I met Ellinthris The Merchant in September 2017 at the Wasteland Weekend post-apocalyptic festival, with photographer Myles Pritchard.
Ellinthris the wandering merchant has much to offer. In return for caps, the bottle tops that are the currency of choice at Wasteland Weekend, she’ll do you a sketch or maybe even sell you one of the many haunting wooden masks attached to the back of her huge pack. She’s also offering “free air” from a dirty plastic tube. But she’ll barter for just about anything.
The pack she’s lugging around weighs more than 100lbs, or 45kg, she says. In it she’s got a (fake) gun, ammo, a baseball bat, a sheep skull and a set of old billiard balls, most of which she’s traded for her services. The pack has an ingenious shelter, so that she can sit in the shade when she’s sketching people. She’s also got a mysterious game, which she’s not telling us about.
Inside the giant pack she’s got a gun, ammo, a baseball bat, a sheep skull and a set of old billiard balls
Ellinthris never takes her mask off, or tells us her real name. She doesn’t seem to break her spiky character (or is this her?), which makes her a slightly tricky interviewee. But this is her first year at Wasteland Weekend, a post-apocalyptic festival in the Californian desert, inspired largely by the Mad Max films but with room for all kinds of one-off characters like Ellinthris.
Quite astonishingly, Ellinthris made her costume over just two weekends. “My dad raised me, and we spent a lot of my childhood building a haunted house,” she says, cryptically. “I suppose I learned all of this then.”
The haunted house is no longer a project, she says, but she’s a regular at anime and comic conventions. She lives in Ventura, California, and says she works in Vaughans, which I think means an interior design company but am not sure. I learn later, on Facebook, that she’s in a relationship with a girl called Eli Grimes. But, at the time, I’m thinking ‘Who the Hell are you?’ – just as another woman turns up with a bounty for her.
This woman has a hat covered in bottle tops, and she’s clutching a piece of paper with a “Wanted” notice, and a picture of Ellinthris. Win the bounty, and this woman will win a prize, as designated by the Bounty Office, in the centre of the Wasteland.
But, first, the woman with the bottle-top hat has to beat Ellinthris at her game…
Ellinthris’s game, which she gathers from deep in her pack, turns out to be a curious take on a tug o’ war. The two women stand on little wooden crates, holding different ends of a length of red plastic wire, slack between them. They game is that they have to pull the wire until it’s taut, and then make their opponent fall off the crate, either by pulling them or letting them fall backwards. As Ellinthris barks out the rules, a crowd gathers, including a little posse of War Boys, the white-painted, topless thugs from the most recent Mad Max movie.
Round one is a walkover. The bottle-top woman’s face is a picture of concentration, but Ellinthris is making wisecracks (“I’m at the end of my rope”) as she quickly shuffles through her end of the wire. As soon as it’s taut, she gives a little flick of her wrist, and bottle-top woman lunges forward off her crate.
She allows the woman another shot, and allows her a little more time, but there’s never any doubt who will win. “Better luck hunting next time,” she calls after the woman in the bottle-top hat, as she slopes off.
A crowd envelops Ellinthris, and the War Boys – whose chief job is to look impassive and sinister – start eagerly asking questions. I decide to let her be.
Later that night, Myles and I are at the Wasteland Casino, winning bottle-tops at the blackjack table, which is run by Big Disco, a Wasteland Weekend legend with an impressive comic patter, who famously can’t shuffle.
At the table behind, we hear a spiky, muffled voice, complaining about the croupier, making foolishly bold gambles and generally being a nuisance – all from behind her wooden mask. And, again, I think to myself: Who the Hell are you?