In the middle of a barren desert, between a shrinking lake, too salty to support life, and a range of mountains the colour of milk chocolate there lies a place of wonder and amazement. Built on the concrete slabs of an abandonned military base, this whistle-stop town sprung forth out of self-exile and desperation, and it grew and grew until its identity was no longer quantifiable. Out of intrigue, others whose curiosity got the better of them flocked to this hub of enchantment, and so the population became such that on no day does it carry the same numbers as the last. Folks come, are welcomed sometimes with a friendly smile or embrace, but mostly with quiet understanding and a knowing look. Its inhabitants stay for days, or weeks, or months. Some come down for the winter, but no sane person comes solely for summer. All told, the Slabs only have about 100 year round residents. Some never leave. Some die there, and some, now, are being born there. They call this place Slab City.
The road into Slab City is rough, dotted with dilapidated RVs and ratty tents. Ahead of you on the right, out of the sand rises a rainbow coloured mountain, the word LOVE sprouting from its candy striped hills and yellow brick road. Its veneer constructed decades ago of hay bails, adobe, and lead based paint by a man - long dead - named Leonard. Parts of it are cavernous; interior walls brightly painted with the same repeated affirmation: God is Love. Salvation Mountain is famous, a piece of folk-art atop which tourists scramble to take pictures to serve their memories of a place into which they choose not to venture any further. Many, it is true, will turn around here. To venture any further would ruin the illusion, and deflate Salvation Mountain's message. At the heart of Slab City, it is not God who is Love. From out of the destitution of the Slabs, a new truth arises: To be Human is to Love.
If you arrive at Slab City on a Saturday, you are in for a real treat. Prepare yourself for a night of bizarre entertainment and unbridled pleasure:
The sun sets, the light dims and from out of the darkness stars begin to twinkle. Between two starry blue school buses: a stage. Christmas lights flicker on, mirroring the stars in the sky and the glimmer in the eyes of those gathered 'round. They know something you don't, they share a secret that you, visitor, are about to discover. Momentarily, you will all step together out of reality and into a scene of chaos, pleasure, and excitement that swells the heart. Center stage, a man with shoulder length white hair wails on the guitar and sings; his voice the sound of gravel tumbling through a river's current. It's not beautiful, but it is. He is Builder Bill, the proprietor of this outdoor establishment he calls The Range.
In your hand you have a bottle of beer and in your pocket a joint. The man beside you might have a bottle of Zachory Boone in his hand, a syringe in his pocket. In this place where law doesn't exist, it doesn't matter. Now is the time to ignite. You look up again and Builder Bill has been replaced by a middle aged woman with coke bottle glasses and the voice of a yodeling angel. In front of her, young nubile women with ropey hair and swaying hips balance glowing hoola hoops with the grace of Cirque du Soleil performers. In front of them, children run wild in all states of dress tumbling together onto the ground, jumping on tattered couches, and chasing a pack of wild dogs. A baby crawls across the ground, the chaos avoiding it. Its fragility is respected and the infant goes untouched.
Out of the corner of your eye a sinewy grey dog exerts his dominance over serveral other dogs in the pack, and in an appropriately similar display two young boys fight over a small package of Cheesies, alternately screaming in the other's face and puffing up their chests. Their own little display of dominance. A wizard in a purple robe glides effortlessly across the empty space in front of the stage. Despite the wafting smell of newly legal drugs and stumbling inebriates no one decides it's time for the children to go to bed, and no one minds that someone's dog is humping their leg. The upheaval is embraced by all.
Something about the brazenness of the scene before you takes hold. Before you know it, you've already arranged with Builder Bill to have your name on the list of Open Mic performers. As you await your turn a man in a dress sings a heartfelt song about how Girls Just Want Equal Funds. If only Cindi Lauper had such insight. His laments prompt heartening applause.
When your turn arrives, it doesn't matter that beer and nerves have shattered your ability to play the five string guitar that is handed to you. It doesn't matter that the dirty sock covered mic isn't loud enough for the audience to hear your words, you have a captivated audience primed for ovation. They love you. They love you because they love everyone who gets on stage. They love you because they love everyone who doesn't get on stage, too.
Tucking yourself into bed that night, you think about how this is the stuff that sugar-plum fairy tales for adults are made. You fall asleep happy, confused, and glad you drove past Salvation Mountain into this land of mystery.
The weather in the Slabs is hot year round, the temperature a reflection of the boiling desperation lying just beneath the surface. On a hot winter's day, dogs from the night before scavenge dried out bushes for food. A mother asks her young child if he's had anything to eat yet today. The fact that she does not know suggests that perhaps she has been too preoccupied with finding her own food to know whether her children have eaten. How long since they've broken their fast? Unlike many cities, Slab City seems seediest during the day. Poverty, addiction, desperation become visible. The magic of the night before fades like a dream from their memories. Slab dwellers from the wrong side of the city eye tourists, "You ain't from around these parts, too clean" they say. It's not a threat, but it sure doesn't feel warm.
But this is only a small - and unfair - glimpse into the daily life of Slabbers. Among compounds housing large families of hippies, small tent dwellings of heroine and meth users, and palate homes of artists who've come here to find inspiration, seeds of civilization are germinated and carefully cultivated. The Leaping Lizard Community Library, with shelves of books neatly arranged by topic, and a Google Tree stacked with old encyclopedias; the hostel, for those who've come without their dwelling on their backs; the outdoor art gallery where garbage is repurposed with steam-punk eccentricity and where dolphins are the enemy of mankind; the memorial park and a Pet Cemetary where Mardi Gras beads, stuffed animals, and personal effects pay tribute to man's best friend. All of these proof of the industriousness of mankind. Something, from nothing.
Not far away, in another makeshift neighbourhood, shiny RVs with solar panels, toilets and generators cluster together in a clean stretch of desert, holding their own against some of the more destitute members of the last free place in America. The LoWs. In this tiny microcosm of retirement, old men - and a few old women - huddle around a camp fire at least three times a day. For six months they escape the cold or the bustling chaos of city life for the more remote, warm, sunny chaos that is sequestered away in the Californian desert. For many, this has been their retreat for decades. The people they meet here, year after year, seasonal friends as comfortable as an old shoe. At one time, they were four hundred strong, the LoWs thrumming with the activity of potlucks, happy hours, game nights. Now, they are twelve. A small vestige of an illustrious past.
The mornings come early in the LoWs; the indigo sky giving way to wisteria, fuschia, saffron, and finally the electric blue of the desert sky. A small group of aging men gather in friendly ritual around a barrel, flames and smoke rising and dispersing into the still brisk air. A coffee carafe sits atop an old plywood table; a 25c donation jar it's only companion. Bring your own mug. Their conversation is cyclical because they cannot remember having said these words before. Perhaps this is why they are such fast friends. At 7:17 the man of the hour rolls in on his golf cart. At ninety, he moves with the easy grace of a man half his age. The leader of this pack. On occasion, they search for answers to their dwindling numbers. How can they rebuild what has been lost? What efforts will bring new blood to their dying community? The weight of the conundrum bends their ancient spines into the question marks that punctuate these queries. They worry that before long, the LoWs will cease to exist if a solution cannot be found. When they are gone, their abandoned belongings will be pilfered; the old trailers that make up a tidy private library, kitchen, meeting hall, will have new inhabitants once their effects have been scavenged, leaving behind nothing but the concrete slabs on which this little city was founded.
These kindly men and women greet new visitors with sincere excitement. Summons to join the inner circle charms travellers who wonder why they have come to visit such a place as this. Soon nestled within the safety of the LoWs (the promise of hot coffee as the sun rises and warm fires at night, easy conversation and earnest smiles, invitations to nights out at The Oasis Club and The Ponderosa - small hubs of creativity and non-threatening inebriation) make it difficult to leave. Within a day, the folks here feel like family. Soon, one night of free boondocking and the intention to get the hell outta Dodge with the first rays of light becomes three nights and a heavy heart as you bid farewell to the kind souls who ask "leaving, so soon?" A promise to visit again leaves them hopeful that the next chapter of the LoWs has begun to write itself. Perhaps, it has.
.... In the middle of a barren desert, between a shrinking lake, too salty to support life, and a range of mountains the colour of milk chocolate there lies a place of wonder and amazement...but don't take our word for it; a visit to Slab City will captivate your imagination and steal a little piece of your heart.