I probably heard about Slab City the same way you did; either through the Chris McCandless story, or through reading Civil Disobedience and then Googling “is there anywhere in the world you can still live freely?” (Note - besides the Slabs, there are still a few gypsy villages in Europe. And there’s always, like, the woods). I don’t remember which came first, the chicken or the egg. Regardless, I’ve wanted to visit it for years, and intended to on many occasions. In recent times I’ve been thwarted by the memory of this advice from friends of mine who live there seasonally: “never go in the summers”. For some reason my best opportunities to go have fallen in the summer, and, knowing the punishing heat of Southern California, I’ve heeded their advice without much of a fight. But this year, my <insert travel equivalent of biological clock here> has been ticking, and I finally committed to making a day trip just to check it out. Sweet Jesus why do I hate myself.
I slathered my body and face down with extra-strength sunscreen and tried to arrive as early as possible, but the sun immediately burnt through that pathetic “protective” layer like it was tanning oil. Towards the end of exploring Salvation Mountain (the first stop that welcomes you on the drive in and probably the most frequently photographed), I started deteriorating quickly. I needed water. I staggered back to my truck to sit and quench my thirst and thought about those movies where people are lost in the desert crawling towards safety for hours on end. I would not survive that. I can barely survive Runyon Canyon, if the sun is high. It’s a pasty white girl thing. Many of the residents I saw at the Slabs, and those from the documentaries I’ve watched, also approach, if not match, my category of blinding fish-belly pigment (or lack thereof). I don’t know how they do it. On this day most residents were definitely just hanging out inside, because they’re smarter than me and they respect themselves.
The actual mountain of Salvation Mountain was what I expected, and lived up to the pictures I’d seen. Splashes of color decorate a random patch of what is otherwise miles of monotone sands. I followed “The Yellow Brick Road” of paint up an incline towards the sky, and once at the top just below the cross, I looked out over the desert expanse in one direction and the Slab City community in the other.
The structure adjacent to, and partially underneath, the mountain held more surprises for me (and blessed shade from the sun - praised be). Caves, halls, and stairs house little trinkets, treasures, and sculptures waiting to be discovered. They all seem to be in reverence to one thing or another; nothing is arbitrary. Two of the caves felt almost like chapels. Painted cotton candy trees twist and tangle upwards, or bend to form wall- or ceiling-like facades.
I drove on to East Jesus past signs that read “Welcome To All”, “Slab City: Where Freedom Lives”, and building markers like “Center for the Harmonious Enlightenment of Man” and “Fallout Shelter Eco Village”. The properties people had built for themselves were each as curious, creative, and unique as Salvation Mountain or East Jesus, but considering people live in them, I refrained from taking photos (except for the signs outside one home of a “Persian Gulf War Vet”, since they seemed to want their message spread: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society!” “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free!”).
East Jesus itself is a giant art installation, the meaning(s) of which are up to you. It reminded me of Elmer’s Bottletree Ranch (the “road” in is even outlined with glass bottles to mark the way), but with greater variety of materials and more immensity. I barely covered a percentage of it before heat stroke set back in. I am evolutionarily inferior. But I did have time to pick out a few favorite details: a disco ball hanging next to an ominous looking hook. A small section of white picket fence forming a partial barrier. Plastic bags that look like the kind goldfish are sold in, hanging like ornaments from a tree (are they to deflect flies?). “Galactic Peace Patrol”. “Nothing Ever Happens”. Dogs made out of barrels and skulls. An alter fashioned to barbed wire. A supersized wire crocodile. The wicked witch’s stockings jutting out from under a ramshackle house. Crutches and a walker left behind.
I drove back out and at the fork I took the opposite turn this time, towards the Slab City Hostel and the Library. My friends had told me all about the library; they said I reminded them of Cornelius (who must be a badass), though I think it's changed hands as of this year. As I drove around, I was surprised at the sprawl of the community. There is a whole network of streets, and blocks of camps are labeled with names to differentiate them, like “Cozy’s Home for Wayward Girls”, “Mojo’s Camp”, or “The Lair”. There’s even a pet cemetery (I could tell they really love their pets here, particularly their dogs - tons of signs throughout the community warn to please drive slow and look out for them. This is how I judge that someone is a good person). A few residents sat out to sell their wares - jewelry, gemstones, etc - and when upon exiting I was issued the warning “Caution: Reality Ahead”, I almost doubled back to join them.
Instead I drove on through Niland, which is odd in that it’s very reminiscent of Slab City, with quirky decorations, graffiti, and some questionable structural integrity. Of course, it’s an “actual” city, so the architecture is more conventional, and you see establishments like motels, RV parks, laundromats, and a diner. Past Niland going towards Los Angeles there is very little; I was nearly fooled by mirages stretching across the distance. For a long while you pass by the Salton Sea, which smells like Sour Lake but looks otherworldly in a way that reminded me of the Salt Flats in Utah. A sea in a desert. You can just barely make out the outline of mountains on the horizon, as the palette of sea, sky, and sand blends together. The Southern Pacific railroad runs parallel to the Sea on the opposite side of the road, and if a train passes it might be the only machine to greet you for the next hour. Then, as you approach Bombay Beach, the Americana creeps back in - old signs with a 1950s aesthetic point towards fun times, but the juxtaposition of the environment calls their bluff. The once-popular riviera has famously decayed into a ghost town (mostly), though I did notice the “Fountain of Youth Spa and RV Park” seemed to be thriving just outside it.
There is so much more to see at the Slabs and on the three hour trip from Los Angeles to Niland; I feel that I've only scratched the surface. Every time I blinked I noticed something else about my surroundings that I could have spent more time admiring, and thus I became even more committed to visiting again in the winter when I can take the proper time to investigate all the little details. I'd like to make a dedicated excursion out to Bombay Beach as well, to see if it's really so apocalyptic.
I should have learned by now that this isn't the kind of itch you can scratch in a day trip.
*Note - when visiting it's important not to be intrusive; elements like Salvation Mountain are tourist attractions, but this is also a community where people live - and where many go to escape society. Be careful and respectful!
Read up on the Slabs, and other place you can live off-grid:
Slab City Stories - Meet The Residents
Leonard Knight, artist at Salvation Mountain, dies at age 82
Living Without Laws: Slab City, USA - VICE documentary
Slab City Shower Box and Hot Springs
Will Slab City Remain The Last Free Place In America?
Slab City - Squat The Planet
TIME: Slab City, Here We Come: Living Life Off the Grid in California's Badlands
Leonard Knight and his Technicolor Mountain - VICE documentary
"Into The Wild" Movie
Inside The California Desert Community Where Societal Rules Do Not Apply
This Is What It's Like To Live Entirely Off The Grid
Why the North Pond Hermit Hid From People for 27 Years
10 Off The Grid Communities Living In Harmony With Nature
Family camped unnoticed in downtown Portland — for four years
Long-lost doctor discovered living like a hermit in the woods of Tuscany
Haunting Photos of Hermits in the Woods Highlight Crisis of Civilization
Documentary Looks At The Life Of Reclusive Peter O'Neill
Bored with your life? Here are five alternative communities you could move to