If you can find the Salton Sea in your handy road atlas (or in Google Maps on a smartphone, like a “normal” person), your eyes may fall on the small town of Niland, CA, which lies just east of this vast body of salt water. Niland is the last “on-the-grid” town before the lawless, and arguably limitless, territory called Slab City.
Once home to WWII-era Marine barracks at Camp Dunlap, the only remains from military operations in the area, which were suspended permanently in 1956, are the giant slabs of concrete upon which the barracks once stood. These remaining concrete footers are responsible for the site’s present-day moniker: “The Slabs.”
The top hits in a Google Search for Slab City suggest it as a relaxing “winter getaway” for retired RV-folk, otherwise known as “Snowbirds.” The ‘city’ also sees many daily visitors, but a much smaller percentage venture to stay overnight. If you’re willing to continue past the ‘gates’ at Salvation Mountain, the city is actually spans a large area, extending, quite ambiguously, for miles in every direction.
The area covered by Slab City, however, wasn’t my main concern as we approached. Tagged widely as ‘The Last Lawless Place in America’, Slab City promised a unique experience, to put it kindly. Who and what one might encounter in this desert settlement, was anyone’s guess. And as we approached, my stomach was uneasy about the prospects.
An Interesting Introduction
We rolled into Slab City as the sun set brilliantly over the calm salt waters to the west. In the fading light, we made out dozens of RVs, of various size, age, and condition, scattered across this patch of barren desert. In search of any human willing to offer their version of an introductory speech, we followed signs to the ‘Internet Café.’
When we pulled into the ‘café’ parking lot, what we found in front of us was little more than a 10’ by 20’ square of concrete littered with couches and chairs and covered by a crude tin roof. Clearly, the major expense was the 52-inch flat screen television hanging on the wall. It was an obvious contradiction to its’ surroundings, but even way out here one must be able to tune into their favorite NFL games.
This was the occasion for several community members gathering at the café on this night, and we had barely stepped out of the RV when we found our ‘greeting party’. Two men approached us, one in his mid-40s and the other mid-20s. The former also claimed to be a newcomer to ‘The Slabs’ while the latter informed us he’d been roaming around “these parts” for nearly five years.
After exchanging stories and passing around the customary peace pipe, we found ourselves engulfed in a ‘wild goose chase’ for the elder stranger’s pet circus cat. The irony of the situation was undeniable, as the man had been boasting of his talents as an animal trainer just five minutes before discovering his own cat had been lost. He even claimed to have worked with the famous Barnum & Bailey’s circus and that his pet passenger was “the most famous trained cat in the world.” But it appeared that a failure to roll up the passenger side window in his truck had resulted in the escape of this famous feline. As we canvassed an unknown desert landscape in the dark, the thought of this being an elaborate ruse came to my mind, and once it did, I couldn’t escape that sneaking suspicion that we were being duped. These men could have been an honest cat trainer and his newfound stoner friend, but they could also have more sinister intentions in mind.
As my suspicions grew, I found it more and more difficult to give these men the benefit of the doubt, and I finally convinced my travel mates to abandon this ‘wild cat chase.’ The uneasy feelings I harbored upon entering this lawless frontier had been validated by our first encounter, and I began to wonder whether this side-trip had been a mistake. Without a word of farewell to the two strangers combing the desert for their feline companion, we quickly and quietly stole back to our RV to relocate.
Driving Around in the Dark
Per a recommendation from our greeting party, we next followed signs to a town called East Jesus, which actually lie on the western edge of the The Slabs, now that I think about it. The streets of East Jesus were dark and quiet, and it was clear that we had arrived in the ‘dog days’ that often follow an extravagant gathering. It was just three days after the celebration of the New Year.
The creative artwork in East Jesus would have been quite a sight in broad daylight, and even in the darkness it was quite impressive to see the time and energy the community had poured into their creations. These statues and sculptures were lifeless, and we found little in the way of human life as well, but as we decided to turn tail and head back towards a more central location in the city, however, we heard a man call out to us from his property just off the road. We pulled over and he came down to chat. He carried with him a thick accent. It was heavy and reminiscent of Russian, or possibly another Easter European country.
I don’t have a good ear for accents in the slightest, and we failed to ask where he hailed from. My suspicions being raised from our previous encounter, I sat silently in the rear of the RV while my two companions conversed with the accented stranger. He seemed honest and genuine, but my trust was not in generous supply in those moments, even for my travel companions. However, we were where we were, as one might say, and this gentleman appeared to be the best informational resource available at the time.
Us being three men in our early 20s, he recommended where we might find a few ladies to show us around Slab City. Of course we took his suggestion, despite my reservations about the prospect of finding three upstanding women willing to entertain three stinky vagabonds and a dog sharing a space of less than 200 square feet. (In hindsight, if there were ever a place, Slab City would seem to be it!)
What followed was another hour of navigating through the dark, dusty ‘streets’ of The Slabs trying to decide upon a spot to make camp for the night. Eventually, we drove past a small camp that boasted a cozy-looking bonfire. There appeared to be six or eight young folk close to our age sitting around the fire. One played guitar and sang while the others stared into the fire and swayed to the music. This seemed like our crowd, and I made the suggestion that we circle back and inquire as to whether we might join them.
Our RV boasted a handy megaphone and our driver slightly startled the group with an unexpected inquiry, “Y’all mind if we park here?” The answer, “Come one over,” wafted back to our ears from the fire. We had our spot for the night. Being suspicious of the folks to be found in this forgotten desert, I was last to leave the RV and greet the strangers around the fire. But once the strangers learned we came with firewood and whiskey, they welcomed us with open arms. We spent both of our nights in The Slabs with our new, although temporary, friends, exchanging food, booze, stories, and music. No hard currency passed between hands during this time.
Chance Encounters in Slab City
The next morning I stepped out for a stroll around The Slabs with our new Husky puppy, Zeke. I walked past the community cemetery and a number of individual campsites with inexplicable varieties of materials gathered in semi-organized piles. More frequently, ‘resources’ were tossed about with seemingly no semblance of order whatsoever. Once my RV-mates rose, they hopped on our bicycles and met me at Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain is an altar, of sorts, that exists just inside the entrance to Slab City. It is the product of 25 years of inspired work at the hands of a man named Leonard Knight, who had moved out to the desert in the mid-80s. Upon the mountain there is written a number of Bible verses and other philosophical quotations.
This is where we met four beautiful ladies from the Netherlands. They rented a colorful “peace wagon” in L.A. and were now traveling the southwestern U.S. They caught word of Slab City on television and set their minds on experiencing this “haven for alternative living” for themselves. Our newfound Husky companion helped us make a favorable introduction and we exchanged numbers in hopes of meeting later that evening.
After returning to camp, we decided on a trip to the community hot springs, where we met a couple that had hitchhiked to The Slabs all the way from Oregon. Eventually they were invited back to our camp for the evening, which proved quite fortunate, as they recovered one of my mates’ phones that had been left at the springs. No doubt he had been a bit distracted by the beautiful group of women from the Netherlands that had also found their way to the springs.
For my part, I fell in love many times over that night, certainly aided by the booze and other substances on hand, but previously laid plans compelled us to say our goodbyes and continue down the road the next morning. I think a part in each of us seriously pondered the possibility of shirking these plans and responsibilities and remaining in The Slabs for an undetermined period of time.
I’ll be honest about pushing for our departure, however. My judgmental ego had seen enough of the place, for the time being. The original group that inhabited our camp when we first arrived traveled in a beat-up old minivan and most spent their nights lying under the stars. They told stories of dumpster diving when food was scarce and a few seemed in desperate need of significant dental care.
But despite the seeming “misfortune” that had fallen upon this lot, none asked for pity, or for handouts, or even for a lift to the closest city. In fact, they were happier than many others who would, at least by the greater portion of society, be deemed to be living a “more civilized” life.
In spite of my skeptic nature, I sit here now, weeks removed from The Slabs, strongly questioning whether these uneducated and disgustingly egotistical judgments were warranted. Were any of our possessions stolen? Did our bikes mysteriously vanish when we neglected to lock them up for two nights in a row? Did anyone attempt to take advantage of us in any way? I find, now, that the answer to these questions is a resounding “No.”
It’s important, I think, to note that those we perceive as “more civilized” or whom appear to be “more civilized,” at least on the surface, may not actually be so when the curtains are pulled back and truth is exposed. And on the flip side, those that appear to be “uncivilized” may actually have more truth and meaning to them than we would like, or care, to believe.
The Return to Salvation Mountain
As we drove out of Slab City, Salvation Mountain said to us its gracious farewell. The cars of day visitors sat in the parking lot and their inhabitants roamed the ‘attraction’ taking pictures. I considered how my closest friends and family might react to the sight that now lay before my eyes. I’ll admit it’s enough to make even the uninterested agnostic pause and ponder, and it initially struck me as being quite fanatical.
But as the mountain shrank in the distance, my eyes could only make out the largest letters presented thereupon. The ‘quote of all quotes’, one might say. The more the words sunk in, the more I felt they reflected an undeniable truth, and the more incapable I became of ignoring their message.
The message read, “God Is Love,” and for me, the truth in these words has become inescapable. As we’ve continued our travels eastward, and now settled here in Austin, this truth is reaffirmed on a daily basis. Beauty is present in many forms. Love is the inherent right of every human, from the homeless man on the street corner to the Fortune 500 CEO. Keeping our eyes and ears open to beauty and embracing love and acceptance for all of humankind, requires daily practice.
“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it, you see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees, which means appreciating them just the way they are.” — Ram Dass