Slab City, California: The Last Free Place on Earth
October 30, 2018
Slab City, California. Hidden in the California badlands right smack in the middle of the Sonoran Desert is a little community of….well, squatters technically. Sitting just 50 miles from the border of Mexico is a community of desert dwellers that have taken over the land that used to house a military base in the 1940’s. Here they live tax-free, completely off the grid with no power, water, or trash collection, and officially they don’t exist.
These folks out here are living the free life, but it doesn’t come easy. With temperatures ranging from 20 degrees-125 degrees, their makeshift homes and RV’s put them at risk of exposure. Many of the inhabitants get by selling precious jewelry made from stones and rocks gathered from the desert to passersby. But this little “town” has something HUGE to offer lovers of art and desert vibes.
Leonard Knight, a local artist, created a massive technicolor art installation painted into the side of a man-made mountain. Over the course of 25 years, he crafted the mountain out of adobe, tires, car doors, desert sticks, hay bales and hundreds of thousands of buckets of paint. It was his life work and he simply wanted to create something beautiful to inspire others to love. You can watch an interview that Vice News did with him here. Before he passed away in 2014, he was living just outside the mountain in the bed of a truck he had decorated with biblical verses. During the hot summer months, he could often be seen hanging out in the hammock outside.
Since then others have been continuing his work and collecting donations on site. They also ensure that no one climbs onto the mountain outside of the yellow brick road to keep it as preserved as possible. According to some of the Slab City locals I spoke with this money doesn’t go toward the mountain at all. They claim its just a scheme by some greedy entrepreneurs so think twice before donating financially (but bring all your extra paint). After all, Leonard Knight never collected monetary donations and his mission was to have the monument free for all to see.
This is what originally brought us out to the desert. We had been exploring Joshua Tree National Park about an hour away from here, to begin with. So we decided to drive out to the Salton Sea and then onward to Salvation mountain and see what all the buzz was about.
The Salton Sea was a quick stop. It’s probably the only beach in California that you will be the only soul for miles around. We watched the birds swooping over the rotting waters that smelled of sulfur and dead fish. The sea stretches farther than the eye can see in the open desert. As we walked to the waters edge our feet sank into inches of salty crust as the water dried in the desert heat. The “No Diving” signs along the beach seemed unnecessary as I can’t imagine anyone trying to take the plunge into that water.
We could see Salvation Mountain coming from miles away. The colorful hilltop seemed like an oasis in the sunshine just sitting in the middle of flat dusty nothingness. As we drove closer we could see signs proclaiming “Welcome to Slab City-The Last Free Place on Earth”. RV’s and ramshackle homes dotted the desert landscape and I began to wonder who would possibly choose to make this their home?
We soon found out.
As we stopped to take photos of the eccentric decor of some of the homes a man approached his fence and introduced himself. We learned he was a Gulf War Veteran enjoying the peace and quiet the desert has to offer. He told us about their tight-knit community and invited us to come listen to them all gather to play some music on Saturdays. He seemed normal. Unsure what I had been anticipating, I realized that these people weren’t the outcasts of society but simply people who enjoyed a friendly community with little outside influence. Sure these people were filled with conspiracy theories of government corruption and lived a life of isolation. But they seemed happy and FAR more welcoming to strangers than the average everyday person.
He directed us to East Jesus an outdoor art garden filled with installments crafted by the local artists in the community. East Jesus is also a home to a self-sustaining community of artists, musicians, survivalists, writers, and scientists. Their homes can be seen behind the walls of the garden and they are unique from the other residents of Slab City in the fact that they are entirely run on solar power and have developed a Human Manure Compost to reduce the impact their community has on the surrounding desert. It’s difficult to capture the essence of the art garden through words alone. I was captivated by the thought-provoking pieces made of desert “trash” and knick-knacks.
It had a kind of Burning Man vibe to it and in fact, many Burning Man sculptures have been created in this very space. My favorite a single chair facing a piece that was made entirely of stacked and painted TV sets proclaiming the statement “Bow Before your Gods” and “Don’t Be Yourself”. Before we burned to a crisp in the 100-degree heat we headed for some shade in the local library. Yes, you read that right.
Up the road from East Jesus, a house with no floors is home to a large library. National Geographic from the 80’s and books categorized shelf by shelf sit surrounded by used chairs, a friendly pit bull named Crush, and two caged scorpions caught in the surrounding desert. The library is tended by a local who has his very own Youtube channel showcasing the day to day life of living in Slab City. If you want to check it out he goes by the name wastelandlibrarian.
Many of the encampments we drove past had roadside stands offering goods for sale and the community center our new friend had told us of was easy to find with locals and their dogs lounging around even in the heat of the day. We only spent a few hours exploring before heading back to our camp for the night in Joshua Tree but the beautiful desert drive was well worth the road-trip out to see the art. And hey, throw in the Salton Sea and 29 Palms and you can make a whole day worth of desert adventuring.
Visiting this unique little town is difficult due to its remote location but if you love art, meeting some interesting people, and gorgeous desert landscapes you should check it out before it disappears. Although people have been inhabiting the area for decades the future of this art community is unknown. The state of California has been talking about selling the land for years and if purchased the land would likely be cleaned up, divided for commercial use and the various art installations dismantled. So plan your trip sooner rather than later and make sure to check Joshua Tree off your bucket list while you’re in the area!