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Easter Offensive: Surviving the Mothership to Reno 

Wednesday, Mar 30 2016

There are two fears you must conquer when traveling to Reno over Easter weekend on a bus filled with 40 drag queens: getting up on stage in a wig and a dress — if applicable — and urinating in a tiny restroom without a sink at the back of a moving vehicle after drunk people have used all the toilet paper and sprayed pee everywhere. If you can do that — in heels — you can do anything.

Den mothers Peaches Christ and Heklina have been shepherding hordes of queens for 19 years now — not one but two busloads-full for at least a decade — and Peaches calls the experience "magical in its overly glammed-up, trashy decadence." The Mothership — née Trannyshack — starts off late Saturday morning from Retro Fit, the vintage store on Valencia Street, and ends at the Sands Regency in Reno by way of a McDonald's off Interstate 80 in Auburn, Calif. The itinerary is simple: The group performs a show at midnight, reconvenes for brunch, and then it's back to S.F.

While the Mothership is one of the gaudiest, most sacrilegious ways to commemorate the Resurrection, the employees at Mickey D's seem to love it. Let's say, hypothetically, you write about food for a living and it's your first time eating Chicken McNuggets since, approximately, 2003. You're still going to walk out with two apple pies and a refill on your lemonade that is then mimosa-fied for the remainder of the afternoon.

The ridiculousness threshold isn't lost on the founders.

"I think the thing that's special for most of us is that it's people doing drag who enjoy costume and outrageousness getting together for an extended period of time in a 'summer camp' type of way," Peaches says. "And of course, there's the unapologetic partying, gambling, and garbage-food-eating, too."

"Reno is so horrific, but in a delightful way," Heklina adds. "I'm always thrilled to arrive, but 24 hours later I can't wait to get the fuck out."

It is definitely a party. There's lip-synching on the runway — i.e., the bus aisle — using the overhead compartments for acrobatic moves, and games of Truth or Dare and I Never. The music is loud. People drink early and hard, complimenting each other's looks. The roster of bus assignments ("Hello Klitty," "Brandi Heaux," "Terri Twatwaffle") reads as a sort of found poem, like the list of possible car names that poet Marianne Moore once submitted to Ford ("Thunderblender," "Regina-Rex").

A particularly warped kind of energy starts to feel normal, but upon arriving in Reno, you realize you have left the Bay Area bubble and entered America, where this behavior remains decidedly out-of-the-ordinary.

There are three types of people in the casino: gawkers whose minds are truly blown, giddy onlookers who run up to take selfies, and people with cigarettes in their mouths who are so enraptured by the slot machines they don't even notice the caravan of drunk-ass queens filing behind them to the elevators. After dinner, a nap, maybe some gambling, and two to three hours to put together another look, everyone assembles outside the hotel to walk to the nearby 1Up club together.

It's not a gay bar, but a mixed dive — as indicated by the lack of a door on the men's room stall. The DJ winds down at midnight for the drag show, for which 12 or 15 queens have signed up, plus a dozen or so members of Sexitude, the body-positive "dance experience" created by D'Arcy Drollinger. As drag grows in popularity, the numbers have acquired a distinct polish — and the audience seems enraptured enough — but any vestigial decorum wears off by the time Drollinger starts drawing exaggerated lips on Crissy Field in the casino bar at three in the morning.

While the world's Christians awoke on Easter Sunday to share the Good News that He Is Risen, the good news in Reno was everybody arose in time to get on the bus by 11 a.m. and no queen was left behind. Common among everyone is eggs: God-fearing children are hunting for them in the yard, and drag queens are gorging on them at the buffet at the Silver Legacy Casino, fighting off a hangover with greasy food and arguing over whose complimentary mimosa is whose.

"It used to terrify the customers," Heklina says, "but now that drag has become 'mainstream,' it thrills them. We used to get screamed at if we used the wrong gender-identified toilet. Now the staff of the hotel poses for pictures with us and welcomes us back."

Then it's back on the buses where, if you are weary of the high-intensity party, there is no respite, so you'd better give in. Eighteen-packs of Tecate materialize, lip-synch roulette takes over, rotating co-host Sue Casa gives out makeovers, and LOL McFiercen dares people to eat Peeps soaked in pickle juice with a mayonnaise chaser.

"What really takes the cake was watching Tamale Ringwald and Agatha Fisty do a mouth-to-mouth transfer of a pickled Peep and mayonnaise shot," Black Benatar says. "This drag is radical, transgressive, and absurd. And that, my friends, is what's gonna make America great again!"

Being the Sunday of a holiday weekend, we hit a lot of stop-and-start traffic, which makes using the bathroom even trickier than it was on the ride up. But it's time to hand out the awards for Best Easter Look, Best Newcomer, Best Drunk, and Best Overall. These are highly coveted.

"I only started doing drag five months ago," says Cash Monet, winner of the Best Newcomer award on Bus 2. "Three looks in two days sounded daunting. Winning Best Newcomer was just the cherry on top of my Shamrock Shake vodka."

"The key to being a successful 'Best Drunk' is staying glamorous and maintaining some semblance of authority," says the ever-inebriated Bus 2 winner Crissy Fields. "Even when you're blottoed — by making up shit as pure fact and never wavering when questioned."

The timing of our departure is fortuitous. Easter Sunday is partly cloudy and mild, but by Monday afternoon, it's snowing in downtown Reno. California Highway Patrol implements chain controls, escorting vehicles through Donner Pass. Considering the agony of wearing heels for almost 36 hours after you've foolishly neglected to bring boy shoes, the thought of 80 snowbound queens reduced to cannibalism is almost too much to contemplate.

But the caravan rolls up to Oasis in SoMa at 7 p.m., completely intact, and everybody has a lot more followers on social media.

"We get on those buses as a bunch of drag queens, weirdoes, and misfits, and return with a sense of community and belonging," LOL McFiercen says. "And a hangover."


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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