Living Off the Grid in Very Strange Slab City

Posted on Apr 3, 2013 in Popular

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“You better be buying something”, she said to me as she took a long zip from the Tall Miller High Life she was holding.  She was managing what appeared to be a permanent yard sale and from the looks of it some of the stuff she was trying to sell looked like it had probably been there a long, long time.  She looked pretty sunburned there under her trucker hat but to tell you the truth everyone here did.  I smiled in agreement.

I poked around a bit at the stuff on the table and decided on something better. “I’ll tell you what”, I said, “I’ll give you a few bucks to let me take a picture of you and your boyfriend.”    I figured a picture of some local folks from Slab City was the best souvenir I could ever bring back from this place. They were pretty happy with that.

They were even happier when I told them they could bring their Miller High Life’s and smokes for the picture.  Something tells me they never leave home without each – Millers and smokes.

I was on the outskirts of a small town with a sign that read, “Slab City – The Last Real Free Place on Earth”.  I had stumbled on it quite accidentally while driving to reach somewhere else.  Living in the last free place on earth certainly sounds attractive but I was not sure from the looks of it if this was a place I would ever settle down in.

I mean this place is so far off the beaten path that police would probably never venture out here.  There were no roads. No Traffic Lights. No running water.  Nothing, just Trailer Homes, Yard Sales and something else interesting I would come to find out – Art and a small community of people that cared for each other.

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Grand entrance to Slab City greets travelers, tourist and Slabbers

World War II put the “Slab” in Slab City

In 1942, the Marines built a marine base in the middle of the Colorado Desert to train Marines to fight the Germans and Japanese.   The 640 acre compound was called Camp Dunlap Marine Training Facility and it was 120 feet below sea level.  Soldiers trained at this camp until the end of the war.

When the camp was later dismantled in 1956, the only thing they left were the huge concrete slabs that they had used for the foundation of the buildings and tents.

The concrete slabs started to attract Trailers and RV owners who loved the free parking and the ability to camp in a location with pretty mild weather during the winter.   Later when the Salton Sea grew in popularity, Slab City as it became known was the premier location for snowbirds from all over the country.

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Slab City Community Bulletin Board in the town center

Slab City not only attracted snowbirds however.  Soon Slab City was attracting fugitives, derelicts, gypsies and people that just wanted to live off the grid.  There is no electricity, no running water, no gas, no restaurants, no stores in Slab City – just people living in trailers, tents, RV’s and any where else that they can find.

The Slabber’s Life

If you live in Slab City, you’re a Slabber. Slab City is the Wild, Wild West – the last truly free place on earth.  Slab City was featured in a movie called “Into the Wild” and has since attracted more people.

It’s part hippy commune, party art community and part drop out society.  They tend to take care of each other here in spite of the fact that slab city is one of the poorest cities in the poorest counties of California.

While Slab City is free, its not without it’s problems or disputes.  Builder Bill (one of the most famous residents here) and the guy that takes care of Salvation Mountain believes that there is a growing divide in the town between the younger generation and the older generation, a conflict that is hurting the town’s carefree but caring culture.  Slab City is just like any other city in many ways.

An Encounter with Cuervo and two mules

One particularly interesting Slabber is Cuervo.  While driving along a dusty road into Slab City there he was.  He had two mules.  He was wearing a cowboy hat but certainly didn’t look like your typical cowboy.

I had to do a double take while I was driving because seeing two people riding mules down a desert road just look so unusual.  It was just one of many things that made me do a double take during my day in Slab City. Cuervo was on his way into Niland – another derelict town 3 miles away.

I am not sure why they call him Cuervo but something tells me he might have liked Tequila at one point.

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Cuervo and his lady companion stop for a breather along the road to Niland.

After taking a few pictures, I said goodbye to Cuervo.  I watched them ride off on their mules into Niland.  I saw them a couple of more times during the day – as it turns out they were camped out at Salvation Mountain where I was spending some time.

Discovering the art and passion of Slab City

I have to admit.  When I was on my way out to visit Slab City I thought I was really going out to see motor homes and some strange guy that made a mountain of paint.  And I did see that, but I also so much more.

I wrote about my experience at Salvation Mountain and Leonard Knight which you can find here: Lord Take me to Salvation Mountain.

But there was a lesser known art camp in Slab City called East Jesus that a photographer prompted me to visit as well.  You really get the feeling out in Slab City that your going to find something interesting every time you turn around.


A tour guide at East Jesus can walk you through the camp and tell you the stories of the art

East Jesus is an experimental, habitable artwork project that has been around since 2006.  There is not a single artist that creates the pieces rather the pieces are created by volunteers that stay at the camp for short or longer periods of time.  They make it clear that they are not a dumb-ass hippie commune rather an art community where you have to do work.  Actually there is a whole list of rules if your going to come to here and if you don’t you risk “staring down the barrel of a 12GA” as they put it.

If your going to visit or stay at East Jesus, I highly recommend you read the hilarious East Jesus Survival Guide which I found on their website.

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Much of the art is not only interesting but habitable, meaning that you can camp out in it.  For donations of $10 a night and agreement to follow all of the rules you can stay in a work of art.  This place was getting quite interesting.

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You can’t help but think of the Mad Max movies when you are wandering through East Jesus.  The works of art here are just extraordinary and interesting.

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A shoe tree. How could you not have a shoe tree in this place.  I love shoe trees and take pictures of them everywhere I can find them.

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Ingenuity, Survival and Proms.

Slab City is under threat to be permanently closed down by the government.  I am not sure why, maybe it has to do with the trash and how people just dump stuff out here.

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One of the many abandoned houses and businesses in the area.

In any case, Slab City has been a story of ingenuity and survival.  Everywhere you look the residents take things people have left behind and make art with it. From swimming pools to Marine Water tanks, everything here is used to create art.

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An abandoned Marine water tank has been retrofitted to become a Wheel of Kama

As, I was getting in my car to make the long drive back to San Diego, a guy stopped me and said, “why are you leaving?”.  I had to get home I told him.  He said, “YOU CANT LEAVE TODAY!, Tomorrow is Slab City Prom.  The biggest day of the year.  People get dressed up like a prom.  You have to stay!”.

I got into my car smiling and shaking my head.  I couldn’t believe it.  Slab City even has their own prom. I’m definitely coming back again to see that someday.