On our way from Anza-Borrego to Slab City, we traveled through the Imperial Valley, one of the great agricultural centers in California, towns such as Westmorland, Brawley, Calipatria, and finally Niland, just outside of Slab City. The blending of Mexican and US cultures is prominently displayed here.
Ever since seeing the movie “Into the Wild” I have longed to visit Slab City, to feel the pull so many others have felt. Sitting 121 feet below sea level, Slab City was named for the concrete slabs that remained from the abandoned WWII Marine barracks Camp Dunlap. With the Chocolate Mountain range as a backdrop, it is a wide expanse of desert that houses 150 permanent residents and who knows how many RV snowbirders who start arriving in October to warm themselves in the winter sun.
Residents call this the last free place and you can tent camp or boondock at this funky little mecca free of charge. This is truly living “off the grid”as there are no community services, no water, electricity, or dump station that we could see. Where do they dump their tanks, we wondered. Many rigs did not look very mobile any longer, but some things you just don’t want to know. What they lack in community services is made up for in community spirit, I have read. The Slabs may seem a little rough around the edges and at first glance, in the interior as well, but we could sense that many who live here are open and friendly.
You think you have to want more than you need. Until you have it all you won’t be free. ~ Society, Eddie Vedder
The focal point of Slab City is Salvation Mountain, easily identified by the brightly colored mound rising from the desert floor. Like many things seen on TV, movies, or remembered from childhood, this was just not as big as we envisioned. It wasn’t what I would call a mountain, just a 3-story hill covered with paint, concrete, adobe, and a multitude of Bible verses. It is a labor of love that began over two decades ago by Leonard Knight. His admirers have donated paint to his project ever since, and more rooms are continually being added, reinforced with trees, hay bales, and tires found in the desert. I have read that Leonard will not accept tires brought in to him for donation as “there are plenty of tires in the desert”.
Follow the yellow brick road to the top of Salvation Mountain.
While visiting his sister in San Diego back in 1967, Leonard discovered God during a life-altering experience. In 1984 he moved from his home in Vermont, settled in what is now Slab City, and never looked back. Soon after, this psychedelic monument, with its main theme of “God is Love” arose from the desert floor. Now 78, Leonard describes his ongoing work as a love story. “I painted the mountain because I love God and I love people”, he has been known to say. He still lives here, although the vehicle that I read he once called home does not seem to be occupied.
Lest you think that all Slab City residents are a bunch of drug-induced hippies who wandered out into the desert, got lost, and settled in, it couldn’t be further from the truth, although I’m sure there are a few of these thrown in as well to keep life interesting and add some color. Residents have scheduled activities, a library, church, nightclub with weekly jam sessions (The Range) and even a junk yard, where one resident sells useful items to adorn your property.
As we wandered through The Range, great folk music could be heard behind the walls of an ancient-looking RV. Probably practicing for the Saturday night jam session, which I would have loved to attend. A sign at The Range provides a great message for all of us – find your range.
Without running water you might wonder about bathing, but believe it or not, there is a hot shower in this little community. A nearby hot spring and a cistern (a concrete hole in the ground) is all you need! Residents climb down into the cistern; stand below the running water; and ahhh, a nice hot shower.
The Slabs may be an eyesore to some, may cause us to turn our eyes, cause some discomfort, stir something deep inside. But for those residents and many RV snowbirders, it is a brilliant little jewel sparkling in the desert, something so rare as to not be found anywhere else.