I find out about the Hitchhiker Happening easily enough. I google “hitchhiking,” and digihitch.com flashes No. 2 on the list of 1,570,000 results. “Join us for our 5th Annual Hitchhiker Happening in Slab City at New Year’s,” the homepage announces. “190 miles southeast of Los Angeles and 129 feet below sea level is the off-the-grid community of Slab City, California. Located four miles east of Niland on an abandoned Navy base, Slab City isn’t actually a city at all. It’s more a loose community of squatters, snowbirds and nomads who’ve pitched camps across 640 acres of open desert.”
Sounds like an irresistible invitation to the final frontier. Not Star Trek’s “space, the final frontier,” but rather a place where folks who don’t hold with the norm go to live without being hassled by the norm-keepers.
“Yeah, people 18 to 70, dogs, kids, everyone’s welcome,” Morgan ‘Salman’ Strub tells me when I phone him to ask whether it would be lame to show up to a Hitchhiker Happening not only never having hitchhiked, but also towing a travel trailer. When he tells me everyone’s welcome, I believe him. Just talking to Strub on the phone makes me feel welcome, like I’ve been handed a warm cup of noodle soup. Strub’s deep, calm voice reminds me of my favorite counselor at Camp O-Ongo, my Uncle George, and Yogi Bear, all rolled into one.
It does not surprise me that he is the first person who greets us as we pull into the camp in the pitch dark on December 29, our headlights illuminating a lone blue portable toilet, around which all Happening life will center. Nor does it surprise me that Strub stands 6 foot 5 inches tall. I cannot see his short-cropped hair, his movie hero chin, or his round-rimmed glasses in the dark. My husband Marc and I won’t see Strub’s face till later that night at The Range, a surreal performance space in Slab City proper. Until then, in this camp on the outskirts of the outskirts, we’re left with just a silhouette, that Uncle O-Ongo Bear voice, and a handshake.
“Did you feel the size of his hands?” Marc says. “Man, no wonder he hitchhikes. His thumbs must be huge.”