Photo by Robert Burroughs
By 5:00 a.m. the place sounds like the Chicken Tabernacle Choir.
The roosters start at exactly 4:52 a.m. At first it’s just one restless old bird grumping about the long winter night. But before long, his rabble-rousing has stirred every chicken within a mile of town. By 5:00 a.m. the place sounds like the Chicken Tabernacle Choir, and nobody in Slab City can sleep. At least nobody with his hearing aid on.
Slab City takes its name from the building slabs left over from Fort Dunlop Army Base, one of the places where General Patton trained his tank troops during World War II.
The night was cool, as winter nights usually are on this patch of creosote-covered desert between the Chocolate Mountains and the Salton Sea. But the cold won’t last. Yesterday the high in Pocatello was twenty degrees. Salt Lake City got up to twenty-three. Calgary was twenty-seven. Denver was a balmy thirty-six. But yesterday in glamorous Slab City, that Palm Springs on wheels, where snowbirds and chickens from all over the West make their winter roost, the temperature was a perfect seventy-one.
Rusty Lee Jones is the closest thing to a mayor Slab City has, and he doesn’t like to hear anything bad about the town.
“Ah, there ain’t so many chickens,” Rusty Lee Jones drawls. Rusty is about the closest thing to a mayor Slab City has, and he doesn’t like to hear anything bad said about the strange little town he has come to love. He pulls up his easy chair to a place facing the good, free, plentiful desert sun. “There used to be a lot more chickens running wild,” he recalls. Then, with a sly grin, he adds, “I don’t know what happened to them. They ain’t around anymore, though.”
An eccentric craftsman from Washington, about forty years old, who has his entire wood shop in the back of an old school bus, earns his living by making novelty windmills.
Rusty’s an easygoing fellow who has a talent for getting along with folks. He spends his days sitting under the awning of his fifth-wheel trailer, registering newly arrived residents at Slab City. He listens to people’s problems, offers information and advice, and wishes everybody well. He’s too laid back to be a politician. He wasn’t elected, and he doesn’t get paid. He’s a volunteer. Nobody in Slab City does anything they don’t want to do.
Rusty estimates this winter there are about 2000 RV rigs at Slab City.
“Everything on this card is strictly confidential,” he explains to a newcomer. “If you don’t want your wife Wanda to know you’re at Slab City, then Wanda won’t know. It’s just in case of an emergency, then we’ll know where to find you.”
An enterprising young man, working out of an old bus, has cornered the solar panel market.
The new arrival, a retirement-aged man whose wife is waiting in their RV, listens carefully to Rusty’s explanation, then politely declines. “No thanks,” he says. “I guess I’ve filled out enough cards in my time.”
Rusty understands. “No problem,” he smiles. “Whatever you want. There’s no rules here.”
The hookers and lookers moved their lawn chairs over to the main drag and began selling their crafts to the gawkers and looky-loos.
Almost everything about Slab City runs contrary to the normal patterns of modem, civilized communities. There are no property taxes, no land ownership, no rent, no sales tax, no building codes, no sewer or water systems, no electricity, no paved streets, no mail delivery, no telephones, no elected officials, no jails, and no work. There are organized horseshoe games.
Leonard, the Preacher, lives in a camper that he has decorated to look something like a gypsy wagon.
Just about the only semblance of community planning in Slab City is the grid-work of dirt roads that marks off residential sections about the size of city blocks. Within the sections, the residents can set up their homes anywhere they like. Some huddle together in clans, others prefer privacy. Overall, the population density in Slab City’s 640 acres is probably about the same as any small town.
Leonard spends most of his time working on a kind of Christian Mt. Rushmore.
The residents of Slab City don’t look like people living on the radical fringes of society, though that's exactly what they are. Most of them are retired grandmothers and grandfathers who can brag, as Rusty does, of not having had even a parking ticket for twenty-five years. It’s almost as though, after a lifetime of perfectly normal behavior, they suddenly decided to chuck it all and become nomadic anarchists, pursuing their vision of absolute freedom in a place that, as one of them put it, “would be worthless desert if there weren’t so many of us living here.’’
“You gotta live it to believe it,’’ Rusty says. “I never woulda thought I’d be living like this someday. My wife and I stopped here in the fall, about six years ago, just to check the place out. Ended up staying five months, and been back every year since. A lotta people here have had the same experience. Stay here a week, and you’ll never wanna leave. The place grows on you.”
Maybe such strange behavior is the inevitable rebellion against a lifetime of conformity, of getting to work on time and paying the bills month after month. Or maybe it’s just senility. It’s hard to say what’s gotten into old people these days. At any rate, the citizens of Slab City have created a town that has almost none of the stress and tension found in most cities.
“Oh,” Rusty says with a wave of his hand, “you put four or five thousand people together and you’re gonna have some squabbles. But in a city where you own the property you live on, you gotta put up with your neighbors. Here, if you don’t like who’s living next to your RV, you just move. That’s why they all got wheels on ’em!”
It’s not unusual in Slab City to see a retired executive living in a $100,000 RV, complete with solar panels and satellite-dish TV, right next to a family of die-hard hippies living in a broken-down school bus with their children, chickens, and goats. “Everybody here’s equal,” Rusty says. “It don’t matter if you got a million bucks in the bank or living on social security. You never know. Some old boy you see walking down the road in a pair of bib overalls is liable to be a retired bank president.”
Slab City takes its unpretentious name from the dozens of concrete building slabs left over from Fort Dunlop Army Base, one of the places where General Patton trained his tank troops during World War II. In the Fifties, after the base was torn down, the land was returned to the State of California, which owns it today. Before long, desert campers and weekend fishermen visiting the Salton Sea learned that the concrete slabs made clean and convenient places to set up camps. Guests staying at the hot-spring spas north of Niland used to organize dances on the slabs, and, eventually, retired people began hauling their trailers out to the slabs to spend the winter.
News of Slab City spread by word of mouth, and it grew steadily over the years. But as recently as five years ago, there were never more than 600 or 700 rigs parked at the slabs at any one time. Then, about four years ago, articles written about the slabs appeared in Trailer Life and RV Magazine, and Slab City boomed.
“A lotta people came looking, just to check the place out,” Rusty says. “Whoever woulda thought there’d be a place in the desert where you could come, kick back, stay as long as you like, and it wouldn’t cost you a thing? People like us, who came saying they only wanted to stay a day or two, ended up here till it was too hot to stay any longer.”
Rusty estimates this winter there are about 2000 RV rigs at Slab City. If there was an average of two people per rig, Slab City would have a winter population of 4000. Maybe seventy-five percent of the residents are retired senior citizens; the rest include everything from migrant farmworkers to modern-day John the Baptists crying in the wilderness. In the summer, when temperatures in the Imperial Valley are often higher than 110 degrees, that population is reduced to perhaps fifty people — mostly squatters who have built semi-permanent residences at the slabs. Some people are now beginning to wonder just how big Slab City can get before it becomes a problem. “I’d hate to see it get too much bigger,” Rusty says. “But then I’m always happy to see people, too. We could probably cram another thousand rigs in here, but boy, I’d sure hate to have to go try and Find John Doe among them all.”
When the campers register, they're given the phone number of the Imperial County sheriff, which they’re encouraged to send home so relatives will have a way of getting in touch with them. And the sheriffs do stop by once in a while with messages: an illness in the family, or just news of a new grandchild. But Rusty says that in six years, there have only been two emergencies that were serious enough for the volunteers to place phone calls to the camper’s relatives back home: one was a traffic accident, and the other was an elderly man living alone who had to be taken to the hospital.
Life in Slab City is so sedate. Rusty says, the only real problem is an occasional complaint about somebody’s dog. “A lot of campers do have dogs, and I don’t blame them. When you get up into that age group, you need a dog to do your hearing for you, especially if you take your hearing aid out at night. Besides, a dog makes a good buddy. Sometimes, though, people let their dog run around somebody else’s rig, or else they let their dog bark all night. It’s no big thing, but it does happen.”
“If there was a lawman out here and he was getting paid according to the number of problems he had to deal with, why he’d starve to death,” Rusty says. “The basic law out here is. You be good, and I’ll be good; you take care of me, and I’ll take care of you.”
Imperial County’s chief deputy in Brawley, Michael Schneewind, confirms Rusty’s report of a trouble-free community. “They're primarily senior citizens who have successfully made it through life and are now enjoying themselves. They look after one another. If somebody's sick, they haul him into town. There are no significant law-enforcement problems out there.”
Is it possible that when people are put in a situation in which there are fewer public services and less governmental control, they know they have to take responsibility for themselves, to look out for each other, and to get along with each other? Rusty sours at the thought. “It’s not that you have to,” he says, “it’s that you want to. Once you get out of that old situation where you’re punching a time clock and doing what somebody else tells you to do, why, you’re free. You do what you want to do. Out here, people want to get along with their neighbor. I tell you, it grows on you. That’s all there is to it.”
Out on Swap Meet Row is Slab City’s commercial district. It’s something like the combination of a Third World street market, hippie love-in, auto wrecking yard, and Christian revival. There are people there selling everything from used trailer windows and doors to week-old cauliflowers, rain-soaked romance novels, fresh eggs, TV antennas, and the rear end from a ’74 Ford. The Christian doomsday literature is free.
Most of the people strolling up and down Swap Meet Row’s quarter mile might be considered window shoppers — if there were any windows. In Slab City, the most exciting happening of the week might be to drive over to the state campground at Bombay Beach to empty your septic tank. For the rest of the week, the only action in town is on Swap Meet Row, and on a sunny day. the town’s residents come to check out what’s for sale today, which more often than not is the same thing that was for sale yesterday, and the day before that.
One man looking up and down the rows of just about everything a person would never have any use for — broken power tools, rusted fenders, airplane parts, worn-out tires — says regretfully, “I guess I’ve thrown away about a million dollars’ worth of stuff in my life.”
‘‘Look here. Honey,” another man says to his wife, stopping in front of a used-book stand. “There’s enough books here for a whole winter of reading.”
The woman’s face scrunches up into a frown. “Every time I try to read lately, I get a terrible headache.”
“It’s those high brow books you read,” the man says, and he picks out a good western novel for her.
Slab City readers are partial to western novels. Almost every bookstall has a sign that reads: Books 50 Cents — Except Louis L’Amour $1.25.
One of the most popular items at Slab City’s swap meet this year is solar panels. An enterprising young man, working out of an old bus, has just about cornered the market. He has an attractive display, with a panel of photovoltaic cells running a small fan. People crowd around to hear him explain how a $300 panel hooked up to a twelve-volt battery and a voltage regulator can be used to power the television, radio, and lights for their RV. “Of course, you have to have sunshine, too,” the man says, “but the sunshine’s free here in Slab City.”
Swap Meet Row evolved from what are known in Slab City as “hookers and lookers,” women who like to sit in the sun, knit or crochet, and watch the day go by. As the knitting and crochet work began to pile up and Slab City was in danger of being buried under tons of baby booties and doggy jackets, the hookers and lookers had to come up with a way to dispose of their wares. So some of them moved their lawn chairs over to the main drag and began selling their crafts to the gawkers and looky-loos who came to Slab City.
But before long, the success of the hookers and lookers in selling their crafts began to attract swap meet professionals from all over the West. These pros travel the swap meet circuit during the warmer months, then settle down in Slab City to wait out the winter. “This is some of the most widely traveled junk you’ll see anywhere,” boasts one swap meet pro who specializes in rusted hand tools and bottles of freight-damaged shampoo.
Not everyone in Slab City approves of Swap Meet Row. Some people think it’s too commercial for their sedate little town. “Oh, I guess you gotta have someplace to buy and sell stuff,” grumbles Rusty Jones. “I just wish they’d move it in the back someplace where you can’t see it. But I’m not for making any kind of rule against it or anything like that. Once you start making rules, there might not be any end to it.”
One of the people selling wares on Swap Meet Row is an eccentric craftsman from Washington, about forty years old, who has his entire wood shop in the back of an old school bus. He earns his living by making novelty windmills. One windmill is patterned after the Roadrunner cartoon character; when the wind blows, the Roadrunner’s legs go round and round, just like in the cartoon. Another of his windmills is in the shape of a flying duck. “I didn’t design that one,” he explains happily. “That’s an antique design, probably a hundred years old.” He’s an optimistic soul who is striving for an improved product. “I’m gonna start using a better grade of plywood so they’ll hold up better in the rain,” he says. “I’ll have to charge more, but then I expect to sell a whole lot more too.” In the meantime, he sleeps in the bus, next to his tools.
At another stall on Swap Meet Row, a young woman is tending a heap of scrap metal her husband has gathered together to sell. Business isn't exactly booming, so the woman is using her time to do a load of wash, while her naked children root around the yard like happy little piglets. The woman’s husband has fitted the old wringer washer with an ingenious device, made with a piece of plastic pipe, so his wife can crank the washer by hand. “A lot of people stop by here and say, ‘Yuck, woman! Why you crankin’ that thing by hand? Why don’t you just go on into Niland and use the Laundromat?’ But they don’t understand that the Laundromat costs money. I got more time than money, so I might as well just stand here and crank it by hand.”
The citizens of Slab City are great admirers of resourcefulness, since it’s their resourcefulness that allows them their freedom. One man has fashioned a unique camper from the top half of a trailer and the bottom half of a 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado. There are entire dwellings put together with nothing but scrap lumber and plastic tarps. One young, enterprising resident, recognizing the lack of trash disposal services in Slab City, painted a sign on the side of his trailer: ‘‘Trash Hauling — Big Sack 50 cents — Small Sack 35 cents.” To compensate for the lack of a town newspaper, the citizens have set aside an hour every evening, between six and seven, for public announcements over their CB radios. The hour serves as a kind of chatty classified ads: Somebody has a generator he’d like to trade for a solar panel, somebody else is driving to El Centro tomorrow to buy groceries and can take passengers. The time is also used to discuss community concerns: shouldn’t there be a mail-collection box so everybody doesn’t have to drive into the post office in Niland?
And to help compensate for the lack of medical care, Rusty’s wife, who is an emergency medical technician, holds a Tuesday-morning clinic, at their trailer, during which anybody can come to have his blood pressure checked. If the people can’t make it on Tuesday, then any other day is fine, too.
Just this year, an informal sort of club was formed, called Slab City Singles. The club has an area where single snowbirds are invited to park their rigs in a circle surrounding a large communal space, where they socialize. ‘‘Just because people are single, or divorced, or widowed, or whatever doesn’t mean they have to be isolated from everybody,” Rusty explains. ‘‘They have their happy hour every day, they have their bonfires, and they play cards and horseshoes. There’s a lotta darn good people over there.”
One of the first things you see when driving into Slab City is the artwork of yet another local eccentric, a middle-aged fellow named Leonard, sometimes known as ‘‘The Preacher.” Leonard, who lives in a camper that he has decorated to look something like a gypsy wagon, spends most of his time working on a kind of Christian Mt. Rushmore. Using an adobe-like mixture of dirt, straw, and old paint, he’s decorating the bluffside above his campsite with a colorful, evangelical mural of biblical passages, crosses, all-seeing eyes, and other mysterious items known only to Leonard.
There are a lot of born-again Christians in Slab City. They hold Sunday services outside somebody’s trailer and baptize each other in the Coachella Canal. The loud droning sound of tape-cassette readings of the Bible can be heard just about any time of the day or night, punctuated with barking dogs, crowing chickens, dirt bikes, and RV generators.
Slab City is divided into several neighborhoods: Poverty Flats, Niland Heights, Little Canada (where the Canadians gather), Slab City Singles, and Drop Seven and Drop Eight (named for the nearby siphons on the Coachella Canal) But the strangest neighborhood of all is located in the suburbs just south of town-The neighborhood doesn’t really have a name, but if it did, it might be Squatter’s Thicket.
Squatter’s Thicket is made up of more or less permanent dwellings hidden in the dense mesquite and creosote bushes that cover the area. Some of the dwellings art no more than tents; some are campers and trailers that are slowly evolving into houses — a porch here, an extra bedroom there; others are made of plywood, plastic bags, aluminum cans, old tires, dead cars, mounds of wine bottles, chicken feathers, and goat turds.
Most of the residents of Squatter’s Thicket are migrant fruit pickers. “They call themselves fruit tramps, but I call them fruit pickers,” Rusty says, giving them the benefit of the doubt. “They go up north to work in the summer, then they come down here to wait out the cold weather. If they’re any good, they can earn enough to kick back all winter.” There are several families of fruit pickers who have school-aged children. A school bus stops in Slab City to take them either to the elementary school in nearby Niland or the high school ten miles away in Calipatria.
Some of the squatters are people who would be called homeless in San Diego or any other big city. They are the unemployed, or the unemployable, antisocial, stubborn, eccentric, or crazy. Their dwellings violate just about every state or county health and fire code. Their septic systems consist of old-fashioned outhouses, open latrines, or simply a trail into the bushes. Their water systems consist of everything from galvanized tin holding tanks to plastic jugs, all of which they carry into Niland to refill at the Black Gold Gas Station — a service the gas station owner, Ahmed Naem, says he is happy to provide.
The squatters' dwellings are a building inspector’s worst nightmare: homemade wood stoves, highly flammable construction materials, crudely designed electrical systems, living quarters that double as chicken coops, and chicken coops that double as outhouses. Imperial County officials, though, have chosen to take a tolerant view of Slab City’s less affluent residents. Chief deputy sheriff Schneewind explains it this way: “The county understands we’re an agriculturally based community. We have a high unemployment rate, and we understand that some of the people are hard put to make a living. The standard of living there [at the Slabs], though it may not be as good as you or I are used to, is certainly better than living on the street. It’s a little warmer, a little cleaner, and maybe a little more humanitarian.... They don’t have a legal right to that property, or a right to build on it — they’re squatters — but I think the general view of the county, and the people in the county, is that at least it’s safe, clean, and affording them an opportunity to get back on their feet.”
It’s probably a fact of life that anytime there is something as popular and successful as Slab City, somebody will try to figure out a way to make money on it. A developer from Brawley, Doyle Cape, has acquired Imperial County's approval of his plans to build an RV Park at Slab City. The plans include water, sewer, and electrical hook-ups, as well as a small market. Cape has not been available for comment on his project, which has actually been under consideration for more than a year now.
News of the project last winter caused a lot of anxiety in Slab City, where residents were disgusted with the idea of somebody trying to make money on their town. “It stirred a lot of people up,” Rusty says. “A lot of us didn’t know what the heck we were gonna do this winter. But we came back anyway, just to check and see if the place was still open. It was.”
Cape’s plan seemed to lose momentum, and most people considered it unlikely the project would ever materialize — until recently, when the talk began again. Cape still has to acquire a lease from the state lands commission, which owns the property, but the lands commission, which hopes to earn revenue from the lease for the state teachers’ retirement fund, says it will give Cape his lease as soon as he has acquired funding for his project.
For several years, the merchants in nearby Niland, where there’s a gas station, a launderette, a couple of grocery stores, and a few other small stores, have been making bundles of money from the Slab City snowbirds. Naturally, most of those merchants resent any plan that would reduce the number of snowbirds who come to the area, but they also doubt the viability of an expensive RV park at Slab City. Suet Mei Fong, owner of the United Food Market, which seems to be by far the most prosperous business in Niland, says, “I think it very bad idea. Right now the people [snowbirds] are happy because it free. If they have to pay, why come to Niland? Already, lotta snowbirds not come this year.” And just across the street, Ahmed Naem, owner of the Black Gold Gas Station, says, “If they put in park over there, people not come. People like to pay free. Already people not come this year because they hear it costs money now. If that slab closed, this town should be dead.”
But the most serious objections to the proposal to develop Slab City come from the residents themselves. They point out that there are already developed RV parks in the area. Just fifteen miles to the north is the Fountain of Youth Spa, which offers sewer and electrical hook-ups, has seven heated pools, a grocery store, a beauty shop, and even a masseuse. The cost per day, with complete RV hook-ups, is $13.50.
“I could afford to go up there and stay at the spa if I wanted to,“ Rusty says. “I think most of us could. But we like it here.” Also, Rusty points out that a developed RV park really couldn't offer the snowbirds very many conveniences they don’t already have. Rusty’s mostly solar-powered rig, like those of most other residents, is equipped with water tanks, toilet, hot shower, kitchen, forced-air heating, TV, and even two VCRs. “It may not have all the comforts of home,” he says, “but I always say, if you want all the comforts of home, you should stay home.”
But Slab City has something that almost no commercial RV parks have. “Room to move!” Rusty says. “In one of those private parks, when you put down your awning, it’s hitting the guy parked next to you. Here everybody’s got all the room they want.”
In the meantime, the residents of Slab City realize they’re in a vulnerable position. Almost none of them is a resident of Imperial County, and most of them aren’t even residents of California. They don’t pay property taxes here, and they don’t vote here, so they can’t expect to have much influence on the county’s planning process. What they do have, though, is the freedom, the mobility, and the money to go anywhere they want. If they don’t like what they see happening to Slab City, they’ll just roll up their awnings, toss their lawn chairs on the roof, and move their RVs someplace else. As Rusty says, “That’s why they got wheels on 'em!”