During our time camping around the Salton Sea, we were able to take a walk around what some people call “The last free place in America.” We’re talking about Slab City, just outside of Niland, CA. Most people have heard of “The Slabs” but have a vague idea of what it’s all about and how it came to be.
The name comes from the concrete slabs left behind by the WWII Marine Barracks that once stood there. The area is decommissioned and uncontrolled, with no running water, electricity or trash pick-up. Snow birds, boondocker’s and full time residents can live and camp for free. The eclectic community attracts all walks of life and provides refuge for all who seek it. Code of conduct is very simple at the slabs; Respect others and their property. If one fails to adhere to this philosophy, it’s known to be handled with a vigilante style justice system. It’s easy to judge a book by its cover and there are definitely less than glamorous aspects of the area, but I developed an appreciation for the honest and unbridled way the community lived.
The entrance to Slab City is marked by the motley hills of Salvation mountain. A colossal work of art created by Leonard Knight over a period of two decades. The mountain reminds me a bit of the bizzare colors and elements of Wily Wonka’s chocolate factory, but with a religious spin.
Next, we visited the library. Upon walking through the doors, I immediately spotted my favorite Stephen King novel, a good sign already. It was vast and well categorized, in spite of the dirt floor and humble shack like structure covering the shelves. I could tell the curator took much pride in providing such a valuable resource for the community. I think I could live without just about anything, except books. What a wonderful way to encourage self-development and enjoyment, especially among those who may otherwise not be exposed.We didn’t explore too far into the living quarters. We felt like tourists and it seemed disrespectful to walk around peoples homes un-invited.
Our last stop was by far my favorite, East Jesus. An appropriate colloquialism for the middle of nowhere.This is where artists converge in an experimental, sustainable commune that also doubles as a massive, ever growing art installation. Artists from around the world have come to participate and leave their mark. The art is created from the discarded trash that litters most of the area. The old adage “one mans trash is another mans treasure” has never seemed more appropriate. The occupants also receive strange donations like, a truck full of duck decoys and other bizarre things doomed for the landfill. One of my favorite aspects about the installation was that we were encouraged to be interactive and get up close and personal with the work; Our tour guide remarked “It’s trash, you can’t ruin it.” The art lived and died and it was expected in the harsh desert environment. Nothing was meant to be maintained and preserved, it was allowed to evolve and wither. I learned that detachment from the outcome can lead to beautiful transformations and a graceful path to repose. It was a perfect metaphor for the human experience and a way of life for this group of individuals.
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