Slab City, California, USA.
This is the place where people go who have nowhere else, who’s future and past collide into a present tense of impossibility. It looks like it sounds. The sun cooks up the ground into untidy cracks but it doesn’t cook it enough to erase the smell or evaporate the trash from hundreds, sometimes thousands of people living entirely off grid.
The Slabs is roughly a 90 minute drive from Palm Springs in the Imperial Desert, 65 miles north of Calexico and a few minutes from East Jesus-literally.
E.J. is an impromptu art installation on the road to Slab City. Artists use the trash from the Slab to make eccentric, politically challenging and quirky art amidst the nothingness of dirt and garbage and loneliness. East Jesus looks at you daring you to be anxious. If you don’t do it–if you stay calm and let yourself smile at the giant tray of spoons–you will be changed. It’s hard to say exactly how, but you feel it in the way that a certain song makes you cry. A nerve is touched and now it has sensation and memory of sensation and it’s own life outside you.
That is the East Jesus affect.
The entire drive through sand past the glimmering yet deeply foul Salton Sea, past abandoned shacks and mis-placed businesses slammed between date groves is sensation on salted wound. A road from nothing to nowhere.
The Slabs are left over from a military installation which pulled up stakes more than 40 years ago and today is occupied by people who show up in RV’s and cars, who sleep in tents, hammocks and home-made homes. It’s a self governing, free to squat place with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for the art of living oddly.
It’s the end of the world as we know it post apocalyptic wild west side show of people who run out of money, will, ability or patience with “normal” society.
There are 200 in August when the temperatures hit 124 and 2,000 in January when Canadians in mansions on wheels show up to soak up the weirdness and freeness of the desert. While the demographics and bank accounts shift with the seasons, old timers like George who runs a mis-matched trailer encampment which he rents out year round says it’s all the same kind of folks. Those who want to save money and don’t want to be bothered by the politeness of others. Essentially the draw at The Slabs is being left the hell alone. At least some of the time.
There’s no electricity, running water-hot or cold-and no flush toilets. There’s dirt and some concrete slabs. That covers all the amenities.
There’s open mic night at The Range which looks like a scene from a twenty-somethings coming of age film with crooked and leaning stage, old couches with foam flying in all directions and a bar made of scrap wood hammered together by a blind or drunken man. They come there to sing to each other and recite poetry once per week, normally on Fridays. When asked if the performances are good most say, “Not really.”
Somewhere in the miles of nothing is also a library and down the “road” an internet cafe which feels like a university student union. People hunker down and rifle their phones within range of wi-fi. Politics is spoken but rarely argued. Drop outs and loan dodgers, disabled people, senior citizens and anarchist travelers tour each other’s states of mind about nearly any subject where most all conversations begin and end with a funny line and a snicker. Leaving is done one way, a wave of a peace sign over the shoulder and sometimes, “one love, one love.”
Just outside the internet cafe resides a man who calls himself Spyder and he’s the apparent rock star, mayor, Zen Master and builder of Slab City. He has half a manufactured home, a trailer, a truck and an RV. His RV has a rare thing, a hot running shower and radio. He has scrounged parts and created a solar panel and pump system to make it work.
His half of a home is in repair mode. The walls and floor are filled in, the kitchen is nearly functional with another solar rig and pump, his two kids have their own bedrooms. The bathroom in the half house doesn’t work but the RV is next door so the “Kids can shower before school. That’s important.”
Soon Spyder’s place will have another comfort. He’s hand digging and lining a septic system so the family can use a flush toilet. He trucks in huge drums of water weekly.
“I couldn’t really make it out there. I was abandoned as a baby by my mother and put in the foster system where I was given to a family who didn’t just beat me-they tortured me. My back is wrecked, I never really learned to read or write and I’ve got a bunch of other scars. I tried working out there doing handy jobs and anything I could get but I still kept winding up homeless–then I heard about this place. You can be what you want to be out here and if you work hard you get to keep the result of your labor. I can’t see ever going back.”
He stands in the sun looking around, sweat is dripping down his shirtless chest and he wipes his face and says it’s time he get back to work.
There’s an agricultural canal which runs behind The Slabs about half a mile or so from Spyder’s place. People speak of swimming and bathing in it especially in the fall when it’s hot and the water is still high due to water releases for late crops. They say it’s a beach, an inland paradise when it gets really hot. But it’s actually a long, shallow edged and deep centered waterway which smells of farm waste and chemicals. It’s an odd shade of green but it’s moving water in the desert. That’s as good as it gets.
This is not a place for the germaphobe or picky person.
Slab City has its joiners and loners, cool folk and angry outliers, all of them cheap skates and free loaders who have an aversion to loans and taxes and working all week to pay for a house that owns them and demands more upgrades. For the most part the dwellers of The Slab aren’t keen on government or cities or much to do with the world outside. However, it would not be accurate to say they’re lazy and don’t want to work.
Showing up with a tent in the white hot center of a huge desert with zero water or power does not allow anyone here to be lazy. Surviving is an entry level position and living with handmade upgrades like a roof and floor is the corner office. Nothing along the chain here is achieved without sun up to sun down work and innovation.
Learning how to innovate is a daily occupation. Inventions will be born at Slab City.
Within two days of chumming around The Slabs, I find I’m eyeballing spots near roads but away from others. I’m evaluating sun angles and looking for smooth slabs and proximity to a decent path in and out. I’m creating a gear list: rope, tarps, big jugs for water, car batteries, propane tanks, camp stoves and lights. Shovels-one for digging large holes and one for a bathroom. I get hung up on the bathroom part but keep mumbling, ‘I really think I could do this and enjoy it.’
It’s not realistic. Yet……
When traveling like crazy, be prepared to be crazy. Meeting people in their odd smells, off grid pre-occupations, eccentricities and realities does not allow ambivalence. The mammalian response is to respond–to blend and join. The Slab City joiner/non joiner is a flag flying proudly for a country not yet invented. It’s the pirate ship or tropical island where mis-fits fit.
Nothing could be more pleasing.
Driving back in the pink sunset of the desert toward alleged civilization an isolation draped itself around my car. I powered on through worlds, picked up a hitch hiker who refused to give her name and stopped for dinner where I was the only woman in a crowded restaurant and eventually found myself at the bizarre and magical Miracle Baths Hotel where a suite near the massage closet was available.
Floating under a dark sky in a pool filled with bath water listening to the conversation in Russian nearby and recalling an earlier one about why they don’t want us to know about aliens, the thought came in clearly that traveling like crazy is among the best ways to stay sane.