640 Acres of Freedom?
“What then is freedom? The power to live as one wishes.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero
On Christmas day, a friend and I drove down to Imperial County to visit Slab City (aka The Slabs), a snowbird community located in the Sonoran Desert, approximately 200 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Often dubbed “the last free place in America”, Slab City spans 640 acres and used to be a Marine base called Camp Dunlap before the military pulled out shortly after WWII. The area is now home to various RV communities, nomads, and those looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern day society. Although some “Slabbers” are seasonal residents who only come during the winter months to escape the harsh cold weather in other parts of the country, most stay year round.
After spending the day exploring and talking to locals, I came to realize that every part of Slab City resembles just about any other ordinary town. There are weekly recreational activities for residents to partake in, along with a local library where you’re encouraged you to borrow as many books as you wish with no set return date. As we stopped in front of a shabby barn to check out the handmade wind chimes being sold on the side of the road, we ran into Brian, a local who took the time to talk to us about what life was like in Slab City. Turns out, he built the barn when he first came to Slab City 20 years ago upon realizing that there weren’t enough social activities for the residents to do. The barn is used to host gatherings and live music events every Thursday and Saturday night. He went on to explain how he charges a $5 entry fee, which includes free food and drinks (typically hot dogs and Coors Light) and encourages people to bring their own chairs since seating is limited. “The music isn’t always good, but the people are all out here to have a good time, so the atmosphere is very loving and positive,” says Brian.
What fascinates me the most about Slab City is that the 640-acre land draws people from all walks of life. Rather than having a distinct group of people occupying the land, the Slabs attracts people from varying backgrounds and circumstances, including young hippies, drug addicts, fugitives, individuals with mental disorders, retirees who want to avoid paying mortgage, those running away from their parole officers and people who simply don’t want to be found. It has become a salad bowl of people with their own distinct qualities who peacefully coexist amongst one another. They are a group of freedom loving people who share the common goal of wanting to live off the grid and away from civilization.
Are the people of Slab City really free?
From one perspective, the residents of Slab City are free. Free from zoning laws and harassment from law enforcement, there really isn’t anything stopping them from doing as they please. Outcasts, society’s rejects and those opting an alternative lifestyle are able to carry out whatever sort of life they want. They live rent free, without having to adhere to any rules imposed by the government.
But on the other hand, are the Slabbers really free when they rely heavily on outside food donations in order to sustain themselves? Or what about the fact that they live without access to many basic modern-day necessities such as electricity, running water and an adequate sewage system? I suppose freedom comes at a price.
Are we free?
We live with the luxuries and comforts of modern day civilization that Slabbers don’t have access to. For the most part, we spend our days working to earn money that we then trade in to buy any goods and services we want. Those who are disabled and/or can’t provide for themselves can rely on the government to provide food vouchers and subsidized living arrangements to take care of them. Our basic necessities for survival are generally taken care of hence we have the option to choose how to lead our lives.
However, from early youth, we are forced to enter the educational system where we’re then shuffled from classroom desks to office cubicles. Confined by the four walls of our dwelling, we are groomed to obey what the institutionalized system tells us to do and conform to societal norms. Our parents teach us the “right” way to behave, how to eat with proper table manners and address people politely. We live under laws that restrict us from doing things deemed “wrong” by the government, such as spitting, littering and engaging in public nudity. What we must remember is that these rules were designed from a single governing body’s point of view. For example, chewing gum is illegal in Singapore while here in the United States it can be easily purchased at any convenience store. In a society that has employed monetary currency as a means to obtain even the most basic necessities for human survival, we’ve been shaped to think that money is the be all end all of life.
To conclude, are the people of Slab City free or are we the ones who are truly free? Do we even have the ability to comprehend what true freedom is when all we’ve come to know is a world under the control of a central authority that regulates how we live? Many would argue that without the structure that rules and regulations bring, our society would collapse and cease to function as we know it. However, I don’t see the Slabbers going off on violent killing sprees or looting one another. Despite not having any laws, they’ve managed to live peacefully amongst one another. Perhaps simply putting trust in the good of humanity should suffice.
What would you do if you were truly free?
For those of you planning on making a trip down to Slab City and its surrounding areas, I put together a brief guide below on which places to visit along with tips for your trip!
1. International Banana Museum
For all you banana lovers out there, if you’re driving to Slab City from the LA area you’ll come across the International Banana Museum on your way there. Unfortunately, it was closed for the holidays when I got there, but based on Yelp reviews and the pictures I’ve seen, it’s definitely worth a trip back down. According to their website, the museum boasts over 20,000 banana related items and is owned by Fred Garbutt, who’s often on site to talk about the collection.
2. The Salton Sea
What once was a thriving resort town with people regularly flocking over to spend their weekends sunbathing by the lake, the Salton Sea has now turned into an abandoned town. Due to the rising salinity, increasing toxic chemicals, and depleted oxygen levels, the ecosystem started deteriorating. The shoreline is now covered in sludge and dried fish carcasses that have been washed up. Remember to bring a scarf or something to cover your nose with as the smell of sulfur and rotting fish can be overwhelming for some.
3. Bombay Beach
This was an unexpected pit stop for my friend and I. We saw the sign and out of sheer curiosity, decided to turn into the road which led to a small neighborhood. Not for the faint of heart, Bombay Beach is definitely a place to check out if you aren’t afraid of a little dirt and don’t mind entering what appears to be the post-apocalypse. With a population of a little over 100 people, the neighborhood consists of ruins and abandoned homes that look like crack houses. While driving past the rows of houses, be sure to stop by the Bombay Beach Drive-In where you’ll find a collection of old, run-down cars. Dubbed as the “lowest bar in the western hemisphere”, the Ski Inn is another spot to visit in Bombay Beach with its unique interior consisting of a bunch of signed dollar bills plastered all over the walls.
4. Salvation Mountain
This is an insta-worthy site, so be sure to bring your camera along! You’ll find the majority of tourists in the area here as most people don’t seem to venture out further to Slab City. Salvation Mountain was created by Leonard Knight, who devoted the last three decades of his life building the art piece as his tribute to God. Knight lived out of his truck parked next to the mountain until his health decline and eventual passing in 2014. The reoccurring theme of “love” is apparent throughout Salvation Mountain, which has religious scriptures, bible verses and a colorful array of flowers, birds, waterfalls painted on.
5. Slab City
After you drive pass Salvation Mountain, you’ll see the “Welcome to Slab City” sign which marks the entrance to the Slabs. Be sure to explore all the different sites Slab City has to offer! I highly recommend visiting East Jesus, an art community that boasts a number of eclectic pieces all created using scrap materials. The artwork here exudes Burning Man type vibes and often include anti-government messages that discourage conformity to societal norms. Don’t forget to check out the local library, Home for Abandoned Teddy Bears and the Slab City Hostel if you have time!
- Bring lots of water in your car!
There aren’t any shops, convenience stores or restaurants within several miles of Slab City so be sure to pack water and snacks with you. I remember seeing a standalone diner about 10 minutes before reaching Slab City but it isn’t always open so come prepared!
- Visit the gas station beforehand.
The closest gas station from the area is about 20 miles out so be sure you come with a full tank! No one wants to be stuck in the middle of the Sonoran Desert with no fuel, especially after dark. Speaking of which…
- Go home before sundown.
You don’t want really want to linger in Slab City (unless you’re just really brave or have made arrangements to spend the night there) past dark. Remember that Slab City is in an incorporated area, hence it doesn’t have a police department and will usually fall under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s department in neighboring counties if a crime were to occur.
- Bring your ID with you.
This may depend on which route you use, but we had to drive through a border patrol checkpoint on our way back from Slab City. The officer asked us a few questions and checked our IDs before letting us pass through relatively quickly. A few cars in front of us weren’t too lucky though, as they were told to steer off to the side and park their cars for further questioning.