johnny April 6th, 2009
After we left Quartzsite, our next ‘destination’ was Slab City, just outside of Niland, CA. First though, we really had to do some shopping before I broke into the emergency can of baked beans. So, we hit Brawley, which is about twenty miles south of the Slabs. As long as we were in town, Jenn wanted to get some work done on the freecampsites website, so we endured horribly slow internet for a night, under the assumption that we’d have no internet at all once we hit Slab City.
Go figure. Slab City had the best EVDO connection we’d seen since we left Phoenix. In fact, it’s so good they have an internut connection in the lending library. Speaking of the library, I was really impressed with the selection of books available and found my share very quickly. I rather wish I’d spent more time in the library as I could have dug around for a few gems instead of grabbing the first half dozen titles that looked interesting.
Like Quartzsite, Slab City was quickly emptying out for the summer. However, there were still a few folks around and the area was a bit more active than Quartzsite. Since Ryan and Nicole were joining us the next day in their tent, Jenn kept me driving around the area looking for the perfect campsite longer than I could handle. Her requirements: a nice shade tree (preferably three or four), not too close to the neighbors, close enough to the center of things to be a close walk but not so close that we’re in the middle, and easy to find so Ryan and Nicole wouldn’t have to spend too much time looking.
Now, we’re talking about the desert here. If there was any tree large enough to provide shade that met the rest of her requirements (or even one of them), someone had parked under it. Even more likely to me, was that they had parked next to it and dumped their gray water on it for a few years until it grew into a shade tree. Eventually, I quit listening to things like ‘turn left behind us twenty feet’ and let my own pioneer spirit take over. I found us a spot that met all of the requirements if you considered a more liberal translation of the phrase ‘shade tree’. I think it could be a nice little tree in a few more years if only someone would dump their tanks on it for a while.
Once Ryan and Nicole showed up, we all got to demonstrate our cooking abilities for a few days. It turns out Ryan is actually a pretty good chef and Nicole makes a mean chili dog. They even brought along their starving dog, Kay, to handle dish detail. She wanted to play with the cats and Hunter was ready to ‘play’, but cooler heads prevailed and Kay didn’t get any kitty snacks.
Between cooking, I gave Ryan a quickie archery lesson and he proved to be a natural. In fact, I gave him my slingshot as I’d long ago given up actually hitting anything more specific than ‘the ground’ with it. Apparently, Ryan grew up playing with slingshots and hadn’t lost the knack.
Once Jenn saw Ryan and Nicole driving around without their trailer, she started pestering me to work on the moped. That piece of junk had crapped out on me in Phoenix and hadn’t been started since I’d walked home from the police station. Lacking a good excuse, I was forced to unload the scooter and make at least a token effort.
Once I got the fancy sides off, it wasn’t too hard to see one of the problems. One of the fuel lines had dry rotted and was causing a loss of vacuum to supply fuel to the carburetor. Now, I’m far from a mechanic, but I did manage to snip a bit of uncracked line from elsewhere and get it replaced, albeit a bit tighter fit than is normal. I had to recharge the battery a couple of times to get enough fuel in the lines to start it and keep running. The kickstart is worthless on that thing; it probably still has a few small vacuum leaks and definitely needs a new spark plug, but it did finally fire up. Since I couldn’t do anything about the rest of the problems, I declared it ‘fixed for now’.
The first day or so, it seemed most of the neighbors viewed us as transients and would ignore our campsite as they drove past. Once we got the scooter ripped to pieces in the backyard and the hood on the truck up to charge the battery, I guess we were starting to look like locals. The neighbors started waving as they went past and one even stopped to invite us to a party, which we didn’t actually make, as it was the day after we all pulled out.
To stress test the scooter, Jenn and I rode it out to the ‘abandoned’ county park on the Salton Sea while Ryan and Nicole took their truck. It turned out that the park was a bit further than we thought and Ryan and Nicole beat us there by about twenty minutes since we were poking along at twenty-five miles an hour. The sun was pretty brutal, but we were determined to have a picnic, so we utilized some Slab City engineering of our own. We found some random boards scattered along the beach and used them to hold one side of a tarp up to form a shelter. One side was jammed in the truck windows and the other was held up by a broken board tied to a big log and the other half of said board tied to the scooter.
While Nicole, Jenn and I were building a squatters camp, Ryan was frying up yummy quesadillas. Since we had set up in the main parking area of the abandoned park, we shouldn’t have been surprised that a few people came along to check out the area. What was funny, though, was watching how studiously they avoided looking at the crazy people under their makeshift shelter. You could practically hear them chanting “Don’t make eye contact. Don’t make eye contact.”
Knowing how slow we’d be, Jenn and I started back a bit ahead of the rest, after watching Ryan circumnavigate a small sand bar in his inflatable boat. I think we made a bit better time than the inflatable raft would have, but that’s about it. The ride was really a bit too long for two people on a moped on the highway, even if it was pretty lightly traveled and had a nice shoulder to stay on. The scooter did pretty well, all things considered. It lost power a few times for a couple of seconds, but picked right back up with just enough of a hiccup to make us nervous. I think a little more work on the fuel lines and a spark plug will fix it’s major woes. The rest of our time at the Slabs, it cranked within a few attempts and purred along nicely, provided Jenn remembered to curse at it by the third attempt.
So, how do I feel about the Slabs after spending a few days there? I loved it. You’ve got a free place to camp without any real rules except “don’t piss off the neighbors”. Unlike your average HOA, these neighbors are pretty accepting. I mean, one of the old timers, Leonard, has been building a giant, multi-colored monument to God out of adobe, paint and random junk he found in the desert over the past twenty-five years. Maybe it’s only becoming a tourist attraction because people want to see what some crazy old coot has been working on, but some of the neighbors actually come out and help him construct additions to Salvation Mountain.
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got a few folks living inside the old military bunkers. Their idea of fun is burning old tires and shooting at each others bunkers with the biggest guns they’ve got. I’m not all that keen on burning tires, but I’m not about to argue it with a neighborhood full of folks that are hunkered in so deep that they get a kick out of firing off a few rounds at each others houses. We skipped the ‘bunker party’ invite under the rash assumption that alcohol, guns and burning tires might not be the healthiest combination.
And in the middle, you’ve got a lot of just ordinary folks. People are running businesses out of Slab City. Some of them are actively involved in trying to keep a community feel to the area. You can tune into CB channel 23 weeknights at 6pm and hear the daily news, which primarily consists of the TV Guide and a list of goods and services people are selling. I guess there’s just really not that much going on and gossiping about the neighbors over the air may not always be the brightest idea. During the winter months, there is a lot more going on, but even in the Spring, we were invited up to the Range for live music, over to the Oasis for a chili dinner and the infamous bunker party. Your neighbors might have concertina wire strung around their camper or a line of old tires delineating ‘their yard’, but they’re not likely to complain about the pink flamingos stuck in your own yard.
Water might be scarce in the desert, but Slab City has it’s own hot spring and a shower fed from said spring. If nudity offends you though, best to go to the spring when you’re sure no one else is around. I certainly wouldn’t drink the water from the spring, but it’s nice to jump in for a hot soak on a chilly evening. During the day, the shower is quite cool and can be a nice contrast to the desert sun during a warm spell.
If I had to sum Slab City up, I’d say it’s as close as you’re likely to get to an Old West frontier town in the United States today. In the middle of nowhere, you can get away with just about anything you want, but once you bring people together and form a town, you get a lot of rules about what you’re allowed to do or barred from doing. At the Slabs, you’ve got a unique situation where there really aren’t any laws because the state owns the land and doesn’t care enough about it to run folks off. It attracts all kinds of people. Some just want a free place to live. Others want freedom in a truer sense. What most of them have in common, though, is a ‘live and let live’ attitude. If you aren’t bothering your neighbors, they aren’t likely to bother you.
Libertarianism, anarchy, call it whatever you like; but, even in the Slabs you’ll be reminded that you better not get too rowdy by the occasional Sheriff and Immigration patrols as well as the military choppers, hummers and trucks that roll through every day. At least you get to see some of the fancy hardware your tax dollars are paying for!