Design for Life: Slab City: Where Freedom’s Still Free

Slab City, a California squatter community, thrives without formal government or budget.

  • Made of reused materials, colorful "Salvation Mountain" has broadcast biblical messages for more than 20 years.
    Photography By Michael Rauner
  • Salvation Mountain's interior is adorned with an adobe and concrete "Salvation Tree."
    Photography By Michael Rauner
  • An abandoned bus was once someone's home.
    Photography By Vanda Nagy
  • A handpainted welcome sign marks Slab City limits.
    Photography By Vanda Nagy
  • A library "internut" station demonstrates the quirky humor and irreverent attitude evident throughout Slab City.
    Photography By Vanda Nagy
  • Slab City's four libraries offer books on the honor system.
    Photography By Vanda Nagy

People warned me not to go to Slab City. “Lots of drug activity there,” one said. “More than a few folks who haven’t checked in with their parole officers,” another said. But I’d been intrigued by Slab City for years. I had to see for myself.

Slab City is a squatter community on the site of a former military base in the Southern California desert, east of the Salton Sea near the little town of Niland. Aging asphalt roads and concrete slabs are the only reminders of its past. For decades, as many as 3,000 RVers have wintered at Slab City, and 100 or so tough out the searing summer temperatures. If you’ve seen the movie Into the Wild, you’ve seen Slab City.

What fascinates me about Slab City isn’t just the free rent. It’s that a strange assortment of people have come together in a harsh environment, with no utilities and virtually no structure, and implemented a wide array of social institutions without benefit of government or budget. Despite an obvious setup for law-breaking behavior and a population in constant flux, most Slabbers carry on convivial traditions year after year. They have their own rules (“be kind, but stay out of other people’s business”), services (waste disposal and water supply for a small fee), businesses (Solar Works for affordable photovoltaics), salvage-based artwork and social clubs. The population encompasses a wide range of financial circumstances, ages, styles of dress and bathing behaviors (though there are few school-age children).

The Slab City lowdown

During my first foray into Slab City, I happened upon about 20 members of Loners on Wheels (LoWs), a national solo RVers organization, enjoying happy hour. As they lounged around tables in their tarp-shaded courtyard, they invited me to join them. Their only requirement was that I be happy.

I looked around at my hosts and almost laughed. Parolees? Drug runners? Hardly. They were retired adults from all over the country, mostly RV fulltimers, who love the desert air and life without mortgage payments. As one white-haired LoW woman says, “This is one of the few places in America where freedom is still free.”

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