It was kind of an ironic way—Airbnb—for my wife and I to visit the “last free place in America,” as Slab City, California is known: a decidedly anti-capitalist, nomadic art community in the desert near the Salton Sea where fringe members of society live rent free in makeshift camps.
Far east of the gentrified ‘hoods of Los Angeles, well beyond well-traveled Joshua Tree, in the Sonoran Desert on the other side of the apocalyptic Salton Sea, under the cruel sun in the California badlands in the state’s poorest county—Imperial—and just an hour’s drive north from the Mexican border, is Salvation Mountain, an enormous work of art on the side of a parched three-story hill created by the late artist and Korean War veteran Leonard Knight.
The hill is covered with Bible verses and brightly pastellic and psychedelic latex paints, concrete, and adobe, his tribute and monument to God and Jesus. In large letters across the colorful hill, it reads, unironically, “God is Love” and “Say Jesus I’m a sinner please come upon my body and into my heart.” Knight lived on site in a small trailer as he worked on the piece for more than two decades, and it remains a work-in-progress after his death in 2014 at age 82 after losing his hearing, sight, and a leg.
On the other side of that hill is Slab City, the site of an abandoned World War II-era Marine Corps artillery training base and barracks called Camp Dunlap, named after Brigadier General Robert Henry Dunlap.
Camp Dunlap was dismantled in the late 1950s and the state acquired the land in 1961. All that remains are thick concrete pylons, hence the name Slab City. The state has essentially acted as an absentee landlord for decades, allowing drifters, squatters, loners, dropouts, fugitives, hippies, hobos, desert dwellers, gypsies, artists, freight-hoppers, nomads, drug addicts, and other fringe members of society to settle there and set up camp rent free, property tax free, and homeowner covenant free.
There are about 150 residents, called “slabbers”, who live year-round in ad hoc camps, RVs, vans, trailers, school buses, campers, mobile homes, and other makeshift structures in a ramshackle grid format, off-the-grid—there are no services such as running water, power lines or electricity, streetlights, sewage service, or garbage pickup. Its bumpy, dirt roads have no stop signs. A few thousand more snowbird slabbers—those with somewhere else to go during the summer months when temperatures reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit—flood the 631-acre area during the winter months.
For reasons still not clear to me, we decided to go in mid-July, when it is not just sickeningly hot, but unforgivingly bright.
As you head east out of Los Angeles, the desert becomes a caricature of itself when you reach the Salton Sea, a desolate, otherworldly rift lake located on top of the San Andreas Fault. The Salton Sea formed in 1905 after massive flooding in the Colorado River broke through an irrigation canal headwork and flowed into the Salton Basin over a period of 18 months. The lake is shallow, saline, and endorheic (does not flow to the ocean). The communities that do exist around the sea are rundown, relics of a bygone era when Hollywood celebrities vacayed here in the 1950s and 60s. Long-since abandoned resorts dot the shoreline. Beautiful works of art exist among these ruins as well. The towns, such as they are, are eerily empty and quiet, though signs of life can be seen here and there. The smell is certainly overwhelming: a delectable aroma of beached fish, decaying birds, and the aforementioned sulfur.
Agricultural runoff from the surrounding farms have polluted the lake. That combined with the intolerable increase of its salinity has made life untenable here. Bombay Beach, a small former resort town that used to be Hollywood celebrities’ go-to destination, is now one generation removed from a ghost town. The 2010 census recorded a population of 295. However, as of a few years ago, the area has been undergoing a revitalization as artists led by filmmaker Tao Ruspoli, the son of an Italian prince, have launched an annual art festival known as the Bombay Beach Biennale, featuring impressive temporary pieces and permanent installations.
Upon arriving in Niland, a small town just a few blocks east of the Salton Sea, you make a left on Main Street—just past the Buckshot Deli & Diner—and then continue for about three miles. The splendor of Salvation Mountain will come into view. Further down the road, an abandoned guard post covered in graffiti, known as the Slab City Information Kiosk, serves as the entrance to the renegade community. That’s when you know you’ve officially left “The Beast”, the slabbers’ term for the outside world.
There’s more here than you might think. Slab City boasts a church; an open-air library with thousands of books in surprisingly well-organized sections; a skate park in the empty, graffitied bowl of an Olympic-size pool; a communal outdoor concert venue called The Range; a pirate radio station; a community theater; a bird watching co-op; a memorial space for slabbers who died from terminal illnesses called Edge Road Rest Area Memorial Park; two pet cemeteries with colorful and creative tombstones; art museums; a thermal hot springs; even a grassless golf course called Gopher Flats.
Another attraction is East Jesus—as in, east of nowhere—an “experimental, sustainable, habitable art installation”, essentially a sculpture garden made of discarded materials. It was founded in 2006 by the late Charles “Container Charlie” Russell. Meanwhile, a rival art colony set up West Satan nearby. As I understand it, the two do not get along.
Our Airbnb was an RV in a camp called the California Ponderosa, a funky setup with three and a half RVs arranged in a horseshoe shape, a firepit in the middle, and an outdoor makeshift kitchen complete with a string of Christmas lights and a plethora of desert yard art. The actual owner was out of town for a few months, somewhere across the country. In his absence, he asked a 27-year-old gypsy girl named Jinxy Bonesaw to take care of his camp and run his Airbnb operation.
Jinxy looked just exactly what you think a desert gypsy would look like. Tattered wraparound skirt, leather shirt cut off at the shoulders and midriff, a raccoon’s tail hanging over her butt, piercings everywhere, chopped up short hair, a floppy felt hat, and homemade, self-administered tattoos covering every inch of skin, including all over her face, with scar tattoos over her nose. She told us that the reason for the tattoos and for dressing this way was “to make other people just as uncomfortable and awkward as I feel: ‘Ha, now we’re on the same level.’”
Jinxy is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps feminist. Among her many memorable one-liners was this gem: “A woman needs a man to survive like a fish needs a bike: she don’t.”
Just east of Slab City is an open-desert area called the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, which the Navy and Marines use for aerial bombing and live fire aerial gunnery practice. From Slab City we could see a fake Middle Eastern town up the hill nestled at the foot of the small mountain range. It’s an Afghan insurgent village training complex called Al Brutus, though Jinxy called it “Little Baghdad.” Rumor has it, Navy SEAL Team Six prepared for the Osama bin Laden raid there.
Jinxy told us about the “brassers”, desert bums who go looking for bomb fragments in the range. Some brassers misread the military’s signals (noises they emit to let people in the general area know if they are commencing or just commenced bombing) and get blown up. It had happened just the other day, before we arrived.
The whole area, indeed, was filled with danger. Separating Slab City proper from the bombing range is the Coachella Canal—a fast-moving canal teeming with catfish. Slabbers sometimes go swimming in the canal and float from one ladder on the walls of the canal to another. But if you miss the last ladder, you will get sucked into an underwater tunnel with a turbine and get chopped into tiny pieces before you even drown.
One morning, I stepped out of our trailer at the Ponderosa and said, “Hey Jinxy, we’re going to the Cold Shower, want to come?”
“Gosh dangit, you done said the magic words!” she replied.
Back by the Information Kiosk and the entrance to Slab City, on a side dirt road, is a cold waterfall in a subterranean drainage pit shaded by small palm trees, which slabbers call the Cold Shower. It is the best thing ever in dry yet muggy 120-degree summer heat. You climb down a rusty metal ladder into the drainage pit and stick your head under the fast-moving waterfall. Instant relief.
We hopped into her truck and off we went.
For $20 and some edibles, Jinxy and her boyfriend Mikey took us on a tour of Slab City in their truck. People had some pretty sophisticated, long-term camp setups. Others, not so much.
Jinxy said that slabbers protect each other. If someone hurts others in the community, especially women or children, that person gets “burned out” by the community, meaning they torch the person’s place, destroy their stuff, and send them on their way. Slabbers are trying to live in peace. Internal justice. Though the Imperial County Sheriff’s deputies patrol the region, they rarely make an appearance.
During our tour, Jinxy’s truck stalled. In true bootstrap feminist form, she got out, popped the hood, and literally jumped into the engine to fix it.
At night, they took us to The Range, Slab City’s communal space and outdoor music venue. Every Saturday they host an open mic and talent show, and occasionally throw a funky prom. Jinxy called The Range “a cozy womb of broken glass.”
Builder Bill, an elderly, white-haired man and lifelong slabber, manages The Range, which includes a wooden stage set up between two old blue buses. Torn couches and ratty chairs provide the audience seating under strings of lights. Numerous dogs roam the venue.
The first musician we saw surprised us with his soulful, beautiful music, and great voice. Totally unexpected.
The second musician was not from Slab City. He was a blonde, skinny, twenty-something hipster singer/songwriter guy, probably from Silver Lake.
He had visited in November the previous year during the high season when there are lots of partiers, and he expected the same good vibes, but instead it was just a scattering of tired, sweaty locals. It was a very low-key night.
In between songs, as he kept trying to start a story, he was interrupted repeatedly from the peanut gallery by a slabber punk girl. For example:
Singer/songwriter: “When I was here last time in Slab City, I had such a magical, transformative experience. I met all these people… but they’re not here now.”
Punk girl: “Shut up, we’re dying.”
Singer/songwriter: “Where else but Slab City can you meet someone and make a friend right away?”
Punk girl: “Less talk, more rock.”
Singer/songwriter: “I had a long, deep story about what this place means to me, but I won’t bore you.”
Punk girl: “Good.”
Finally, singer/songwriter had had enough: “Oh yeah, why don’t you come up here and play then?”
Punk girl: “Okay.”
So she got up and grabbed a bass, plugged in, and played with him. And she was an amazing musician. I think it’s safe to say, it wasn’t what the singer/songwriter was expecting.
Jinxy was also a musician and singer. She played her banjolin around any campfire she could find, but when it came time to perform on stage at The Range, she was nervous. But she still put on a good show! The songs she sang—some covers, some originals—had an old-timey twang to them and were a lot of fun. Songs about train-hopping, being a desert gypsy, with lyrics about cocaine and traveling through the Mexican desert and trying to stand on your own two feet in this often seemingly senseless world.
During a visit to Calexico, a border town about an hour south of Slab City, we bought a piñata and stuffed it with little gifts to give to Jinxy. Jinxy told us she often played her banjolin outside the Walmart Supercenter in the nearby city of Brawley to make money, halfway between Slab City and the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I love thoughtful gifts,” Jinxy said. “But listen. Next time you visit, just pitch a tent out here rather than paying $60 a night on Airbnb. This is Slab City, after all.”
Mercedes Blackehart and Justin Chapman