in the middle of a cross country tour, we find ourselves in slab city – a land of imagation in the middle of the barren southern california desert.
it’s said to be the last free place you can live in america.
slab city is a collection of some of the most interesting people i’ve ever met. it’s mentioned in by chris mccandless in into the wild, & more recently, where kesha filmed her latest music video. a bunch of cement slabs are all that remain of an abandoned marine corps barracks. there’s no electricity or running water. & there’s no real way to tell, but at the peak of winter it’s estimated there are several thousand residents.
we pull into the slabs late in the day. someone directs us to the visitor’s area – a gravel parking area, on the open desert land.
we pitch our tents & immediately a few different residents wander over to greet the five of us.
a creative ingenious, mad hatter type energy rolls around through this desert land. i feel like i’m in wonderland.
then i feel sad. i’m so excited for all of the freedom, the expansive empty slate. it’s free. there, the world is your canvas & that canvas is an old abandoned military base filled with trash from 50 years of squatters.
i think maybe the heat & the magic of all the humans choosing to call this place home are getting to me.
there’s a home built out of giant spools, painted multiple colors- a mirage of rainbow orbs in the desert.
a boat, with a ship built into the top of it. boatbus? busboat?
a bus half buried with beds in the back, a mannequin driving it. 12 toilets in a row, each growing a cactus in the bowl.
someone we run into tells us to go to east jesus, the art gallery neighborhood of slab city. we wander across this desolate & fascinating space to a corner of the slabs. we meet mopar, the appointed tour guide of east jesus. he seems to have been dealing with some kind of roommate style tiff & appears happy we’re there. we offer him a beer & a smoke & he takes us on the best gallery tour i’ve ever experienced.
a 14 ft mammoth built from old tires. dozens of duck decoys, buried in the sand- it’s a pond.
a list of commandments is posted for “the first church of the chocolate martini.” i especially resonate with number two – do big fun.
next to the commandments hangs the side panel of a blue oldsmobile, with a bunch of old cell phones glued to it.
we take turns riding a 12 foot teeter totter.
as night falls, the only light that remains visible in the sky is a two story tall stick figure man holding a neon sign “time for pie.”
every friday night, they hold an open mic at the stage. two 1950s bluebird buses are parked at either end of the stage, & hold a variety of equipment that makes the pretty impressive live performances possible.
the variety of people in the audience is incredible. there is a sparkle to the night. maybe it’s the full moon.
the people are so colorful. how did we all end up here? i can’t explain the way i adore the people i encounter here.
we dance all night. my favorite musicians are two guys, playing guitar & tuba, with a sheepdog that barks in time with the music.
a guy we know from all the way in kansas just happens to be passing through, one of the maybe 100 people in attendance that night, what serendipity. he jumps on stage to play along with our friend, tyler.
claire & i get tarot readings from a guy set up to the side of the stage. i don’t really remember mine, but i do remember claire saying her’s was great.
we stay up late around the fire, talking all night, laughing & staring at the stars.
in the morning we’re invited to the community kitchen for the shared breakfast. it turns out that they’re out of food but still have some coffee. we each get a cup & sit outside. we run into a friend we met last night, an older man named PA. he tells us the story of how he ended up at slab city – for at least an hour, delivering every line as though he’s recited it a thousand times before.
we eventually wander back to our campsite, meeting a collection of sweet & quirky characters along the whole way.
at some point in the day, PA rolls through the campsite in an rad antique chrysler 500. it’s probably from the 50s, it’s beautiful.
he tells us again of his past love, a woman from mexico who looked just like sophia loren. he has her photo tucked away in an old life magazine, next to a photo of sophia, & he retrieves this from of the backseat to show us, with pride.
he also has a photo of him when he first came to slab city. he was in his early 20s & had a rad red car then too. he was pretty excited when i took a photo of him with his chrysler that replicated the old photo of him with the old red car.
just outside of slab city sits salvation mountain, a psychedelic handmade tribute to divine love.
salvation mountain is a total heart project. leonard knight is the visionary artist behind the monument. it’s really incredible. the giant paper mache mountain is his life’s work, a labor of love, exclaiming his message “god is love,” “love is universal.”
a folk landmark, a visual song of the magic of the heart.
salvation mountain is made of adobe, straw, old car parts, trees, collected bits & baubles, with a vivid paint job.
when you encounter it you can’t help but feel a little vibration in your heart, as the sight of the mountain starts to flood you with happiness & wonder.
anyone who encountered leonard mentions his dedication to his message, his absolute obsession with love, expressing love, spreading love.
leonard himself chose to live simply. he supposedly received a $249 social security check every month. his home was in a tiny wooden structure, adorned with heart shapes, built on the back of his 1939 pickup truck. even the shelves contained little heart shaped doors, painted with clouds & flowers.
i was overcome by an overwhelming burst of love for this sweet man.
being in slab city was almost too much. reality there is different. maybe it’s more bendable.
maybe it’s the result of too much radioactivity in the area, all that military testing nearby. or the heat.
or, the collective experience of so many imaginative, brilliant minds co-habitating, co-creating in a relatively unregulated space together.
i didn’t get to spend long in slab city & hope to return one day…but i did get a glimpse into how incredibly resilient & resourceful everyone living there has to be, based on the environment alone. & i was touched by the kindness of the people i met there. one lady even gave us all little parting gifts of jewelry.
i have a deep appreciation for this vibrant expression of living, the freedom – an oasis from reality in the middle of the southern california desert.
see the rest of the gallery here: