Trek to The City on the Edge of Forever
Skip Rorshach Freedman
I rolled into Niland, California on a lightly-overcast afternoon in the middle of December. The sun is almost set, but there will easily be enough light to get to Slab City and find a suitable spot to camp tonight. The street going east out of Niland [Main Street] is little better than the washboard road that goes out to Area 51, except this is only three miles long instead of fifteen. Driving down this road you begin to get a sense of just how immense this place is. It was originally Camp Dunlap Marine Base from 1949 to 1956 (yes, they tore it down after only seven years), which explains the big concrete slabs that give the place its name. First thing you come to is Salvation Mountain on the right, some guy’s huge multicolored religious monument.
“The Last Free Place”
Moving on, there are scores of RV’s, buses, trucks and vans scattered every which way as I cruise along the dusty jarring road. Looks a lot like Burning Man, except people are more spread out here and this desert actually has some vegetation. It’s been called “The Last Free Place”, and there are good reasons for that. It’s around 50 miles southeast of Indio (itself a desolate desert metropolis) out in the middle of the Sonoran Desert and almost at the south end of the Salton Sea. There’s also no electricity [unless you make your own], running water, trash pickup, or restrooms – you pack in everything you need.
Rattling along looking for an out-of-the-way spot, I end up heading off toward the back. There are a lot of packed-dirt trails heading off in various directions. Looks like most of the better-looking vehicles are back here, so this is definitely the place to be. There are quite a few solar cell arrays and wind generators at this end of town as well. I cruise down one path and see a five-foot rise about a couple hundred yards down. The van slips a bit going up, but makes it easily to the level top. There are scrub bushes on either side, with small piles of rusted cans at their base. In fact, there’s trash like that everywhere around here. Most bushes have at least some kind of refuse under them: discarded clothes, cans, plastic bags, or heaven alone knows what.
Hopping out to stretch my legs, the temperature is in the upper 60’s with low humidity. Nice and quiet, except for about four or five dogs barking in scattered directions. It’s dark in about an hour and the full moon rises in the southeast. Occasional stars peek through the low clouds and a gas generator hums somewhere off to the north. A few campfires are going, which gives a smell of creosote to the air. Some barely audible voices drift through the light breeze, presumably from the campfires. I get back in the van, pop open a can of Ravioli, and watch a movie on the DVD player. After that I drift into a dreamless desert sleep.
Just after 7:30 in the morning I wake up to the sound of faint yelling. Cracking open my passenger window, I see some dude standing on a huge raised slab with multicolored grafitti abut a hundred yards away screaming challenges to an unknown person. He’s pacing back and forth, flailing his arms wildly, while pointing out the apparent cowardice of his rival – who appears to be entirely imaginary. Probably acute amphetamine psychosis, a meth-head burnout. Guess he just went off the deep end; isolation like this doesn’t work for everyone. Using the sighting scope, he’s short, a little stocky and wearing an Army jacket – doesn’t even look to be thirty. After about a half hour, his voice starts getting a bit hoarse, so he hops on his bicycle and heads in the direction of town. His manic threats slowly fade out into the crisp morning air.
Welcome to Slab City.
I have my usual leisurely breakfast while reading several chapters of a book, then get a little writing done on my third book. At 11:00 a pair of fighter jets from the adjacent Marine Base practice bombing runs between Slab City and the Chocolate Mountains to the east. Their sound is trailing them by at least a quarter mile or so. They head north swooping low in formation, pull up in about a 70-degree climb, then loop back the other way. After six of these exercises they fly off to the south. Show’s over.
I do a little more reading, then head over to Salvation Mountain to check it out in more detail. It’s a huge monstrosity built on the face of what’s essentually a sand dune. Mostly constructed by Leonard Knight between 1984 and 2011 (he died two years ago at age 82), it’s made of large tree trunks, intertwined branches, bales of hay, salvaged metal pieces (mostly car doors), and a lot of plaster. There are multiple rooms and grottoes at the south end. Most of the entire thing is also painted with a couple hundred gallons of salvaged latex paint of various colors. The painting still continues through sporadic volunteers. If I’d planned on hanging around longer, I would have helped out with a brush; but I’m only going to do a day here.
There are a couple of signs pointing to the library, so I follow them around the back past Camp Goonies (a collective of high-tech tinkerers) and eventually run into an unassuming building a little ways back from the road. At first glance, it looked to be little more than a small shack surrounded by trees, but it’s actually rather sizable. It’s open-ended at two sides and has a motley collection of rug pieces completely covering the sand floor. The precarious bookshelves look to harbor somewhere around a thousand books, by my estimate. I was told by the resident librarian (a way-cool dude whose name I forgot to write down) that it’s the “take a book-leave a book” system. I mentioned the Gypsy Cool website and he said that he’d run into it before. I left them several copies of my books – a lot of folks here could probably use some of the techniques described in them (which were written to help the 99%, and irritate the rest). One thing’s for sure, people definitely have a lot of time to catch up on their reading here. Not much else to do.
I made it a point to traverse each dusty dirt road in Slab City (there’s eight total, more or less), going past places like the Slab City Hostel, the Live Music place (true to its name), the Sun Works (a solar-related workshop), and the Slab City Christian Club (completely deserted, guess religion isn’t big here). There was every kind of dwelling from simple tents to semi-permanent buildings erected on abandoned concrete foundations. Occasionally, non-functioning vehicles are built directly into these structures. There’s some very inventive construction here using salvaged materials, with a lot of Burning Man influence – except I didn’t see any domes. There were a good number of big fancy RV’s, most likely nomadic Snowbirds from up north.
On the whole, the handful of people I ran into here were reasonably friendly, for California. The younger longhairs were generally more abrasive, but that’s typical these days (Libtards, maybe?). I’d guess the median age this time of year is around 45 or so. Noticed a lot of retirees sitting around in chairs here and there, and saw only two kids. A person would need to be sturdy stock to survive here long-term in these primitive conditions, especially in the summer when the temperature is said to get up to 120 degrees. Definitely count me out on that.