Welcome to Slab City: The last free place in America

Welcome to Slab City: The last free place in America

Slab City is a quiet place: that's the first thing a visitor notices about the tiny community in the Californian desert. No noise ever quite manages to carry across the baking heat of the wilderness. There's usually only the occasional sound of a barking dog to disturb the peace, or the  squeak of a windmill turning in the breeze. That's because there's almost nothing around. This wasteland was the site of a US army barracks called Camp Dunlap. When the army abandoned the site in 1956, they stripped the land bare and took the buildings with them, until only the concrete slabs remained. But for some people, those seeking anarchy, simplicity and seclusion, that's what made it perfect.

Slab City is a post-apocalyptic environment, resembling something from Mad Max or the Fallout video games with its scrap-punk, psychedelic aesthetic. Founded on the most remote fringe of civilisation, it's a place that attracts outsiders and renegades. Yet it's also weirdly beautiful. It's a place where trash and art are more or less synonymous, and there are numerous sculptures and carvings dotted around.

East Jesus, a sustainable art installation at the centre of Slab City, is the centrepiece of it all. It's mostly created from materials others have thrown away, sweat and a hell of a lot of free time. Of course, in Slab City free time is the one resource people have in abundance. There's a "garden" here, with iron and aluminium gates constructed out of equal parts bicycle wreckage and rusted tools, a sculpture made out of disused TV sets, a wall made from green bottles surrounding it.

A wall of broken televisions with phrases written on the screens Credit: VT

Capping it off is Salvation Mountain, a small hill that's been decorated to look like something from a Dr Seuss book: covered in concrete and acrylic paint and topped with a crucifix, it's emblematic of the kind of philosophy that permeates Slab City: of a place made with materials that no one else wants. Scribbled on the hillside is the colourful legend: "God is love."

But life out in the wilderness is hard, and not just anyone can eke out a living here. The inhabitants live out of trailers and rusted-out caravans, or in makeshift tents or primitive wigwams. In the summer, temperatures can swell to 120 degrees. The people of Slab City mostly rely on water filters and propane gas generators for the bare necessities. But when you're living out of an RV, for the most part a mattress, toilet and refrigerator are your most important pieces of property. Almost everything else has been salvaged. The cost of living is incredibly low, and most folks live off of prior assets or social security cheques.

A decorated pickup truck

The people of Slab City deny that it is especially dangerous, claiming that there is no more crime in their desert community than a major city. But, when pressed, they will begrudgingly admit that there are risks. Some Slab City citizens are drug addicts or alcoholics. A tiny few are fleeing justice. Some are just trying to escape themselves.

A few of the older inhabitants, the hippies who founded it way back, are allegedly shocked by the meth epidemic which brought tweakers to their doorstep. Theft is commonplace, and it's not a good idea to leave your valuables, modest though they may be, out in the open. When confronted by the prospect of burglary, most take home defence into their own hands. It's recommended that you invest in a gun, and learn how to use it.

Yet, in other respects, Slab City is incongruously sophisticated. As mentioned before, it's an open space for artists to work in and display uninhibited, without fear of repression or censorship on grounds of politics or taste. There's even a library in town, which proudly proclaims itself to be open 24 hours a day, and a stage upon which musicians are kindly invited to perform whatever they want. Every year, Slab City hosts a hoedown which they call "prom" - in honour of those high school dropouts who might have missed theirs the first time round. Patchwork gowns and suits are provided for guests, and they drink and dance long into the night.

There is a genuine sense of community here. But it's one that intensely values independence and survivalism. Everyone clubs together to ensure that the softer ones who slip through the cracks of society manage to outlast the blistering summer. In such an extreme environment, procuring a dwelling of one's own is paramount. But once you have it, you're mostly left to your own devices, and are allowed to build and expand your property by whatever means you see fit. The only caveat is that you take care not to infringe upon the rights of others. Keep yourself to yourself, work to the benefit of the town, don't piss anyone off, and you'll be accepted with open arms.

A sign at Slab City. Credit: VT

Personally, I can't imagine living in a place like this. It puts you in mind of frontiers living in the wild west; the great swathes of lawless wasteland where hard men and tough women were forced to fend for themselves. Could I imagine myself ditching my house, my job, my extraneous possession, and driving out into the desolation? Not a chance. But can I see the appeal? Absolutely.

Slab City's purpose is to be without purpose - somewhere people can escape the rat race and simply exist for a time, unmolested by authority. It's weird and idiosyncratic; a lot of American towns have become more and more homogenous over time. Slab City has managed to defy that trend: it remains totally unique, and that is something of an achievement.