Slab City is an off grid “community” in the Southern California desert a few hours inland from San Diego. Originally built in the 1940’s as a military base, by the 50’s it was closed and the structures torn down, leaving just the concrete slabs. In the 60’s snowbirds, nomads, and desert dwellers in RV’s migrated to Slab City where they could park their homes for free.
Many people, including me, first learned of Slab City in the 2007 movie Into The Wild. In the film “Alexander Supertramp” visits this desert oasis and I’ve been yearning to see Slab City for myself. A few weeks ago I obtained the best copilot I could find, Brad Tumbleson, my Louis Vuitton clad cousin from Orange County, and rambled inland. I was sure we’d fit right in…
We departed on Saturday morning and made the long drive across the desert (which is freakin’ flat), past the Salton Sea (which is freakin’ huge), through Niland (which is freakin’ dead), and out to the area known as Slab City.
Top 7 Things To Do in Slab City…And 1 Thing Not To Do
Disclaimer: This was intended to be a top 10 list, but due to circumstances beyond our control (or as a direct result of our actions) the top 10 list was reduced to 7 things to do in Slab City, and 1 thing to avoid.
1 – Enter Through The Front Gate
Slab City – The Last Free Place. Whatever that means. I’m not sure what this concrete cube used to be, but it was kinda cool. It included a warning notice about not talking to anyone we didn’t already know. Guess we wouldn’t be making any new friends.
2 – Climb Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain is just beyond the welcome gate to Slab City, a massive colorful mound of ‘God Is Love’ art that you drive past to reach the slabs. Leonard Knight, the creator of Salvation Mountain, began its construction in 1980. The first mountain collapsed into rubble a few years later, but since the mid 80’s Leonard has grown his shrine to the Holy One by constructing a clay adobe and hay bale masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed. We climbed the mountain and explored the labyrinth of passages beneath tree limbs, hay bales, and automotive parts. Leonard passed away in 2014, so we didn’t meet the artist, but his mountain is his lasting gift to the world.
3 – Dance At The Range
Once we reached Slab City Proper we stopped by the first open lot, which happened to be The Range. The Range is an open-air night club where Slab City residents congregate for social events, including the Saturday Night Talent Show. It was Saturday so our plan was to attend, unfortunately we would have other things to do that night.
4 – Experience East Jesus
Wikipedia describes East Jesus as “an experimental, sustainable, habitable, art installation located in the Slab City area”. Allow me to translate. East Jesus is where all of your household trash goes to be reclaimed and re-purposed into some of the weirdest art you’ll ever see. But it’s cool.
We wandered the trails past dilapidated cars, discarded box fans, bottles, tires, TV’s, and pretty much anything else you can think of. I deduced from Instagram feeds that East Jesus is probably the second most photographed area of Slab City, just behind Salvation Mountain.
5 – Check Out The Books at the Slab City Library
A staple of any city is the library so it would make sense that Slab City would have its own. It may not be as big or fancy as metropolitan facilities, but the open air, pallet built library is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No matter when you arrive, or get your vehicle extricated from the desert sand, the library is open and ready for your enjoyment!
6 – Visit The Pet Cemetery
I’m not exactly sure why you need to visit the Pet Cemetery, but it’s there, so we did. #RIPFido
7 – Edge Road Rest Area Memorial Park
This memorial park is right next to the Pet Cemetery and worth a visit. The park is small, but includes some interesting and unique memorials to some of Slab City’s well know former residents, as well as many of the area’s lesser known characters.
8 – Ahhhh Crap
There would have been more “Top Things To Do In Slab City”, but unfortunately this is the point in the story when we start the “Top Thing Not To Do In Slab City”.
What Not To Do In Slab City
On our way to check out some giant painted water tanks we were traversing a desert road when suddenly it turned from dirt to sand. Instinctively I slowed to reduce the damage….shit, no I didn’t. I gunned it and hoped for the best. A few seconds later we found ourselves 250 feet into deep sandy tracks that swallowed the van up to the axles.
We spent the next 4 hours digging, pushing, digging, pushing, drinking beer, digging, pushing, and drinking more beer to make 20 feet of progress. It was apparent that we needed help. I called AAA for towing service and almost died when they quoted me $550 commercial towing since I had gotten myself off the pavement.
I started walking toward the main drag to find someone to help when a local Slab City resident zipped by on his three-wheeler. I flagged him down and broke rule number one of of Slab City, “Don’t talk to people you don’t know”. He had one tooth and spoke with a draw that I couldn’t pinpoint, but he seemed nice and said he’d go find his four wheeler buddies and meet us at the van.
With renewed hope we returned to the van to dig a path to aid the pull. After an hour no ATV’s arrived. We’d been stood up by our only Slab City date. I made a last ditch call to my buddy Gregorio, hoping he lived close to Slab City.
Gergorio was a lifesaver. He was able to borrow a 4X4 truck and reach us just before sunset. We didn’t have tow ropes so we used our slack but we got Gregorio’s truck stuck and had to push him out. We finally got the truck on solid ground and Tantor was jerked out of the soft sand back to hard dirt with two casualties. My slack line had wrapped around my rear tire during the pull and ripped apart. Sad, but it was better than my back axle being pulled off.
The second casualty was my cell phone. As we were attaching the slack lines under the van and I shimmied in to check the loops. My cell phone must have slid out of my pocket and into the sand. After being pulled to safety we had churned up so much sand that my phone was buried for good. Next time I visit Slab City I’ll probably find my phone in the “Old Mobiles” exhibit at East Jesus.
The next morning we woke to a beautiful desert sunrise. It was Sunday and we had to move on, not to mention that after digging and pushing for 4+ hours we were kinda over the whole Slab City thing. We packed the van and ventured north, driving through Joshua Tree National Park and then back to Orange County and the civilized world.
My lasting impression of Slab City, the last free place, is seeing abandoned campsites with trash strewn about. Freedom is a beautiful thing, but all too often it seems to be taken advantage of. As we passed pile after pile of unclaimed trash, including clothes, shoes, books, plastic, metal, kitchen appliances, vehicles, motor homes, and concrete slabs, my final thought was…
Where there are no rules
Follows no accountability.
And the one who suffers
Is Mother Nature.