Friday, April 03, 2009

Slab City

Location: Southern California, Salton Sea

While most RVers stay in campgrounds, there are those who love to find free, or almost free places that allow them to "boondock" or camp without water, electricity and sewer hookups. Overnight stays in a Walmart or Cracker Barrel parking lot are common (and are really not free -- RVers typically spend more in the store than they would have for a campsite); so are the almost-free Bureau of Land Management properties that are typically land that is of little use, so RVs are allowed to stay there for a very small fee.

Just off the Salton Sea, however, lies the last, really free boondocking site -- Slab City, also simply known as The Slabs. Originally a World War II Marine barracks, Slab City is now just what its name implies: acres of concrete slabs left in place when the barracks were dismantled. Whoever officially owns the property ignores it totally -- without available water, owning desert land is more a liability than an asset.

Living there is anarchy in its most basic form -- there is no government, no services, no rules. Electricity is manufactured through solar panels (see photo on left) or generators; water is hauled in from the nearest town, a depressing few blocks of nothing much in the middle of even less, and holding tanks are emptied by a service that comes through every so often. The local police make a drive-through only occasionally. People can, and do, die here unnoticed.

Although there are "neighborhoods" where specific groups congregate, RVers can park wherever they want and stay as long as they want. Most come for a few days to a few months in the winter, but there are some hearty souls who brave the 110 degree -- or more -- heat of the desert summer to live in Slab City year-round. Some of these residents are eccentric; some are downright crazy.

We took a day trip from LaQuinta to visit this infamous place. It was late March, and most of the snowbirds had left. What we found looked like a scene from a post-apocalypse movie, or the final confrontation zone in The Stand. Decrepit, misshapen RVs and vehicles dotted the landscape, some adorned with glittery objects and brickabrack, some rusted, paint peeled away in strips and lacking hoods or fenders. They had obviously not been moved in years, if not decades. In many cases, the leftovers from living life in the desert stayed where they had fallen -- trash, broken appliances, and heaps of unidentifiable "stuff" adorned what would, in another world, be called their "yard." Dogs guarded this mess as if it were gold.

There were signs that The Slabs might be a bit more comfortable and friendly during the winter season -- there were at least three social clubs in operation, although they were little more than discarded sofas arranged outside ramshackle RVs. There was a church, a solar panel business, and even a pet cemetery where paw-shaped paving stones and decorated rocks marked the graves of these deceased family members. At least we hoped it was a pet cemetery!

A bit before you enter Slab City, you are confronted with Salvation Mountain, a huge painted rock that is covered in Bible verses. The painter, Leonard Knight, has been working on this labor of love for over 20 years. It seems to fit nicely here.

Slab City is unique in Americana. It is interesting and somewhat compelling, but foremost it is creepy and disturbing. I'm sure there are some very nice people who live there, but I have to wonder if the crazy ones came to the Slabs that way or were unavoidably transformed by this odd and undeniably freaky existence. Feel the need to surround your plastic Santa with concertina wire? If yes, you might consider relocating to Slab City!


Richard said...

I think I will take Joshua Tree National Park over "Slab City". However, some of your photos of Slab City do remind me of my yard when the kids have not put away their stuff or bothered to clean up after themselves.

The Blond One said...

Zo, I do hope that you were able to get away from there quickly and safely. To me that is not America, but some remnant of a psychotic episode.