- DateJanuary 2016
- LocationSlab City, California, USA
- ObjectOccupied U.S. Marine Corps Base
- TextJonas Stein
- ImagesJonathan Danko Kielkowski
- History1942-1956 Camp Dunlap U.S. Marine Corps Base, 1956-Present Occupied by campers, squatters and jesus freaks
Welcome to Slab City
USA | Story | Januar 2016
Road Tripping USA – Episode 11
- 7000 km, two months and six US states. In early 2016 I traveled along the American west coast from north to south. This post is part of a series of articles created during this trip.
Nothing less than “the last free place in America”. Where no rents or fees apply, no property ownership exists and no limits are set. From the entrance as far as you can see till the Sonora Desert gets unbearable you are truly free. Slab City, also called the “Slabs”, is located on the abandoned grounds of the former U.S. Marine Corps base Camp Dunlap in California. The “City” sits about 150 miles northeast of San Diego in the Sonora Desert, one of the biggest deserts in the world, that extends in the rambling borderland between the United States and Mexico.
During the winter months, the area gets populated by thousands of caravans and their mostly retired residents, which prefer the pleasant climate during the “cold” season of the year, compared to their more northern located habitats. In spring however, when the temperature rises to relentless 100°F, they withdraw, similar to migratory birds, into their more pleasant, northern climates. That is why they are called “Snowbirds”. But there is also a group of about 150 residents that live in the “Slabs” all year long. The reasons for that vary. Some only live of a small retirement bill or welfare check and are, due to their poorness, forced to stay. Others want to flee the consumerist society or simply be left alone. One famous example is Christopher McCandless also known as “Alexander Supertramp” from the book/movie „Into the Wild“. He lived in Slab City for a while, during the winter of 1991.
Since a centralized water or energy supply dosen’t exist in Slab City, let alone a wastewater system or a garbage collection, the residents are left to themselves. Many of them produce their own energy with gas generators and solar panels. All other necessities are available in Niland, a small town, 4 miles down the road. Although civilization is nearby, Slab City appears like a post apocalyptic settlement from an end time movie.
And Niland has a similar esprit. The shrinking „town“ lies near the Salton Sea, a huge artificial saline lake. Due to overfertilisation in the area, the sea’s ecosystem threatens to collapse. Nonetheless, the bleak beauty of the setting is fascinating.
If you drive down the road between Niland and Slab City, you pass one of the weirder religious sites, believe has to take responsibility for. Salvation Mountain, an artificial mountain/artwork built out of adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of paint, created by local resident Leonard Knigh, sits in surreal beauty, in the grim landscape. Post apocalyptic hell in essence.
The „Slabber’s“ camp consists of self-built dwellings resp. discarded and/or converted caravans and school busses, that seem to be randomly dispersed over the area. Furthermore there are a lot of art objects, designed by visitors and residents, built out of lying around scrap, plus lots of graffiti, a concert venue, a skate park, a circus and a library. The missing garbage collection makes itself felt, because the ground is in some parts almost completely covered in scrap and waste, and the disposal often dosen’t happen at all or simply gets carried out by burning it on site. An utopian idyll looks different.
There are also several religious groups and two hostile churches, the „West Satan Church“ and the „Slab City Cristian Club“, located in the area. They were formerly named „East Jesus“ and „West Jesus“ but since they started a fight about money, philosophy and the general behavior inside Slap City, „West Jesus“ renamed itself to „West Satan“, to piss off „East Jesus“.
On site you get to know many illustrious figures. Exemplary we would like to mention the very nice but slightly unpredictable „Bark Bark“. He is the self-proclaimed guardian of the local skate pool,
lives in Slab City for 20 years, and dosen’t like it at all if you skate the pool without his permission. If you ask him however, he’s nice and helpful and asks you not to be irritated, if he starts to go nuts and scream around later. After all he’s a meth head by heart.
Also the stricken circus owner T.D. stays in mind, who fights a steady fight against people constantly trying to burn his stuff and destroy his circus. After a longer conversation it transpires that he might be an alleged sect leader with branches in several states, loves jesus and hates jews.
Disillusioned from these impressions, we spark a more or less small trash fire in an old van and left the failed utopia the next day.