Slab City USA
The Observer, Mar 2003
Life, love and lawlessness in the Mojave Desert.
In the heart of the Mojave Desert, among the ruins of an old army training base, lies a makeshift camp. There’s no running water, no electricity and no sanitation, but it’s the last place in America where you can park your trailer for nothing. Sanjiv Bhattacharya meets the disenchanted war veterans, society dropouts and Scrabble-playing pensioners who are proud to call Slab City home.
Photographs by Robert Yager
Also at The Observer
Deep in the middle of the Mojave desert, on a slab of baking concrete, Jim and Rona slow dance to Perry Como’s ‘More Than You Know’. When the orchestra subsides, you can hear in the distance the muffled booms of warplanes bombing the nearby Chocolate Mountains. A murmur ripples through the assembled old folk at the Loners On Wheels afternoon dance – ‘Hear that? They’re bombing again. Second time this week’ – and then the music starts up once more. A spot of shelling on a Tuesday afternoon is par for the course around these parts.
‘That’s nothing, you should have been here before the last war in 1991,’ says Jim, giving Rona a twirl. He peers into the distance, lifts his chin and takes a deep breath, as though mingling nostalgia for Perry Como with the liberation of Kuwait. ‘We didn’t want for entertainment back then, you just stepped outside your RV [Recreational Vehicle] and enjoyed the light show. But that’s Slab City – there’s no electricity, but, hey, the fireworks are free!’
Slab City is the last free campsite in America – a litter of strewn trailers and Winnebagos in the wilderness of the southern California desert. For the last 40 years, up to 3,000 campers at a time have lived here without electricity, water, trash or sewage facilities. Some come out of poverty, trying to eke a life out of a dwindling pension, others to flee their tragic pasts or hide from the authorities. But many come for a characterful pitstop between the plush campsites of San Diego and Palm Springs.
Slab City has been described as either functioning anarchy, the antidote to the American dream, the last truly free patch of America, or a tragic indictment of the modern economy, a scree of human debris washed up by society. It may be all of these things. ‘Post-apocalyptic,’ is how some locals describe it. ‘Like Mad Max 2003.’
In Slab City, toothless bums live on threadbare sofas alongside retired suburbanites in gleaming $300,000 motor homes, and together they watch illegal alien smugglers tear through the encampment with wailing patrol cars in pursuit. Turn a few quick corners, and you will pass in turn, a Rainbow Warrior, an ex-militia leader, a methamphetamine dealer and a gaggle of single pensioners playing cribbage. Drunks splash around in the Colorado river, while foragers return from the bombing fields with unexploded artillery clattering around in the back of their pickups. No one works. Stripped cars and rusted parts are scattered all over. Yet of Slab City’s myriad eccentricities, it is the bombing of the Chocolate Mountains that in some way spawned it all. In fact, Slab City may be the only community which aerial bombardment has actually helped to create rather than annihilate.
During the Second World War, the US military selected this featureless patch of adobe and scrub to build the 640-acre Camp Dunlop Marine Training facility. Roughly 50 miles from Mexico and four miles from the tumbleweed town of Niland, the camp was sufficiently isolated for General Patton to practice desert manoeuvres and for the Enola Gay bombers to rehearse their nuclear missions (‘post-apocalyptic’ indeed).
When the war was won, the camp was dismantled and sold on, bit by bit. By 1961, all that remained were a few potholed mudtracks and the concrete foundations – the very slabs upon which Jim and Rona now dance.
Squatters soon trickled in. Itinerant fruit-pickers from the north, hippies and many a war veteran – of Korea, Vietnam, even the Second World War – all of whom were attracted by the free parking and the clement winters. ‘On my pension, free camping is about all I can afford,’ sighs Ian, a 78-year old. ‘It suits me because I’ve got arthritis, and Mexico’s only an hour away, so I can get cheap medicines.’ By the early 70s, a community of mobile homebodies had sprouted from the desert, 3,000 strong at its peak. Today, the population is just under a thousand.
‘It sounds like a hard life, but it isn’t really, for us desert rats!’ says Jim, a retired building contractor who, at 67, has been a Slabber for over 15 years. ‘You just need to conserve your water and your energy. I get my water delivered in a 50-gallon drum from Niland. I bathe in hot springs. I’ve got a TV, radio, laptop, and cellphone in my RV, and it all runs off solar panels on the roof. I suppose it’s hard if you need your Starbucks every morning, but not if you like to hike instead.’
The likes of Jim and Rona make up 90 per cent of Slab City’s population – known as Snowbirds, a migrant flock of RV-ers, they arrive from all corners of the country, but stay only for the winter. The typical Snowbird is an elderly loner who takes to the road after a late-life trauma, often divorce or the death of a partner.
Prompted by a spike of loneliness and boredom, and the sorry prospect of becoming burdens to their children, they set off boldly, like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt , as much in flight from their pasts, as in search of adventure, independence and perhaps a companion to see them through. Jim and Rona met through Loners on Wheels, a nationwide network dedicated to the lonely RV-er.
The singles scene in Slab City is orderly to a fault – the RVs are huddled together into a kind of prim Singles District, an island of swept tidiness at stark odds to the chaos beyond. This gulf is a point of pride to many club members. ‘I expect you’ve seen the upturned cars and tyres, right?’ asked Willard, a retired journalist, looking up from his Scrabble letters. ‘Don’t get me wrong, they’re interesting characters, but this is uptown Slab City, you’re on snob hill right now, oh yes…’
Outside of the gentrification of the Scrabble set, Slab City begins to resemble the post-apocalypse for which it is known – ramshackle RVs, heaped tyres, gutted cars and the yaps and howls of skinny dogs. This is the world of the full-time Slabber, the year-long resident. Most fulltimers are dirt poor, with more fingers than teeth; they are frequently alcoholic, emphysemic and their raddled skin is cracked deep and dark. When the Snowbirds flee the heat in April, only 80 or so Slabbers remain to endure the punishing summers during which temperatures frequently rise to 130 in the shade. For the fulltimers, Slab City is about survival, not Scrabble.
‘That heat will make your brains boil if you’re not careful, so you have to cover yourself in wet sheets,’ says Rusty, a hobbling veteran of the Korean war who turns 73 this year. Rusty lives down the road from the Loners On Wheels camp with a whining dog in a shack that might have been blown in from the hills. ‘Every year someone dies of the heat in the summer,’ he says, between hacking coughs.’
For all its hardship, Slab City is Rusty’s piece of the American dream. He regards his harsh but simple existence as a tribute to the pioneers who built America and defined its freedoms. ‘This is about as free as you’re going to get,’ he says. ‘It used to be more free, before the government started trying to take our guns. If you ask me, they’re betraying the people that made this country great. Us patriots were flying that flag way before 9/11. I ain’t saying I’m a hero, I’m not. All the heroes are dead.’
Rusty is happiest talking about the war, the Second Amendment and the many attributes of Charlton Heston. He is less keen on the Snowbirds. ‘They’re supposed to be Americans,’ he spits.
The animosity between the Snowbirds and the fulltimers is mutual, it has all the character of a smouldering class rift, the tension between the suburbs and the ghettos. At nights, on CB channel 23, Snowbirds grumble about the graveyard of car parts belonging to Tommy Flintstone, another Korean veteran and fulltimer. ‘They say it’s an eyesore, they say I’m ruining a pristine desert,’ says Tommy, ‘but these people have never seen a pristine desert in their damn lives! I tell them to stop chopping down the shade trees for firewood. They don’t have to live here all summer.’ Similarly, when Rusty used to operate a nine-man militia, here on the Slabs, the Snowbirds would call the cops. ‘I had a militia for 15 years and we used to train here. But everyone got so bent out of shape when they heard the guns go off. I figured out a scenario where the terrorists could come over that hill and take over this whole camp by tomorrow. Who’s going to stop them, a few sherrifs?’
As far gone as Rusty sounds, regarding an imminent invasion of al-Qaeda guerrillas, he is a model of sanity next to his neighbour, Gary. Known as Snakeman, Gary will coax a rattler out of your trailer, and take it back to his own, where he keeps a menagerie of serpents, scorpions and rats. His trailer is surrounded by wild dogs and his website, www.imperialvalleygateway.50megs.com, proclaims: ‘I build animal cages, I enjoy junk collecting, I point rifles at other people and Im [sic] better than everybody else.’ Rusty calls over, ‘Hey, Snakeman!’ But there is no answer. ‘He’s probably sleeping. You could go and knock on him, but those dogs will get a piece of you first.’
While the Snowbirds whine about the mess the fulltimers make, the fulltimers complain that the Snowbirds betray the spirit of the Slabs. Calling the police runs counter to the spirit of anarchy, of Slab justice, that prevails here. The Slab motto – ‘If you don’t like your neighbour, just move!’ – is gloriously idealistic. Often, when one Slabber takes offence at another, he will burn down his trailer or rob him. Which is when a vigilantism rears its head. A couple of years ago, a persistent thief was found decapitated in the river.
Slabbers, Snowbird and otherwise, are proud of their tenacity, resourcefulness and simplicity. The example they often give, their mascot almost, is Leonard Knight, the 73-year-old artist eccentric who lives in his work just outside Slab City proper. No one else so embodies the bursting of life from its junk and dust.
Knight’s Salvation Mountain is a monument of American folk art, hailed by congresswoman Barbara Boxer – who led the petition to have Salvation Mountain enshrined as such – as ‘a unique and visionary sculpture encompassing five acres’, an ‘iridescent fusion of doves, clouds, flags, flowers, hearts, streams and Biblical messages’. Childishly rendered, in loud primary colours, it sprawls over the mountain, gallons of donated paint proclaiming to the heavens, ‘Jesus I’m A Sinner Please Come Into My Heart’. Every day, pretty much, visitors from as far as Japan stop by to marvel at his 18-year labour.
Salvation Mountain is all the more remarkable for the pall of death that pervades Slab City. It is carried by the wind, the reek of dead fish which brim the surface of the nearby polluted Salton Sea. And, though it is rarely spoken, Slabbers will tell you that, yes, people come here to die, so as not to be found by their family. Death, they say, is common enough in the Slabs.
‘I only want a companion before I check out,’ shrugs Bernie, a fit 87-year-old from Lancashire via Vancouver. ‘But I was married for 53 years, it’s hard to be single all of a sudden. And people are cliquey. They don’t talk to you if you’re new. You’d have thought we’d be past that at our age.’
As the sun sets to a shimmering eyelid slice, and the vast jet-scored sky swirls with the finest shades of mauve, fires are lit all over the Singles quarter of Slab City, and old men sit around rubbing their hands and swapping tales. The CBs are tuned in, just in case there’s a car chase, and almost everyone will be asleep by nine. Slab City awakes before most of us. By 4am, the Snowbirds will be off hiking again, Leonard will be up and painting, and the wild dogs will begin their yapping once more.
Given the impending emergency of uninsured elderly and demographics alone, Slab City ought to be growing, but the opposite is true. There are no Mexican Slabbers to prop the numbers – despite its proximity to the border, Slab City is a strictly Caucasian camp – and each year older residents die off. As for the younger generation of Slab City, they were moved out by the authorities last year, when child protection services ruled that Slab City was no place to raise kids. They withdrew 45 children and their parents from the camp, leaving behind only one teenager, a 17-year-old called Willie who looks after his mentally ill mother.
No one knows what will become of Slab City. The state of California periodically threatens to shut it down, but nothing ever happens – officially, the state seems to pretend Slab City doesn’t exist. Rather than make the place an official campsite and charge a fee, as certain Snowbirds would like, Imperial County simply denies the Slabs a trash service.
‘That’s all we ask,’ says Pastor Phil, who runs the Slab City Christian Centre. ‘A trash service. We can’t even dump in the local landfill, now that’s not too much to ask.’ After five years of evangelism and outreach work, Phil has become a first port of call for many desperate Slabbers – a soft touch for food, help with filling out forms, a trip to the hospital. Yet he draws the line at trash pickup. ‘It would be nice if we had a community well, but other than that, there isn’t any major problem here that you don’t have in the average village in America, maybe even less.’
At which point Rusty comes staggering and wheezing across the yard. ‘Pastor Phil,’ he says breathlessly. ‘I’m worried about Snakeman Gary. I haven’t heard from him all day, I think one of his snakes finally got him. He’s been bit about 15 times, maybe this time, I don’t know… But I’m scared to go in there with all those rattlers and scorpions.’
Phil nods and excuses himself. ‘OK, I think I’ve got the council’s number.’
Just an average village in America.