The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Slab City

The Last Free Place

Former Pine Pointer Jordan Williams has spent the last several years working for Bechtel on the left coast, but recently quit and has been enjoying a leisurely cross country adventure. Among his stops was California's legendary Slab City, the anything goes modern frontier town that describes itself as the last totally free place in America. Jordan files this report:

By Jordan Williams
Photos by Christie Smith and Jordan Williams

After resigning from Bechtel, I sure am having a fun and interesting time! One of the things I decided I would do was head for "Slab City" to see what the heck that deal was all about. Besides it was on the way to Vegas anyway. Sort of.

Niland, California is a tiny town on the east side of the Salton Sea and consists of a gas station, a couple convenience type stores, a coffee shop, a flea market, a trailer park and a few houses. It's also the gateway to Slab City which lies about 3 miles west via Main Street. Knowing that the Slabs are off the grid it seemed ironic to pass a big power plant on my left.

Another mile up brings you to Salvation Mountain and I had to stop and talk to its founder, Leonard. Suffice to say that Leonard (about 80 years old?) was very gracious and gave me the grand tour of either his:

1. Immense art project or
2. His amazing tribute to his faith in Jesus.

Leonard talks the talk of "salvation" but I suspect it's more art than faith. I heard that some of the Biblical quotes on the art are actually wrong. Regardless, through the force of his truly contagious personality, he's gotten donations of paint in the hundreds of thousands of gallons and created this colorful colossus. I applaud his friendly and ambitious spirit. I got him to pose for a picture with me.

Leonard: "C'mon in friend, let me give you a tour" and "Take a hike up the yellow brick road and I'll meet you on the other side". Much of what appears to be "mountain" is actually thousands of painted hay bales. Leonard lives in a tiny, raggedy camper colorfully festooned with "Repent!" and religious quotes at the entrance to his mountain. According to two friend's of Leonard's, Sean Penn asked Leonard if he could include him in his film "Into The Wild" and they told me that Leonard said, "Sure, but only one try, I ain't got no patience for doing things over". Penn took his one shot and Leonard is in the movie. I don't remember the movie that well, but I heartily recommend the book which talks about Slab City. Somehow I ended up with a CD, a puzzle and several postcards of Salvation Mountain. And I donated $5 for more paint.

Driving just past Leonard's tribute to God, or whatever it is, is a kiosk and sign welcoming you to: "Slab City: The Last Free Place". I'd decided ahead of time that I would do a drive-thru and spend the night there if I liked it, leaving sometime the next day. Or, if I didn't, I'd just drive in and out and start towards Vegas. I ended up spending three days.

My initial impression was that of poverty and a kind of spread out, ramshackle, chaos. The "slabs" themselves are concrete pads averaging maybe a 1/4 acre each which were left over when the military left this "base" after WWII. Somehow the area has been in a legal limbo between the military, state and federal govt's since then and nobody seems to wants to claim jurisdiction. There's no running water or electricity at the slabs. The consensus was that the population when I was there was between 2,000 and 3,000 people, but it fluctuates year to year and season to season.

The pads are more prestigious to live on, but most people just have their trailers, RV's and tents on hard-pack dirt. Many of the trailers look like they've been there for 30 or 40 years and are pretty broken down. But as I drove through I could see that for every trashed out neglected "property", there was another where the residents obviously took great pride in their yard and home and created beautiful spaces.

The first person I talked to at the Slabs went by the nickname "Heijer" (above). He, like most everyone I met, was very friendly and open. He was about 40 and had a bus and a trailer on a slab (which he had to fight for) and a car that didn't run. He had quite a story about how he went from successful building contractor in Montana to living at Slab City. It involved a terrible tragedy which I don't feel at liberty to repeat in detail. Suffice to say, it involved the death of somebody famous in military circles, a long legal process and, ultimately, complete exoneration -- yet the loss of everything he found dear in the process.

Heijer was a "true Slabber" in that he spent all year there. Not many can survive the brutal summer heat (120F+) without AC and the summer population drops to less than 100 survivalists. "The secret was to keep yourself completely covered up." Heijer also told me that after discovering the Slabs he sold his $25K SUV and donated the proceeds to charity. He'd been experimenting since then with living completely cashless and had done so for the past year. Since there's no rent at SC, the only necessary expense is food and Heijer was vague on how he got food for nothing.

I offered him some fruit which he eagerly accepted - hey, maybe that's how! We talked for a couple hours - and I discovered that he's a really smart guy. I also subsequently learned, from others, that he plays five different musical instruments and was the Slabs computer guru. He pointed to a couple of trailers arranged together in an L-shape within which a physicist was conducting laser experiments. My final conversation with Heijer had him suggesting that, for about $2000 in equipment, he could deploy a Slab City-wide intranet (not internet - satellite and bandwidth issues) and that he could handle all the programming and maintenance. There was a hint that I should really consider providing the $2000 dollars!

As the light faded away Heijer suggested that I might want to check out "The Stage" (above) for Friday night music and dancing. I followed the music and was treated to a real stage with five Slab musicians. There were about 50 people listening and dancing. I observed for a while and then made my way over to the barrel fire stage-left. There were about a dozen people hanging out at that one warming at the fire, some smoking pot.

I took over one of the plastic chairs and started talking with a guy named Kevin. He'd been in finance, made enough money and just decided to drop out of regular society. He'd only been there a couple of months - and he said he was having the time of his life: "Great people, quite a few single women, hanging out, no work. Nice!"

He took over a Quonset hut near Salvation Mountain that "Pixie" (above) had decided was too dark. Pixie (40ish and truly looks like a little Pixie) was dancing non-stop around the barrel fire. The music was fair - a couple of really good musicians and a couple of lousy ones. The guy on the harmonica was particularly inept - but somehow it all contributed to a mellow vibe that seemed just right.

I talked with Kathy who pointed that she lived "over there" - and that a bunch of single women lived "over there". Hmm....this place was sounding better all the time. Here is a romantic message on the community bulletin board.

Steve, a large inebriated guy in a Pittsburgh Steeler's jersey, asked me if I'd seen a prescription bottle under my chair when I sat down. I hadn't but somehow got involved in a investigation into who could've taken it. I later learned that it was filled with marijuana and he'd probably given it to two 20-something girls for safekeeping and they'd absconded with it.

The music lasted from about 8 p.m. till midnight and as the music ended and the Slabbers drifted towards their buses, shacks, tents and trailers, I went to my car and drove to a spot to sleep. It was a beautiful clear night. My Accord isn't exactly made for sleeping and I slept fitfully. The next morning I went to check out the burbling hot spring that Kevin told me about. I went twice. It's about 110F which was great, and "clothing optional". It's mostly used in the morning and at sundown to get clean, wash your hair, brush your teeth or just relax. It looked a little muddy but I felt clean and refreshed when I got out. Maybe 1/2 mile down the road is "The Shower" - I was told it was clean cool water cascading over a hillside and you just stand under the waterfall. I never made it there though.

Okay, a few words about the scale and layout of Slab City. I'd guess that one square mile encompasses 80% of the "homes". Beyond that it gets really sparse for another couple miles in a roughly southeasterly direction. There are two open-air restaurants/hangouts: The Oasis and Karma Kitchen. There's a nice pre-fab Chapel, a library (with thousands of books) and two music stages: "The Stage" and "The Range". If you want to use the internet there's a coffee shop in Niland that leaves their Wi-Fi on 24/7 so you can just surf in your car if they're closed. Two people thought there was a place in The Slabs that you could also get Wi-Fi, but that wasn't completely clear. Some people refer to different neighborhoods in the Slabs. One that's clearly marked with a sign is "Loner's - Low on Wheels" which is for single RV'ers (not couples). If you pair up you have to leave Loner's.

I went to breakfast Saturday morning at the Oasis ($4 for non-members, $3 for members - membership is $20/yr) and I ended up in a small-stakes poker game ($10 buy-in, I won $5). Karma Kitchen has free meals on Friday night and the woman who seemed to run it, "Angel", informed me that anyone who's hungry can probably get a meal there most other times (they get donations from a supermarket and restaurant and I think they are applying for a grant).

Everybody I met there was very friendly seemed to have an interesting story. Kevin made a lot of money in finance and just decided to drop out. Ross was a Canadian Buddhist, and an investor in energy stocks, who wrote children's books and was spending winters at SC and summers on Vancouver Island. Kay-Kay was a Katrina victim from New Orleans whose husbands (sic) had been shot to death.

Pixie (above) had been coming here since she was five with her parents and now she her son couldn't afford, or didn't want, to live anywhere else. Susanna (from LA, gorgeous) and her Norwegian partner, Lars lived in a converted school bus. I'd originally thought that Lars, in pigtails, was insane or brain-dead when I met him Sat nite, but his detailed explanation to me of why converted schoolbuses were superior to RV's or trailers put that to rest.

I'd considered leaving on Saturday afternoon, but I felt compelled to stay, especially after several people told me it was absurd to leave without going to the bigger dance and hearing the music at "The Range" that night. So I stayed and I'm glad I did.

There were a lot more people at The Range - maybe a couple hundred, though not at one time. There was seating for everyone on comfortable chairs that seemed to have been cannibalized from vans and theaters. Bonfires to the right and left. A stand selling beer, hot dogs and hamburgers. I danced a lot with Kay-Kay, though she was pretty drunk. The quality of the music was similar, mostly it was the same musicians. An unusual coincidence enabled me to put two people together that desperately needed to talk to each other but didn't know each other's name - and got treated like a hero for my efforts.

It was a fun evening, the highlight of which might have been a long conversation with Ross. No vices, and an acute observer of life at the Slabs, he suggested that I be very, very careful about the assumptions I made after only a couple of days here. "There's a lot going on here, that you don't see". He also noted that while SC might be good for some people here, there's also a sadness and poverty here. We talked about the role of Buddhism in his life and how he managed to do so well in the stock market. A very modest and really smart guy, and one that I suspect I'll read in the news someday - having done something remarkable.

I slept in the car again that night and slept much better and arose naturally just after dawn. I wondered if living outdoors for a while would correct my circadian issues.

There are Vietnam vets, bikers, down and outers, people of the lam from ex-spouses - or the law. People living on nothing and people living in $300K motorhomes. There are people that love to socialize and people that keep completely to themselves (easy to do here). They refer to "The Outlaw Code" to settle disputes which from what I could tell boils down to "Don't be an asshole."

The cops completely ignore Slab City, but if you are the victim of a violent crime you'd be expected to call the police - and they'd come. Having said that, there didn't seem to be much crime or fear of crime there. As far as claiming a spot, I gather it can be very easy or very complicated depending on whether you are perceived as encroaching on someone else's "property" or merely claiming a plot that nobody cares about. Kevin said I could have his old spot if I wanted. There's a rumor that there are a bunch of hazardous materials buried at, or near, the Slabsbut no one seemed very sure about that.

Before I say this next bit, I want to qualify that the following impressions only reflects the people I saw and interacted with - which is a small minority of people living at the Slabs. That said, there's a lot of pot smoking at the Slabs and Pixie told me that a bunch of them have gotten medical marijuana cards from the state "it costs about $130 bucks to get one". At the Oasis club and both music venues I was offered a pipe or a joint many times. Drinks too. I was also told by someone that people with alcohol problems that come to the Slabs can go downhill pretty quickly. There was some talk about one "neighborhood" that might have a "meth problem", but that was disputed.

I'm told that you can pick up an older but livable RV or trailer in nearby towns for a couple thousand dollars and just move it up to SC and call it "home". There are also a few uninhabited trailers that one entrepreneur suggested could be mine if I wanted, he'd give me a good price! Some of the other poker players rolled their eyes at his cheeky attempt. One thing I could tell was that many things had two prices: the tourist price (me) and the Slabber price.

Solar is big at SC and I was told that someone living on site could set you up for about $1000. That would supply enough juice for most normal needs (but not air conditioning). Twice I listened in on very technical engineering debates on optimal solar set-ups.

You can get plenty of water in town and I saw a sign for bottled water at $.20/gal. The food in Niland is convenience store priced, but the town of Brawley, about 15 miles down the road had supermarkets. I think someone like me could live pretty comfortably at the slabs for about $10/day (after the initial trailer/solar expense).

I got a traffic ticket in Niland. The ticket was legally correct. I'd stopped in town and got something from my trunk, got back in the car, and put it into drive before turning down onto a lonely gravel road, but before buckling my seat belt. Lights, sirens, $130 ticket. I must have been watched very closely.

In summation, I'd say that my long weekend at Slab City was one of the most remarkable of my life. I had so many great conversations with people that are experimenting with life. Part of the purpose of this journey is a re-evaluation of the relationship between money, work and happiness in my life. In ways that I haven't fully assimilated, I feel that Slab City was an important marker in that process.

Some of you have probably surmised that I'm not very keen of the traditional "American Dream" that corporate America is selling. I don't think it's particularly good for the health and welfare of individuals -- or for our planet.

Ride the Clouds
I'm pretty sure I'll be back at Slab City again - maybe next winter, maybe later and probably for a lot longer. As Ross points out though, I really should figure out what I want to get out of it.

I'll be back in Massachusetts around June, see ya then!



View out my bedroom window.

Winter wonderland along the woodland way.

One-eyed snowman in Amherst's Kendrick Park.

Amherst Chinese through the window of Mango-Mango.

Phish-head parked on King Street in Northampton.

Get over it.

Patrick Brough caught staffers Jeff Hobbs, Kristen Beam and Matt Larson at the Apollo Grill in Easthampton on Friday.

Downtown Springfield by S.P. Sullivan.

Downtown Ware by Tony Mateus.

The Music Section

Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone.

But I'm not giving in an inch to fear.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

of course that amherst snowman is leaning to the left

Mark T. Alamed said...

Cool read. Thanks for passing that along, Tom. Jordan really gives one a quick sense of the place from an interested and objective viewpoint.

humming in the night skull said...

Fabulous post! I found it while Googling if Slab City had wi-fi or not. I spent 2 days there a year ago and it was a nice place to just pitch a tent and sit and think. Tripped under the stars and marvelled at the garbage in the bushes and saw some wild desolation around the Salton Sea. We saw some strange stuff in the sky too, not saying it was a UFO but just stuff that we could not understand or identify.

That little hole in the ground shower is fabulous. I too noticed that there was subtle self-policing, regulars made sure to stop by and check us out and subtly let us know that everybody needed to behave. We weren't causing trouble, just tripping our way around California and Slab City?Salvation Mountain was a great place to see. I would not hesitate to stay there again.

Anonymous said...

Being a year round resident of the Slabs I enjoyed your article, 90% of it is correct. However, I will say that you were hornswaglled on a couple of minor issues. I think that's because you're an outsider, writing a article, doing a video, making a movie or music video, etc. etc. We get a lot of that since the movie was made out here. It seems everyone with a video camera wants to make a movie, we've had students from San Diego State interviewing residents for a class paper. . .Jeeesss.

I do want to correct one glaring misstatement you made, that is, "The cops completely ignore Slab City". That cannot be farther from the truth, just ask the 9 folks that were arrested this past season on a Wants/Warrants sweep. The Imperial County Sheriff's cruise the Slabs on a frequent but unscheduled basis and by law, respond to all calls.

Other than that you gave a relatively true account of the happenings at the Slabs and I thank you for that.

"Short Pants"

Kurt Van Luven said...

i spent a day out there, Just missed you Jordan, March 14, 2010. i came out to see mama Angel. She is real nice and so is her boyfriend. Got a few pictures, Gotta go again. Something about that place...
Kurt Van Luven,
Fontana, Ca.

Anonymous said...

Cool. I'll end my days there if I arrive before I die. I'm old.