If you drive south from Los Angeles on Interstate CA-111 along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, past Bombay Beach, Frink, Wister, Mundo, and around the migrating geyser, you’ll reach Niland, one of the poorest counties in California.  Turn left at Mae’s grocery on Main Street and head east over the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, until Main becomes Beal Street acces road.

On any given day you might pass Cuervo, as tall and lean as a scarecrow, riding his mule to town. He sits in the shade of the United Food Centre drinking cheap whiskey and popping oxycontin pills. Slab City is your destination, an off-grid community in the Sonoran Desert, and Cuervo might well  be its living image: the hard-luck American cowboy on his steed, wandering by his whims, putting down shallow roots. Live and let live rules this desert squat. Be neighbourly, follow the ethics guide, and do unto others.

It is both America the Great and the toxic end-product of American capitalism — those who couldn’t work and live within the system and those who outright rejected it.

Just past the East High Line Canal you come to a sentry box painted in psychedelic colours by Noah Achram, an electrician’s apprentice-turned-artist from Detroit. Hop out and feel the searing desert heat that melts plastic. Ahead on your left you’ll start seeing camps.

In late spring small rocks and soup cans roughly mark camp boundaries, but it’s too late in the season for most camps to offer much protection. Nearby recreational vehicles sit stolidly, out of place. Like birds late to migration, their owners will soon flee the heat in their air-conditioned rolling homes, returning to Babylon (city life) and cooler weather in the north. They’ll be back with winter.

Towering over all of this is Salvation Mountain. Leonard Knight’s fifty-foot-tall technicolour hillside installation brings thousands of tourists — and their dollars — through to East Jesus, the art colony created by Charlie Russell (a.k.a. Container Charlie). Knight began the project in 1984 and spent the rest of his life rebuilding his vibrant, cartoonish tribute to God after it collapsed in 1990.

Prime space within the Slabs is scarce and built-up camps are often sold when people leave for the city. Some become imprisoned by their freedom, unable to leave their camps for long, afraid of petty thieves and camp pirates.

Few enjoy the conveniences of modern urban living. There is no free drinkable water, no tap to turn. Slabbers can filter the East High Line Canal, brown with farm runoff, or take from the faster moving Coachella Canal feeding Palm Springs and Los Angeles. Otherwise, you pay local suppliers. Garbage is either kept by Slabbers (for future reuse) or dumped for lack of municipal pick-up.

Solar panels and deep cycle batteries provide power for fans and swamp coolers in the hottest months. Sanitation varies from RVs to composting toilets and gopher holes: to each his own. There is a cost to living free.

Nothing is certain in this landscape, but friends and neighbours offset the vicissitudes of desert living. Mojo’s camp offers free clothes and water and the Niland Chamber of Commerce hands out basic food staples once a month. The Internet Cafe dispenses free coffee and wifi. The Oasis Club provides mail service for anyone without a P.O. box in nearby Niland, as well as a five dollar Sunday breakfast.

Behind the Oasis, the Wayside Inn hosts a weekly fish fry and daily meals, The library is a well-stocked respite from the heat and has its own bar. On Saturday night, Slabbers converge on Builder Bill’s Range to catch up and listen to live music late into the night.  It remains to be seen whether comradery alone can save the Slabs and prevent it from becoming another geothermal plant like the ones dotting the shores of the Salton Sea. Slabbers are technically squatting on state land, originally mandated to the local school board.
Slab City is a container for the ill, impoverished, and outcast. What would the state do for these people if their home became a solar panel farm or an extension of the nearby military training base? Where would they go? Here, at least, they have a certain leverage in a county plagued by high unemployment and few opportunities; Niland’s economy depends on Slab City and the local markets that service it. Salvation Mountain brings in tens of thousands of tourists dollars annually. It’s a nice day trip from Los Angeles.

Many Slabbers view the potential sale of their land as the most pressing threat to their way of life. But they tend to worry more about local usurpers and an internal coup than they do about Slab City being squashed by state muscle (not entirely unreasonable given how difficult and costly it would be for the state to raze the Slabs and rehabilitate the area for commercial use). They want freedom or nothing, regardless of who plays landlord. It’s why many of them came here in the first place

And looming ownership struggles are far from the only struggle. Like Camp Dunlap before it, Slab City continues to generate significant waste (human and industrial), making clean-up costly, if not impossible. And the Slabs sit well within the circle of a dangerous ecological disaster — the Salton Sea. As the “sea” (actually a lake) evaporates and recedes, it exposes thousands of acres of toxic mud which contains arsenic, selenium, chromium, zinc, lead, and pesticides like DDT.

Powerful desert winds spread these toxins as far as Los Angeles, significantly affecting air quality and health outcomes in the immediate area. Constantly balancing one peril against another, the resilience of this community is unquestionable. Shallow or not, it’s hard to bet against roots like that. For those who call the Slabs home, the Last Free Place will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.