Slab City – The Last Free City in America
When I learned that there was a lawless town in Southern California, inhabited by a diverse group of hippies, drug addicts, and other eccentric types, I naturally wanted to experience it firsthand. A little over three hours southeast from Los Angeles, Slab City, dubbed the last free city in America, was once the site of a WWII marine artillery-training base. Today, concrete slabs are the only remains of Camp Dunlap hence how the name Slab City came to be.
The first sign of life I see upon turning onto Low Road, the unofficial address for many of the residents, is a sinewy old man in a floral maxi skirt. His long, white hair spilled out from underneath a glittery beret. He holds up a peace sign in acknowledgement of my presence. I wave back with a curious smile across my face. Had I been feeling more sociable, I may have asked this quirky being to sit and have a chat with me certain that he has stories for days.
I continue down a rocky dirt road, RVs and tents dot the desert land on either side. It truly looks like something out of an apocalypse. There are handmade signs everywhere, constructed out of materials that would otherwise be trash. Instead of “Kids at Play, Drive slow,” one prominent sign read, “Dogs @ Play. Have a Nice Day.” I stop to snap a photo. Used tires and other litter in neat rows serve as unofficial property lines. I’m fascinated with a million questions swirling in my mind.
I see signs for the Oasis Club, which I later learn is a sort of gathering social club for the residents of Slab City – a country club, of sorts. The Internet café is just a ways down the road from there. A turn down Coachella Canal Road found me browsing the book, art, and knickknack collection at Slab City’s 24-hour library. A caged chicken, a dog, and a young female with blonde dreadlocks, presumably the chicken’s owner, greeted me. The library had everything from Stephen King to metaphysics and children’s books. A lone two-person, black leather seat, likely salvaged from a vehicle, sat in the entryway with “Slab City” spray-painted in white across it.
Toilet Under a Tree in Slab City
As I continued down Coachella Canal Road, the lack of trash pick up became very apparent. The land, the bushes, even the tree limbs were completely littered. One picturesque tree shaded a toilet bowl beneath its trunk. I chuckled in awe, wondering what I was feeling. It wasn’t necessarily bad but it wasn’t good, either.
Perhaps, it was just an appreciation for the down and out to resort to this type of off the grid lifestyle. Entirely self sufficient without immediate access to running water, sewage, and overall hygienic resources, slabbers as they’re often referred to, are inspiring to some degree. They’ve embraced a way of life that we city folk only elude to on occasion. And many have done so despite the fear of a lawless society.