The last hour of the 190-mile drive inland from L.A. to Slab City is a sensory-deprivation dash through frowning, scrubby nothingness where humans go only to escape or to hide, or because they've simply been priced out elsewhere. Beyond manicured Palm Springs and the featureless fields of the Coachella Valley, the increasingly toxic Salton Sea forms a dying mirror of the vast Colorado Desert sky, State Route 111 a thin thread of civilization between its apocalyptic abandoned resorts and the distant Chocolate Mountains.
“Make a left on Main Street in Niland and you can't miss it,” I'd been told by Slab Gram, a six-year Slab City dweller whom I'd first met outside Sunset Strip's Whisky A Go Go. Good thing, because no county signage conveys that you're approaching what has effectively been a small town for half a century, three miles down an increasingly rutted road from the former “Tomato Capital of the World.”
Cresting a bridge over an irrigation canal, I spot a multicolored blob on the beige blandness some half a mile ahead, as if all the pigment sucked out of its surroundings had been poured over this solitary, beckoning mound. It had to be Salvation Mountain — the cartoonishly vivid, 50-foot-high art installation that serves as a gateway to Slab City. As I approach, they appear, spread between scrawny trees across an ill-defined square mile framed with craggy peaks: improvised campsites of tarps and found objects; immobilized vehicles reimagined as dwellings; elaborate, cobbled-together compounds demarcated by tires; tents of all types; and myriad motor homes, some the size of studio apartments.
“I escaped right before it got bad, right before my lease was up,” says previously lifelong L.A. resident Tallulah Kidd. “I had to make the decision: Am I going to stay doing this, or am I going to just go toward the route of freedom?”
In an era of uproar over the cost of living in Los Angeles — “You Officially Have to Be Rich to Rent in L.A.,” boomed a July headline in this very publication — a trickle of locals are, like Kidd, exploring a radical, rent-free alternative in Slab City. For most Angelenos, this storied squatter community is an option extreme to the point of being hypothetical, yet “the Slabs” offer lessons for more affordable (and contented) living, even from afar.
SmartAsset recently calculated that an annual income of nearly $110,000 is required just to comfortably afford an average two-bedroom rented apartment in Los Angeles, where even a typical one-bedroom pad runs $1,949 per month (almost twice the national average). Meanwhile, the median sale price for homes in L.A. County hit an all-time high of $575,000 last summer, according to CoreLogic.
“It was costing me more than I could make [in Los Angeles],” says Paul Holman III, 55, an Angeleno since his teens who slipped into homelessness in 2015 before cycling out to Slab City a year later. Holman says he can survive on “five or six bucks” a month (augmented by food stamps and donated groceries) in the Slabs, and everyone I spoke to there claims to spend less than $200 monthly.
Upon my first visit last August, Slab City left a troubling impression of inhuman conditions and admirable, if almost incomprehensible, survivalism. During summer's lingering triple-digit days, the maybe 100 to 150 year-round “Slabbers” move minimally, and then only in furtive zigzags dictated by precarious patches of shade. Like a perpetual hair dryer to the face, temperatures that can top 120 degrees are hard not to take personally, and most in Slab City have only fans to stir the soupy air of their ovenlike accommodations. Those seeking an alternative lifestyle endure this willingly, while others are reluctantly fleeing from something, be it sheer poverty, even more primitive living on city streets or their own inner demons.
“I would say half of Slab City, this in the only place they can live,” said the dreadlocked Gram, at 37 one of the community's youngest year-rounders and (though briefly homeless on Venice Beach prior to arriving) very much a Slabber by choice.
Returning this month on a balmy, 69-degree day, I discovered an entirely different Slab City. In winter, thousands of RV-ing “snowbirds” flock in from colder regions for the Slabs' milder weather and fee-free parking. There's much more movement, color and sound: kids chattering, music playing, first-time visitors exclaiming. Stalls selling everything from tie-dyed Slab City shirts to model UFOs spring up along the dusty main drag, where the late-model cars of snap-happy tourists stand out in what is largely a vehicular graveyard.
The Slabs has hosted white-haired military veterans and stereotypical hippies, former professionals and craftsmen, burnouts and meth heads, and many — like Kidd, who arrived with a male travel partner in October, and Gram — who previously worked unremarkable 9-to-5s and rented urban apartments. It's at once a rendezvous point for open-minded backpackers, a safety valve for Imperial Valley's transient population and a haven for all manner of artists and musicians.
What binds these eclectic, unlikely neighbors is the desire for somewhere free to be — literally and/or figuratively. Slab City's theoretical landlord, the state of California, doesn't bother collecting rent and, as the town technically doesn't exist, there are no property taxes. Many of mainstream society's regulations and restrictions, on everything from noise and nudity to building codes and speed limits, are only loosely recognized.
“My $50 phone is the only bill I have,” deadpans Gram, who lives alone in a crippled 30-foot pull-behind equipped with limited solar power and a propane stove. “And that's just a luxury.”
Back in her native Long Beach, where she worked for a résumé-writing service, Kidd paid $750 a month to share an apartment with a roommate, while having her wages garnished to repay student loans for what she says was an unfinished education.
“Almost everybody I know that works … still struggle(s) to pay rent and keep jobs,” she laments, flowing clothes and hair lending a vagabond air to her distant stare.
But Slab City is rent-free for good reason: No one else wants it. Originally a World War II Marine Corps barracks called Camp Dunlap, of which only the eponymous concrete-slab foundations remain, it hugs the still-very-active Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, from where jarring explosions provide what some locals dub “Slab City fireworks.” Other neighbors include a landfill and the Brawley Seismic Zone, where the San Andreas and Imperial faults collide to produce terrifying earthquake “swarms” (hundreds of small quakes in rapid succession), the most recent of which was just last year. Skulking 150 feet below sea level, it's not so much a place as a space between places.
Camp Dunlap was dismantled in 1956, and within a decade squatters appeared. Stories of Slab City's genesis are many, but an enduring version is that workers sent by an Oakland company to harvest creosote leaves nearby in the mid-'60s set up temporary homes in trailers parked on the base's remaining slabs. Soon, homeless people evicted from camps elsewhere in the region began establishing a more permanent community.
Other than spotty cell service, Slab City is entirely off-grid, without official water and electricity supplies or sanitation. For personal hygiene, there are nearby natural hot springs, a communal cold shower and (technically off-limits) irrigation canals. Potable water has to be brought in from Niland. Most year-round residents rely on solar panels for a few hours of TV, fans or even air conditioning each day. Some run generators, while propane facilitates cooking and refrigeration. Sprinkles of battery-powered LED Christmas lights twinkle across the Slabs by night.
“I learned about powering my own solar and composting and jarring,” says Kidd, 32, who moved on from a friend's Slab City Winnebago for a more nomadic lifestyle earlier this month. “That part of it was really satisfying.”
It's hard to ascertain how many Angelenos (or how many people) occupy Slab City at any one time. Some Slabbers won't speak to journalists (a printed sign in one trailer's window announces “Absolutely No Media”), and my credentials and intentions were repeatedly questioned. As it's not an organized commune, there's no one to check in with. Anybody can simply show up and pitch camp. But given L.A.'s relative proximity to Slab City, it's reasonable to assume that thousands of Angelenos have at least passed through.
First impressions of the Slabs tend to be atypical, because the majority of visitors enter and park, usually just to take photos, at Salvation Mountain. Started by late, legendary Slabber Leonard Knight in the mid-1980s, the childlike murals and inspirational Christian slogans of this paint-slathered adobe-and-straw edifice offer small comfort in such forbidding surroundings. Since the demise of the Salton Sea, “the Mountain” has become Imperial County's top tourist attraction. It has appeared in music videos from the likes of Coldplay and Kesha, any number of photo shoots and documentaries and, most famously, in the 2007 Sean Penn—directed film Into the Wild (after which Slab City's winter population spiked dramatically, according to old-timers).
The relatively few visitors who venture deeper into Slab City discover a gently undulating labyrinth of dirt roads and crumbling asphalt streets, into which some scores of eccentric, sometimes inexplicable structures have apparently been haphazardly tossed. There are hovels cobbled together from scavenged pallets, wood and windows; immobilized buses, augmented with awnings, sinking into the dirt; tents of various vintages; and ambitious homes created from found objects with incredible ingenuity. A two-story masterpiece, complete with balcony, is covered entirely in palm fronds, while a giant A-frame appears fashioned from discarded plywood. Short-term Slabbers may live in their cars or vans, with new arrivals sometimes just sleeping rough on the bare ground.
But motor homes and travel trailers are Slab City's signature accommodations. It's a living museum of these ungainly behemoths, which include state-of-the-art wonders at the heart of well-established compounds (some occupied by retirees who sold brick-and-mortar homes elsewhere to establish these low-overhead retreats); endless 1980s and '90s models in various stages of decay; and borderline shells enjoying unlikely last gasps of life (I was invited into one sweltering, almost gutted trailer that previously sat abandoned in a nearby field).
Regardless of their nature, Slab City's dwellings enjoy the kind of space and privacy associated with seven-figure homes back in L.A. It's a place where it's easy to be yourself or just to be left alone — aspirations common among long-term Slabbers.
“I feel more free here,” says South Pasadena–raised Holman, a tanned and tattooed former punk rocker who previously worked in set carpentry and for the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. “I figured I could fit in here, and I had the skills.”
The Slabs is a topsy-turvy world confusing to mainstream sensibilities, where machines made to be mobile will never move again, and items made for indoor use — such as sofas and even cinema seating — sit out in the elements. Wild-looking people, extravagantly decorated vehicles and gaggles of “slabrador” dogs roam among outlandish art installations. It's at once an optimistic antithesis of hectic, materialistic L.A. and a depressingly dystopian disgrace in wealthy, 21st-century California. (In last year's hit indie thriller The Bad Batch, Slab City portrayed a barely habitable, cannibal-infested future wasteland, with Slabbers employed as extras.)
In the 40-acre East Jesus art collective, Slab City's best-known feature after Salvation Mountain, all manner of discarded items — bottles, vehicles, televisions, kitchen appliances, mannequins and more — re-emerge as thought-provoking sculptures and installations. Born out of a single shipping container in 2007, East Jesus boasts solar power stored in expired telecom batteries and a music room complete with grand piano. Residential staff host free tours, $15-per-night overnight guests and visiting artists, but with strict conditions (“If we find one single [cigarette] butt on the ground we will fucking kill you,” states East Jesus' online “Survival Guide”).
For Slabbers on fixed incomes, life can be comfortable, without rent, mortgage payments or utility bills eating into pensions or government checks. Others rely on doing cash-in-hand odd jobs for neighbors. And there's considerable entrepreneurship: “Solar Mike” has been selling solar panels from his Slab City home since 1985, while residents with street-legal vehicles may offer informal taxi or water-collection services. A few sneak into the gunnery range to scavenge spent shell casings to sell as scrap. Barter — a bicycle for a sleeping bag, food for a ride into town — also is commonplace.
Slab City's early inhabitants, before solar panels and smartphones, must have been hardy indeed, but today's equivalents enjoy many of the conveniences of contemporary “Babylon” (Slabbers' term for the outside world). Anyone who can acquire a phone (many in Slab City qualify for a free “Obama phone”) can, even without paying for service, tap into free Wi-Fi at the community's decidedly rustic internet cafe.
While Slabbers exist largely out of society's sight, they are, thanks to the internet, far from out of touch. The disarmingly laid-back Gram imparts an encyclopedic familiarity with the latest films and metal bands. He says he catches about half a dozen concerts and the same number of movies in L.A. during monthly summer visits to the city — probably more than many late-30s Angelenos manage.
Downloaded movies and TV shows fill many long hours in the Slabs, where groups even gather for Game of Thrones nights. Slabbers are as up on the news as they choose to be, but it's also much easier to shut out worldly woes and political intrigues in a microsociety largely unaffected by them (“We don't really have anything to do with what goes on out there,” Gram says).
On paper, Slab City has many of the facilities that define a regular town. There's a church, a library, a coffee shop, a nightclub, two Airbnbs, a skate park and a radio station. And while there's no school, there is school bus service. The reality of these, however, might surprise outsiders.
The Range nightclub (which also appeared in Into the Wild) comprises an outdoor stage between two old buses, while the skate park is Camp Dunlap's long-drained swimming pool. The radio station is a short-wave pirate affair that mostly plays music, and Slab City's Airbnbs, while ultra-affordable, are rudimentary. The internet cafe consists of a wireless router in a tattered shack, and an attempt at an outdoor gym soon foundered.
“It got very monotonous, draining,” says Kidd, a musician and writer. “There's a few little events and stuff, but it does get boring.”
Some Slabbers have redefined or even embraced boredom, especially in relation to their pre–Slab City experiences.
“There's nothing wrong with being bored,” insists Gram, who grew up with hard-partying biker parents in Baltimore. “Boredom is way better than crazy drama.”
Finding pleasure in small things appears key to, and a product of, survival in Slab City's harsh environs.
“You find ice cream or pizza in the desert, and happy days!” laughs the lanky Holman, who sometimes sports a voluminous gray beard. “Dance around; make a song!”
For those with the funds, such foods can be purchased in Niland or, more affordably, in the larger but more distant towns of Brawley and Calipatria. Population 1,000 (and shrinking), Niland also offers a health clinic and, during extreme high temperatures, an air-conditioned, open-to-all cooling center.
While Slab City can appear unfamiliar and even intimidating to newcomers, many residents report crime levels and a sense of safety little different from those they experienced living in L.A. or other cities.
“I would definitely feel a lot more safe in Slab City walking around at night than I would in MacArthur Park,” says Brandon Hunsinger, a 28-year-old multimedia artist who punctuated four years of living in L.A. with frequent Slab City stays.
A dispatch supervisor at Imperial County sheriff's office says the calls they receive from Slab City are very similar to those from other communities they serve: mostly medical emergencies, disturbances or theft. But crime may go under-reported in a community where some, having had negative experiences with law enforcement while homeless or backpacking, are reluctant to contact the police.
“I wouldn't say I felt safe in Slab City. I really didn't walk around a lot without accompaniment,” Kidd says. “In Long Beach, I felt like I could maybe do that.”
While there are certainly hard drugs being used and sold in the Slabs (“a lot less” than in cities he's lived in, Gram says), those involved tend to keep to themselves in well-defined “tweaker camps.” Their disputes seldom spill into the wider community, residents say.
But while Slab City is free, it's certainly not a free-for-all. Reports of lawlessness (Vice titled its 2012 Slab City documentary Living Without Laws) appear to be exaggerated. The dirt roads are graded by the county and regularly patrolled by both sheriff's deputies and Border Patrol agents (Mexico is just 50 miles south). “Nothing illegal in Imperial County, the state of California or the United States of America becomes magically legal here in Slab City,” reminds East Jesus' website. While there's no formal “government” or hierarchy, common sense and decent manners are generally expected and adhered to, such as checking with nearby residents before pitching camp.
While some longtime Slabbers complain of youngsters lately showing up with nothing to offer the community but an outstretched hand, many newbies bring resources (such as tools or a serviceable vehicle) or useful skills (like construction or auto repair) from their former lives. But for those who are truly down and out, help is at hand. When recent arrival Ben Owens, who once lived on L.A.'s Skid Row, posted “I need food” on the internet cafe's Facebook page last month, two of his neighbors immediately offered sustenance.
Some Slabbers rave about a community where, often in contrast to their experiences of city life, they know their neighbors and always have somewhere to go and someone to turn to for help (“It's definitely the American dream,” Gram enthuses). Others find the social fabric underwhelming.
“The community gets together a bit, but it's really more like solo artists,” Holman says. “They'll let you flounder.”
All agree that Slab City isn't for everyone.
“You have to recognize the humility of the place and go with the flow of it,” says Hunsinger, who first discovered Slab City while in high school, in a book called Weird California. “You don't want to be an obnoxious observer — that won't be taken kindly.”
“A lot of people show up here and they're instantly lonely for their old life,” Holman explains, a trio of kids playing at his feet in the internet cafe. “It takes a certain mettle to stay here. … You've got to have something inside of you that can sit through a windstorm for three days.”
Having endured shortages of so many modern staples in Slab City, everyone I interviewed says they've learned to exist more simply, frugally and eco-responsibly during their time there — traits they'd bring back with them to urban life, should they return.
“I would be worlds different,” says Gram, an old-school rapper who performs in both Slab City and nearby towns. “My electric bill would be one-tenth of what it would be before, and my water bill. And just things I really don't need, [like] cable.”
Some Slabbers tell of selling or giving away most of their possessions prior to abandoning the mainstream, and how this positively affected their mindset (“The less you have, the more clarity you will have,” Kidd says).
“I used to be stressed and I would think about negative stuff all the time,” Gram says. “Once I got rid of everything and everything I owned was in a backpack, I lost all of that.”
Despite a 2015 state proposal to partition and sell the land Slab City occupies, there's little sign that it will disappear or radically change anytime soon. The nonprofit, resident-run Salvation Mountain Inc. hopes to purchase the 160 acres around its charge, and a group of Slabbers called the Slab City Community Group is interested in much of the remainder. However, according to the California State Lands Commission, both these prospective sales are stalled.
For some of its residents, an end to Slab City would leave them with few options. Others say they could easily transition elsewhere — even back into “Babylon.”
“I'd just end up getting a shitty job in L.A. and living in a shitty apartment again,” says Gram, who left his longtime position at a major retail chain in 2010 to travel the country.
Many intend to stay at the Slabs indefinitely, enamored equally with its low overhead and less tangible, subjective charms.
“There's an honesty that runs through here that doesn't in the city,” says Holman, who sleeps in a tiny, ramshackle hut built around his bicycle trailer. “There's a trueness to what people are saying or what they're doing.”
As my SUV bounces out of the Slabs and back toward suburbia, my thoughts turn to looming deadlines, my stepdaughters' college fees and repairs required to their cars. With the wilting winter sun turning the dark folds of the Chocolate Mountains into reaching fingers in my rearview, graffiti daubed across an old concrete guard post bids me “Good Luck Out There!”