“If you can’t handle a certain situation, find an alternative and that’s a good thing.” Spyder is 50 years old. He says he cannot read and write and has physical pain. Abandoned as a child he was a ward of the state. “Because of my background I can’t read or write. Certain things happened in state custody. I’m injured, severely.”
He won’t say more about that.
As an adult Spyder worked for a landlord in fixing things and learned to set tile but he could never find a way to get ahead. “I was working real hard but I wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t making enough to pay rent. Food stamps help but it still wasn’t enough.”
He heard about “Slab City” six years ago and pulled up stakes. He started with a truck and an RV. Now he’s inventing new ways to improve his homestead. He has a huge water tank which he heats with a solar panel and battery.
He recently found half an abandoned manufactured home and with the help of friends hauled it back to his slab. Now he has a half of a house he’s fixing, several trailers he’s bartered for and he is using solar panels and pumps to heat water and run a radio. His is one of the few places where a person can take a hot shower.
His community is an odd place in the exact middle of nowhere. Slab City is an old abandoned military installment. Now all that’s left are concrete slabs and a contingent of people who were homeless outside but find community inside this desert strip a 90 minute drive from Palm Springs, California.
“I might just die here. You never know.” says Spyder as he talks of the value of being able to benefit from his own labor. “If I build it here, it’s for me and my family and my friends. I keep the profits of my labor. It’s not like that out there.”
He is giving me a tour of his property.
There is the half of a home he’s walled in and put down flooring. Spyder’s kids each have their own rooms. They have mattresses on the floor, clothes in the closet and little toys and stuffed animals propped on their beds made up with children comforters which match the curtains. They are excited. “It’s the first time they ever had anything like that. They take real good care of their stuff because they know you have to. You can’t just buy things and throw them away out here.” says Spyder as he and his children and partner are now all on our tour chiming in on the work they’re doing on their home and property.
They have a Swiss Family Robinson feel about them as they rapidly tell about their plans. When I ask if it’s hard they all agree it’s not. The children, both under ten, hold my hands as we walk. “They don’t have fear of strangers. We meet people from all over the world to see what we’re doing here.” Spyder says breezily.
There are some 200 year around residents all living in harsh desert conditions. Sometimes it’s 124 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. There’s no running water, no electricity and no trash pick up. Everything here is resolved by invention.
The kids have a swing and play area just outside the little bathroom trailer where they clean up before school. Soon they’ll have flush toilets because Spyder is building a septic system. He trucks the water in weekly. He’s also making a canopy to cover the area outside the home to keep it cooler. His ambitions are limitless. And he knows how to do it. “I’m a carpenter. I borrow, trade, work. I’m always running to keep this place moving up.”
The children have lost interest in our adult conversation and walk away with their mom to collect trash from an abandoned slab next to them.
“I collect bottles, I cook for people, I do tile work for people in town and sometimes they pay me. I’m inviting people who are different and can do better here than where they are.”
His children attend school in the nearest town which consists of a post office, a coffee shop and a small store where Spyder buys propane and water and food. “Everything is so expensive. It drives me nuts.” If he can figure out a way to make a garden work, he says he will. “Out in the middle of the Imperial Desert?” I ask him. “Just watch me.” He smiles.
“It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone but I own more in here than I ever did out there. It’s not governed by anyone so we figure out how to make it work. I have friends from all over the world who come back and see me and once in a blue moon they write me a check.”
Spyder is a conservationist. He says he believes in being careful with natural resources and he wants to do better with water. Spyder also says people are so busy making money they don’t know its value or the value of things that can’t be bought. He is troubled by the consuming and disposing culture he finds outside of Slab City. “People are too much rushing through the day. Stop and think for a minute.” He stops and looks around. He takes a deep breath like a person who finds themselves in tune with where they are. ” I love this planet.”
When I leave him he is checking the battery attached to his solar panel and pump. His children are laughing and tossing a ball with the dog who looks like any suburban pet with his collar and license. “Every time I’m out there I’m working for someone else. Here I’m doing it for me..and them.”