Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Slab City, California: A Magical Shithole

I was admiring the artwork in Slab City when I heard the bang of a trailer door slamming behind me. I looked towards the sound to find a large man barreling down on me fast. His long blond dreadlocks flew through the air behind him as the gap between us rapidly closed. I braced for a collision and expected the worst. Just as I was certain the man would plow me into the ground, he dug his heals into the dirt sliding to a halt just inches from me surrounding us both in a cloud of dust. The man had a giant intensity about him. I wasn't sure if he was going to hug me or hit me. I looked at his Grateful Dead t-shirt and marveled at how well the tie-die pattern hid the stains and grime.

"THAT THING IS FUCKING AWESOME!" the man screamed as he pointed at my folding bike.  My reply of "Um...thanks." seemed completely inadequate given the man's vehemence.  "I'LL TRADE YOU SOMETHING FOR IT!" the man yelled in a voice that was still inappropriately loud. Taken back by his offer, my mind was slow to produce a polite refusal.  The guy pounced on the silence and blurted out "I'LL TRADE YOU MY WEED FOR IT!" as he held up a mason jar full of something green.  I quickly came to two conclusions.  First, if I knew how to sell weed, that would be a hell of a deal because that much pot was worth a lot more than my folding bike. Second, the man was completely stoned and wouldn't make that offer otherwise because that much pot was worth a lot more than my folding bike.  I explained to the man the he had made a gracious offer but that there was a random drug testing program at my work and I couldn't risk getting fired.  For a second, the enthusiasm drained from the man's face but it quickly returned.  "WHAT ABOUT LSD? I HAVE SOME LSD IN MY TRAILER, THEY DON"T TEST FOR THAT!" The man spun back towards his trailer.  "No wait! I can't trade the bike, there are other places I have to take it"  The man hardly turned to acknowledge and sulked slowly back to his trailer. In most places, this exchange might have been a little strange but this wasn't most places, it was Slab City.

 Slab City artwork made from recycled materials

The Slabs, as the city is affectionately called by residents, are located in the middle of the California desert.  In 1956, the Marine base of Camp Dunlap was dismantled leaving a few concrete structures and a sea of slab foundations.  According to Slab City legend, it was Leonard Knight who then founded Slab City when his hot air balloon crash landed onto the slabs.  Upon arriving at The Slabs, Leonard received a revelation from God that he was to stay there and spread a message of love.  While the legend isn't entirely correct, there is more truth to it than most.  Leonard did build a hot air balloon but it never flew and by the time Leonard arrived in Slab City in 1984, it had already been populated by squatters for decades.  Leonard did however go on to spent the next 25 years of his life, until he was put into hospice care at the age of 80, creating a monument to God in Slab City.  It is a three story mountain covered with adobe and paint proclaiming God's love.

This truck was Leonard's first residence in Slab City with Salvation Mountain in the background

There is no running water in Slab City, no electricity, no sewage and no waste disposal.  With temperatures that surpass 120 degrees in the summer time, it's hard to imagine living there year round.  While there are hundreds of year-round residents, it's in the winter months that the Slab's population swells to well over a thousand.  While Slab City is an eclectic place to say the least, it's the people of Slab City that make it so fascinating.  Motor-homes, tents and buses are filled with hippies, vagabonds, retirees, drug addicts, artists, musicians and kids looking to find themselves.

One of the many residences in Slab City

I arrived in Slab City just as the sun was breaking the horizon.  I rode my bike up the dirt road and a man stepped out of his trailer completely naked.  He walked ten steps and began urinating onto the sand.  As I passed, he raised his hand high into the air and yelled "Howdy Neighbor!"

Most of the people I met in Slab City, welcomed me with open arms. One of my favorites was a young musician named Neil who described The Slabs as his winter home. The first time I saw Neil, he was walking down the road. With his thick beard and long black hair, I couldn't help but think he looked like Jesus with a lambskin coat.  "Hey man, there are a few of us up the the hill there. We're going to jam, you want to join us?"  I accepted the offer and walked with Neil to meet the others. There was a girl with fiery red hair and an accordion,  a skinny guy with a harmonica and Neil with his guitar. I sat down on a log and waited for the music to start when Neil handed me some maracas.  "Here man, you're percussion!" I told Neil that there had been a misunderstanding.  "I thought I was just going to listen to you guys jam, I can't even hold a beat!" Neil laughed and assured me it was easy.  We started up and Neil soon realized I wasn't being modest. "Hey man, It's easy, just watch my foot. Shake them every time it hits the dirt."  That helped a little. Neil had a fanatical love for music, the kind you need to make it anywhere in the music industry and I'm certain that if I'm ever able to say I once met someone famous, there is a good chance it might be Neil. Here is one of his music videos that was filmed at Slab City. 

 Neil Mallick                                                      Photo: Erin Audry

On the way out of Slab City, I ran into a man named Cuervo and his mule Rock-n-Roll. For a small donation, he offered to let me sit on the mule.  It was an offer I couldn't refuse.  I told Cuervo that I was thinking about heading down south to Mexico but I was concerned about safety and the drug cartels. Cuervo explained that he spends much of his time riding back and forth in the Mexican desert and that I had nothing to worry about.  He told me that he had even worked for the cartels smuggling marijuana into the U.S. with Rock-n-Roll. "You won't have any problems with the cartels, they always treated me well." he said.

Cuervo with his mule Rock-n-Roll

As I've traveled around the world, I've realized that my initial impression of a place is usually completely different from my final impression.  How strange it was then that my first and final impressions of Slab City were exactly the same.  I couldn't help but think that Slab City had to be the most magical shit hole on the face of the earth!  It was a place where absolutely anything and absolutely nothing could happen at any moment.

No comments:

Post a Comment