Lessons Learned in Slab City, CA

December 07 2014

Nearly 200 miles east of Los Angeles in California’s Badlands lies a tight-knit squatter settlement known as Slab City. A smattering of festively painted RVs dot the parched land amongst concrete slabs from abandoned WWII marine barracks. Residents — also known as “slabbers” — endure 120°F summers with little more than shady tents and macgyvered electric generators. “Here, a beer can actually kill you,” laughs Jen, a resident of eight years. “One drink too many and you can die from dehydration.” She glances over at two young, deeply tanned slabbers laughing uproariously in the hammocks. “Not that that’s stopped anyone.”

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Slabbers are as diverse as they come. Some are abandoned seniors driven here by poverty and strife. Others are marginalized youth trying to live off the grid. Some are dedicated recluses wanting to be left alone. Others are retirees wanting to stretch their retirement income. But slabbers have one thing in common: they look out for their neighbors. As I walked about the RV community in my stupid city clothes and a camera in hand, I lost count of how many times I got a friendly hello from a nearby trailer or saw two slabbers chatting it up in their front yards adorned with sun-bleached tapestries.

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In fact, upon arriving to East Jesus I was immediately taken under the wing of Jen, a young, sun-kissed blonde in a weathered tank top and a bleeding cut on her right ankle. She whirred toward me through the arid desert in an electric wheelchair without a care in the world, kicking up a mean trail of dust behind her. I watched her intently, peering back and forth between the cloud of dust and her crusty leg wound. “I’ll give you a tour of the place,” she offered cheerfully as I stood there, trying to assess the situation.

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We made our way through the front entrance, an elaborate gate made of carefully balanced car parts and scraps from the junkyard. A winding path unraveled before us, taking us through an array of statement vintage cars and various art installments. We came across a lopsided house, complete with a furnished living room. The couch and TV were artfully “sinking” into the ground at a steep angle. “You can go inside if you want,” said Jen. “We love putting people in there, especially if they’re on a bad trip.” It was the Madhatter’s garden of Eden.

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Jen was not shy to impart us with her political views. “Democrats, Republicans. They’re just a bunch of white men yelling at each other.” I chuckled at the grand simplicity of it all. For the past four years, I’d dished out thousands of dollars for a social science degree, discussing political theories and partisan values and diplomacy for months on end, only to have it boiled down to a mere sentence by a woman cruising around the desert in a wheelchair. “I can’t disagree with that,” I replied.

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Jen later invited us to her art colony, where she shared a cluster of trailers and a common space with four other men. “Things are a bit slow around here during the summer,” she said as she took us through a shaded sitting room, a terrace with a hot tub, even an outdoor music studio complete with an old grand piano and four amps. “Everyone ducks out for the summer, you know, ’cause of the heat. But come winter, this place can fill up to 25 people.”

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The camp was a true spectacle. There was a carpeted yard with dozens of antique sofas and tufted armchairs scattered about, where residents gathered to smoke and play chess. There was a small trailer known as the Library, lined with shelves upon shelves of books ranging from plant encyclopedias and religious documents to graphic novels and porn. There was even a mini-bar set up, complete with fancy wine glasses and an array of hard liquor, most of which came in plastic containers.

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As we parted ways, Jen invited us to come back on the Fourth of July, where we can all “sit around, drink beer, and watch sh*t blow up like real Americans do.” Though I knew I would be in NYC by then, I smiled and told her I would. “Hey, before you go, you have to check out this skate park I built,” interjected a burly man covered in tattoos. “It’s on the way back to Salvation Mountain. You have to go check it out,” he said with a toothy smile. I was floored — scared, even — by how comfortable I felt there. “I’ll keep an eye out,” I told Burly Man. “Thanks for having us.”

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We emerged from Slab City with chapped lips and sand in our hair, dizzy with wonder — or was it the heat? It’s hard to tell. We rode home in blissful silence on the four-hour-drive back, trying to make sense of it all. How was it that a quick visit to Salvation Mountain had turned into a 3-hour detour to Slab City? Moreover, how was it that a matte-haired woman living in 120°F weather with nothing but an electric wheelchair and the clothes on her back had proved to be the most easygoing and clearheaded woman I’ve ever met?

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Still, as we burnt rubber on the 111 heading back into city lights and civilization, I could feel the shimmering magic escape my clenched fingers and dissipate into thin air. The radio was starting to kick in, we had phone reception again — and it was too late. As we left the panoramic Badlands behind us, we’d left behind the marrow of our souls; the part that makes us lonely, proud, dangerous.

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