Take a casual glance at Slab City, California and all you’ll see is a dusty, junk yard full of hippies and drop outs. But look deeper and you’ll also find a diverse community of artists, homesteaders and retirees living off the grid, on the cheap, and absolutely on their own terms.
For Slab City to make any kind of sense, you have to understand the pioneer spirit of the American West. It took a particular kind of grit and a strong stubborn streak to thrive and stay alive in the harsh western landscapes of the 1800’s. That pioneer spirit has evolved in the past 200 years, but you can still see it in entrepreneurial ethic of Silicon Valley, the Libertarian politics of Utah and Oregon and also in Slab City.
Slab City’s History
Slab City, or “The Slabs” as the local residents call it, sits on what was once Camp Dunlop. Well before the USA entered WWII, the military began preparing for it. The Navy needed a large area to establish and train Marine field and anti-aircraft artillery units. They obtained the land from California, and built the base in 1942. By 1949, the war was winding down and the Navy had no further need for the land.
By 1956, they had decommissioned the base, removed the buildings and returned the land the California. All that remained were the concrete slabs that once housed the buildings.
There is general agreement that the squatters moved in almost immediately. Some believe that it was workers harvesting local creosote crops, but local resident Charlie believes that it was returning war vets who began to take over the space.
The population grew over the decades, reaching a high of approximately 15,000 in the 1980’s. Now you’ll find about 3,500 residents during the peak winter months and 50-100 people who live there year round.
Slab City is completely off the grid. There are no city services. No water, no electricity, no sewer, no garbage. Everyone living there needs to pack it in, pack it out or make it on site.
Who Lives There and Why Do They Do it?
I figured that the best way to get a feel for Slab City’s culture would be to spend the night there. So, I booked in at Spyder’s California Ponderosa camp. I splurged and spent $32 for his AirBnB “honeymoon suite”, which is a ramshackle trailer with a bed, a shady porch, some old easy chairs and a private RV toilet. It wasn’t fancy (but then nothing is in the Slabs) and it could have been cleaner (but then water for cleaning is at a premium in the Slabs). I didn’t go to the Slabs expecting 5-star service, I went looking for some friendly folks willing to explain the place to me, and I found them.
Spyder is one of the homesteaders in the camp. This means that he has leveraged his pioneer spirit as a nine-year full-time resident and businessperson. In addition to his Airbnbs, he and his partner run a modest open air restaurant, where for $150 a month, you get two meals a day and a weekly shower. Despite the lack of city services, the Ponderosa camp is quite comfortable and functional. Spyder already has solar power, pigs, chickens, septic, RV space for seasonal residents and delivery of potable city water. His five year plan includes an expanded lounge area, a hydroponic crop system and better septic.
“This is my home”, said Zig, a young retired vet, RV traveler and informal tour guide. He is a winter resident of Slab City, spending his summers in Oregon or Colorado. He tried living the traditional life with the desk job and the house full of belongings, but he was miserable. So, he traded the desk for life on the road.
Zig was kind enough to take several of us Slab neophytes on a tour of the area. We stopped at Rabbitside Camp and met Ryan. Ryan welcomed us to his camp and then gestured at what looked to me like a pile of junk. He enthusiastically began to explain all of the ingenious devices that he was going to design with his junk. He then took us on a tour of his experimental crop garden, chicken coop, water-purifying ponds and cockroach ranch (which he is growing for the protein). All of this, housed in a shady labyrinth of trailers and canopies serviced by a misting system that keeps the heat down in the summer.
This clever McGuyvering of cast-offs and scrap is precisely what makes the Slabs such a contradiction. A bunch of self-described stoners surrounded by scavenged building materials have reshaped themselves into infrastructure geniuses terraforming a hostile landscape into a village.
Look, the Slabs has plenty of drunks and tweakers who struggle to stay upright. But there is also a lot of creativity and pluck in this pioneer town.
Answers to Common Questions
Is Slab City Lawless?
As I sipped my morning coffee, everyone else gathered in the open air living room, sharing a joint sized for an extra large prop in the Cheech and Chong movie. Once they were good and stoned, I confessed that I’m a travel writer. “Are you going to write about Slab City”, asked Spyder. I replied that I might and asked them what writers get wrong about the Slabs.
“That it’s lawless”, replied everyone in unison.
Zig carefully pointed out there is indeed law enforcement presence in Slab City. Nearby Niland county sheriffs and emergency services will come when called and there is a military presence on the adjoining Chocolate Mountain gunnery range. There was also a recent series of arrests from Federal Marshals who were looking for specific fugitives. Even with the availability of law enforcement, Zig admitted that the local residents aren’t very likely to call the cops.
Slab City may be a pioneer town, but it’s not Tombstone and they aren’t having shoot-outs at the OK Corral. It isn’t lawless, but nor is it quite legal. There are some fringes of private land in the area, but most of the Slabs squats illegally on public California Land.
The code of ethics that most residents live by is to be tolerant and sharing, but mind yourself. However, many residents and itinerant visitors are cash-strapped and there are drug issues, petty crime and the occasional fist fight. For this reason, most residents have dogs and keep their camps secure.
I felt safe visiting Slab City, but was glad that I chose to stay in an established camp, rather than carving out my own spot in the sand.
Where is Slab City, USA?
It’s about 2.5 hours northeast of San Diego or 1.5 hours southeast of Palm Springs. It’s near the town of Niland on the Salton Sea. Drive to the town of Niland, head east on Main Street (at the grocery market) and drive in about four miles.
How Many Acres is Slab City?
It’s is actually three different entities. It includes Slab City proper, the Salvation Mountain religious art installation and the East Jesus sculpture garden. Slab City itself is approximately one mile square or 650 acres.
Why is it Called Slab City?
When Camp Dunlop was dismantled, they removed the buildings but left the foundation concrete slabs behind.
Can Anyone Live in Slab City?
There are no rules about who can live in there. But you need to be willing to tolerate the heat, the lack of resources and the cast of characters. People who are obsessive about the anti-bac wipes aren’t going to do well there.
How Many People Live in Slab City?
Approximately 3,500 people winter in the Slabs and 50-100 live there year-round.
Does Slab City Have Electricity?
Most seasonal and permanent residents generate their own electricity, primarily through solar panels and supplemented with generators.
How Can I Be a Good Visitor?
Slab City isn’t a zoo, so treat the residents respectfully. Part of what makes it a community is the sharing culture. They live lean in the Slabs and a little bit goes a long way, so bring something to donate or share.
For instance, a guy passing through came too late for Spyder’s dinner so I made him a sandwich from my food stash. My fellow Airbnbers Emily and Dima shared their beer.
East Jesus, Salvation Mountain and the Library all take cash donations. The Library will also take books and also has a list of desired items on an Amazon list. East Jesus requests $15 for camping and has a list of very specific items on their website that they need for the museum.
What Can You Do In Slab City?
1. Salvation Mountain
Leonard Knight had a very simple religious belief; love Jesus and ask for forgiveness. He was frustrated by the complicated structure of organized religions but his religious feelings burned very brightly. When he washed up in Niland, he felt compelled to build a monument to his beliefs. He built his mountain out of sand and adobe, painting it brightly with religious fervor.
Knight died in 2014 but a cadre of seven volunteers keep the site in working order. You can visit anytime but it’s best seen during the day and access may be restricted if it’s been raining.
2. East Jesus
East Jesus is an art installation of assemblage sculptures and Burning Man contraptions founded by artist Charles Russell. It’s a legit nonprofit arts organization dedicated to the creative re-use of materials. The sculptures are crazy and whimsical and absolutely worth visiting. They have artist residency programs and you can camp on their site (with permission).
If you are really into outsider art and sculptures made of found objects, check out my article on Joshua Tree California. It’s only two hours north of Slab City and the whole itinerary is full of offbeat art.
3. Have breakfast or dinner at California Ponderosa camp
Breakfast is a flexible affair but if you want dinner, let them know early so that they have enough food prepared.
4. The Library
Five years ago, Cornelius Vango re-booted the Slab City Library. It’s an “anarchist” library which runs on the honor system and they have a wide range of fiction, non-fiction, reference materials and games. It’s not the most beautiful library in the world, but it has a lot of heart. It’s a loose affair with library cards, and no fines. Bring a book to donate.
5. Tour Rabbitside
My tour was arranged by California Ponderosa. However, you can probably just go do Rabbitside and ask politely for a tour. The camp is well signed at the T off the main road. Ryan is very passionate about his homesteading project and he is a genius in desert ecology.
6. Music at The Range or The Oasis
The Range is a camp right on the main road that features live bands most weekends. The Oasis camp features more informal open mic and karaoke events during the week.
7. Hot Springs
Frankly, these hot springs look more like pea soup that’s been sitting on the counter too long. But the water is warm. Zig suggests going at night so that you won’t have to look at the color.
I must admit that I don’t think I have the wherewithal to live in Slab City. I like frequent showers and my creature comforts. But I found far more to admire in Slab City than I expected. Living off the grid takes a lot of work (made even harder if you are stoned). Surviving there takes courage, grit and a determination to live life on your own terms. These modern day counter-culture pioneers are doing just that in the Slabs.
Other Offbeat Things to do in California
- Explore weird things to do in San Francisco, with suggestions from locals.
- Learn about SF’s Mission murals.
- Explore LA’s Arts District street art.
- Find offbeat art things to do in Joshua Tree.
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