Friday, December 16, 2011

The Last Free Place…

IMG_0232Slab City is a parcel of government land near the Salton Sea.  Once known as WWII Marine Barracks of Camp Dunlap, the area was abandoned after the war.  It was eventually discovered and further ‘developed’ by rubber and other tramps into a unique and very diverse community environment where one can reside for free for as long as they wish. 

IMG_0238Salvation Mountain!

One man’s vision created from adobe clay and donated paint.

It stands prominently at the entrance to The Slabs.
When we saw this, knew we had arrived!
Willy Wonka, anyone?

Leonard Knight, who began building Salvation Mountain around 1984, is getting up there in age and so most if not all of the building has stopped.  Maintenance and repairs are done by volunteers who try to preserve what is left of this iconic location.

Like any other community Slab City is constantly changing and evolving.  As many of the long time or founding residents pass on, younger ones are picking up where they left off.  Organized RV groups now gather and spend a few months in certain locations and the full-time residents do as well.  The area is laid out in a grid of streets.  Some are simply implied dirt paths.  Others are remnants of pavement from long ago.  There are makeshift street signs and some homes have addresses posted such as 10,000 Low Road, 1001 Tank Rd or 232 Beal though the post office does not deliver.  There is a city vibe with organized activities, dinners, events and even living divisions in that some prefer to live closer to each other (Inner Slabs) and others more spread out (Suburbs). 

There is a Library.

The owner of this area passed away in 2003 but most of the books still remain categorized on labeled shelves.


We discovered the Pet Cemetery one morning located right behind our camp.IMG_0271
Best we can tell, this area was started in the late 70’s.
It holds some touching dedications.
We watched a man spend several hours tidying up this area and decorating it for Christmas.  Very sweet.

With no trash service, most everything no longer desired is left behind when people leave.  While it is not always attractive to look at, there is a solid sense of re-purposing pretty much everything you can think of.  One man’s trash definitely IS another’s treasure here at The Slabs.

IMG_0274A permanent resident has marked his property claim with painted tires and old cans and lids strung between.
We found out later that he had positioned the tires in the shape of a heart.


The Range (Saturday night talent stage area) uses buckets as light shades, car bumpers as railings


and hubcaps for that little extra touch.
Palm Trees reborn.

Long-term resident, Bus Kenny told us, “People wind up living at the slabs for one of two reasons.  Either their ride leaves them or they break down.”  This has been confirmed for us by several of the now permanent residents of the area  who actually did break down and wound up staying.  The third and probably most prominent reason we’ve heard from folks is that the area and people sort of grew on them and they just never left. 

IMG_0276 Not so sure if our neighbor broke down or not but they’ve got a really cool paint job.

We did not break down but we did find a superb spot for Annie.  

IMG_0262The sun rises over the Chocolate Mountains each morning.
IMG_0315And it sets over Salvation Mountain and the Salton Sea each night.
We liked our spot so much that we marked our ‘territory’ lining it with small cairnes of rocks
and our usual placards.
When short-termers tried to encroach on our little free piece of Slab Heaven, Nicole played her bongos.  Strange enough, we managed to stay out there alone the whole two weeks we visited! 

It took us a bit longer to fall into a comfortable groove at The Slabs than it did in other areas (two whole days).  But once we did it grew on us rather quickly.  We discovered that folks in all of the different areas (full-time residents, part-time residents and snowbirds) were very open and welcoming.  So, we took several walks a day during which we met and talked with all sorts of people.  In any given night we might have found ourselves listening to the story of a homeless man one minute and conversing with folks living in $200,000+ motor homes the next.

The Chocolate Mountains.  When you view the whole range, it’s sort of a mix between light, dark, milk and white.

IMG_0266The Salton Sea is beautiful to look at from afar but overwhelming to the nose up close.  Our friend, Ken, took us for a drive all the way around one afternoon.

Frank, who runs the solar powered internet cafe, told us that the bright ‘star’ in the center of this picture is the International Space Station.  Even though he may have consumed a fair amount of wacky weed for the evening we tended to believe him.  Although the photo does not convey the fact, it sure looked different than anything we have seen before.

Some of our most enjoyable moments at The Slabs were the times we spent talking (or more like listening) to the more ‘colorful’ of the local residents.  By colorful we simply mean to say that they are very unique individuals who prefer to not be a part of mainstream society.  Most of them are aging or new-aging hippies.  Probably the most common theme amongst these folks is that they all have a story to tell and they love to tell it.  From the minute you walk up and say hello be sure to have your ears open and ready.  More importantly, be sure to open your mind and really listen to what they have to say.  Believe us, they’ve put a lot of thought into it! 

The second most common theme is that despite their often not so great circumstances, their stories are always upbeat and their speech is positive and loving.  That’s not to say that we didn’t hear our fair share of government conspiracy theories.  We did.  But mostly about no war, peace, love and happiness.  No Uni-Bomber sort of stuff.  Thirdly, they talk with you, laugh with you, hug you, shake your hand and get names later.  This really is hilarious.  Usually as we’d part ways there would be some last ditch comment to the effect of ‘We’ll do the name thing next time!’  Since we were pretty much always seen together, names didn’t matter anyway because people just started yelling, ‘Hey, Ladies!’ or ‘Hey, Girls!’ when they’d see us. 


Woke up to a rainbow the morning after a day of rain.
Enter at your own risk!

After about ten days at The Slabs, we decided that it was time to partake in our first official Slab City Bath.  This involves getting into a huge mud hole into which 100+ degree water is spewing from a broken pipe.  For those who think they may want to partake at some point we will give you a few words of advice.  1) Repeat this phrase to yourself over and over while there, “100+ degree water kills most anything.”  2) It appears that the men at Slab City do not own bathing suits.  Be prepared.  It isn’t always pretty!  3) Despite 1 & 2, you sure do feel warm and clean when you are done (especially if it’s been ten days since your last bath).


You can almost see the water bubbling in the center.

When you ask RV’ers about Slab City you get a variety of responses.  The most common one is that everyone has to experience it at least once.  Another is that if you are still there after a few days then you will probably stick around for a while.  We have heard from several folks who didn’t last more than one night.  Some even less.  For us though, each day we were here we gained a greater sense of why people come here with a short term visit in mind and end up staying longer.

Whether an RV’er or a full-time resident, many we’ve met seem to express a common theme about living at The Slabs.  Here they can avoid the rat race, do their own thing and they are happy and at peace.  Basically it is all the same.  Some just have more money than others and can afford more luxuries.


The mystery has finally been solved!
The pot of gold lay in a broken down RV in Slab City.

At first glance (o.k. maybe second and third, too), there isn’t a lot of actual physical beauty here.  But the whole scene grows on you as does a general sense of peace and your view begins to change.  The Slabs provides people with a definite sense of individual freedom and responsibility that you don’t get in mainstream society.  It’s not just about how you treat the land upon which you reside but in what you do at will for others and for the better of your community.  There are no regulations or rules set by outside government agencies.  There is no actual land to own.  You just lay claim and then pass it on when you leave or when you pass away.  People treat each other well and watch after one another.  If you wish to take care of your property you do.  If you don’t, then you don’t.  If you want to be social then you are immediately welcomed.  If you don’t then you are left alone.  Most of the residents here don’t have much but if you need what they have they will give it to you without thinking twice.  They respect each other.  Judgments and negativity are not common place. 

High Rise RV?

In many ways we found Slab City to essentially be a true measure of raw humanity where the only outside influences are the experiences that folks had before they came here.  We really enjoyed being part of the community and experiencing the culture here.  Undoubtedly, we will return again.

Moon-rise over Slab City.


“It should not be denied that being footloose has always exhilarated us.  It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations. Absolute freedom.  And the road has always led west.”
- Alexander Supertramp (Into the Wild)

Yes, Imagine.