11B) Garbage and Sunshine
– February 10th – March 30th, 2014
“Recycle it, reuse it, repurpose it, or set it on fire”.
[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].
East Jesus, in size, might make up about one percent of Slab City. It was in this one percent that we would find a new home for the first time. We were wandering around their Art Garden, a couple of acres of exposed desert devoted to sculpture art for public viewing, when we overheard somebody offering a tour of East Jesus to another couple. His voice was practiced and confident, and Kat and I wandered a bit closer to overhear some of what he had to say. I heard something like, “This is a 1957 Mercedes Benz that our friend drove here to give to us. And so we set it on fire, cause sometimes you just want to see a Mercedes burn.” I am paraphrasing of course, and I’m sure if he read this journal of mine now he would correct me with the exact wording. This was Frank, curator of East Jesus, and one of a small handful who rescued it from near obsolescence a few years back.
Charlie Steven Russell came out to Slab City in 2006 to help Leonard Knight with his ongoing 20+ year project, Salvation Mountain, and in 2007 he began work on what he called East Jesus. East Jesus, as Frank will contest, is neither a religious term nor heretical mock thereof. Further, it is not a cult. East Jesus is a colloquial expression used to describe any place that is essentially off the map, a place that lies beyond the last electrical pole or water main, somewhere past where the postal service will deliver – which is interesting, by the way, because a prominent sign in spray-painted writing reads, “UPS PLEASE HONK”, something that I mistook for a joke until a few days later when I actually saw a UPS truck pulling up to the main gates via dirt road at East Jesus with a delivery. This truck had not seen a paved road for at least a mile now, and the nearest actual town was a few miles further than that.
Other signs that border that confusing area between joke and reality include, “Clothing Optional Pistol Range”, “Tresspassers Will Be Violated”, and “Terrible Psychiatric Advice Inside ($0.25)”, not to mention the giant black square marked with an appropriately giant white “H” to indicate a helicopter landing pad deep into the property, where I would in about a month’s time watch one of National Geographic‘s helicopters touch down for their current documenting of Slab City.
Charlie Russell, Mayor of East Jesus and High Priest of the Church of the Chocolate Martini, found a huge space that was basically uninhabited at the time, due to it being a popular unofficial dumping site for not only the residents of East Jesus, but also those who drove in from the nearest town, Niland, California, more or less five miles away. It is believed now that he chose this site for building not only to use the junk piles to build a home from, but also because of the sparse yet visible tree line that ran through it. Trees are few and far between here, most of the area being a hot and humid sun-scorched desert wasteland, and trees not only offer a bit of shade, but also imply an underground water source. He began sifting through the junk and building not just a house or shack, but an entire village that could sustain more than just himself.
East Jesus grew into a near self-sustaining mechanism of living art. Water is now delivered to them in 300 gallon cubes, and grocery runs are still a necessity, but for the most part this place runs off-grid on its own. Everything is composted or reused or repurposed (or set on fire or put in the wash for target practice). Toilets are composting… humanure… it’s a portmanteau… look it up… The Thunder Dome, a large geodesic dome now shaded and bug-proofed with mesh, has become a vegetable garden, and there are other vegetable gardens and fruit trees and aloe planted in other areas as well, including The House of Plants. Many of these gardens are irrigated with grey water pumped straight from the shower. There is a shower!
During our tour I asked Frank how one could be considered for staying at East Jesus. He explained that usually this process was as simple as a conversation, so that they could speak with the person or people interested, and decide whether they would be an appropriate fit for living here – adding that they be the right amount of “crazy” for the position (not crazy enough and you’ll want to leave, too crazy and we will kick you out)! “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”, he would say later, showing me a full sized house made out of scrap wooden pallets and other debris, forming no certain shape and spiralling from the outside in, a haunting large-scale work worthy of any slasher flick premise.
We were then told we could pull our car and trailer in and find a place to stay in the back, and were pointed in the direction of “the other Canadians”. There was another couple already living here, about our age, who were originally from Victoria, British Columbia. They had arrived about a month ago, thinking they might stay a week, but had become wrapped up in their various art projects, the most recent being a large map of the world they were painting onto the side of a single wide trailer, the trailer itself serving as the East Jesus Post-Apocalyptic Library (and Bad Juju Museum). Much of East Jesus is made up of shipping containers, various trailers, a double decker bus, and an ex- New York City coach bus, laid about in close proximity. Then some of the roofs are connected creating a covering and thus a new roof and a new covered room beneath it. All roof surfaces are covered with solar panels, and one shipping container is home to 24 massive batteries – the so-called Heart of East Jesus, which stores enough power created by the solar panels to keep them up and running with full time power. For back up purposes, there is also a diesel generator about the size of a car, but their solar panels are effective enough that in seven weeks I only heard that generator run maybe twice.
We pulled our trailer around back with the others already there, and met “the other Canadians”, Brian and Jane. After talking to them for a bit, I went back and found Frank, asking if he was sure about us being able to stay for a bit, to which he replied, “What did the other Canadians say?” I said they liked us. He said, “Then welcome to East Jesus. Dinner is at 6:30, and sunsets are free.”
Breakfasts and dinners are communal, and free, occurring every day for any one staying at East Jesus, and as Marty would say of the meals to any newcomer, “We eat like this every night!” Guests are welcome to relax and do nothing if they so choose, for the first 24 hours, after that one is expected to put in at least one hour of work per day to continue staying. “Work” could be washing dishes, cleaning solar panels, making art, or driving people down to the hot springs at night in the Dusty Junk, a pick up truck completely covered in wood planks to resemble a pirate ship of at least twice the size of the actual truck, complete with a long bow in front of the engine and a crow’s nest above the cabin – I was able to drive it with about ten people down to the hot springs and back one night, though fitting as many as twenty people on the Dusty Junk at once was not an altogether unusual feat.
I awoke on our first full day at East Jesus excited to delve into some of their supplies to create some sculpture art, inspired by what was already here. There was a large military tent by the zen garden located behind the six-foot-plus tall bottle wall (strung together with Christmas lights, the bottles glowing beautifully at night), and inside and around the large tent were piles upon piles of first-come-first-serve junk to be used for whatever art projects await them. Things are vaguely organized in the art supply area: there might be one bucket of shotgun shells, another with small animal bones, maybe a big wooden crate of broken electronics, a pile of discarded clothes and fabrics. I made a couple of pieces that day, excited to think that my contributions of art work could be considered contributions of work, as legitimate as making dinner or cleaning up or anything else.
A guy named Tracy arrived shortly after we did, and would end up staying longer than us. He lived out of his van, and as weeks went by it eventually came out in conversation that he had been down at the Verde Hot Springs camp ground at the same time that we drove out there to find them! It was such a random, hard-to-get-to place, and there were only about a dozen other people around during our few days there. Somehow we hadn’t met Tracy, but he knew all the people we had met that day. So strange to pass right by somebody in such a desolate area, only to meet them in a totally different state more than a month later!
People came and went regularly, most of them only staying for a few days or a week, including a couple from Scotland who were driving the American west coast in a rented Mustang, and a couple from Germany, Frank and Janna, who were driving all the way through South America, Central America, and North America, visiting many communal farms and living spaces. They will fly back to Germany from New York City at the end of April.
It wasn’t long before we were introduced to Caddy and Jenn, a couple from L.A. who had been living here for a while now, but preparing for their first time to take over as caretakers at East Jesus when Frank would leave in the spring to resume hitchhiking once again, after being here for more than two years straight by this point. Caddy and Jenn had a lot of enthusiasm for the place as an ongoing project, and it wasn’t long before we were helping to mix cob to cover the hay bale wall surrounding the battery container, or planning the creation of a large mud wrestling / clay storage pit from dozens of discarded car tires. Caddy had been driving down to the wash (lower lying part of the desert where water would flow on the very seldom occasion there actually was any water) and hauling out chunks of dry clay, taking them up to East Jesus in either his pick up truck or towing them in a trailer behind The Sandrail – a Mad Max style dune buggy built from the ground up from spare Volkswagen parts by a part time resident, Pyro, who we by chance never actually met. (Caddy took Kat and I out one day on the Sandrail and taught us how to drive stick in the desert.) The clay from the wash had been mixed with water he pumped out of the hot springs into a 300 gallon cube, in a discarded hot tub near The House of Plants. But the hot tub was not big enough any more, and further, could not be used for mud wrestling, which apparently was set to happen the coming weekend when some folks from Technomania Circus would arrive from San Diego. The idea to create a larger pit for the clay creation, maybe a dozen or more feet in diameter, was something Kat and I were eager to help out with.
Cob is a mixture of clay, water, hay, and sand, when mixed properly and then dried, becoming like cement. The battery container was air conditioned in an attempt to keep the batteries from getting any hotter than 80 or 90 degrees Fahrenheit, however, the high humidity of the Salton Sea area, combined with the fact that the air conditioners had to be running constantly to keep the temperature at or below 90 degrees, meant that air conditioners didn’t last more than a single season out here. Caddy had been in the process of covering a wall of hay bales surrounding the battery container with cob, to work as an insulator and hopefully keep some of the heat from getting in, and conversely, cold from getting out. It was a slow and tedious job, but the result can be surprisingly effective. With clay and sand collected right here on site, and water pumped from the hot springs only a mile or two away, and with a bit of hay which had been delivered here for free, one could make an insulated wall as strong as cement, at no cost. There was a general saying around that East Jesus operated on two prime resources: garbage and sunshine. They had created this entire village from the junk discarded here, and were now running it with more free power than they could store in an entire shipping container full of batteries, straight from the sun. Finding use for the surrounding clay and sand and the water from the hot springs was a further ingenuity on Caddy’s part.
Jenn had located a solar farm many miles from here which was discarding a bunch of their older model panels to replace them with something more state of the art, and before long, Caddy was transporting something like 84 new solar panels into East Jesus in his pick up truck, obtained for only $12 per panel (brand new, these panels would have cost more than a hundred dollars a piece). Kat and I had been curious about solar power for our trailer since before we had even left Ontario, but had been a bit intimidated by the foreign-to-us concept of how it all worked, and were worried about getting excited and spending a lot of money on a bunch of solar gear we didn’t even understand. We had met some people along the way who were helpful in explaining the set up, what we would need, and how it would work for us, and so on. There had been Benji, from the RV Nightly Campground near Austin, Texas, and Liz from Lake Mead in Nevada, among others. But here at East Jesus, we would have all the information and help we would need to finally get running on solar.
Jenn was the solar and electrical expert here. She had worked in stage lighting for about twenty years and had a solid understanding of electricity in general, and it was her who had revitalized the batteries after they had been neglected and near-ruined before her arrival. Charlie Russell, who had come here and built East Jesus from nothing back in 2007, passed away in May 2011, from a heart attack. It seemed likely that East Jesus would die with him, to be sifted through by local scavengers and picked clean, reducing it back to the pile of rubble from whence it had came. But there were those eager to continue it in operation without Charlie, and within the first year of his passing, three different people had attempted to keep it running. This, as those who were around at that time would describe it, had been a dark time for East Jesus. The transition from Charlie’s knowledgeable direction of the place into a time requiring somebody else to pick up that torch with the right combination of artistic direction and the proper esoteric understandings of the power systems he had put in place to operate it with did not pass by quickly or smoothly. Without understanding how the solar set up worked, these new and short-lived caretakers had run the batteries dry over and over again to a state of near ruin. In other ways, too, East Jesus had, without Charlie around, fallen apart physically and socially, and might have been destined for oblivion had it not eventually been saved by a small handful of people determined to bring it back to life, and further, to take it beyond where it had ever been before, toward an ever furthering state of growth and change. Jenn had been reviving the batteries slowly but surely for some time now, and this process would continue for our entire seven week duration and beyond. She had agreed to sell to us at a very low price one of the solar panels they would no longer be needing since obtaining the dozens of new ones from the solar farm. We now had a solar panel.
A solar panel is no good without a battery, and so we went to see Solar Mike at his trailer in the Slabs, where he operated his business The Sun Works. We bought a new Interstate 12V lead acid battery, not so different than an ordinary car battery, and about the same size and weight, which we now store beneath our shelving unit in the trailer. We also needed a charge controller, and so we bought one with an LED screen which shows the power level of the battery at all times. The general idea is that you never want the battery to drop below 12V, so you can boost it up by using the solar panel, and then when taking power from it we are just careful to not let the level drop below 12V. Most of our lights, and also our electric water pump, and a small fan I found for $2 at a yard sale, are all DC powered electronics, meaning they use direct current straight from the battery. Ordinary household items run on AC, an alternating current which must be created by inverting the DC power into AC. We already had a power inverter which plugged straight into the old cigarette lighter in our car, drawing the 12V power from the car battery and inverting it into AC power to charge things like laptops or phones. We took our inverter from the car and connected it to the new battery, then plugging a power bar into that inverter. Now if we turn the inverter on we can plug in ordinary items so long as they don’t draw too much power and bring our battery below its 12V minimum. Even the process of inverting itself draws some power, so we leave the inverter turned off unless we’re using it.
It’s a beginner set up, but after four months of living without electricity, we are now running on solar power! For one 55W panel, one 12V battery, a charge controller, and an inverter, we spent less than $300 and have enough power now for lights, fans, running water, and during daylight hours, enough power to charge our computers and phones, with no electric bill at the end of the month, and the peace of mind knowing that the power created and consumed was not generated by carbon, but simply the natural rays of the sun. This is a place we had wanted to get to since Day One, and though it took us about four months, I’m glad we didn’t rush into making any purchases until we had a better understanding of what we needed and how it would work. We also saved more than $100 I figure, on getting a good deal on the panel itself, and were surrounded by help when figuring it out for the first time. Bob, a retired hitchhiker who spent his winter months here at East Jesus, even went with me to The Sun Works to help me pick out what I needed, and afterwards helped us set it all up for the first time. Even as I type these words on my laptop, the sun is charging it.
At night on Saturday February 15th we rode the Sandrail with Caddy and Jenn and probably ten other people shoved on in one way or another, out behind Salvation Mountain to some kind of desert party, complete with a 25 foot see-saw, but didn’t stay too long, finding an ad hoc bar built out in the desert and taking over a table over there for a while instead. The party, I think, was because of the Midnight Riders who were out here from L.A. for the week, dozens and dozens of party folk who ride around on audaciously tall and custom-made freaked-out bicycles, and who seem to have a penchant for imbibing regularly and unsparingly. On Sunday afternoon the mud wrestling happened, kicked off by a semi-scripted mud wrestling match by two of the girls from Technomania Circus. It wasn’t long though until most of us were in the pit, and afterwards Bob towed us all on the flatbed to the hot springs to clean up.
The East Jesus Post-Apocalyptic Library and Bad Juju Museum has a decent book and DVD collection. We borrowed The Alien Quadrilogy but were disappointed to find the 3rd and 4th films missing from the box set. We watched Borat; read parts of Pleasures of the Damned, a collection of Charles Bukowski poems; and 50 Solar Projects For the Evil Genius; and Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive – one of those books that seeks connection between a specific current media and appropriate philosophical viewpoints.
On Thursday February 27th we left East Jesus and Slab City, only temporarily, to drive to San Diego, where the next morning a plane would fly us to Newark, NJ, where another plane would fly us to Buffalo NY, where my mom and step dad would pick us up and drive us back to Cambridge, Ontario, for Charlotte’s sixth birthday. Our plane was leaving at 6:18am on the 28th, so we drove in to San Diego on the 27th, found an airport parking lot that wasn’t too expensive to leave our car at for the next 12 days, and checked in to the Good Nite Inn. They tried to charge us $5 for Wifi, but when I told them we were leaving to go to any other hotel because this one was the only one without free WiFi, they waived the fee. Back to Ontario in the morning, and more East Jesus waiting for us when we get back.