“Slab City is a high-tech hobo camp, a collection of story-tellers and interesting people,” says 28-year-old New Brunswick native Zachary. Zach hopped freight trains from British Columbia to get to Niland, then hitched the 3 miles to The Slabs. He feels at home here.
“Riding freight trains, you meet a lot of war veterans. There are a lot here, too.”
Slab City is actually the abandoned Camp Dunlap Marine Training Facility, formerly located 3 miles east of Niland, California. This 640-acre compound, located approximately 120 feet below sea level in the desert near Salton Sea, began operating October 15, 1942 as a training ground for US troops during World War II. On March 5, 1946, it’s operations ceased, and the buildings were removed and sold. By 1961, the base had been completely dismantled and abandoned. Only the cement foundations of buildings remained, thus providing a convenient name for the area, Slab City. Soon afterwards, RV campers began to occupy the area during winter months to take advantage of the rent-free parking. Attendance steadily grew over the years, and now it is estimated that over a thousand visitors return to ‘The Slabs’ each winter to enjoy the relatively mild climate and escape the harsh conditions found elsewhere. (from slabcity.org)
“(Slab City) is not an easy place to live. You have to have water, maintain whatever systems (sanitation, power, etc.). This is not a good place for a lazy person,” says Zach, who lived at The Slabs all summer. After an autumn in Canada, he’s back in this high-tech hobo camp for the New Year’s Hitchhiker Happening (see Outskirts of the outskirts).
“I really like people, but not in groups necessarily. When you are in a group, there is an adopted behavior. That’s a given,” he says. “But when you’re hitching, you put yourself out there. The motorist does also. So you’re stripped down (to your essence).”
When he hitches, Zach is conscious of how he looks to motorists, but he doesn’t think it matters as much as people think. “I don’t wear camo,” he says. “Or anything with blood stains,” he adds with a sideways grin. “And if you look like you smell bad, that’s probably a bad thing.”
With his red hair, Irish complexion, dark-lapel jacket, and black fedora-style hat, Zach looks like an Oliver Twist character, or an artist, which he is. He created, as his summer home, the water tank loft and white tire structure that serve as backdrop for the New Year’s hitchhiker camp.
I myself am no hitchhiking expert, but I’ll venture to say that Zach’s looks and ingenuity allow him to defy the law of averages in hitchhiking. If, like some hitchhikers, you were to count passing cars and assign numeric values to them according to the probability that their drivers would give you a ride, you might assign a woman with a child in a minivan -1 or -2. She’s in offspring-protection mode. The chance of introducing threat of a stranger into the nest that is her minivan is slim. A couple construction workers in a big truck pulling out of a WalMart parking lot, on the other hand, are probably not threatened by a strange hitchhiker. They would merit a +2; a Rainbow Gathering bus, +5; a police car, -5.
Zach, the odds-buster, says he has been picked up twice by moms with children in minivans. At night, even.
“I try to be whoever the person wants me to be,” he says, allowing that statement to percolate: “Hitchhiking could be good training for acting.”