Nearly three miles east of Niland, California lies a small desert community, just beyond the Salton Sea. Over 600 acres of sand, Slab City is home to a few hundred people and several famous landmarks; Salvation Mountain– a colorfully painted incline proclaiming “God is Love”– and East Jesus– an artist community and growing gallery comprised of recycled materials, from dolls to ceramic ducks. Many know Slab City from Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book, Into the Wild, and its’ subsequent film in 2007, but it has a much deeper past.
Slab City gets it’s name from the concrete foundations of the abandoned Camp Dunlap Marine Training Facility from World War II. Around the 1960s, the empty slabs slowly filled with RV campers enjoying the free parking and mild desert winter. Slab City is now known as “the last free place on earth”, for money has little merit. Without collective electricity, sewage treatment, or government control, each camp must be self-sufficient.
Although the residents are fiercely independent, the community gathers every Saturday for live music and dancing at the Range, a small outdoor stage adorned with lanterns, a bar, and tattered couches. They host everything from talent shows to Halloween costume contests. On Saturday, March 29th, 2014, Slab City celebrated their annual prom.
“This is my third prom night,” says Erwin Krust, from Palm Springs, California. “I stumbled on this place by accident three years ago. Finally got a day off on a Saturday, so I rolled down here and went smack dab into the talent show at the Range. Since then I’ve been slabstruck.”
Many prom attendees are just passing through, and some are on their way out. The small population is generally comprised of "slabbers," "snowbirds," and nomadic retirees. Between April and October, when temperatures climb into the hundreds, "snowbirds" migrate north to enjoy a cooler summer season. "Slabbers" pride themselves on surviving the desert heat, a name earned after enduring at least three summers of sweltering desert climate.
“Out here in the summer time, it’ll get up to 110-115, at least for three of four months straight,” says the creator of the Range, Builder Bill. “In the evening you go and take a shower, and you dry off and you’re still wet right? So you gotta stand under the stars and air dry."
The desert heat can be a challenge, but also an inspiration, like it was for Builder Bill.
"Ten years ago, while I was out air drying out under the stars, I looked up and said, ‘Well you decided I have to live here, but how the hell is a man going to meet a girl in a desolate ass town like this?'" Bill says, craning his neck to the sky. "She looked down upon me and said, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’… I’ve been doing the Range ever since.”
Slab City has become the subject of countless articles, documentaries, and photo essays. While most of the residents prefer to be left alone, tourists and attention are always welcome, and almost urged. The community thrives off the support of others to keep it affordable, clean, and legal.