Ausum Construction. That’s what the van in which we are riding says. In the spirit of the moment, we have hopped a ride to The Range. No backseats mean our butts are on the floor of the van, and we’re so packed into the vehicle that we can’t see the people next to us, let alone where we’re going. One bearded twentysomething guy introduces himself as Moth, but I’m not sure I hear him right. When I ask him to repeat, he looks at me like I’ve just arrested his grandmother. When we arrive at The Range a few minutes later, twinkly lights allow me to appreciate Moth’s style: plaid pajama pants, a white collarless hemp shirt, a red vest from Central or South America, a braided hemp and bead necklace, and a navy and red patterned scarf over his long hair, pirate-like. I later learn that Moth is one of the few year-round residents at the Slabs.
Marc and I wander toward The Range’s outdoor stage, lit with white lights and a row of hanging bulbs shaded with paint buckets. “Zendeja’s Hardware, Calipatria, Calif.,” the buckets say. Every Saturday at sunset The Range has free live entertainment. The man responsible for The Range, Builder Bill, constructed the stage from one of the slabs, various scraps, and two retired buses. He powers it with diesel generators and car engines, and has decorated it with hubcaps and those twinkly Christmas lights.
Marc and I pass a metal barrel circled by people bundled in sweatshirts and wind-breakers. Periodically, someone feeds a pallet to the barrel, flames climb, and the circle breaks. Other people huddle in rows of seats extracted from old cars, buses, churches, theaters. Three Slab City locals play Beatles songs onstage, where a barefooted drunken woman in a black cocktail dress dances to the music. I look around at the mix of snowbirds and locals. There’s hardly a uniform, except maybe for sun-parched skin and lips.
Pale me stands out like a pot of coffee at a Mormon wedding.
A very tan woman with several missing teeth sways toward us and introduces herself as Carla. “Are you hitchhikers?” Carla asks. When we tell her we are with the hitchhikers, she insists we move our travel trailer closer into Slab City. “It’s much nicer here than out there. There’s nothing there,” she slurs. “There’s a spot right near my place over there. See?” She points into the darkness, but then grabs a leathery-looking man hovering nearby. “This is my husband. We been married six months. We got married right here at The Range.” Like Moth, Carla and her man, Terry, live in Slab City year-round. Some days in the summer get to 140, they tell us. Terry has been a permanent resident of the Slabs for years, while Carla has only been permanent for a year or two. I insist on snapping a photo of the heat-stoked newlyweds. They kiss for the photo, and then stagger toward Marc, who dodges Terry’s drunken pucker while Carla watches with sleepy blue eyes and wide, bliss-snaggled smile.
Over the next hour or so, Builder Bill himself and several more residents introduce themselves. Each invites us to visit them at their slab, and each offers advice on where to go and what to see in Slab City. I feel like a belle of the ball, but after a day full of driving and an evening full of Milwaukee’s Best, we’re ready to return to the hitchhiker camp. If only we knew how to get there in the dark.