Slab City, California is an abandoned military base in the desert adjacent California’s Imperial Valley. One side is bounded by the Imperial Canal bringing water from the Colorado River to the valley to turn the desert green with crops. Beyond the canal is a military proving ground. On the other side, 2 miles away, are the railroad tracks on which 100 car trains haul the containers arriving by ship in San Diego further east. Between the two is land owned by California but ignored for more than 70 years. It is here that a settlement, has grown up of those who cannot or will not live in society and of retirees who cannot afford the cost of a rv park. The retirees migrate with the seasons, the slabbers never leave. Slab City has no government, no law, no water, no electricity. When the wind comes up trash blows through the streets. That which is not caught in the creosote bushes blows out into the desert. Along with the trash a slight odor of sewage is carried off as well. Slab City is known as the last free place in America.
Last year I met Doneata in Slab City. Now we are camped close to where we were last year. In the Lows. The Lows are a part of the slabs claimed by seasonal residents. Snowbirds. Year round Slabbers live near the irrigation canal. Maybe Doneata’s here and maybe she’s in the same location and maybe I can find that location.
I take a road. It’s straight. Look for landmarks I remind myself. The creosote bush can be eye level or higher. It’s easy to get lost. The Lows are marked by two tall flag poles, one flying the American flag the other the Canadian flag. Further on toward the canal a building called the Oasis flies a single American flag. If lost follow the flags. I walk on but the road is blocked ahead. Too far south I guess and head one block north and continue toward the irrigation canal. The canal that provides water to the farms below is fenced with chain link and barbed wire. There is no water for Slab City.
The road is lined with creosote bush and mesquite interspersed with burned out trailers, rusting cars and impromptu made camps constructed of old trailers, pallets and tarps. Used tires or salvaged fencing mark the bound between the camps and the road. Occasionally a dog barks but mostly it is quiet. There are few running cars here. Everyone walks. Anyone outside ignores the stranger walking down the street. It appears dystopian. It is dystopian I reach the trailers and camps that back up to the irrigation canal fence. This is not the road Doneata’s trailer was on. I’ll head another block north and head back to our trailer on the parallel road.
Less than a block up the road a man sits at a table eating next to a grey painted school bus. The bus is surrounded by piles of metal and wood. The man looks up.
“Quite a project you got going here.” I say looking at a bent metal frame that appears to be part of a geodesic dome.
“I got lots of projects. That might be my roof. I’m getting’ ready for summer. Gotta plan one season ahead ya know. I mean here it’s January and winter’s over. Gone. Done. I gotta a plan for summer. I’m gonna build a house … well a room underground. Stay cool ya know. I’m collectin’ all this stuff so I can see what I got to work with. Like those refrigerators. I’ll pull the insulation out and use it on the roof. Then I get a 12 volt compressor and hook it to the cooling part. That’s what will line the walls. When I’m done I’ll be able to make ice in my room. Here. In the slabs. Make ice in the summer.” He laughs at the thought. Temperarures here will approach 120 in July.
“The Indians in Arizona used to do just that.” I responded. “They dug a hole in the ground and built a low wall with a roof for a house. They’re called pit houses.”
“Yeah, the Vikings did it too but to keep warm. Same thing. Keep warm or cool go underground.”
“My name’s Alan.” I said reaching for his hand.
A car rolls to a stop behind us. Two young men and a woman get out.
“Bonjour mon ami Ryan.” The young man says to Flux.
Flux’ eyes light up. “Bonjour, bonjour …” and the four are conversing in French. Perhaps I better leave. After all I don’t know anyone here and suddenly I don’t know the language either.
As I back off one of the young men comes up and says with a slight accent, “We are from Quebec and you?”
“Oh yes. We are almost neighbors then. I like the United States especially Texas. They say bad thigs about Texas but nice countryside, people are friendly, the food is good and you can shoot guns.”
“You live in Quebec City?”
“No. I spent the winter in Squamish (British Columbia). I worked a Walmart. Nights. During the day I’d ski. I just lived out of my school bus in the Walmart parking lot. I will go back next winter maybe.”
Meanwhile Flux is advising his friend to camp anywhere to the west except near the skate park.
“I had big trouble there. Lost 90% of my stuff. That’s another story. Just don’t camp near the skate park and you’ll be OK.”
The Quebecois bid adieu and head off down the road.
An old woman walks across the road. “Your eggs.” she shouts.
“I only wanted two.” he says.
“All or nothing.” she scolds.
He takes the eggs and she walks back to a dilapidated trailer across the road without another word.
“I used to live in Quebec. When I was 16. I didn’t know a word of French but I tried and I learned. As soon as I started learnin’ the Quebecois were so friendly. They took me in. Quebec City is so small. I know everyone there or their brother or parents.”
“Now I can’t go to Canada anymore. Since 9/11 everything changed. I had a fiancée and a business there. Everything was good. I met some Americans. They were part of the 2030 gang. I thought they were OK but then we were out one night. They were at a bar. I was down the street There was a fight. Bad fight. Knives, baseball bats wrapped in barb wire. I wasn’t part of it but I was arrested and deported. They said I could come back but after 9/11 everything changed. I was class 3 and couldn’t go back. My fiancée we kept together by mail and phone for about 20 years but 4 years ago … well it was just never going to work. I lost a big piece of my heart then.”
“So now I’m here. After years of being on the road the road comes to me. Like those people from Quebec. That’s what the slabs are. Thing just come here and we use them. Everything I have is recycled from other camps. It looks like a pile of stuff but I’ve organized it so I know where everything is. Then I look at what I’ve got and I know what I can build. You wait around here long enough and things will start to come to you.”
I say farewell, turn and nearly walk into the wire fence.
Flux laughs, “I put old clothes on the fence so people can see it. I haven’t got to that section.”
I work my way around the tires that mark the end of the fence head out. Sure enough, tattered clothes hang from the fence. I turn back to the road and there it is. Doneata’s trailer. The TV’s with the words ‘We All Have Broken Dreams’.
As I walk by the trailer a woman wrapped in pink, back turned, appears from nowhere and disappears around the corner of the trailer. I peer around the corner. She’s nowhere to be seen. I step back onto the road. The low winter sun shines straight down the road making it difficult to see. Was it my imagination? I turn back toward the sun and resume walking down the road. “If you wait around here long enough things will start to come to you.” Flux had said.
I met Flux once again a couple days later. He was quite pleased. He was baking corn bread between two iron frying pans over a wood fire built in an old truck tire rim. He had corn meal and eggs.
“But then a dog or somethin’ ran off with my eggs. My friend had some Bisquick so I mixed that with the corn meal. Now I’m baking it.”
“Yeah, I’ll eat it tonight.” He pulls out a small pipe and a baggie.
“I found my weed. Yeah, I hid it in the bus six months ago and forgot where I put it.” He pulls a lump of hash out of the baggie and bites off a piece to put in the pipe. “Found it this mornin’ when I was lookin’ for somethin’ else.”
“Well that was good luck.”
“Yeah, If you wait long enough things will to come to you.”
“You know the way to East Jesus?”
“Yeah, turn at the end of the road and stay by the canal.”
I thanked him and headed off to find East Jesus.
Now when someone tells me they’re a Libertarian I smile and nod and think of Slab City. A place most of them would never dream of going to much less living in. And it’s probably all for the better as they would try to apply their theories to it and in doing so would destroy the very thing they espouse. Slab City is best left to Doneata , Flux and their kind as the Last Free Place in America.
Thanks for recent news of Slab City, surprised that you went back, reminds me too much of that camp site in Louisiana. However, I can see the charm of the people, the last free ones, almost like a little piece of how the frontier used to be as it evolved westwards. Guess I get too comfortable these days; would you choose to live there all of the time? I have seen homes up in The Northern Territory that only have roofs, no walls, who needs them 200 miles south of Darwin, out in the desert, 2000 miles north of Darwin.? Australia is not all surf beaches and suburbia, and the Aboriginals seem as beat up as the northern plains’ Indians. The fire crisis seems to have abated, or gone off the news radar, but Leigh and Shannon came down for the weekend, and it was the worst smokey day here.
However, now, clean breeze and blue skies, and off for a swim, leaving our pleasant little rented abode, which has a roof and a fridge and much else. Someone has to do it. Keep safe and rolling, and the entertaining, well written stories coming.