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I Left My Heart in Uranium Springs

A couple months ago, at a music venue I met Mark Fernquest, a 6'3" figure with long blonde locks. Once a year in the desert, Mark is known as General Car Killer, Maximum Leader of the cannibal biker gang known as Machine Army. As it turns out the rest of the year he's also a student at the college I attend in the journalism department. In our conversation he was telling me about this event he attends every May in the Arizona desert called Detonation at Uranium Springs. He sent me an article that he wrote about his adventures that was originally published in the North Bay Bohemian on Aug. 7, 2019.  After reading his article, I was so impressed by his writing skills and how he paints such descriptive visuals with his written words that I asked him if he would like to share it with The Music Soup readers. Apparently I'm not the only one that enjoys Marks' writing, as his SRJC journalism instructor, Anne Belden expressed to me that she is impressed by Marks' writing talents as well. The following article is about Marks annual adventures in the dessert. He described it to me as a smaller burning man with a Mad Max apocalyptic feel. In any case, I simply wanted to share the writings and photographs of Mark Fernquest. Please enjoy!...

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.

Photo credit: Mark Fernquest

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% off-grid, located on 40 acres of private land in the northeast corner of Arizona, off I-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 6-plus 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. 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


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 150 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.

Photo credit: Mark Fernquest

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 Chops 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 edge of town. They have a special

place in my heart because when I first drove to this event 6 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


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 Chops, 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, 210-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 I. 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.

Photo credit: Mark Fernquest

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