Slab city is a makeshift unincorporated community just east of the Salton Sea. If you’ve ever wanted to escape from society but can’t afford to leave the country, this might be the place for you. People live an unstructured lifestyle in campers, RVs, and whatever else they can assemble, sometimes just huts made of scrap wood and tarp. It is a little bit freedom, a little bit anarchy, and a little bit crystal meth, at least that was my first impression. I had lived in a tent city for two years on the Spit in Homer, Alaska, and that’s what it reminded me of. Ten people hanging around in a broken-down vehicle, drinking and passing a pipe around.
The cement slabs that are responsible for the name were left over from a military installation that ceded the land to the state after shutting its doors. I don’t know who the first peaceniks were who thought to occupy it, but the idea spread. Apparently, it is busiest during the winter when snowbirds come down from the north to escape the cold weather.
The guard posts for what used to be Fort Dunlop have been painted over and graffitied on. On the first one I came to there were a few tags and a picture of a vibrator with the accompanying admonition. Good Vibes Only. Other cement posts bore messages as well. Welcome. The Last Free Place on Earth. Not all who Wander are Lost.
This was my tribe, in spirit at least. I’d been looking to get off the grid my entire life, but had eventually found it easier to escape to affordable tropical countries, rather than staking my claim in a broken vehicle, out in the middle of nowhere. Also, whenever you choose to live outside of society, you keep mixed company, sometimes with others who didn’t make that decision voluntarily. There are allegedly neighborhoods in Slab City, but it was largely deserted the day that I chose to drive though. Either that or the residents were lying low, watching me through binoculars.
There were a few RVs with cars parked outside a church, an old pickup truck that had become an art installation. In the center was a compound with a wooden tower and an American flag. It claimed to be the Church of Enlightenment. One guy crawled out of some wreckage and ran up and got in the back of a pickup truck that was passing by. They eyed me in defiance, and made a show out of getting all groovy. What did I care? I might’ve looked like a federal agent but wasn’t one.
Leaving Slab City, I stopped and got out at Salvation Mountain. Opening the door, a gust of wind nearly tore the car door off its hinges. That would’ve been extremely unfortunate, the day before I was set to return it. Salvation Mountain was the thirty-year project of an artist named Leonard Knight, who used thousands of gallons of latex paint to create a colorful, Biblical shrine in the middle of the desert.
A cross sits on top of the painted hill, and abandoned vehicles, similarly adorned with paint and scripture, around it, like toy cars in a sandbox. God is Love. Love is Universal. The Holy Bible. Salvation. Jesus loves You. Around a trailer sat hundreds of empty cans. The artist had gotten his point across. Salvation Mountain resembles a giant confection, all sugar, and gumdrops, and frosting, like something Hansel and Gretel would’ve broken into looking for candy.
Back on the 111, I drove parallel to another long train for a few miles, relentlessly blowing its horn. At a curve in the road, it briefly appeared to be circling through the sky. When I got to the 10, I pulled over at a gas station to get something to drink. Walking back to the car, I saw a dirty whirlwind making its way toward the lot where I stood. Just before it hit, it dispersed, bombarding the station with all the debris it had sucked up; plastic bags, paper, Styrofoam cups, weeds. It was an ugly exhalation, a reminder to keep moving. Those wild years in Alaska had been ages ago. Time was no longer on my side.