Slab City, California: Inside the Last Free Place in America

The last free place is hot, dry, and hard. Slab City’s freedom is not free from the exacting demands of the desert, nor is it free from life’s necessities: off the grid but on the edges of poverty locked within the latent grids of the decommissioned military camp. Here, off-grid is really in-grid. A gunnery range’s excrescence, it is still bound to its military history and legacies of control.

The last free place is a camp. Only a camp can host Slab City’s contradictions. Snowbirds and squatters, bedsprings and barbed wire, desire and desperation, autonomy and control. Camps accommodate places that would otherwise remain without space. No other type of space makes room for the legacies of this place—a fish camp where Indians harvested seasonal bounties of fish and shellfish centuries ago from Lake Cahuilla and the Gulf of California’s northern extent, a military camp where Marines trained to fight in North Africa before being assigned to the central Pacific, and an informal settlement where RV enthusiasts camp for free each winter next to homeless and survivalist year-round residents.

Slab City, riding edges of green fields and brown desert, makes room for people who seek freedom out of necessity and in the wake of power. This opportunity to craft identity—both individually and communally—comes amid the tangible struggles of those who rework a site founded on basic ideas of control, struggles that also served as training for combat and survival. Living at Slab City requires both resistance and adaptation: you are camping in the middle of the desert on a former military camp. You are two hundred miles from LA and one hundred and fifty miles from San Diego, in the margins of a county that has the second highest unemployment rate in the country. You are free to resist but you must adapt.

When the photographer Donovan Wylie and I visited in June, Slab City felt empty, but Saturday night’s open mic at The Range was well attended. Builder Bill, who started this outdoor performance venue named for target practice and frontier myths alike, was wrapping up “Poor Man’s Soul” to rowdy applause from a packed house. People live here. And their goal is not to reshape the world, but to replace it with a world more suited to identities of displacement and alienation. “We like it here, and we ain’t going back,” sings a Hank Williams look-alike, covering Mike Bright’s anthem to the Slabs. Nodding approval, some mouthing the words as they tap the simple beat, the audience sits on salvaged couches and wooden benches packed onto the mess hall’s concrete slab. It’s an eccentric group, and in the next set, a carload of college students joins resident Slabbers at the front to dance and sway.

Record heat, matching that of 1942, reminded us why the snowbirds retreat northward. Walking the camp’s perimeter, tracking over the tank ruts in its roads, slipping into the Coachella Canal, stepping across ribboned boundaries, we came to realize that these places mark latent struggles of life in exile. We were continually passing boundaries, many very clear but others less evident. They secured territories but were also active fronts for arguments, conversations, and self-expression, as well as sites to hold back an ever-intruding desert. As if wartime conflict—and its projections of power—had come back home to camp. Slab City asks us to reconsider the relation of power and freedom, here at an outpost where attempts to control nature answer to the nature of control. It is a struggle between desire and constraint. As Bright sang in his gravelly voice, Slab City is a “place for those who long to be free.”

These slabs host castaways who are also curators. In a sense, the military camp needs Slab City. Its occupants are not preservationists, but they do maintain the camp’s residual infrastructure and curate a kind of patriotism. Just as the arid desert helps archive this site’s many layers of occupation, the camp bears witness to the events and cyclic activities of struggles to inhabit its harsh setting. For decades, even centuries, this place has remained in limbo—state-owned public land unencumbered by the Bureau of Land Management’s policies, which, although relatively permissive, still define how, where, and how long you can camp. Every decade or so, California proposes its sale, but how do you sell the “last free place”? A place thousands of Canadian snowbirds and an unknown number of homeless, survivalists, anarchists, hitchhikers, and migrant workers call home. How do you displace the displaced? These are the contradictions of Slab City.

All of the elements of a city’s infrastructure are here: roads, sewers, reservoirs, canals, nearby power grids. But the place remains a camp, and Slab City might be called Camp Slab, a provisional community laced together by military infrastructure and the aspirations of self-settlement. The site inherits tangible systems of control, modes of demarcation, and methods of construction from Camp Dunlap, while it also interrogates more ephemeral approaches to freedom. Does Camp Slab now offer freedom of? Or freedom from? With its focus on how Slab City has been made, this book seeks to answer these questions, refracted through the camp’s boundaries, structures, and systems. Dispatches can free things, and the text and photographs are meant to convey the paradoxes of the last free place. Dispatches also connect people and far-flung places, and this collection seeks to bring a not-so-distant site nearer. Dispatches are urgent, and Slab City has never been more relevant. Spatially, politically, socially, individually. In terms of power as well as freedom. You may never travel there, so this is what we saw.

Multiple crossings carry you to Slab City. For Donovan and me, each trip brought a mix of adrenaline and anxiety. Turning off Highway 111 in Niland sends you east along Main Street, which becomes Beal Road. The railroad tracks that mark the first crossing are a reminder that most things—and most everybody else—are traveling between north and south. Heading east is illogical at best, dangerous at worst. If you choose to do so (because, fortunately, you do have a choice), you are reversing—historically at least—a natural course of westward expansion. Bearing east in Imperial County pushes you into towering sand dunes, into an active gunnery range, into the inhospitably carved though fancifully named Chocolate Mountains, or into Slab City. Between Interstate 10 to the north and Interstate 8 near the border with Mexico, only Route 78 makes the east-west crossing over sand that conceals tarmac and threatens a return to things as they were before its completion in the late 1950s. Any other routes, like Beal Road, move tentatively along trails and paths, tracking mountain passes, probing edges, along a frontier that remains.

Two rails meet here on the east side of Niland. Even though this crossing feels more like a boundary, it is really a nexus of commerce, agriculture, and westward expansion, because turn-of-the-century dreams for Niland exceeded the hard realities of industry and agriculture, and what was once “Imperial Junction” and “Old Beach” (named after a settler-industrialist family rather than the ancient shoreline) is an empty junction marking economic flows rather than a bustling commercial center. Rails for the Imperial spur drape south to Calexico’s border crossing, and the storied Southern Pacific line curves northwestward slinging boxcars from Yuma, El Paso, Houston, and New Orleans toward Los Angeles. When you are stopped for a train, reading the cars as they pass, the crossing arm’s flashing red lights might be a warning. Is this a checkpoint? Not like the inland border patrol checkpoint you will cross on Route 111 on your way back north to LA, but a more permanent line—an iron threshold in the sand.

Over the rails, the Niland Gas Turbine Plant rises on the left, its military gray stacks and chillers giving form to the infrastructure necessary to power the Valley’s irrigation system. Cooling is difficult in this climate, so Imperial Irrigation District trucks in demineralized water from El Centro thirty miles south. A little farther on the left, a solar farm—another energy project of the last decade—glints in the morning sun. One hundred thousand panels slant back westward, catching the same cloudless sun filling your car’s mirrors. Later in the afternoon, you will see cardboard boxes and shipping pallets for these solar panels cast in Slab City’s structures and blown against its fencerows and carpeting its trodden ground. On the right, shards of glass—littered tesserae—flicker in a waste collection field scraped, flattened, and now marked with signs No dumping. It is illegal. Here the road becomes rougher in cadence and texture, a sensation born along this extended crossing. It will not end until you have returned from Slab City.

Cross the East Highline Canal and you have arrived at the camp’s outer perimeter. The canal is narrow, lined with scrub, and without the bridge and its slight rise you would miss it. Among the first generation of Imperial Valley’s water carriers, its modest width and soft edges feel archaic, picturesque like the narrow boat canals of England and France. Unlined, meandering, and still below sea level, East Highline holds its position along the Valley’s easternmost fringe and its highest contours. As it signals an end to the manufactured landscape of the Salton Basin, it also marks a first line of defense for Camp Dunlap—an adopted moat and water source for opportunistic military planners, who like the residents of Slab City were resourceful in their adaptation of existing conditions to make defensible space. The desert requires and allows for that. Lines of offense to commandeer and irrigate a productive landscape become lines of defense for a camp and its wartime efforts.

On your right just across the canal is the first sentry box. Graffiti oversees your arrival with a flood of pleasantries, demands, and catechisms—Almost there, Welcome to Slab City the last free place, Holy Baptism, Lewd, Yolo guacamole, and Question everything freshly annotated with silver paint before we die. On the box’s eastern wall, multiple versions of the sentiment Caution! Reality ahead await your return to Niland. Farther in, hidden by palo verde and ocotillo brush and buried in the ground, is Slab City’s communal shower.

Turning back from the shower on this last trip, I saw a convoy of military jeeps and cargo trucks racing east past the sentry box toward the gunnery range. Bushes left and right tightly framed this reel of desert camouflage. Focused on the road ahead, neither drivers nor passengers acknowledged the checkpoint, and dust veiled the last few vehicles as if this event were a mirage.

Back on the road, berms to the north hide ruins of the camp’s water treatment plant, and at the same height a bank of green feathers the sky as it arcs along the road’s southern edge. County signs and faded orange barricades warn travelers of the roadway’s shoulder softened by water flowing from the hot springs that feed this spill of green—a wild marsh of flora in contrast to the Valley’s regimented trays of crops. A lone travel trailer presses against the treatment plant’s eastern berm under palo verde shade. We have seen its owner wandering in the field of gravel and sand that spreads out to the left, a foreground of litter where she gleans up to the middle ground of the ammunitions bunkers—aloof fortresses set back a thousand feet from the road, ringed with trucks and dogs and topped with flags, against the backdrop of the 40-foot escarpment of the ancient coastline. Across on the right are the hot springs flanked by two concrete water tanks. Floating in the algae-laden boils of these sulfurous baths, your eastern horizon is Salvation Mountain, marking the rise of East Mesa and Slab City’s high ground.

Midway between the outer and inner perimeters of Camp Dunlap, high-voltage transmission lines soar more than a hundred feet as a grand but obscure portal coinciding with two further thresholds, one geologic and marked and the other political and unmarked, but no less significant. Here the road breaches sea level just as it crosses into Section 36, the one-mile-square piece of state-owned land that enticed Camp Dunlap’s military strategists seeking tactical and economic advantages—territory that presented desert theaters for wartime training but also land that could be requisitioned at a low price. A small green sign unceremoniously announces SEA LEVEL, and powerline towers flank the road as monuments to infrastructure and to broader geopolitical networks of energy that have contoured this landscape. Evident or not, this is the entrance to public land and a return to land above the sea’s reach, at least for now. Far above, the powerlines send gossamer shadows to the ground, as they direct power somewhere else. Camp Dunlap tapped into this network for its electrical power—historic photographs depict tangles of lower-voltage lines. Now, Slab City is off the present-day grid, and this 287-kilovolt backbone of the Imperial Irrigation District courses overhead with electricity to lift, push, and spray water across fields of produce, to light dens and dining rooms, to fuel compressors and condition air that cools houses, and to feed pumps that water lawns.

God never fails. Salvation Mountain’s emblematic presence makes this sign next to the road superfluous, but we empathize with the lesser structure’s more modest graphic, its spartan campiness to the mountain’s monumental kitsch. And as desert sands shift and erosion continues, the mountain’s earthbound paint and straw might not have the longevity of the sign’s pressure-treated wooden frame. An arroyo softens the incline onto the mesa where Slab City’s grid rests. Now at 50 feet above sea level, you arrive at the second sentry box and Camp Dunlap’s pentagonal boundary, invisible except for clumps of concrete and metal fencepost stumps. Farther along, Slab City’s information kiosk and community bulletin board flank the road. You may no longer know where you are, but you are there.

Excerpted from Slab City: Dispatches from the Last Free Place by Charlie Hailey and Donovan Wylie, 2018. Copyright, The MIT Press, 2018.

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