Feb 10th, 2009
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My fulltime, permanent road trip often takes me to some of the most offbeat and quirky parts of North America. In this post, I provide my perspective on the permanent transient encampment known as Slab City, in the Southern California desert.
Among RVers, no other camping area evokes such intense reactions as Slab City. People either love it, or hate it. There is no gray area among this 640 acre dismantled military base near the Salton Sea.
Made famous by its appearance in the movie “Into the Wild,” Slab City wasn’t on our radar until our friend Skinny Chef asked if we wanted to meet her there. Then coincidentally, I found this blog entry, by a young RVing couple we met back in South Carolina;
“The movie depicts Slab City as this really cool RV hippie community, where people of all ages hang out – peace, love, happiness, rock and roll, and all that. Well yesterday, we drove two hours to Slab City and nothing could be further from the truth.
Slab City is an RV slum, pure and simple. It’s actually really sad – people living in tents and abandon vehicles. There were even remnants of burned down RVs strewn all over the place. It’s amazing to think that people actually live this way in the US – and it’s only 80 miles from swanky Palm Springs.”
This intrigued me. Liz is a nice person and I like her a lot, but the two of us are quite different. I’m crunchy granola and like to keep things simple, while she’s a high flyin’ New Yorker who’s into manicures, and the glamourous life. Once I saw what she thought of Slab City, I figured if she hated it, I’d probably love it.
I was right.
Slab City: The Last Free Place
Do come here with an open mind if you plan to visit. Many people we know would be completely offended by the post-apocalyptic look of the place.
To come here requires someone who is willing to look beyond the surface, to scratch a little deeper at a situation to learn the real story.
What Slab City Is:
- Free camping. It’s a spot of abandoned, state-owned land where hundreds of travelers from all over the world come to stay for free, some permanently, others just to ride out winter. Call us squatters, if you will, since nobody has “official” permission to be here.
- Serious Boondocking. There are no facilities whatsoever: no electricity, water, or trash. Nothing. The closest dump station is 8 miles away.
- Kinda trashy, in places. Yes, there is some garbage and abandoned RVs around. The state doesn’t care about this spot, and the closest city refuses to clean it up since residents don’t pay to be here. It’s up to campers to be responsible for taking trash to town, and like any neighborhood, some people are better about this than others.
- Very Social. There is much to do and see here, including social clubs, a couple of concert stages, a library, an 18 hole golf course, a church, hot springs, and more. We’ve been to two potlucks, and seem to be doing something every night of the week. We’ve never been so active in one location before.
What Slab City Isn’t:
- Lawless. Contrary to how the media portrays it, I don’t feel in any more in danger here than I do in most cities. Sure, there are some sketchy looking characters, but if you keep away from them, they’ll most likely keep away from you. The county sheriff makes regular runs through here, and Border Patrol is constantly driving through.
- Depressing. There is more creativity here than any tidy suburban neighborhood I’ve been to. Residents have contributed many hours of labor to build free amenities like the golf course (with free equipment!), concert stages, church, or the public shower down near the springs. I’m impressed that people would do so much with so little, in such an unforgiving desert environment. Now if they could only get it together to do something about the trash . . .
- Mainstream. It’s as if someone took a sampling of every kind of ethnicity, personality type and mental disorder, and shipped them here. There are international travelers, old folks, musicians, fulltime Rvers, wandering travelers and offroad enthusiasts, all camped out in the same area as drifters, people struggling with addictions, mental illness and/or homelessness. Everyone seems to get along, following a live and let live attitude.
The desert scenery outside Slab City is beautiful, surrounded by a rugged mountain range. On most days, you can look east to the Chocolate Mountains, about 2 miles away, and watch the US Navy spend your tax dollars by practicing bombing runs and playing war games in the air. We took two hour bike rides without seeing another soul.
The other day, Jim went to see Solar Mike, about our solar system. Mike asked Jim “How long are you staying?” Jim replied with “oh, a week or two.” Mike looked at Jim with a knowing look and chuckled… “Yeah, right.”
I think he could tell just by looking at us. The Slab City lifestyle is agreeing with us, and we’re going to find it hard to break camp this week.