About 150 miles northeast of San Diego, situated just east of the Salton Sea, lies Slab City.
Slab City gets its name from the concrete slabs that remain, an afterthought of the World War II Marine barracks that once dotted the landscape. Since the first migration into the “city” in 1956, “The Slabs” have been gaining popularity for both tourists and inhabitants, especially since being introduced to the masses via the Into the Wild book and subsequent movie.
So, what exactly is Slab City?
For one, the name itself is a misnomer. Slab City is not a city at all, but rather a conglomeration of squatters who live together in the desert: snow birds trying to stretch their retirement funds, young people unable or unwilling to live within the confines of mainstream society, and yes, probably some outlaws and drug dealers.
It’s “free” out here. There is no cost to camp overnight. There is no rent should you decide to move your entire life to this no-mans land.
And it’s “free” in other ways too: You are free to walk around naked, to let your dogs run wild, to start a drum circle at 4 a.m. There are no rules, no regulations. There is no government.
There isn’t any running water either, there is no trash pickup, and there is not a septic system to be found. It’s BYOE out here – bring your own electricity.
For the curious tourist, there are a few must-see stops in Slab City: Salvation Mountain (pictured at top) is a 20+ year labor of love by artist Leonard Knight. The mountain is what it sounds like: a 3-story high mountain, painstakingly painted and decorated with Bible verses. The mountain makes for some great photo-ops and you can “follow the yellow brick road” all the way to the top to take in the expanse of Slab City.
The second must-see is the sculpture garden at East Jesus. East Jesus has no religious affiliation, but rather, the name is in reference to its location in the middle of nowhere. East Jesus, as a whole, defies categorization. It is a group of people. It is a sculpture garden. It is a social experiment. And as of more-recent events, it is a non-profit organization.
The sculpture garden was started in 2007 by a man named Charlie Russell. Charlie is no longer with us, but that doesn’t stop the members of East Jesus from giving credit where credit is due. Some have actually met the man, others came along after his death, but all talk affectionately of the mud-wrestling, art-car-driving, normally-nude man who started the movement.
Charlie was the first person to clean up the area the East Jesus residents now call home. Not only did he clean the place up, but he started making art out of the garbage he collected. In the sculpture garden, you will find a plastic bag monster, a rubber tire mammoth, and the famous glass bottle wall; all made out of garbage found in the desert.
Since Charlie’s death, other artists have been working tirelessly to further his vision. Below, is a video of Flip Cassidy’s now-famous TV wall. Flip has taken a whole lot of those non-flatscreens we’ve thrown out in the last decade or two and turned them into something else: art.
Flip has made a powerful statement about the main stream with just a little bit of paint and a whole lot of landfill.
Don’t get East Jesus wrong. With their solar panels, composting toilets, and wifi they do have most of the comforts of modern society. I wasn’t the only one out there with a MacBook Pro. But they live sincerely by the the motto: Recycle it, reuse it, repurpose it or set it on fire.
While currently their main source of food is the grocery store, just like you and I, they have started an experimental garden out back. They aim to be 100% self sufficient, and while they’re still working out the details of creating a thriving garden in the 120+ degree heat of summer, they are determined to keep trying. Experimentation is key.
But the end may be near for Slab City and its residents. The state of California is looking to sell the land, potentially closing down the Slabs for good, and various solar energy and geothermal groups are showing interest. Not being your run-of-the-mill, down-and-out group of Slabbers, however, East Jesus has banded together and is in the process of buying the 30 acres of land they currently call home. What happens to the rest of the land remains to be seen.
If you have a few days to visit the Slabs, I recommend you do it and do it soon. There is no telling how long it will be around and there is no other place like it on earth.
Theft and trespassing are issues out there, so lock up your things when you go exploring. But explore you should. Take a dip in the 107-degree, clothing-0ptional hot springs. Go to the Oasis Club for a cup of coffee. Stop by the Range for some live music on the weekends. Or just swing by East Jesus with a big box of Franzia as a peace offering. I guarantee you are going to hear some fascinating stories and have one heck of an experience.
You never know exactly what you’re going to get from the Slabs, but no matter what, it’s a place you’ll never forget.