Slab City – American Dream Deserted

slab graveyardXOff-Grid living is the American Dream manifest: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
For the residents of Slab City, an encampment in the Sonoran Desert,freedom is paramount. But what happens when the ideal morphs into the un-ideal? Peace and love has been replaced by drugs, strife and Law Enforcement officials. A vision of utopia became dystopian.

The definition of off-grid living according to the Oxford Dictionary is “not using or depending on public utilities, especially the supply of electricity.” Yet if ‘The Slabbers’, as they call themselves, live in “the last free place in America”, what does it mean to be free? And is the sacrifice worth it?
Sandy Parker, an upper class Brit taking American Studies at College, pointed her feet at Slab City, 156 miles northeast of San Diego, whilst studying abroad. She had transferred to a Californian campus to follow her love of 20th century American poets such as Walt Whitman and the Beat Generation, championed by Ginsberg, Snyder, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti.

“I just got the feeling out there that I wasn’t too safe,” Sandy told me later. “… that it was highly dangerous. In London you can walk through a supposedly rough neighbourhood. This neighbourhood had burnt out cars, the roads were terrible and there was extreme poverty around every corner”.

Sandy was a high achiever at school, learned the clarinet and piano from an early age and took ballet lesson as a child. Having been exposed to the wonders of American Studies, and absorbing herself in the sub-culture texts on offer, she now wears her hair in dreadlocks, practices Taoism and veganism. With much anticipation she began her road trip around the USA in Seattle in a hired Toyota Camry, then headed straight for Slab City.

The site was converted by the The Slabbers from an abandoned World War II marine camp to sub-culture commune in the mid-60s. It entered into the mainstream with John Krakauer’s book Into The Wild – Buy it on Amazon (1996) and Original Poster from Sean Penn’s film – Buy it on Amazon.com,(2007)
Both works document the travels of Christopher McCandless who spent time amongst the slabs in the early 1990s whilst journeying up to isolated living in the Alaskan mountains. As for many others, it was these works that drew Sandy to Slab City. However she was acutely aware (having researched the site) that McCandless had arrived at the Slabs when the last “vestiges of a generally safe community” were still visible.
Ecological reasons for off-grid living are not high on the priority list of the average resident in Slab City. When I asked Sandy what problems the residents faced, the issues were both environmental and ideological. Sandy arrived at the edge of a homestead to be greeted by a bullet hole riddled ‘Welcome’ sign. The car thermometer read 44 degrees Celsius. Without electricity and therefore “the luxury of air-con” in the car, many residents flee the oppressive heat in the summer months.

Propane is used to generate electricity; there is no running water or sewage. Supplies have to be bought in nearby Niland. Sandy spoke of her trepidation as she drew closer. On the outskirts were “caravans lying abandoned at the side of the un-kept dust road and dilapidated trailer parks lined the dirt tracks around the area”. The harsh Wild West environment is reflected in the attitudes of those who wish to live there.
Vice Mag documented The Slabs in 2009 with the Youtube video Living Without Laws: Slab City USA . A classic Vice documentary, a no holds barred, “let’s find the most dysfunctional people living here”, approach. Most of the 20 minute film is spent driving around with a meth-addict who makes stone ornaments without any tools and the documentary travels with him to visit his dope dealer to pick up some meth.

In the blistering heat, a few other tourists had undertaken the 2 hour drive from the nearest major city, Palm Springs. Like her, they were young 20-somethings from various Californian Universities. Sandy said, “it’s a commitment to get there, no one just passes through that area because there’s just nothing there and to the South is Mexico”. She felt upon her arrival a distinct lack of welcome, “most Slabbers had left for the summer and those that remained in a trailer next to Salvation mountain (a two decade in the making art sculpture) didn’t talk to tourists” she said.

When I asked Sandy whether she would ever consider living there, it was a decided “no”. Having entered into what Vice caught on film, Sandy explained how with “no police, hard drugs, armed residents and the American trope of lethal defence of property, Slab City is a volatile and dangerous community”. An anarchic perception of their existence appears to be rife, the defence of liberty involves the housing and testing of high explosives out in the desert. One man keeps a family of some of the most dangerous snakes in North America as protection. He said he would use them just like a hand grenade, instant devastation.
The opting out of mainstream society for the people of Slab City is a battle. The police have descended upon the settlement citing obscure permit issues as reasons for dismantling parts of the commune. Sandy confirmed the angst and uncertainty felt by the residents, she said;
“the people who live in Slab City are constantly worried that the government will throw them off the slabs. The people who live there are varied; some are old hippies, others are teenage runaways, some are war veterans who can’t cope in mainstream society, and some people moved to the slabs to escape partners, bills or capitalism”.
“The freedom to exist” is cited as “severely limited” by one Slabber in Thrash Lab’s documentary Life Off the Grid in Slab City . The State of California is constantly trying to sell the land but have so far found no buyers. With law enforcement knocking on the door and tourists flocking to the site, they are fighting for their isolation. For in isolation, the Slabbers see freedom.
Sandy’s residing memory of her time at Slab City is exactly that sense of isolation. She said, “It’s in the middle of a barren desert and a few miles west is the Salton Sea which is so large it goes up to the horizon”. The Slabbers trade amongst themselves, respect each other’s pitchers and take care of one another as a community. Off-Grid living for the purpose of living sustainably, away from the controlling measures of the utility companies is one way to approach the lifestyle. The Slabbers appear to have simply run from the world. Freedom is achieved through the removal of oppression, however The Slabbers seem to have merely replaced the perceived coercion of mainstream societal living with the oppression of the desert. Drug addiction remains untreated, the land is uncultivatable, alcoholism invades and the heat drives them away to continue a transient existence.
The spiralling meth problem in Slab City heightens the judicial attack on the commune. Yet is it not the case that if you have travelled out into the middle of nowhere, live in relative squalor and in no way impact upon the rest of your country or state, should you not be able to live as you please? The land is owned by the State of California, the state has no use for it, but the Slabbers do. The governmental pressure comes from the fear and knowledge that outlaws are living outside the confines of society.
Now as an outsider stepping into an environment such as Slab City, there is certainly potential to feel intimidated and alien. However the people who live there are happy with the lot they have chosen in life. Art installations and live music venues have been set up, tThey even hold their own prom (the majority of the residents missed their high school event). Although highly protective and cautious of interlopers, they are a happy crowd who preach ideals.
I asked Sandy for a quick snapshot of Slab City: “The American Dream lay dead in the desert” she said. This may appear a rather bleak statement, but perhaps the death of the American Dream is the first step towards freedom. The constitutional idea of freedom is one of a mass collective working together to form an ideal. Through hard work, you will reap the rewards. Yet, as we well know, human greed destroys. Sectors of society lose out. The troubled, the rebellious and the less fortunate are faced with an uphill battle to seek success and joy. In the city you are merely a grain of sand being tossed about in the great sea of people. People who want to be better than you, people who want to tell you what to do, people who make you conform to what they believe to be true. In the desert, there’s nothing but sand, the sea has dried up and you can do whatever you want.
The Slabbers face many problems and it is by no means an easy life out there in the desert. They are an inclusive community, wary of outsiders and wish to be left alone to do as they please. However, running away from the world might be the only way to get as close to freedom as possible. Freedom to have a good time, smoke what you want, raise your children the way you want, live without material possessions, no authority telling you what you can and can’t do. Maybe the desert is one of the few places where this possible. A place where life is raw, real and dirty. In the words of the character Heavenly Blues, the counter-culture, motorbike gang leader of the Wild Angels DVD – buy it on Amazon, “We wanna be free…we wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time”!

Maybe we should leave the Slabbers to do exactly that.

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