toiling in the hot desert sun upon my crack-of-noon Monday arrival, rearranging those tires into a new configuration for the coming week. This year the wind is blowing hard, so I take apart last year’s three-sided cabin and build a single, curved windbreak that works out very nicely for the length of my stay. Then I throw on my battle jacket and a pair of repurposed, plastic umpire leg guards, kick-start my little dirt bike—the Death Dart—and go find friends to hug.
Hugs are fierce in the wasteland. Friendships are heartfelt. Many of us see each other only once a year—at this event. It’s a place where we let our hair down and roll in the dirt while drinking whiskey with each other, so to speak. Beetle and Captain Walker from the Bay Area made it out, as well as Chopps from Los Angeles and Yard Hobo from Indiana. Plus the Tucson crowd is here—the event founders. Their tribe is Turbulence and they live in a cluster of clapboard “hovels” at the western edge of town. They have a special place in my heart because when I first drove to this event six years ago, they welcomed me, the crazy Californian, with open arms.
Rev’rend Lawless is the de facto leader of Turbulence and the Detonation event as a whole. In addition to reigning over Uranium Springs from the roof of the Rev Rod, he presides over his very own church, the Church of Fuel. This year he brought his new puppy, Grub, a handsome, bright-eyed little fellow whose innocent antics charm all who meet him. Together, they are the pride of Uranium Springs.
Dammit, I love these people! In no time at all I’m sweaty, dirty and drinking beer. From there on, the week blurs.
Detonation attracts eclectic types from all walks of life. Think: artists, cosplayers, preppers, Ren Faire-participants and machineheads. Put them all together and creative shenanigans abound.
The Texas arm of Machine Army filters in over the next few days, along with other intrepid festival-goers from across the United States. Torque Nut, a new recruit, shows up Tuesday afternoon, followed by old-timers Freight Train and Krash ‘n’ Burn and their first-timer friends Ruby Rock-it and Wonder Bread on Thursday. They bring with them three additional motorcycles. T(h)readz and Bugtooth, the OG co-founders of Machine Army, can’t make it—they recently relocated from SoCal to Maryland and the drive is too far.
“We’re aiming for next year,” says T(h)readz, via a Machine Army group chat. In the meantime, I plant two rubber shrunken heads on posts in the center of camp in their stead and pour beer in front of them each day in their honor.
Fun things, called events, happen. Some of them, such as the Whiskey Tasting and the Explosive Bocce Ball tournament—in which designated team members move bocce balls around the court with, well, actual explosives—are hosted by tribes. Others, such as the Apocalympics and my favorite, the Death Rally Apocalypse Racing (DRAR) event, a balls-out mini dune buggy track race with flames, water balloon grenades and frequent rollovers, are festival events. Screeching live bands and pulsing electronic dance tunes rock the desert til the wee hours each night.
Burning Man, this isn’t. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two events—the desert locale, the devoted fanbases, the rampant creativity and the partying—differences run deep.
Detonation is an immersion, meaning everyone and everything must reflect apocalypse at all times, excepting people in their own camps (but not the camps themselves) and the isolated parking area. Glitter is positively frowned upon. In terms of aesthetic, think Grit vs Glam. Detonation is the punk/heavy metal version of a party, with a distinct Halloween vibe, while Burning Man is known for its high-end beauty. And while Burning Man, now decades old, has a rep for corporate glamping, eight-hour traffic jams and ticket lotteries, these things don’t exist at Detonation, which is still fundamentally a grassroots endeavor.
This is why it rocks.
In between the mayhem I take long rides up and down the nearby wash, exploring miles of remote desert country far from the tourist maps. Every evening before sundown I sneak down to my secret spot in the wash and, ever the introvert, luxuriate in the shadowy silence as the colors turn magnificently to dusk.
Back in town, vendors hawk everything from hides and pelts to beef jerky to burgers to replica weapons. Marauder vehicles roar around, belching flames, smoke and epic amounts of noise from their souped-up engines. Costumery ranges from Fury Road-inspired battle suits to mud-covered bare bodkins to straight-up S&M plastic and rubber.
My own battle jacket—encrusted with 20 pounds of metal weapons, armor and ornamentation—is so heavy I can only stand to wear it for short periods of time. Its excessive weight compresses my spine, making my arms go numb. But you can’t put a price on happiness, my ex-boss once told me. So, numb arms be damned. And, it’s not only a piece of art—the wasteland ladies love it. When I wear my battle jacket, I get the nods.
But the best thing about Uranium Springs is the breezy, lounge chair-bedecked Wreck Room. It’s the de facto hangout spot, the coolest place in the wasteland. Hosted by the ever-beautiful Auntie Virus and the enterprising McAwful, it’s an oasis where thirsty and overheated wastelanders grab cold beers, kick off their boots and relax in the shade, gratis. Yes, the two angelic proprietors host the lounge for free, out of the kindness of their huge hearts. And this year it features a new treat—music.
“Live music at the Wreck Room, who knew?” says McAwful. Unscheduled musicians Pipes and Silence—a solo singer and a soulful, guitar-playing vocalist—both prove to be consummate musicians and their performances are such roaring successes that they, and other solo musicians, are scheduled for later time slots throughout the week.
To me, the Wreck Room is the epicenter of Uranium Springs—the heart of the wasteland. Every wastelander passes through it at some point. It’s a hub of constant activity. Nobody knows it, but late one night I symbolically buried my heart under its floor, so when I die my happy ghost will return to claim it … and continue partying with my friends.
Camaraderie seems to be the fundamental appeal of Detonation.
“Det is about hanging out with friends,” says Turbulence member Corporal Punishment. And most would concur.
“I keep coming back because there’s time to sit around and actually socialize,” says Chopps, from Los Angeles. Other desert events are great, “but there’s so much to see that it’s hard to find a moment to just stop and sit down for an hour to really see how someone’s doing.”
It’s a universal love—and I do mean love—of the Mad Max franchise and everything post apocalyptic that binds us all together. An end-of-the-world ambience permeates everything at Detonation. Borrowing from all historic eras and all cultures, the post-apocalyptic genre makes for extreme artistic freedom.
Humor abounds, too. My own, kid-sized Honda CRF 70 wheeling around my 6-foot-3-inch, 200- pound frame is, in itself, a nod to absurdity. So is the motorized coffin I see putting around town all week. As is the Cundalini Handoff event at the Apocalympics, in which runners in a relay race pass rubber hands representing the paw the villainous Cundalini lost in Mad Max.
Detonation is not for the snowflake crowd. At 6,000 feet, the sun is scorching. Temperatures regularly rise into the 90s, sometimes exceeding 100 degrees. It also gets cold at night. The area is plagued by wind, dust devils and sand mites. Attendees need to pack in all their own water, food and beer, and must wear themed costumery whenever they leave their camps. While two-minute showers are sometimes available on site for a cash fee, no conveniences should be expected.
Detonation doesn’t have a strong sex-and-drugs culture. It is, however, a drinker’s paradise. Beer and wine are consumed, but the whiskey bottle is the most prominent alcoholic conveyance. That said, teetotalers successfully attend.
The event lasts seven days and tickets are sold online in tiered batches. My ticket cost me all of $65. Throw in the cost of my 4×4 rental truck, gas, food, beer and a hotel room, and I spent quite a few bucks-and-change, but like my ex-boss once said, you can’t put a price on happiness.
Our week of fun is intense, but so is the sun, the heat and the dust. By Sunday morning, we’re all cooked. Machine Army breaks down its army surplus camo netting and we take one last group photo, trade hugs and head home. I’ve much to contemplate as I bounce down the long dirt road towards Interstate 40 and my 15 hour-drive back to Santa Rosa.
So, I go for the cannibal thing. I didn’t know I was one til the first time I arrived at Uranium Springs and put on my battle jacket. I looked around, realized I was in a real wasteland, surrounded by actual marauders without any decent, civilized restraint, and instantly devolved into a cannibal warlord. It was the lowest I could go, and I found my footing there. I’ve never left that place of strength since.
But cannibalism goes both ways.
Every year I tell my friends in Uranium Springs, “If I die here, don’t send my corpse back to the real world. Make a jacket and some tacos out of it. Enjoy me, for God’s sake!”
And I mean the hell out of it.
Because being eaten by the ones we love is one way we can remain with them, even unto the end of the world. Plus, if my heart is already buried in Uranium Springs, the rest of me may as well stay there, too.
Detonation is held in Uranium Springs, Ariz. the last week of May every year. Prices vary.
By Mark Fernquest