To a Desert Place: Return to Uranium Springs

Things aren’t always what they seem. Take the desert, for instance. Some people—most, perhaps—see it as ugly, barren and dangerous. But to me it is a place of intense beauty, adventure and freedom.

And so, where many people opt for annual vacations at “safe” luxury resorts or beach cabañas, I take my two weeks in the desert every year. Or, in the wasteland, as I call it. Because where I go is so far out there that it is way beyond the pale of civilization.

It’s a little over 80 degrees out, and at 6,000 feet in Arizona’s shadeless Painted Desert, the sun blazes down like a nuclear bomb at the white-hot moment of detonation. I’m melting inside my clothes. A slight figure in well-used work garb sits on a tractor ahead of me, slowly churning up the dust. Dozens upon dozens of tires lay all around in the sand. Slowly, the tractor scours out a shallow pit between them, pushing the sand into a pile at one end. I swing into action, piling the tires in tiers around the edge of the pit. Then the tractor begins scooping up sand and dumping it into the tires, filling the columns. I assist the process, shoveling the overflow back into the columns.

An hour later, I signal the tractor pilot, Richard Kozac. He turns off the engine and saunters over. Kozac, the caretaker of this desert place, lives a few miles down the road with his horses. He is a colorful character, as stand-up a man as I’ve ever met. At this moment, he may as well be made of desert dust. I hand him a cold beer and some cash, both of which he contemplates for several seconds. Then he nods, smiles, and cracks the beer. We stand there in the bright heat, drinking and gazing at the tire bunker we’ve built, and I’m pleased that my tribe, the cannibal biker gang Machine Army, finally has permanent headquarters.

COMMAND POST Tires, pallets and dirt are the free building blocks of the post-apocalyptic world. (Photo by Mark Fernquest)

We may as well be on the moon, Kozac and I. Or, more apropo, the set of a Mad Max movie. Wire fences, scrap-wood structures and walls made of tires and mud and stacked railroad ties cover the barren sand, which stretches out to all sides. Vehicles lie around the shanty town—my own outlaw Honda 70 dirt bike, a rusty ’77 Monte Carlo on oversized off-road tires and random, burned-out car bodies. I’m 16 hours from my home in Sebastopol, and this is my favorite place in the world.

Welcome to Uranium Springs—the town that doesn’t exist. My tribe and I have been coming here for years now. The freedom is unparalleled, as are the wind, the heat and the dust. There’s no other experience like it.

Uranium Springs is an artistic convergence. It draws a certain type of person. To get here is a feat in and of itself. Only those “mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage,” as we say, even contemplate coming. Are we hobbyists, a cult, a club, a sect? The answer is not that simple. We are an amalgam of artists, creatives, cosplayers, engineers, survivalists, loners, drinkers and “preenactors” who all like the post-apocalyptic genre. I’m not one for “scenes,” but a strong sense of brotherhood binds this group together.

My interest in towns that don’t exist began in 1988—the summer I hitchhiked to Alaska from UC Santa Cruz. I spent the month of July in a tiny fishing town, working in a cannery and living in a scrapwood shack in “the Cove,” a village of sorts, where all the seasonal workers lived. Trails, tents and odd structures filled the forest; about 90 people lived in various camps.

Six years later I happened upon the desert, while camping in Joshua Tree National Park’s highly magical and surreal topography. The barren landscape caught my Bay Area-raised self unawares, creeping up on me like a thief in the night. During the next 15 years, I traveled there over 25 times. In Joshua Tree I had beautiful dreams and visions, so much so that I call it my cathedral. If spiritual “power spots” exist, surely it is mine.

Then came the wasteland.

I rediscovered my Mad Max roots while attending a post-apocalyptic event called Wasteland Weekend in the Mojave Desert in 2011, and followed the breadcrumbs to Uranium Springs, driving there in 2013 to attend my first on-site event with about 60 attendees camped in an empty meadow. In the years since, the event has grown to about 400 people, and the meadow has transformed into a hard-scrabble junktown.

Uranium Springs is an event space, but this year the official event—or “Detonation,” usually held over Memorial Day weekend—has been delayed until October, due to Covid. So, I’m instead attending a long “build weekend.”

What, exactly, is a build weekend? The owner of Uranium Springs, Rev’rend Lawless, of Tucson, is a most interesting man. By his decree, every post-apocalyptic tribe that attends Detonation may stake a claim to a 50-by-50-foot patch of ground on site, and build—within certain generous parameters—a permanent, post-apocalyptic-themed camp. As long as said tribe members attend Detonation every year and pay a modest fee which helps cover site maintenance, they can keep their claim. Year by year, the camps become more and more elaborate.

Except for Machine Army’s. Our members live so far away—from Maryland to California—that merely attending is the most we’ve ever been able to accomplish. Until now. Finally, no event—just time to work on our camp.

It’s a slow week. My Texan tribemates—Dr. Freight Train, Krash ’n’ Burn and Rocket—show up, along with 50 or so various other people. Without a mandatory costume-wearing requirement or throngs of partiers beckoning from surrounding camps, my tribemates and I work on the bunker, which turns into a spontaneous artistic endeavor. We add more tires to the walls, then find metal poles we stashed in the bushes years ago and drive them into the dirt inside the tire stacks. Then I find some abandoned pallets, and we drop them over the metal posts and shore them up with scrap wood and decking screws, to form a breezy palisade on top of the tires.

OLD SCHOOL The author chills outside Machine Army’s new deep-desert command bunker with tribe members Dr. Freight Train (left) and Krash ‘n’ Burn (right). (Photo by Sara Cate)

We discuss plans for our next build weekend. We need to set posts for a roof, but the clay beneath us is very dense. However, our neighbors, the Kult of Kazmodaa, dug multiple 3-foot-deep post holes by hand, so we have our work set out for us.

Out here we are impossibly far from the American Dream. But the American Dream was never my dream. Suburbia was never my home. By my estimation, America peaked about the time I was born, in 1968, when we put the first man on the moon. This circus has been a slow-motion riot ever since, swirling slowly down the drain. While I spend years scratching out an ever-more-meaningless existence on America’s dying streets, I dream of this, the wasteland—a freer life with community, adventure and actual value.

We have a new neighbor, Haylar Garcia—or “Mad Mex”—who hails from Denver. A screenwriter/film director/social media engineer in the real world, he single handedly built a movie-worthy camp called the Aftermath Theater—replete with a school bus projector room, an outdoor movie screen and a “make-out” car in the faux parking lot—on the plot adjacent ours.

The setup is stellar, but it is his outrageously post-apocalyptic car that steals my heart. The Interceptor Drag Special is a ’73 Mustang Grande which he took down to bare metal before widening the wheel wells, installing a roll cage and adding a positraction rear differential. He replaced the stock 351 with a 402 big block Chevy with a wet nitrous tunnel ram and two hollie carbs, then wasted the exterior and interior in the name of the apocalypse. It may be his pride and joy, but it makes me very, very happy. “I’ll never be able to open the nitrous,” he tells me. “The engine will blow through the hood!” But if he’s driving at 90 miles an hour down the Fury Road when nitrous is needed, will he have anything left to lose?

ROAD WARRIOR The wasted-out interior of Mad Mex’s nitro-injected, high-speed Interceptor. (Photo by Mark Fernquest)

“After doing Wasteland Weekend for three years straight, I began to get the itch to be able to contribute to a PA [post-apocalyptic] community in a more meaningful way,” Garcia says. “Wasteland is an amazing event, but what Rev’rend Lawless, the EOD [End of Days, the group responsible for on-site events] staff and tribes and the Uranium Springs community at large have built is something very different and alluring to artists who want to express themselves through apocalyptic themes more than once a year. The people are incredible, the builds are permanent and there are opportunities for participating in build weekends throughout the year, which really gives you a chance to create something lasting. I found—and still find—that irresistible.”

What inspired the Aftermath Theater in particular? “Well, being a filmmaker, I loved the idea of having a visual attraction in the apocalypse; truly it was inspired by A Boy and His Dog, where people seem to mill in and out of the broken theater space, watching scraps of anything left over from the Old World,” he says. “So, after getting my idea and basic blueprint cleared for a spot at Uranium Springs by the powers that be, I started to come out for every build weekend I could. It’s been a lot of work in some very challenging conditions, from 100+ degrees to waking up shivering and finding it had snowed overnight out of nowhere. It took me about 9 trips, which averaged from 9 days to 22 days at a time, to get the drive[-in] into a working state.”

One must be careful out here in the wasteland. The sun sears down mercilessly through the rarified atmosphere. It burns electrolytes and it burns skin. Countless weeks spent out here collectively caused permanent sun damage on my neck. What can I do, but wear the discoloration like a badge of honor? Radiation is what made Uranium Springs great.

But the winters are harsh, too. So harsh that homesteaders move to this region and leave within months, unable to withstand the intense cold, the high winds or the deep mud that leaves them stranded for days on end.

Another neighbor, Annelise Williamson, 49, hails from Santa Fe. After five years, she has yet to acquire a wasteland name. A silversmith for the past 30-plus years, she recently transitioned into costuming in the film industry. She and her partner, Haydn Ford, have attended Detonation for five years. Their tribe, the LZRDF***S, has a wonderfully deep-desert, Western vibe to it. Williamson and I perform a wasteland trade, in which I barter some of my customized leather wasteland pouches for a set of her handmade, film industry-grade metal wasteland “sand” goggles. They are one the highest quality items I have ever owned. Her work is showcased via @annelisewilliamsonmakes on Instagram.

In the evenings we hit up a pot-luck at the Turbulence camp, or walk or drive over to the Wreck Room, a lounge on the far edge of town where the proprietors, McAwful and Auntie Virus, wine and dine the entire encampment to the tune of “Pipes” and other attending musicians.

One evening, buzzing off a few beers, I take off on my Outlaw 70 for a twilight ride. A quarter-mile down the track I hit a corner too fast, slide, hit the underbrush and go down. It’s a pitch-perfect crash, choreographed to perfection, almost a gentle roll. First my leg hits the dirt, then my hips and ribs, then, as if an afterthought, my head. Boink! I lay there in the shrubbery, staring at the sky, wondering if I’m OK. Of course I am. I’m cautious, and I’m at Uranium Springs, where crashing on my toy-like kid’s dirt bike is part of the novelty.

And yet, the next morning I have a black eye, my hip is bruised and several of my ribs are out of alignment. While pulling on my shirt, I feel an odd, grinding movement in my chest. It feels weird, like a bruise, but doesn’t hurt. Now I belong to the wasteland.

SUICIDE MACHINES Rev’rend Lawless (left) and Mad Mex pose with their highly customized wasteland vehicles. (Photo by Mark Fernquest)

All is good. The long weekend ends, I say goodbye to my wasteland friends, and we scatter to the four corners of the Old World. Sixteen hours later, I’m back in Sebastopol. Ten days after that, my bruises heal. But the wasteland stays with me. Haylar Garcia’s last words resonate in my ears: “I find Uranium Springs inspiring every time I go there. And I cannot wait for Detonation 6.5, which is coming up on us fast this October. I encourage anyone who loves PA [the post-apocalyptic genre] to get a ticket, it’s unlike anything else in the country.”

For information about Detonation, visit www.detonation.us. For the author’s first article about Uranium Springs, visit https://tinyurl.com/57pvnb9c.

Mark Fernquest lives and writes in a glass house in an apple orchard in West County. He is for sale.

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