Slab City : Inside California's Subversive Desert Community
“It’s a piece of land that’s so desolate and so useless that nobody cares if we’re here.”
For its residents, Slab City’s most desirable asset is its very undesirability. Some 160 miles northeast of San Diego, it’s a scorched, scrubby square mile so forsaken that even its landlord, the State of California, doesn’t bother charging rent. Over the past half-century, squatting ‘Slabbers’ have carved out an eclectic, off-grid colony in this desert badlands – part ‘alternative community’, part informal RV resort; part no-alternative last resort – that holds a fractured mirror up to materialistic mainstream America.
“It can exist because it’s a piece of land that’s so desolate and so useless that nobody cares if we’re here,” said twenty-year Slab City resident ‘Builder Bill’, almost drowned-out by a fan’s futile flailing in his dilapidated furnace of a trailer.
Driving in from nearby Niland, the faded former “Tomato Capital of the World”, there’s a roadside sign for the approaching County Refuse Disposal Area, but nothing indicating Slab City – effectively a small town since the 1960s – until a graffiti-slathered concrete cube (a former sentry post, it turns out) announces “almost there”.
A featureless former Marine Corps barracks, of which only the eponymous concrete slabs remain, skulking between an active bombing range, the aforementioned dump, and largely fallow farm fields, Slab City is home to around 150 year-round inhabitants occupying an array of motor homes, travel trailers and buses (operational and otherwise), eccentric shacks, and tents. The place aches with numb, nowhere nothingness, its triple-digit summer air clinging like a tailored garment.
Slabbers exhibit remarkable ingenuity. There’s a two-story home constructed entirely from pallets and palm fronds, a teepee-style dwelling of discarded plywood, and a 1980s tour bus, sinking with it rock ‘n’ roll secrets into the pinkish sand. Spaced out amidst cowering bushes, Slab City’s tire-fenced compounds offer privacy and peace that would cost millions in L.A., some 190 miles distant, or San Diego. Ad hoc facilities include an outdoor music venue, library, skatepark, church, coffee shop, and even spartan Airbnb accommodations.
“I can walk around the desert with ten dogs and nobody cares,” enthused Ella Hare, a motherly six-year Slabber who formerly ran an Upstate New York inventory company. “I can walk around naked in the desert with ten dogs and nobody cares!”
But there’s a price for living in what’s often dubbed “the last free place in America”. Summer temperatures hit 120 degrees; there are no official water and electricity supplies or sanitation; and relations with neighboring Niland, where some view Slabbers as unwelcome freeloaders, can be strained.
During its cooler months, Slab City is home to around 2,000 recreational vehicle-driving, mostly retired “snowbirds” escaping harsh winters (and space fees in ‘official’ RV parks) elsewhere. These temporarily enliven the economies and social lives of both ‘the Slabs’ and Niland.
“In the wintertime, there’s five music nights per week,” explained ‘Slab Gram’, who, at 37, is one of the community’s youngest permanent residents. “But by April or May, you’re happy to see [the snowbirds] go.”
Stories of Slab City’s origins vary. One is that workers gathering creosote leaves locally in the 1960s established temporary homes, for convenience. Another claims a former Marine visiting his old base, upon finding it vacant, simply stayed.
But one crucial facet of Slab City history is undisputed and impossible to miss. Salvation Mountain is a terraced art installation some 150 feet long which looms three stories above the otherwise flat community, looking like something from Yellow Submarine. Constructed from adobe, straw bales and half a million gallons of mostly donated paint, it was begun by a Slabber called Leonard Knight in the mid 1980s, who covered his Sisyphean creation with gaudy murals and Christian sayings.
Knight passed in 2014, but Salvation Mountain lives on as Slab City’s signature structure and – since the nearby Salton Sea became a polluted, near-barren broth – the area’s chief tourist attraction. It’s now cared for by the non-profit Salvation Mountain, Inc.
As Hare, Salvation Mountain’s docent, and Gram chatted in the rudimentary shelter serving as its visitor center on an inhuman, 114-degree August afternoon, cars constantly pulled into its dusty parking lot. Most visitors, including a party from Japan, loitered only for photos and an amble through the structure’s cooler, cavern-like “Museum”.
Refreshingly, in a country that rabidly monetizes almost everything, Salvation Mountain’s custodians aren’t cashing in. They simply give away postcards and iced water to guests, with only a discreet donations box. Larger contributions have come from the Mountain’s many media appearances, including Kesha and Coldplay music videos, and numerous documentaries. Shortly before my visit, western apparel chain Boot Barn conducted a photo shoot on its garish, psychedelic slopes.
But it was Salvation Mountain’s appearance in 2007 biopic Into the Wild – which includes a depiction of Christopher McCandless’ brief real-life Slab City sojourn prior to his ill-fated Alaskan wilderness adventure - that really put the community on the map, swelling its population almost overnight and still attracting visitors. To an extent, the Mountain has been Slab City’s salvation, but it’s a symbiotic relationship.
“Without Salvation Mountain, I do believe they probably would have found a way to run Slab City down,” said Ron Malinowski, who, as the site’s caretaker, is provided with a “very rustic” trailer adjacent. “[But] without Slab City, this wouldn’t still be here, because the people that come here love this place and help paint this thing and help fix it.”
Yet very few tourists stray into Slab City itself. At a glance, it’s a Mad Max-ish landscape strewn with vehicles and contraptions, some hard to identify, and populated by wild-looking folk with names like Caveman, Doc 420, and Dreamcatcher. Yet, with its well-maintained dirt roads patrolled by sheriff’s deputies and Border Patrol agents (Mexico is an hour south), Slab City – while lacking formal government, building codes or municipal infrastructure – is far from some apocalyptic, anarchic free-for-all.
In fact, residents cite some of the qualities traditionally associated with idealized, white-picket-fence middle-class America – sense of community, neighborly support, safety – as the very reasons they stay. There’s even school bus service and an annual, all-ages prom.
“I was scared when I first got here, of course – I think everybody is,” admitted Hare, 52, who first heard about Slab City while traveling with the counter-culture Rainbow Family. “[But] I’ve been in towns where I didn’t have anybody to call to help me when I got a flat tire. Here, I’ve got four or five guys that will come, like that!”
While Slab City certainly has its addicts, dealers and thieves, residents interviewed claimed that these are no more prevalent than in many American communities, and that at least they know who they are (“If your stuff comes up missing, we know where to look,” said Hare).
“You hear talk about tweakers, and they exist – I might’ve even been one at one time,” said Bill, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran, his shoulder-length white hair framing thoughtful, lived-in features. “There are quite a few troubles amongst the tweakers – but usually it’s among [them], in their clique.”
The wiry Malinowski, 50, previously made good money installing flooring. He initially came to Slab City two years ago to kill time between gigs, but immediately felt at home, after an extended period spent paying-off Child Support had “taught me how to be poor”.
“I’ve always been the kind of dude that kind of gave of himself, anyway,” he said. “Out here, this is really what you do … It takes a community to have this place.”
Predictably, the Slabbers who agreed to be interviewed are some of their community’s more involved and enthusiastic members. There are also hermits and, probably, fugitives lurking on its fringes (as I drove past what Gram termed a “tweaker camp’, a young, shirtless man shot me a feral, “fuck-off” glare).
While both Gram and Hare said that the frequency of Slab City “burnouts” – wherein the community ceremoniously torches the encampment of a particularly antisocial resident – has been exaggerated, the site is speckled with the charred, skeletal remains (which Gram said may also result from individual neighbor disputes or simply mis-wired solar panels).
“We pretty much deal with crime our own way,” said Gram, who formerly worked for retail chain Target before experiencing a “fuck everything” epiphany in 2010. “We don’t let the police come in and try to help us, ‘cos they’re not going to. They don’t give a fuck about us.”
Some Slabbers are running towards a new lifestyle; others are running away from something back in ‘Babylon’ (their word for on-grid America). They include the truly destitute; adventurous, artsy types (notably the community’s ‘East Jesus’ art colony); and retirees who’ve traded a bricks-and-mortar mortgage for a substantial but almost overhead-free Slab City compound.
“Probably half the people are here for economic reasons and half of them are here because they’re just tired of what’s goin’ on out there,” said the dreadlocked Gram, a dedicated heavy metal fan who performs “aggressive” rap at area open mic nights. “The ones that think they’re going to stay for a day end up staying a lot longer. And the ones that think they’re going to stay here forever are gone in a month!”
If Slab City had a town slogan, it might be “Where Society is a Choice”. Because even a brief visit delivers a jarring reminder that Babylon’s intrinsic cornerstones – 9-to-5 work; house, car and insurance payments; materialist ambition and competition; taxes and regulations – are superfluous (or even run counter to) true contentment.
“There’s a real cost, psychologically, spiritually, to living that life,” mulled Bill, a sagely 68-year-old who ponders before speaking yet laughs freely and frequently. “Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t say it’s not worth it, ‘cos … I did a lot of cool stuff. But nothing that made a difference.”
Bill’s Slab City standing was cemented by his founding its outdoor music venue, The Range, in 2002. With the community’s disproportionate ratio of males to females – estimates vary from 5:1 to 20:1 – he felt compelled to create a social hub. And it worked: he met his future girlfriend while still working on the project, and The Range continues to attract up to 300 people to its lively, participatory music events.
While many Slabbers survive on government checks, an inventive, self-sufficient spirit prevails (although Bill reports that more of the newer arrivals – whom he dubs ‘dreadlock children’ – “got their hand out a lot”). Hare runs the informal ‘Slab Cab’ taxi and water-collection service, while Gram says he can make “thousands in a month” from doing odd jobs for his neighbors.
Some Slabbers live in modern, solar-powered trailers which boast running water and at least limited air conditioning. Others dwell in near-Stone Age simplicity, while most subsist somewhere between the two.
“I feel like if I ever had to be in an apartment again, I’d be a lot more able to conserve the power and the water and everything,” said Gram, who described his pre-Slab life as “work/sleep/work/sleep/work/sleep”.
Slabbers have rigged up various improvised shower arrangements, and a nearby hot springs and irrigation canals offer bathing (and cooling-off) opportunities. Recent efforts to secure county-provided dumpsters and porta potties are stalled, and trash remains an issue (as they’re not officially county residents, Slabbers are barred from the adjacent refuse site).
Ironically, one very high-tech product of the outside world is crucial to making the ultra low-tech life of some Slabbers bearable. Area cell service is excellent, which allows for everything from (downloaded) movie nights to constant contact with distant friends and family.
“I don’t think I could live here without Facebook,” explained Hare, who has two adult children living on the East Coast. “The only thing about being off-grid that I couldn’t do is not being online.”
The State’s 2015 proposal to partition and sell Slab City, while initially causing some panic amongst residents, has largely blown over (the California State Lands Commission did not return Us of America’s call regarding the sale’s current status). Slab City Community Group was formed in response and, according to Hare, has put $5,000 down to initiate buying 80 acres around Salvation Mountain. They’re optimistic that the State will just give them the remaining 500 acres (East Jesus purchased its 40-acre parcel last year), but have concerns about coding and insurance implications.
All the Slabbers I spoke to said they’d have be forced out and, even in that scenario, would simply seek out similar communities elsewhere.
“Slab City is permanent,” said shaggy former Michigan native Malinowski. “[Salvation Mountain] will always take care of itself. It’s too beautiful; it means too much; it’s too special.”
“Slab City gives you a chance to live your life with the people who are directly there,” said Bill, who previously spent a decade homeless in San Diego. “You’re not tied to Donald [Trump] and the whole chain of dominance that flows down from that.”
And all also said that, if the unthinkable happened, they’d leave Slab City as better, happier and more self-reliant people who’ve learned to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.
“What d’you really need?” pondered Malinowski. “You need some food; you need a smile; you need some friends.”
This article was originally published in Issue Three of Us of America.