Set against California’s Chocolate Mountains, Slab City exists on the fringes. Settled by drifters, artists, squatters and RVers, ‘The Slabs’ are home to a community of people looking for an alternative way of life.
“This is the hot tub,” says George, as he pats the rim. “It’s not working yet, but it will,” he beams, lighting another cigarette.
As the sun beats down, I notice how well adapted George is to desert life: his deep, leathery tan; the red bandana that straps his hair; the faded tattoos on his arms and chest. Within minutes of meeting him, I know George will make the perfect guide to Slab City.
Hiding away in plain sight, Slab City lies in California’s Sonoran Desert, taking its name from the concrete slabs left behind from a World War II Marine Corps barracks. Since the 1960s, it has evolved into a permanent home for around 150 residents, a number which balloons to more than 2,000 when the retired “snowbird” community migrates in the winter. With temperatures reaching 125 °F during summer, it’s a year-round home for only the most hardy.
I first became interested in The Slabs after watching the BBC documentary American Nomads (2011). I was curious about how people survived in the desert, living off-grid, in a place that required no money. I wanted to see how a community had been built around the principles of freedom. However, I was aware that many lived there out of financial necessity and was concerned my interest would be mistaken for poverty tourism.
“Could you show me around?” I ask George.
“Sure! It’s not like I’ve got anything else to do,” he replies, laughing.
The two of us walk towards his pick-up, and he calls for his dog Buddy to join us. I met George not long after arriving on site. A brief wave in my direction felt like a chance to stop the car and introduce myself, and after a look around his home, I asked for the grand tour.
As we drive around, George tells me about the different facilities in the community – a library, an Internet cafe, a hostel, a radio station. Some children even live with their families in The Slabs, attending a nearby school. There are makeshift bars and semi-permanent spaces that run social events where everyone is welcome. We pull up to The Range, one of the open-air music venues, made up of old sofas, a stage, a bar and a slack string of lights.
“This is where we host our prom each year,” says George. “A lot of people here never went to their prom, so we give them another opportunity.”
George walks across the space and I follow.
“This is where we hang the dresses and suits for people to pick, and over here is where we take their photo.” I imagine The Range lit up, the sour stink of beer, the guests in their thrift store finery getting a chance to shine. If there’s one thing Slab City provides, it’s second chances.
The Dust Bowl
Back in the truck, I notice the dust smearing my glasses and ask, “How do you cope out here with no electricity and running water?”
“A lot of people use solar panels,” replies George, pointing towards an RV lined with six of them, and the words ‘The Sun Works’ printed on the side. “That’s Solar Mike. He tends to hook people up with power out here.” When it comes to water, residents bring in their own supplies for drinking, but they have created an inventive way to wash.
“This hot spring is popular during winter evenings,” says George as we stand at the edge of an opaque pool, full of brown water that looks uninviting. I stick my hand in. The water is hot and unwelcoming in the heat. “Folks don’t always wear their clothes down here,” George says, raising an eyebrow. “If you really need a wash, you head to the shower.”
We get back in the truck, driving further on until we come to a deep concrete-lined pit. A fast gush of water cascades down into the pit from a nearby spring.
“If you want a good clean, you need to get down there,” says George, pointing into the hole, where a ladder is perched for an easier descent. Despite looking suspect, there is something appealing about the shower, and I feel the urge to peel off my clothes and climb in. Buddy the dog clearly has similar ideas and jumps into the nearby canal.
We continue on. As we turn the corner, a candy-coloured mound emerges from the dusty plains, and the words ‘God is Love’ become visible. We have reached Salvation Mountain, the eccentric folk art monument created by the previous “slabber” Leonard Knight. Using adobe mud and paint, Leonard spent 28 years creating the artwork, covering it in bible verses. Around the site sit rusting vehicles also adorned with illustrations and words. I’ve never quite seen anything like it and feel an instant warmth towards the bonkers but beautiful spot, which has rightfully earned its reputation as a national treasure.
“One more stop,” says George, as we pull into East Jesus, a place that instead has no religious intent. Set back in the furthest corner of The Slabs, the spot is a sculpture garden that looks like the props department of a Mad Max movie. He leads me around the site, which includes a large bank of painted TVs, a huge metal lizard, and a towering black elephant made of shredded tyres. Using the community’s detritus, artists have taken trash and reinvented it.
Paperbacks and Pin-ups
George introduces me to another resident, a man called Jack Two Horses. He shakes my hand, then passes me a slip of paper.
“Check this out,” he says, pointing to a scrawled web address. “You can watch an online reality show about my life” (you can watch it, here). I pocket the paper. “Want to see my place?” he asks and nods toward the door.
I follow him into the shack, which is still warm but a little darker. Jack points me toward his library, where I spot well-worn copies of On The Road and The Doors of Perception sitting beside back issues of Playboy and a hookah pipe. When I had imagined the interior of a home in The Slabs, it looked a lot like this.
George and I say goodbye to Jack and head back to my car. Then it is our turn to part. I give George some money to say thank you (Maybe he’ll finish that hot tub?), and we hug. Driving off, I think back to my initial musings on Slab City. The sense of poverty was palpable, making ‘utopia’ feel like a generous term, but by talking to those living there, I realise it has not been an unwelcome outcome for everyone. In a country where the cult of individualism reigns – and communities are divided physically by distance, as well as class, race and politics – Slab City is an example of how it doesn’t take money to build a community that looks out for itself and those just stopping by for a visit.