Vanlifers Flock to Southern Arizona for this Annual Festival

A sneak peek at the annual Weird Wild West festival, “Arizona’s Burning Man," a gathering of music, arts, crafts and food that takes place in Bisbee.

If cities were people, then Bisbee, 90 minutes southeast of Tucson, would be the laidback friend painting a mural, meditating or building a live-edge wood coffee table. It’s the kind of place where anyone with an open mind and a free spirit is welcome.

This welcoming attitude is on full display for four days in April as hundreds drive to Bisbee in vans, RVs, cars and other rigs for the Weird Wild West festival by Burnerella, a gathering of music, arts, crafts and food. It’s as likely to see someone holding an impromptu lesson on pottery sculpting from the back of a van as it is to watch others bartering for yoga lessons or food. It is an event created by nomads for nomads.

“Do you know that phrase, ‘The last free place in the U.S. is the parking spot’,” asks Josiah Roe, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Lost Time, and an event organizer for van lifers and overland travelers. “I would say the last true place of socio-economic diversity is a van gathering. People will pull up in a million-dollar custom rig or an ’80s van with the original seats, and everyone is welcome.”

Vanlifers Flock to Southern Arizona for this Annual Festival
Credit: Burnerella/Weird Wild West

A community of wanderers and creatives

“Bisbee has its own gravity,” says Eva Rupert, co-owner of the roadside Jonquil Motel in Bisbee.

That gravity is what drew in Rupert and Sterling Noren, her boyfriend and a filmmaker. They relocated to the small hillside town a little more than five years ago when, by chance, they came upon the Jonquil (then up for sale) and took a chance on a new life as motel owners.

As avid road-trippers, motorcyclists and “Burners” — frequent travelers to the annual Burning Man festival in the wilds of the Nevada desert — they saw Bisbee as a place at which they could build a like-minded community of wanderers and creatives.

Rupert, a former event planner, began conceiving of a festival inspired by the mission of Burning Man, where attendees could come, stay and “be as creative, self-sufficient and non-commoditized as possible,” she says.

As planning got underway, another group was also visiting Bisbee and falling in love with the town.

Vanlifers Flock to Southern Arizona for this Annual Festival
Credit: Burnerella/Weird Wild West

Two minds meet, and things get “weird”

While in Tucson for work, Josiah Roe traveled to Bisbee and was immediately taken with the place. He met Rupert and Noren, and within minutes, Roe and the couple formed a connection over their shared love of road travel and event planning. A collaboration was born. And in April 2023, the Weird Wild West (brought to you by Burnerella) took over Bisbee.

As it happened, two other events — Alice in Bisbeeland and the Mile High Music Festival — were also going on. Bisbee transformed into what Roe calls a “temporary village” with around 300-500 rigs and roughly the same amount of people.

“We realized there was a moment in space to create a community,” says Roe. “These events are meant to be a corrective to what we perceive as an ill in society. We’ve lost those third spaces where we used to come together, like the corner store, the corner bar, the park where everyone mingles together.”

Vanlifers Flock to Southern Arizona for this Annual Festival
Credit: Burnerella/Weird Wild West

What to expect if attending Weird Wild West

Now in its second year, Weird Wild West will be held from April 18–22, 2024.

If you have a van or camper, about 200 parking spots are available for purchase in lots across Bisbee. Follow the pin location for the lot you chose when buying your campsite and look for the white and blue signs indicating the lots.

After parking your rig, make your first stop the Jonquil Motel, aka Center Camp, to grab a swag bag and learn more about the event’s happenings, including information about local businesses that offer attendees discounts on food, bike rentals, vintage goods, even haircuts.

Tickets cost $45 and can be purchased online. A general admission ticket grants you access to Center Camp, Burnerella, The Mile High Music Festival, a swag bag and discounts at select local businesses.

Looking for more?

“I love the borderlands. I love that we have so much open space. I love the small community hubs,” says Rupert. If you’re in Bisbee for Weird Wild West and looking for more to do before or after, she recommends the following favorite places:

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About the Author

Tiana Velez

Arizona native Tiana Velez grew up in Tucson and spent several years in Phoenix as the digital marketing manager for the Arizona Office of Tourism. She's a former reporter and lifelong traveler, and she often can be found wandering the aisles of a bookstore, antique mall or art museum wherever she lands. Find her on Instagram at @the.wanderingmex where she posts pics of her travels and things that make her smile.

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