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The Slabs

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

The desert of Southern California offers more places for a primitive campout than an RVer can discover in a lifetime of winters. I say winters, as even the lizards and jackrabbits disappear from this desert in the summer, when the heat is brutal. Except for the water-rich farmland of the Imperial Valley, this area is arid and empty – and mostly uninhabitable except by the well-prepared RVer.


Along with the right equipment, RVers who come to this area typically have other qualities that attract them to these parts. For those with a pioneering spirit, yet who still enjoy having people around of a similar mind,  there is a special place for them in this desert. For the adventurous soul, who thrives on self-support, this is his kind of place. It’s notorious, even infamous to some. It’s called Slab City – or “the slabs” – and it’s located in the Colorado Desert in southeastern California.


Aside from the challenges presented by Mother Nature, the slabs are in a wide-open area, even inviting, with no fences that normally keep animals in or out. Privacy you’ve got. And parking is wherever you choose; it’s yours until you leave.


Snowbirds come here in the winter by the hundreds. Some stay a couple weeks, but most of them stay all winter. It doesn’t matter; nobody is keeping track or collecting rent. Days are warm and balmy. Nights reveal more stars than most people have ever seen at one time.


This huge desert, which cuts a wide swath from the Mexican border to Las Vegas, Nevada, was once the country’s largest military installation. It had 10 sprawling tent cities, provisional homes for a million-man army. It was here in 1942 that General George S. Patton trained his troops in desert warfare, preparing for the North African Campaign of World War II.


The Army was not alone in this desert, part of which is the great Mojave. The Marines were here, too, but with a more permanent installation – at least it had wooden buildings on concrete slabs. Just east of the Salton Sea, near the roadside town of Niland, it was called Camp Dunlap.


In 1946, the Marines left, and the buildings were torn down, leaving their slab foundations, some as long as football fields. The lumber from that dismantling project remains today as a church in Niland, three houses and an uncounted number of chicken coops around town.


The camp’s 640 acres were given to the state of California. But like the other government entities that are the landlords of the desert, they own it because nobody else will.


Laid out among the cement slabs, delineating perfect rectangles, are 70-year-old roads of desert-preserved asphalt. Remaining structures include two cement water tanks – landmarks, as there is nothing taller. Near what was the camp’s main gate are two bunker-like guardhouses with tapered slits just wide enough to swing a rifle barrel.


When the Marines pulled out, they left this leveled piece of real estate supposedly to the coyotes, the lizards, the greasewood and the creosote bushes. Back then, we who stayed here were known as the modern-day gypsies in our wheeled, high-tech homes.


With access roads and acres of hard-packed sand, along with concrete slabs great for patios, dance floors, shuffleboard courts and campsites – it was a neighborhood begging to be discovered. And in the late 1960s, exploring snowbirds did just that.


Whether in a dilapidated trailer or a half-million dollar motorhome, they discovered together the raw desert to be a great equalizer. They were united in a quest. What they found here, they shared equally. What they needed for survival, they brought in with them, and often shared that, too.


They also brought dune buggies and AC generators, macramé kits and cribbage boards. They made fire pits from old truck wheels, raised CB antennas to communicate with each other and got post-office boxes in town. They were here to stay, at least for the winter.


Pretty soon entrepreneurs began “at-home” deliveries here of Imperial Valley’s The Brawley News, picking up garbage and trucking in freshwater in 50-gallon tanks. A group put up a prefab building, named it the Christian Center and began Sunday worship services.


And so it began for the slabs – more a happenstance than a place. Forty-plus years later, this annual gathering of maverick snowbirds continues. And not much has changed. One of the entry guardhouses is now painted white. On it, resident artist Leonard Knight has hand lettered, “Slab City. Welcome.” It is not what a local Rotary Club or town council would put up, but those orders of society don’t exist here. And therein lies the beauty of this place.


No authority figure has or likely ever will exist here. If there were one, or even the perception of one, the slabs would lose its appeal. Structured living in a crowded RV park, offering ice-cream socials and bingo tournaments, would not suit this crowd.


They seek not just rent-free living, but a place where they can live close to the land without “big brother” hovering about. Aside from a willingness to accept a frugal existence – even a desire to – they treasure life on their terms. This is a self-reliant bunch that truly loves the self-sufficiency that their RVs offer. In fact, they thrive on it, ingeniously refining the level of comfort and convenience their equipment provides. They have freedom to tinker and the space to do it.


The society of snowbirds comes from all over the United States and Canada. They have no particular agenda other than to enjoy themselves and the desert. They watch out for each other and join as groups for day trips down to Mexico or shopping in Indio or El Centro. Potluck dinners happen a couple times a week in the area where the singles are camped, a group called the Loners on Wheels.


Along with the snowbirds, who populate about 700 RVs here during the winter, there are those, even families, who now live here year-round. They have their own piece of the slabs, where they survive in temporary shacks, old busses, tents, under parachute canopies or whatever offers shade. How they make it through the summer, I’ll never understand.


These 50 or so
“slabbers” appear to live below the poverty line. Some have jobs, but most are unemployed, living here perhaps for very private reasons. Warm, rent-free winters are compelling. Why do they stay? “I’ve got nowhere else to go,” is the answer I usually get.


With so many
interests in common, the snowbirds get along well. Then again, if a person does not like his neighbors, he can retract his awning and move to another spot.


Every weeknight at 6, a
20-year resident named Linda gets on the CB with announcements. It’s a cross between a town meeting and the reading of the classified section of a newspaper. Most people listen. If a person has something to say, sell or complain about, he gets a chance. If a dog is lost, for example, this is how it’s found. That happened to me one time.


Sociologists would probably call the slabs a microcosm of American society with some bizarre twists to it. And they would be dead on. But for many snowbirds, it’s a winter haven.


Slab City, www.slabcity.org.

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