Design for Life: Slab City: Where Freedom’s Still Free

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Photography By Michael Rauner
Made of reused materials, colorful "Salvation Mountain" has broadcast biblical messages for more than 20 years.

People warned me not to go to Slab City. “Lots of drug activity there,” one said. “More than a few folks who haven’t checked in with their parole officers,” another said. But I’d been intrigued by Slab City for years. I had to see for myself.

Slab City is a squatter community on the site of a former military base in the Southern California desert, east of the Salton Sea near the little town of Niland. Aging asphalt roads and concrete slabs are the only reminders of its past. For decades, as many as 3,000 RVers have wintered at Slab City, and 100 or so tough out the searing summer temperatures. If you’ve seen the movie Into the Wild, you’ve seen Slab City.

What fascinates me about Slab City isn’t just the free rent. It’s that a strange assortment of people have come together in a harsh environment, with no utilities and virtually no structure, and implemented a wide array of social institutions without benefit of government or budget. Despite an obvious setup for law-breaking behavior and a population in constant flux, most Slabbers carry on convivial traditions year after year. They have their own rules (“be kind, but stay out of other people’s business”), services (waste disposal and water supply for a small fee), businesses (Solar Works for affordable photovoltaics), salvage-based artwork and social clubs. The population encompasses a wide range of financial circumstances, ages, styles of dress and bathing behaviors (though there are few school-age children).

The Slab City lowdown

During my first foray into Slab City, I happened upon about 20 members of Loners on Wheels (LoWs), a national solo RVers organization, enjoying happy hour. As they lounged around tables in their tarp-shaded courtyard, they invited me to join them. Their only requirement was that I be happy.

I looked around at my hosts and almost laughed. Parolees? Drug runners? Hardly. They were retired adults from all over the country, mostly RV fulltimers, who love the desert air and life without mortgage payments. As one white-haired LoW woman says, “This is one of the few places in America where freedom is still free.”

The LoW courtyard is bordered on three sides by old trailers that have been turned into a library, office, mail room, game room, kitchen, movie theater and battery room for the photovoltaic system. LoWs share morning campfire, coffee and hugs; daytime field trips, card games and shuffleboard tournaments; work parties to repair or remodel facilities; late afternoon happy hour; evening potlucks and movies.

Down the road is the Oasis Club, and around the corner is the Travel’n Pals compound. All have the same basic layout: several painted trailers encircling a large slab, with a shade structure over the open space in the middle. All have minimal membership fees and regular activity schedules.

Activities are plentiful at Slab City: free live music at The Stage Door and The Range; Sunday afternoon church at the baby-blue double-wide near the entrance; lunch by donation at Karma Kitchen; breakfast for a small fee at the Oasis Club. CB Linda broadcasts news and announcements Monday through Friday at 6 p.m. In the four Slab City libraries, people donate books at liberty and take out books on the honor system. Slabbers have also cobbled together a golf course, a hot spring and an outdoor shower. 

Slab City spirit

I stayed at Slab City for a few days and began to notice charming details. Anonymous artists had decorated palo verde trees and ringed creosote bushes with small stones. Streets bore handmade signs with names honoring Slab City landmarks and heroes. Slabbers have created elaborate dwellings with gardens, fences and shade structures, embellished with items scavenged from the ubiquitous junk piles.

On Saturday night, I wandered over to The Range Stage for some music and people-watching. Slabbers lounged on old couches facing the stage or mingled around the snack bar while a series of Slab bands played. The musical quality was mixed, but the spirit of casual friendliness was the main act.

The next morning, over pancakes and eggs at the Oasis Club, I recognized last night’s MC. He said he’d moved to Slab City years ago and found that there wasn’t much to do. Over the next several years, he created The Range Stage, seating area, and lighting and sound systems out of salvage and donations. “It’s the first thing I’ve done in my life that made a difference,” he says.

I shall return

I want to go back to Slab City and stay longer–create my own desert dwelling, mine junk heaps for inspiring materials, live rent-free and off the grid, hang out with freedom-loving people. That freedom can cause problems–burning trash piles, loud and late weekend concerts and chained dogs that lunge, barking, at passersby–but still, I’m pulled back.

I’ve spent my life within layers of government and utility services, subliminally ingesting their rules and fees. In Slab City, everything that happens is the brainchild of someone I can see and talk with. That kind of direct freedom is compelling.