A sweet couple dropped me off on “main” street in Niland, CA, USA and pointed in the direction of Slab City. With a smile, and a hug I said my good byes and headed out. The road was thick with warm, well-worn sand. I walked barefoot; enjoying the soothing massage the sand gave my arches.
I had prayed to fate, and to a saint of hitchhiking earlier in the day. “Dear Alex Supertramp, please send me a hippy van that will take me to the ‘Slabs’ and show me something new, amen”. I sometimes do this, and every time it seems to work out for me. I’m not a religious person, but honestly when you’re waiting on the road side by yourself, praying becomes an entertaining activity.
In Niland I had just watched a train crawl by when a hippy van pulled up and offered me a ride. The miniature, grey van wasn’t as vibrant on the outside as I had wished, but on the inside the vibrations of love shown everywhere, in colors, in magnets, in sheets, in slogans for “peace” and “love” and in the deep suntanned skin and ivory halfmoon smile of the driver. She had quit her job, and was preparing to backpack Central America, but first, like me, she wanted to see the “Slabs”.
Our first stop, about two miles after the town, and one mile before the slabs was Salvation Mountain. I have been to dozens of the United Nations World Heritage Sites that dot the globe. Each is unique, beautiful, ancient and a symbol of humanities past. Salvation Mountain is just as unique, just as beautiful and if the sands do not erode away this amazing place, then one day, it too will be a world heritage site.
It took 28 years to build this tribute to love. The hard work is layered onto the sand. Coat after coat of paint, so thick and firm, that Salvation Mountain has become a platform, an interactive rainbow you can touch, you can feel, you can walk over. “Love” is the theme here, there are a few religious slogans like “God is love” but these messages are not to proselytize. Instead, as the caretaker informed me they are to “announce love”, and display it in the most pure and unadulterated way that the artist knew. I find “love” here not most in the writing or sculptures of the word love, but in the visual symphony. It’s in the inviting colors that sprint up the slopes, hurdle over one another, and splash together. Red, green, purple, and yellow, all void of contrast, streams of blue and white, running into a sea of rainbows. Pink and cyan, brown and grey, all building into trees of progress. An LSD trip you can touch. Inside the mountain there are multiple man-made caves of paint and stone. The most spectacular one, which is also the biggest, hosts a forest of trees built from old logs and all the many colors of the rainbow. The experience of this place is well worth the multi day hitchhike I made to and from Slab City.
The artist behind Salvation Mountain is in a nursing home, too old to continue his work. Others continue for him, after all it was never a solo project, it was always a group project because love cannot be had with one, love is a group activity.
After Salvation Mountain I left my new hippy friend and found an old hippy friend of mine, one who I hadn’t seen for more than a year, not since I had hosted him in a world away, in another life time, back in Cambodia. We reminisced, shared new stories, made future plans, and laughed into the evening.
He had been here before. He had stayed for months and had even met his wife in the Slabs. He showed me around, to the endless sea of RV’s occupied by snowbirds (older people who flee the cold northern winter for the warm southern desert days), to the scatter shape of ruins from older RV’s, school busses and trailers now called home by many, to the Slabs, and debris left over from when Slab City was a military base.
The scorching day cooled and relaxed, the temperature dropping as the day’s energy faded. By the time the sun had been gone an hour, the endless desert, only lit by a waning moon and the incandescent glare of the Milky Way, was almost frozen. I wrapped myself up in layers, an undershirt, a t-shirt, my wool sweater and a ski jacket. I lost my long Johns some countries ago so I threw on a pair of Thai fisherman pants over my jeans. It didn’t do much, other than make me more colorful. I scowered my bag for every sock I had, and put them on. But still this wasn’t enough to combat the plummeting temperature.
Desert flora is highly flammable, explosively so. When the winds slow their howls and a lighter sparks, a small pile of kindling ignite into a roaring inferno, quick to life, quick to death. We built the fire and fed and fed it. Like a glutton it continued to ask for more, and as its slaves we fed it into the night.
There was a hot springs not more than 10 feet from our blaze. But when it’s almost freezing the thought of bathing in water, no matter how hot, leaves your mind. I didn’t make the first move; neither did any of the others huddled around the fire. An old drifter by the name of Mopart, a nomadic man of the desert who had summered in the slabs 3 years, walked by our fire, disrobed and dove in.
Warmth in the cold night makes a sound, calls out. I am not sure what that sound is, but I know it, I feel it, and on that night it was so loud I knew what I had to do. I jumped up, found a nice spot on the desert floor, all spots are pretty much equal there, and stipend myself naked and followed Mopart’s lead. Hot, searing water, burning, prying at my cold tender skin. Fire-kisses that warmed as much as burnt. The water must have been at least 120F (50C).
The spring was depressed three feet below the desert floor, so the wind left us alone as the stream swirled around. On the floor of the spring, a soft carpet sat, easy to climb, gracious on my feet, I enjoyed it, but it was so odd, so I had to ask why it was there. As soon as everyone was in the water my answer came.
Once there was a spring here, but the military, when it left the base, filled the spring in with concrete. Years later, someone, some genius, some saint, came by with a backhoe and dug a huge hole beside the concrete slab, and behold, a spring formed. But the spring water was too hot and too deep so the residents of the slabs took it upon themselves to fix this problem. First they dropped a car into the spring, then another. On top of these cars they laid a soft malleable carpet, one which curves with the cars and makes walking on metal cars in scorching water possible. Parts of the spring are still deep, so deep and so hot that no one ever dives all the way down.
The springs, regardless of the fact that there were cars in it, was great. I visited it again in the morning, and then the next day as well. Sheer pleasure, sheer warmth. I miss the hot springs at slab city.
The next day I explored Slab City. Visiting the permanent slabs settlements like the free intent café, and the Oasis Club library. I found many temporary camps (almost everyone flees when the summer heat comes). Each had different communities on them, all ephemeral masterpieces of human ingenuity. Then I found the shower. It is a massive freshwater water fall just slightly underground. It is easily the most powerful shower you will ever take. You know how football players sometimes dump Gatorade on their coach when the game is done? Well it’s about as cold with just as much water, but unlike the football analogy the water doesn’t stop when the cooler is drained, it is endless, so it keeps coming and coming. It’s a great way to cool down on a hot afternoon.
I met many interesting characters in the slabs. There was Quervo, a long timer who dressed in cowboy attire, and pulled two mules behind him. He looked authentic, except for the thick green line of paint under his eyes.
I met Spider; he lived in an old school bus with at least 4 children. I don’t know whose kids they were, I never asked. In his camp Spider and what seemed like a group of anarchists and social outcasts were busy burning scrapes of wood to get the nails and other bits of metal from them. They needed the metal to sell for scrap, to get money to improve their housing. They were subsisting on food stamps, which were enough to survive of cheap food, but their housing wasn’t ideal. The group lived in old, ran down vehicles, and truck cabins. In the ruins of our wasteful society, they lived and thrived.
Frank must have been growing his beard for years. It stretched from his chin to his sternum. The tip was black, but further up it lightened into dark gray, then grey, then light grey, and at the very beginnings, white. Frank ran an internet café, in the desert. He didn’t charge for anything. He just shared his access to the internet with the world.
There were more people, but most I didn’t meet. Some have been there for years and were busy preparing for the next summer, where it hits 120F (50C) daily, and others were enjoying their winter before they had to flee the oncoming heat and look for the proverbial greener pasture. Everyone was here for different reasons, because it was cheap to live, because of the sense of community and because the freedom they get. The slabs are tax free, rent free, rarely patrolled by the police, never controlled by the government, has no official leadership and no one is responsible for the actions of other people. In all, it is a kind of Anarchist utopia.
Slab city is a beautiful place, a place I want to go back to and spend a winter there. But before you go out, let me stress the place isn’t perfect. People are poor. Many survive on food stamps, others on Social Security. Many are honest, some are not. There are lots of RVs that have their own plumbing system, but not everyone has an RV, some have outhouses but many others have no choice but to go into the desert to relieve themselves. Some bury the refuse, some don’t. It’s also the in the Southern California Desert, it’s very dry, expect to drink lots and lots of water every day.