On the edge of reality
The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.
Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.
I’ve known her from an ample nation
Then close the valves of her attention
- Emily Dickenson
By Eric Thayer
Somewhere on the edge of reality is this place.
They live a frontier existence, a hard life made more harsh by the elements. No water, no electricity, it’s a wicked landscape, dotted with expensive RVs, beat-up trailers, tents, art installations. It’s a place that exists in legends that are told around campfires or by train hoppers huddled in a box car.
Everything about this place says fringe, passing along a weathered desert road outside a small town in the desert. Through a town that itself is a sort of gateway equidistant between two major highways, but close to neither on the bottom tip of the Salton Sea. I drive through town along a weathered strip of asphalt across two sets of railroad tracks to a dirt road. This is a place people go to get away from society, to escape, to go into self-proclaimed exile from the mainstream, into a society of travelers, hippies, snowbirds, artists, outcasts, the down on their luck, the slightly unhinged and the downright crazy.
Along the road Salvation Mountain rises up, a hill that was covered in what looks like concrete, in its shadow a small society goes on. A checkpoint, most likely from the military base that this place once was, is painted with a welcome message to Slab City, named after the slabs of concrete leftover from its days as a military base that served as foundations for the buildings.
I drive past newer looking recreational vehicles, along dirt roads, some camps have signs, addresses, or are decorated, while others are unmarked. Painted signs mark roads like Edge, The Low Road, among others, stopping at a colorfully painted trailer on the northern edge.
A Slabs resident named Jack talks about coming from San Francisco, he tells stories about when the police raided the Occupy camp there, and he was forced out. After that, he came here. He has an old painted trailer, a fire pit, and talks at length about his plans for his ever expanding camp, which he marks a “property line” with rocks. His goal is to build a pyramid he can live in. He gathers building materials, but this night, the cold outweighs the need for the stockpile, and he burns 2X4’s to keep the fire going. He and Princess Stephanie cook. She brings the rice, he brings the beans. They cook over an open fire, beans in the can and add two bags of rice to a pot of boiling water. Two bags would later be too much, though they find a taker in Blue for the extra. She’s French-Canadian with plans to travel the states, but for now she’s in the trailer with Jack. There is Purple and his dog Socks and a cat on a leash, Mickel wearing a hat with a feather, his tattoo that he drew himself, his tool belt where he keeps his leatherman and his tobacco, Gary, who makes bracelets, and gives me one. Jack’s neighbor Quasi lives in a 1980s Volkswagen van and his other neighbors are a couple with a dog named Bandit; he and his owner wander the desert during the day.
Nearby is a couple with three kids, I pass them as they build a fence. Following leaving Rhode Island after not being able to get by, they traveled for a bit and finally ended up here. “We got here with a pop up trailer, and now we have this,” he says, pointing to a Slab homestead in progress, with a full size trailer, and a trailer for the kids. “Come back in a few months, and you’ll see a big difference,” he says, setting a post for a picket fence around their space.
Much of what is here is re-used and recycled. Trailers and equipment are bought, sold, traded, occasionally stolen, or scavenged. Trailers that are too far gone are broken up and used for building material and firewood. There is also quite a bit of Slabs art that some have made over the years, the centerpiece being a place in the far corner of the Slabs called East Jesus, closest to what locals refer to as a military training ground, where during the day you can hear the bombs being dropped near the Chocolate Mountains, and at night you can hear the gunfire and helicopters and see the flares as training takes place.
At the internet café, Frank helps out a snowbird couple, as a couple that arrived from Wisconsin cooks the last of the food from their refrigerator, which stopped working on their way down to the Slabs. From watching their interactions, sharing seems to be a sure way to make friends quickly. A woman named Magenta talks about how she just got out of hospital after having congestive heart failure. She says she and her husband have been trying to get out of the Slabs for a while now, but they just can’t. They have had a string of bad luck, from buying a trailer infested with bed bugs to her and her husband both having heart problems to now living in a tent. “All we’re trying to do is figure out a way to get out of here.” She says, taking a drag from her cigarette.
There’s another man, named Mark, who represents another side to the Slabs, the snowbirds, many of whom live in Canada, who chase the warmer weather during the cold months up north. He spends half the year camped here in his motor home, and the other half living in his home on Vancouver Island. Often living on fixed incomes, they gather in places like Slab city, avoiding sometimes high camping fees in state and national parks. He says 180 days is what he is allowed to stay outside of Canada to maintain his health insurance in that country, so he drives down and spends his time with a community of others in Slab City. They used to have a club, but a change in leadership caused most of the members to quit. They still gather for a Friday night potluck dinner, with one of the men bringing catfish caught in the local reservoir.
For a place that people go to get away from society, the people of the Slabs still have a need to stick together, there is still a sense of belonging here, even in a place for those few who don’t really belong anywhere. The Slabs welcome just about everyone; whether or not they stay is based on their own ability to endure the elements and the primitive living conditions out in the desert.
In some ways I can relate to them, I wander, covering the news, culture, life, but always moving, thinking at the end of a weathered strip of asphalt will be the answers. Somewhere it will all make sense. Somewhere there is a home. For me, this wasn’t it, but it was an interesting few days in the desert, with some great people who graciously let me into their lives to document with a camera.
(View a slideshow of images here)