11A) The Last Free Place
– February 10th – March 30th, 2014
“To live outside the law you must be honest.”
– Bob Dylan
[All 3 parts to Chapter 11 cover our time spent at Slab City and East Jesus, between February 10th and March 30th, separated vaguely by topic of conversation].
Today I found a gecko in my shoe. Is this a sign of good luck? It doesn’t feel like bad luck. And the notion of having awoken this morning to find a gecko sneaking around in my shoe, my right shoe, has left me feeling rather auspicious. Today will be a day of rights. Not to be left behind, but to be right on track. And so on. And here I am finding myself, on March 21st, writing about things that happened back in early February, maybe to try and prove to myself that any of it was ever real. But what do I know? I know that on February 11th we woke up in Brawley California at the Desert Inn and drove to a little dot of an intersection on the map called Niland. At the grocery store we turned right, and drove 3 miles down a solitary and deteriorating road across two sets of train tracks to Slab City.
There is no way to organize the ensuing seven or so weeks from that right hand turn, and any organization thereof would appear unseemly in this place anyways. Slab City has existed here unofficially since the 1950’s, when the former military base was given back to the State of California. The buildings were either demolished beforehand or over the following many years, leaving only “the slabs” of concrete foundation behind. The area, for miles in all directions, is a veritable wasteland, from its barren desert terrain, to the stark cruel omission of any natural resources (save the sun), the summer temperatures which reach 50 degrees Celsius (125 degrees Fahrenheit), and not to mention the various pollutants left behind by the military. It might appear incredible considering these facts that roughly one hundred people will live here through the summer and year round, while the more hospitable winter months bring others by the thousands. But what I find even more incredible still is the fact that they have been allowed to do so for 60+ years now – no authority in any form sweeping in to clear them all out, shuffle them along and on their ways; no private entities buying up the land for one reason or another. I thought before seeing Slab City with my own eyes that there were no proper demonstrations of anarchist living in the first world, and though teetering precariously within the constructs of the American Machine, Slab City continues to persist in a state of relative lawlessness.
There are other unusual demonstrations of community to draw from here, too. Some would say communism, and in a purer form there is certainly communism here: a community of people living together and cooperating to meet similar interests. Others would say libertarian: a place of absolute freedom so long as your particular freedom does not take away from the freedoms of others. Any of these labels and more could apply, depending where you look, and what it is you’re looking for. Even democracy is represented with and by the Slab City Board of Directors – but democracy can only be a single element amongst many other elements, and I would add that any truly free society, anyways, would have to permit the individual’s decision as to whether or not he or she chooses to participate within it. Certainly there are rules here, however anarchy infers not the absence of rules but rather a ruler.
Slab City is a representation of etiquette, however crude. Without rule, there must be self-governance, and it is up to each person to decide to cooperate with others, not simply because they must – though fear of retribution caused by anti-social actions may serve as incentive to cooperate – but more purely because they can. The decision to live responsibly and peacefully ought to be embraced simply because it exists as a decision which can be made in the first place: if it is an option, it must be the best option. So if we can live peacefully and take responsibility for our own decisions, why wouldn’t we? And then, wouldn’t our moment-by-moment decisions to not bring harm to others be an achievement of our own, and not simply the result of having been dictated into acting so? Each act of tolerance and cooperation and mercy would be a taking back of our right to govern ourselves and demonstrate our ability to live, not without rules, but without a ruler. Slab City is an opt-in society, by which I mean that people come here quite intentionally, and have the same freedom to opt-out if they so choose. And so long as it is allowed to exist, it stands as a representation of freedom within the nation surrounding it, which chooses to extend even the freedom to opt-out of the society that offers such freedom – the only caveat then being, if you opt-out, you’re on your own.
Here the prevailing canon is Common Sense. Early in to our time spent here, we asked what it would take to get kicked out of the Slabs. As it turns out, you can’t really get kicked out of the Slabs… “but they’ll burn you out”, Gary told us, casually as ever. What does “burn you out” mean, we asked in our naivety. I think it was Bob who chimed in then, just as matter-of-factly as Gary: “You know, they’ll burn you out. Burn your trailer down – while you’re away, somewhere else. Burn all your shit down except your car – if you’ve got a car (because why burn down a car if the intention is for the person to leave?). And you tell me, would you want to stick around this place if you came back to realize there are people here who want you gone so bad that they’ll burn your trailer to the ground?” Gary spoke again: “There’s been maybe seven or eight people burned out of the Slabs in the past year.”
Seven or eight people getting burned out in a single year sounded like a pretty high number to me initially (about one every six weeks if you span it out evenly), but then I remembered back to Chicago in April 2013, when Kat and I were sleeping downtown in North Halsted, in a crowded Walgreen’s parking lot, and I was laying there reading some Chicago newspaper article about how two people were murdered every day in the City of Chicago. A statistic like this can seem rather bleak, so I decided to turn it around, thinking rather, that if two people were murdered per day in a city with about two million citizens, the odds of either one of us getting murdered that night were one in a million. Thinking of it that way, we seemed pretty safe. Then you’d have to consider that most of those murders – more of them than not – were very likely not random, meaning if we used our common sense and kept to ourselves and didn’t disturb the wrong types of people, our chances of being murdered in a dark Chicago parking lot were then even less likely than one in a million. The same rationale can be applied at Slab City, where several thousand people drift through every year. Some people live there year round, some only come for the winter months, and others simply pass through sporadically and may or may not ever return. Slab City is like a microcosm of a “real” city, which has its rough spots and places that a keen traveller would be best to avoid, but also its virtues and beauties and reasons for arriving and staying in the first place. And if seven or eight people out of thousands and thousands got “burned out” last year, the probability is that they, in one way or another, had it coming.
People come here for all kinds of reasons. Here is another parallel of Slab City to the outside world. In the same way I have never wondered, “Why do people go to Chicago?”, it is hard to ask why anyone would come to Slab City. There are simply too many answers, as vast and unique as the individuals who pass through. There are full-timers, many of them disabled or otherwise unable to afford a proper apartment or RV park or otherwise. There are those who could probably just barely manage to find a place to rent if they tried, but realize that without having to pay the rent bill every month their standard of living could drastically increase. There are Canadian snowbirds, living here in their RVs for the winter months, those months made tolerable in the desert while most other parts around this continent begin to freeze over. There are drifters, passing through, who had heard of the place and wanted to see it for themselves, or maybe have come back for another visit. Many hitchhikers will pass through the Slabs if they find themselves in southern California. There are the runaway kids, the lost, and often the chemically altered, here for the freeness they have pursued: spange kids, gas juggers, tweekers, crust punks, drunk punks, rainbow kids, acid freaks, neo-hippies, and the very, very, very, filthy. There are those who have opted in here at the Slabs for a chance to escape the noise and expectations of society in search of some inner quiet, some peace, and some spiritual sustenance. There are the artists, coming from L.A., or San Diego, or anywhere, really: those who have come to live strangely and differently for its own end. The list could go on.
Again, much like any city, Slab City has its various locations, and it would appear that many people, as in a city, stick to their own neighbourhoods. There are a couple of common areas including Salvation Mountain, The Range, Internet Cafe, or the hot springs and showers. I will move backwards through my list: the showers are not real showers with pipes and municipal water, rather, a run off of water from the hot springs where people can stand underneath to wash off. The hot springs is one giant pool of hot water, I think about 110 Fahrenheit, naturally occurring and naturally formed. In places it is much deeper than one can stand up in. The Internet Cafe is quite self-described, and people can go pay to use the internet there. The Range was built a long time ago by Builder Bill, who is still a resident of Slab City today, and serves as a music stage which is used every Saturday night for a first-come-first-serve open mic of varying performances. The Range was famously used in a scene in the film Into The Wild where the character played by Kristen Stewart plays guitar and sings. The main character of the film played by Emile Hirsch is based on the real-life Christopher McCandless, A.K.A. Alexander Supertramp, whom Frank once contested face-to-face with the film’s director Sean Penn, had never even been to Slab City. Apparently McCandless went to a similar and nearby place but not actually Slab City itself. But I digress… Salvation Mountain was created and maintained and improved upon over the course of 28 years by Leonard Knight (who by the way plays himself in Into The Wild). Leonard had come here in the 1980’s to build a hot air balloon, but for reasons unknown to me switched his attention to building a giant artificial mountain out of bales of hay, cob (clay and sand and water and hay mixed together wet, and becoming like cement when it dries), and thousands of gallons of paint. Salvation Mountain was named unofficially over the years by passers by, and the name is based on the message of Leonard’s mountain: God Is Love. Leonard had a spiritual vision, and can be found on numerous videos online saying over and over again, “God loved us first, so keep it simple”. Leonard passed away at age 82 the very day that Kat and I first came to Slab City. And our first stop, because of it being right at the entrance to the Slabs, had been Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain was considered a national treasure of American folk art, worthy of preserving and protecting, in 2002. It has become a non-profit organization with year-round caretakers. Because it is a wild and technicolor experiment of art and love, but also because of its spiritual affections which radiate most recognizably with the Christian religion, there is an unusual dichotomy within those attracted to Leonard’s mountain: the straight and normal and god-fearing Christian pilgrims of America, in stark contrast with the twisted, the bizarre, the abstract, the libertine heathens with their less conventional pursuits of love and spirituality. The two crowds are quite visually distinguishable, and both are there for sincere yet very different reasons. Salvation Mountain is a uniter, bringing us all together in the belief and pursuit of Love. It was on this first day, Monday February 10th, that the care takers of Salvation Mountain told us to go see East Jesus: “That’s where the artists are”, they would say.
Operating out of Slab City is The Sun Works, the only actual place of business we ever noticed within the Slabs, which sells solar panels and related items. It is true that you can drive around and find the occasional and permanent YARD SALE sign next to a table full of items that all clearly sit out there in basic disarray year round, but The Sun Works, run by a guy people call Solar Mike, is a bonafide business establishment. Outside of The Sun Works are two small electric cars with solar panels atop their roofs, the more powerful of the two using a golf cart motor, reaching speeds of 35mph, and registered with a California licence plate.
Radio Mike (different Mike than Solar Mike) broadcasts Slab City Radio at 96.3 fm from his Airstream trailer, and hosts an acoustic music night at his place every Friday night. Our first day here we tuned in to Slab City Radio and coasted down Beal Rd. (the main drag) to the tune of Mr. Sandman performed by Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra, and the juxtaposition could not have been more apropos.
There is a current debate going around Slab City now, something that had begun long before we arrived, and would not be resolved within our seven-week tenure: the option to “buy” Slab City. The 600+ acres known as Slab City is a desolate, hot, and polluted desert wasteland, situated in the poorest county in California, Imperial County. For these reasons there has never come along a tenant for this land. Should the land ever be properly leased from the State of California, all citizens of Slab City would be given an evacuation notice and a maximum of two hours to remove themselves and their belongings. This has created the debate that Slab City should lease the land itself so that they have the right to be there and the protection against being removed. For those who have established themselves and made a place to live there, this should be a positive solution to protect their home, however, many residents at the Slabs have little to nothing there to protect, and in a worst case scenario could simply drift along to some nearby BLM land, and resume life basically unaffected. There are also many part-time residents and people just passing through, who have nothing to lose really, should Slab City ever be evacuated. There are realistic fears that the option of Slab City “buying itself” would mean a rent increase from the comfortable zero-dollars-per-month to anything higher than zero. And there are higher and more altruistic reasons for wanting to keep Slab City unofficial, as it has been since the beginning: free, unofficial, and off-the-map. But again, some people have invested a significant amount of their time and resources into their particular space in Slab City, and would rather see the Slabs renting its own land if only to prevent somebody else from doing it first, which would force everyone to leave behind anything they had established for themselves. The debate is not settled, and has grown rather controversial within the Slabs and amongst its settlers. We plan to come back again next year, and I’ll be interested to see what has played out in the months we were away.
A little bit about Imperial County, from things I heard second-hand:
Imperial County is the poorest county in California. Because of its year round consistently hot and sunny weather, it has become the largest produce provider to the entire U.S., growing and providing one third of all fruits and vegetables across America. Bordering Mexico, many Mexicans will find themselves able to successfully sneak across the U.S. border into Imperial County, where under-the-table work in the fields is easy to find, where an “illegal” can earn a fraction of the legal minimum wage for their work. Should they try to go further, however, outside of Imperial County, where their hard work can no longer be exploited to continue America’s largest produce production, they will find themselves up against Border Patrol, who not only guard the actual border, but anywhere, arbitrarily, up to 60 miles from the U.S / Mexico border. Our friends Brian and Jane from Victoria, upon leaving north up Hwy 86, were stopped for a random search of their vehicle, drug-sniffing dogs and all. You literally can not drive on any road out of Imperial County without being stopped by Border Patrol for a random search, something only made possible since the Patriot Act of 2003. This is a convenient way of being allowed to stop any and all vehicles passing within an hour or more from the border, giving permission to search any vehicle or person for any reason deemed necessary. Fleeing to America to make a new life can be made obtainable in order to create cheap labour for its facilitators, with no protection for the workers… just don’t try and leave the county. And more: because of a drought that has been plaguing California for three years now, the price of water for these farms is not going to be government-subsidized next year, increasing the farms’ costs, which logically would mean increased costs for produce sales in general, across the country, by next year. These are the ongoing dilemmas of Imperial County, things that locals could expand on indefinitely, but of which I did learn a little bit in our time there.
Kat and I had figured we wanted at least a week to spend in the Slabs, and a week was as long as we had spent in any one place for more than four months at that point. On Monday February 10th at Salvation Mountain, we took the caretakers’ advice, driving to the end of Beal Rd. and turning left, to see this place they called East Jesus. We would stay, for the most part, for almost two months.