Slab City: It’s Way Out

Posted March 7, 2020 – Narrated by Carmen
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COVID-19 UPDATE: The Slab City community has asked us to remind people to stay away from Slab City during the COVID-19 crisis. Come back next year when the world is resettled into it’s new normal.

The Slab City Song

I’m living out here below sea level.
     Could never get myself on societies track.
I seldom bathe and I’m what you might say, disheveled.
     But I like it here and I ain’t goin’ back
Yeah, we like it here and we ain’t goin’ back.

It’s fun to chat it up with the Snowbirds.
     They got lots of money and they got lots of grass.
And the crusty codgers, they don’t mince no words.
     They say “shut yer mouth boy, y’can kiss my ass.”
They say, “Shut yer mouth son, lest yer payin’ cash.”

Well, it’s real quaint here, some say it’s even pretty.
     But it’s brutal in the summer, yessiree.
Still, it’s our little hidden desert city.
     A place for those who long to be free.
A place for those who long to be free.

Well, we don’t really care what you look like.
     Don’t matter much where yer comin’ from
Or if you RV, van or hitchhike.
     Yer welcome here and this’s where you belong.
Yer welcome here and this’s where you belong.

So if yer gettin’ tired of fightin’ the system.
     If the man is callin’ in all your tabs.
If yer troubles are so many you can’t list ’em.
     Then just chuck it all and join us on the slabs.
Just chuck it all and join us on the slabs.

          – Mike Bright – with help from the band Drop 7

There is a place in the Sonoran Desert at the foot of The Chocolate Mountains and east of the Salton Sea where those who have the sand can live free – free from rent, mortgage and taxes and all the other stuff Americans take for granted like publicly funded water, sewer, and electricity.

Slab City is the last free place in America.

Slab City began like most cities, and with the exception of solar panels, satellite dishes and plastic IBC tanks.

It is probably the spittin’ image of western settlements that began 150 years ago before the rich folks hired a sheriff to force law on everyone else but them.

Yet, nostalgic tourists who flock to Tombstone to celebrate the charm and romance of the lawless Old West with all it’s hell-raisin’ saloons and brothels, would probably shun Slab City’s authentic ramshackle patina and declare it off-putting, filthy and profane.

In fact, Slab City may well be the last true remnant of the pioneering Old West

Slabbers (what Slab City citizens call themselves) are mostly refugees from war culture, consumer culture and corporate culture.

They grew up as Normies (what Slab City citizens call the rest of us), inherited the American Dream – the envy of the developing world – and chucked it all to rebuild their lives as they see fit.

Most Slabbers would say it’s a hard but rewarding life.

Danger: Reality Ahead!

Driving West, outside the junk-strewn parameter of Slab City toward Niland, there is a sign on the side of the road, “DANGER: REALITY AHEAD,” a reminder that everything inside those 640 acres is outside of what most Americans are able to tolerate and vice-versa.

At best, Slab City brings freedom-lovers to their knees and, at worse, makes one hyper-aware of how little freedom the average American can actually tolerate.

And, for visitors, that revelation can either be a painful or a glorious awakening.

For example, let’s begin with God.

God is a big deal in Slab City.

And the message of unconditional, divine love is free of charge because Leonard Knight – a visionary American folk artist – dedicated his life to sharing God’s love with the world.

Despised and rejected by institutions of religion, Leonard took that experience and let it make him stronger. He left the real world, and brought his genius to Slab City.

If Leonard had been accepted by organized religion, rather than ridiculed and marginalized, Salvation Mountain would be nothing but dirt.

Leonard arrived accidentally, on the heels of a failed helium balloon testimonial project, but he immediately recognized an opportunity to continue his large-scale gospel message.

He made a mountain with his bare hands.

Using thousands of hay bales, adobe, paint and heaps of discarded junk handpicked from the salt-crusted discard strewn across the neglected Salton Sea desert – the refuse of a lost society – Leonard built Salvation Mountain.

For decades Leonard Knight’s message of unconditional love to humankind has reached far and wide.

National Treasure

Salvation Mountain is a National Treasure attracting crowds of pilgrims, curiosity seekers and lovers …

But the edification doesn’t end there. Those with the curiosity and desire can go deeper into Slab.

East Jesus

East Jesus is a fabulous resource for art and culture (Warning: Bring the children but only if you are prepared to answer difficult questions – and remember that nudity is always possible).

Why do they call it Slab City?

Well, when Camp Dunlap, an old marine base was decommissioned after World War II, the Marines removed every stick of every building, leaving only the concrete foundations.

Several veterans stayed behind and set up camps on the slabs. Then, due to a bureaucratic snafu, the land fell into a jurisdictional vortex between the feds and the state.

The county and state floated plans to sell the land and to relocate the Slabbers but – at least for the moment – things are continuing in a “live and let live” strategy.

So Slab City is continuing to serve as a museum of what true freedom looks like.

Today, six decades after Camp Dunlap, this loosely structured, free-thinking paradise boasts a diverse population which expands and contracts with the perfect winter weather and blistering summer heat.

The population includes …

Snowbirds looking for a warm place to dry camp in the winter desert. Retired RVers who need to save money. Off-grid enthusiasts and preppers. Artists who specialize in Found Art, Junk Art and Trashion. Veterans who are self-medicating in a safe and welcoming place. Migrant (legal) cannabis farmers. Bohemian, counter-culture and free-spirited souls. People who just want to be left alone. Mentally challenged people and psychotics. Run-away teens. Religious fanatics. People who have financially hit bottom due to job loss, health crises and divorce.

Some arrive expecting to stay for a year or so until they can afford to leave – some never leave.

In other words, Slab City is like most American towns.

The difference is that they can’t sweep the dark side of the human condition under their suburban tract homes. In Slab City it’s mostly all out in the open.

Hey, everyplace has problems, and Slab City is no panacea of peace.

Slab has nothing to prove – faults are all laid out in the full light of day right there next to the unfailing love of God on Salvation Mountain.

Fact is, from a satellite perspective, we all live in the dirt.

One week in Slab improved our focus on what a truly free society could be like, and our hope for goodness to triumph over evil is renewed.

The sin of material waste, and the McDonaldization of everything, and the overbearing cost of the non-sustainable Tower of Babel we call “the grid” came more clearly into focus.

At first glance, lodgings in Slab City may appear temporary – as if the occupants are just passing through – but on closer inspection the dwellings have more sophistication, integrity and permanence.

Adaption and survival in this rugged, un-official and technically non-existent city requires ingenuity.

Only the strong survive here.

Old cars become storage areas, mattress springs make good fences and burnt out RV’s serve as sitting porches and art studios. With so few resources, it makes sense to use what no one else wants.

Half the citizenship must be musicians. On afternoon walks through town as the winter sun set over the Salton Sea we were serenaded from every direction.

Infrastructure

Like any city, Slab has a town center, public library, a bulletin board with official Slab news, a museum of art, several night clubs, internet cafe, a famous music venue, skate board park, golf course, basketball court, a mobile pharmaceutical delivery service, animal rescue center, public school bus, and an annual prom.

They even have a pet cemetery that is, ironically, bordered with old tires …

We arrived on the night of a 3-day rave. The event was about a half mile southwest of us but even earplugs didn’t cut the noise. The neighbors assured us that it only happens once a year on President’s Day Weekend and they usually burn a car or two. We heard they’d burned a stretch limo. Next morning we went over to pay respects at the burial ritual.

Um, what’s else?

Oh yeah, to receive shipments from FedEx or UPS, it’s simply a matter of flagging down the driver to request an official number to post on the side of your un-official occupied domicile, even if you don’t have an official name.

In addition to picking up trash and making treasure, Slabbers also pick up names like Spider, Builder Bill, Jack Two Horses and Stick Man. It might seem juvenile, but I’ll bet there’s some serious logic behind it.

Ever since childhood I have dreamt about a place like Slab City – and it’s all because of Mama.

In the summer of 1964, our family road tripped across America in our Plymouth Fury station wagon. It was my turn in the middle of the back seat while my big sister, Deb, and little brother, Carl got to hog the windows.

I slouched forward and dangled my arms over the front seat, trying to catch the breeze from the wing windows. My baby brother, Chris was all sprawled out between Mom and Dad sleeping with Underfoot, the family dachshund. The smell of burp, dirty dog and Winstons contended for dominance while Dad sang Sixteen Tons in his magnificent two-pack a day baritone.

Mama stared out the window with a deep contemplative expression thinking about something important – maybe the Cuban Missile Crisis which we’d weathered out in Florida or maybe something else. Mama had a tough and unhappy childhood and even though things had greatly improved, the other shoe always seemed ready to drop. Anyway, on that simmering highway in the middle of God-knows-where, Mama suddenly brightened.

“Kids!” she exclaimed as if she’d seen a man selling Kool Pops out of his trunk on the side of the road, “Look!”

And we did, as Mama rolled down the window and stretched her arm out clear up to the pit and pointed out toward the expansive landscape like Monty Hall on Let’s Make A Deal.

“Just look at all that land!”

And we did, and we saw pine-tipped mountains and green valleys with deep springs and shimmering lakes just a’brimming with fish. “No matter what happens” she said, “there will always be enough for everybody. If the world goes to hell in a hand basket you can always go out there and fashion a fine shelter with whatever God provides.”

Thus, Mama passed on to me a squatter’s heart.

We love being on the road, but as travelers we also have an obligation to imagine what it’s like to live in the places we visit. Before we pull out we say a prayer for the people, wish them well and leave them with a blessing.

What would it be like to survive in 110-120 degrees in the California desert at the mercy of God and man? I can’t say that I’d want to experience that kind of life, but some do.

We hope that Slabbers can continue to live in this humble, harmless way, God bless’m, just as they see fit.

If you want to visit Slab City, here are the GPS coordinates. 33.257065, -115.463562 or 33°15′32″N, 115°27′59″W

If you want to see our exact route, click here.

*photos in this post (unless otherwise noted) were taken and copyrighted by Living In Beauty.