Niland, California is a dusty little town of less than 1,000 people, tucked away on the very southern edge of the United States. It’s got two general stores, a diner and a post office, and a small grid of quiet streets dotted with pick-up trucks and pre-fab houses that seem to sigh in the desert heat. Unremarkable at its best, slightly depressing at its worst.
But travel down main street, beyond the railroad tracks, past the solar energy farm and the rubbish dump, and then, even further past the colourful monument that is Salvation Mountain, and you will find yourself somewhere far more interesting: the self-proclaimed “last free place in America”, a squat known as Slab City.
Slab City is one of those places that could only exist in the desert. It’s here where the real world ends, sucked up into a storm of libertarianism, with socialist thunderclaps and anarchist lightning bolts. Founded in the mid 1960’s on an abandoned US Marine training facility, the official description of this ramshackle squat is that it’s a landing pad for snow birds—retirees who have the mobility to travel with the seasons and come here to escape the cold.
While that may be true in the winter (when the population is said to top 2,000), the other nine months of the year The Slabs are a sanctuary for a couple hundred people who can’t—or just don’t want to—be part of regular society any more.
It is here where anyone can escape from reality, living in old RVs and makeshift shacks patched together from found material. Much of the living here is done off-the-grid, and with no connection to the utilities that bog the rest of us down, residents have found freedom in solar panels, generators, water towers, and the nearby Coachella Canal. While there is community and there are rules, Slabbers live how they like and mostly out of the clutches of The System, with unparalleled freedom and foreboding non-reliance on America’s crumbling modern society.
But despite their rather post-apocalyptic hermit image, the denziens of Slab City aren’t exactly adverse to a little limelight. The town was made famous in Sean Penn’s 2007 film Into the Wild, and since then has occasionally appeared on TV and radio news, and in documentaries. While we were there we even saw fliers posted for a film casting call that was “looking for Slab City-style extras”. Even for those who have escaped from society money is still a necessary evil, and film work is as good of an odd job as any.
We had come to check out Salvation Mountain, but the allure of Slab City overwhelmed our curiosity. It was Saturday, an auspicious day in town if only for the weekly party where residents gather to listen to music and poetry, drink a lot of beer and smoke a lot of weed. It was also my birthday, and what better way to spend your birthday than in the desert?
The sun was sinking slowly as we slowly drove up and down streets that hadn’t been paved for a long time. Wherever we passed dog barks rang out, as pooches of various sizes jumped excitedly behind fences and at the ends of their leashes. The houses ranged from proper homesteads, with big RVs and chain link fences, to small shacks made of wood and corrugated metal surrounded by rings of car tires buried in the sand.
We were looking for a place to pitch our tent, far enough away from long-term residents to leave them their privacy, but close enough to the group to ensure our safety from thieves, animals or worse in the middle of the night. How close is too close?
We stopped at The Range, the large stage where the shindig was scheduled, hoping to find someone of local merit who could direct us two outsiders to a safe and acceptable place to camp. The stage was empty, but across the street were two men trying to orient a TV antenna on the roof of their large wooden hut. We approached and I shouted out hello, and a brown chihuahua ran out, all smiles and excited tail wagging.
“That’s Lilly!” called out the guy on the roof, who was topless in the late afternoon heat and had a head of long, wavy brown hair straight out of a shampoo advert. Lilly was one of the only dogs who hadn’t barked at us, instead jumping up in delight looking for pets.
The two men introduced themselves. We explained our situation and asked for their advice. “You can pitch your tent wherever you feel safe,” urged the younger man from the roof, “But really, you don’t have to worry about safety here.”
The older man chimed in, “Anywhere is ok, but if you want a nice spot that’s not too far from the action, you’re welcome to camp down the street next to my van. I have an old blue-and-white VW down there, an you can just put your tent nearby.”
“Ooor,” said the younger guy, “If you want somewhere quiet that feels really safe, I’ll let you stay in The Castle! It’s a spot I have reserved over near the hot spring; it’s concrete on three sides and called ‘The Castle’ for a reason. It’s really nice! Over there it’s really dark at night, and you can see all the stars.”
I imagined the view of the universe from such a desolate place, surely brighter and more intricate than this city girl had ever seen. He offered to show us the spot but we declined, not wanting to bother them. Surely the night sky would be phenomenal from anywhere in Slab City. We thanked them for their advice and scooted off to find a place before it got too dark.
The old man’s spot looked good, but the entire northwest side of Slab City sits on the disintegrated pavement of the old barracks, and the old rocky asphalt made a rough surface for a tent. We cruised around a bit more to the tune of dogs before finding a soft spot near the Slab City skate park. Our closest neighbour was one of the few other tent campers in Slab City, though next to the eight-man beast he had built a half-buried bunker-like building. When it got dark, the glowing light of a TV set shined through the windows. David Attenborough’s voice could be heard emerging from an old camper van on the opposite side. It was a peaceful evening.
After pitching our tent we threw back a beer, then cracked open a bottle of $3 California wine we’d found at the shop in Niland. Slab City was quiet but buzzed with a low level of activity, and the sound of tires crackling over old roads as the locals drove in and out of the neighbourhood. A big school bus, its iconic yellow exterior painted blue, rumbled in the distance before settling into a spot. A luxury SUV with a husky riding shotgun nipped out for a while before returning at dusk—a reminder that not all Slab City residents have been forced here due to poverty.
A while after the sky turned dark the party started at The Range. We poured the rest of the wine into our coffee cups and wandered over to to the action.
On stage was a punk band. A middle-aged vocalist squawked into the mic to the sound of broken strings and out-of-tune guitars. The lyrics were indiscernible, but a fair crowd of people were up at the front, bobbing their heads from one of the many grungy couches or dancing enthusiastically with knees high.
We found open space on a sofa that had previously been the back seat of a van. The Slab City family buzzed around us, shooting the shit and catching up over cigarettes and spliffs. The crowd was a mix of ages and appearances, from old desert dwellers to young dreadlocked vagabonds, some punks and some tourists in between. We sat on our two-seater island and tried to enjoy the show.
An older man came around collecting money in a cardboard box, so we threw a few dollars in.
Suddenly two younger guys came tumbling onto the sofa next to ours, followed by an entourage of dogs great and small. The canines hung their tongues out and smiled at guys, who then smiled at us. The one sitting next to me opened his leather jacket to reveal a bare chest and a tiny black Labrador puppy.
“I have to take care of him tonight,” the guy said, “His mom is tripping and really wants to play with the little guy, but oh no—not like that she can’t.” He smiled and handed the puppy to me. It was slightly too big to fit in my hand, but almost disappeared into the sofa when it slipped in my lap.
“You have some lovely dogs,” I said, watching them greet old friends with a sniff of the bum. “This one is Mary Jane,” he pointed at a slightly rotund short-haired shepherd that was going nuts about a brown mut that had just walked over. “MJ! Come here now!” he commanded. The dog abruptly turned and sat, gazing at him in earnest, looking for approval. He patted her on the head and she wagged her tail happily. “She’s spoiled but she knows who’s the boss.”
On stage it was time to switch bands. The audience went wild as a woman with a shaved head took command of the bass guitar, proudly sauntering with one prosthetic leg under her knee-length skirt. The singer yelled into the mic a dedication to B.B. King before the band crashed into a song with wild abandoned. The puppy tucked its face into the crook of my arm but didn’t seem to mind the noise.
I passed the dog back to his owner and we made some small talk over the sound of music dying. He pointed at the older man with the money box. “That guy is Builder Bill. He runs this whole thing for us and is collecting money to run the generators.” I hadn’t even thought about how they were getting electricity for the lights and the sound system, way out here off the grid.
“I need to find someone to buy $10 of weed,” the guy murmured suddenly, feigning a look around. It looked like a bad effort at a subtle offer—strange in a state where marijuana is quasi-legal, and a place where everyone was lighting up anyway. I pretended not to hear.
Then he jumped up. “Here’s the party!” Two guys came over with more than a few cases of PBR. The pair grinned as they doled out the beer, even passing cans to me and Mook. “It’s for everyone,” they laughed when we tried to pay, “We don’t need money as much as we want everyone to have a good time.”
The puppy’s mother wandered over and crouched on the ground between sofas. She was young, with short dreads and a patchwork skirt, and seemed to be managing her acid trip pretty well. The Dog Master crouched down near her to chat, but wouldn’t relinquish the puppy.
“Nice jacket,” Mook said to one of the guys hanging around, who later told us he was Canadian and ended had up at Slab City after cycling all the way across the United States. The jacket in question was a dark camel knit, and with the sleeves rolled up it did look pretty cool.
“Thanks!” he chirped, “I picked it up from this guy, he comes once every few weeks with lots of donated clothes, and you can choose what you like.”
Do the police ever come around? I wondered aloud. “Maybe about once a month or so, they come with a warrant looking for somebody, or for illegal immigrants,” the guy in the jacket explained. Do they ever bust anyone for drugs? “Nah, it’s not really a problem.”
Then, with a few quick words, the group of vagabonds got up and left The Range, leaving Mook and I alone with our beers. We were easy targets for Builder Bill, who came over with a big smile and urged us to get up and dance with the band. Mook stayed behind, but booze and high spirits pushed me to go with Bill. A good number of characters were swinging to the beat of some passable blues but it wasn’t really my style, so after a few minutes I made to sit back down with Mook.
Then an old man with a toothy smile and a ZZ Top beard sauntered up to me. “Where are you going?” he asked, grabbing my hands, “Let’s dance!” By this time the wine and the PBRs had really kicked in. We swung around for a while.
“Who is that over there?” I asked, pointing at the tall, vivacious middle-aged woman the old man had been dancing enthusiastically with all night, but who was now alone. “That’s my girlfriend, she’s great! We’re going to get married, ya know.” I felt satisfied that this stated fact somehow ensured he wasn’t going to get lecherous.
“You know, you’ve got a nice ass!” the old man hollered. “Uh, thank you!” I smiled, “I’m going to go sit down.”
By this time the Dog Master and crew had rejoined Mook, and they were talking about $10 weed. How much is $10 of weed? Our friend in LA had shown us a massive bag that he bought from a dispensary for only $15.. do we really need that much? I was going to get more beer.
The band had changed again, and now there was some kind of rapping going on. A thin guy with long, curly dark hair stood with the mic and waxed lyrical about how he had been fucked by The System. I slinked quickly over to the bar and asked the guy with the PBR if we could maybe please have two more beers. He gladly handed them over and again refused any money.
I was about to go back when I somehow got absorbed into conversation with the long-haired man from the roof. He was no longer topless and he seemed quite drunk. I wasn’t sure if he recognised me or not, but for some reason, through the haze, I told him it was my birthday.
“I got a song for you.” He crouched near and started free-style rapping into my ear. The rat-a-tat sounds blurred together and I wasn’t sure what he was saying, but words like “beautiful” and “stars” and “kiss” and all those corny things you tell to a girl punched through into my ear. I didn’t really like where this was going and tried to excuse myself, but he grabbed my arm and then we were sitting at a table and for whatever reason he was rapping again.
Then the cheerful dancing geezer showed up. I wasn’t sure if it was a rescue or an even bigger trap. But the two started talking and an escape route opened up, so I grabbed the PBR and slurred, “Thank you, I gotta go.”
Back on the other side, Mook was still hanging with the dog gang, talking the kind of bullshit that you do when the night has peaked. “I want to travel abroad too,” said the Dog Master. “But I’m having trouble getting my birth certificate so I can’t get a passport. I was adopted…,” he trailed off.
The weed, it had turned out, was just a small baggie—a crummy deal in a state where anyone with a headache can indulge in a cornucopia of fluffy sativas, indicas and hybrids. The crowd had thinned out and the music had become much more folkey. We sucked down our last beers and got out while the getting was good.
Away from The Range, the night was as dark as having your eyes closed. We fumbled drunkenly across the sand with the flashlights on our phones, so absorbed in trying not to get lost or tumble into bushes that we completely forgot to look up at the sky.