About two miles southeast of the Salton Sea, make a right turn on Main Street and keep going until the stink of dead fish fades into salt and dust. A mile or two beyond the Niland Turbine Plant, as the Santa Rosa Mountains shrink in the rearview mirror and the Chocolate Mountains loom ahead, a painted concrete box appears, saying Slab City. The Last Free Place.
Some places grab your imagination without seeing them. When I was younger I would fall asleep thinking about Antarctica, shuddering whenever I considered its blank and endless size. Then came the Year of Lake Superior. Now these are the Nights of Slab City, also known as ‘the last free place’—and what better motto could a city have? I’ve been fascinated by Slab City since stumbling across a sentence describing it as a “decommissioned and uncontrolled” community of snowbirds, people living off the grid, and “people who want to be left alone.” The name itself demands attention: Slab City. Such tough and cryptic cadence that sounds like the stuff of underground pulp and purple noir, yet its etymology is straightforward, referring to the concrete slabs left behind after the Camp Dunlap Marine Training Facility closed shop at the end of World War II.
After passing the candy-colored Jesus slogans shellacked across Salvation Mountain, a kiosk appears with a laminated sheet of paper tacked to the wall: “Welcome to Slab City, an off the grid community since 1956. This is a free campground, free as in free rent, not free as in anything goes.” Some basic rules are listed: “Violence is not okay. Trespassing is not OK. A campsite owner may be absent for a while. Do not assume that it is abandoned. California acknowledges the Castle Doctrine. We are not vigilantes. We lead by example. ‘Rights’ usually end at the beginning of someone else’s ‘rights’. This is where rights become obligations. Be aware of obligations.” Next to this constitution is a hand-drawn map that illustrates the ‘paved roads (some rough)’ and ‘dirt roads (at your own risk)’ that cut the land into parcels with names ranging from ‘Sidewinder Cove’ to ‘Builder Bill’s Place’ to ‘Poverty Flats’. Also labelled are ‘tree’ and ‘swamp’.
My Slab City dreams looked like a land of unbelievable zen where wind-battered American mystics sat cross-legged in the sand, meditating before their yurts and herb gardens. Sometimes I dreamt Mad Max dreams, fistfights between desperate renegades dressed in roadkill furs, their faces illuminated by endless tire fires with electric Kool-Aid flashing in their eyes. As I crunched down the gravel road towards the cluster of buses, trailers, and gigantic recreation vehicles, I soon discovered the reality of Slab City is, of course, the neutral sum of both visions: pleasant and practical with mild hints of anarchy and moments of generosity we rarely see.
I saw trailers with all kinds of figurines and jewels glued to the sides. Flags of all kinds: Jolly Rogers, POW MIA, rainbows, American, Canadian. Painted messages saying ‘love everybody’ and ‘no trespassing’ and ‘the sun works’. Walls made of tires, fences made of soda bottles and beer cans. The dusty sign for an makeshift internet café said “We Remember Freedom” and across the sandy road sat a library whose hand-painted sign said ‘Open 24/7’ and it was very open: a maze of bookshelves covered by a few sheets of plastic and canvas, its aisles of sandy Encyclopedia Britannicas, Michael Crichton novels, and Thoreau (of course) opening onto the endless Sonoran desert.
Driving around, I felt uneasy snapping photographs. The refrain of people who want to be left alone echoed in my head. Yet I was fascinated and curious, which left me in a bind: I’m shy and I like to be left alone, and here was a society of people who ostensibly wanted the same, so who should I talk to? No matter, it was quiet that Wednesday afternoon in Slab City, save for the occasional sound of a radio or stray peal of laughter in a distant trailer. There were no rowdy bonfire parties or meditating yogis. I only passed two people: 1) a leather-jacketed walking his dachshund, who also wore a little leather jacket; and 2) a crisp man in a melon polo standing in front of the Living Water Mission, a trailer church painted sky blue. Both men gave polite nods and carried on.