Imagine an eclectic and dynamic community of desert dwellers inhabiting an abandoned military base with no modern utilities all conveniently located next to an active artillery range. If the scene that comes to mind is something akin to Mad Max then you are imagining it correctly. This scene is not from a movie, however. This is Slab City.
Slab City is an interesting place, with an interesting history, and with an interesting population. Located a few miles from Niland, California, just east of the Salton Sea, the site was originally a U.S. Marine Corps base known as Camp Dunlap. The base was active during the 1940s, but later dismantled leaving behind concrete slabs where buildings once stood. These slabs, in turn, gave the place its present name. The military turned the property over to the State of California which, apparently having no use for this parcel in the middle of the desert, left it to sit desolate. In the 1960s squatters began to inhabit the land, setting up residence in improvised shacks, old buses, trailers, and similar shelters. Slab City has remained a squatter colony ever since.
Reports vary as there is no official census, but Slab City has somewhere around 100 – 150 permanent residents. These residents live there year-round with some having done so for many years. During the winter months, however, the population grows considerably as snowbirds arrive for the sunny, dry weather. These seasonal residents, who may stay for one day or six months, set up residence in everything from tents to expensive motor coaches.
One of the interesting population developments over the past decade has been people who simply lost everything due to the Great Recession or its aftermath and have moved to Slab City because they have nowhere else to go. It beats being homeless on a city street if you can adapt to dwelling in the desert without modern services. I am sure for some that Slab City might be worse than urban homelessness, but for others it at least offers the opportunity to call a place home. I could live at Slab City if necessary, but I prefer the idea of snowbirding much more.
Slab City has long been on my list of places to visit. The entire project is so out of step with American society that it was appealing for its lack of sameness. It is also anarchic without organized violence. This being my first season as a snowbird, I visited Slab City on my first day in the desert.
Visitors to Slab City are greeted at the entrance by Salvation Mountain. (Actually, Salvation Mountain is now so famous that many people come only to see the mountain and venture no further). Salvation Mountain is a monument built by Leonard Knight over the course of several decades. Knight arrived in Slab City in 1984 and began work on the monument to share a simple message: God is Love. The entire mountain is build from adobe mud and paint.
Knight died in 2014, but his work is carried on by a non-profit organization that he formed before his death. Salvation Mountain, Inc. continues Knight’s work today.
Salvation Mountain is worth the detour if you happen to be in the area, even if you do not plan to visit Slab City.
Return to Slab City
I debated whether to set up camp at Slab City for a few days or weeks right up until the time when I was there. Ultimately, being my first night in the desert, I decided to set up in Arizona in a somewhat less chaotic patch of desert and somewhere closer to conveniences and services.
I definitely plan to return to Slab City though and spend some time, but I will also be better prepared on that occasion. Visitors/campers/residents at Slab City need to be fully self-sufficient as there simply are no services available at the site. Of course, that is part of what makes it unique. Slab City is off the grid and off the beaten path.