“Some guy t-told me he could make a stove with a p-pair of scissors and a Nesquik can. You ever t-tried that?” a male voice stutters from outside the campfire circle. Flames crackle warmly. It is not yet dark.
“No, but we just fixed my tent zipper with a bar of soap,” says a 6’8” young man with light-brown shoulder-length hair, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved plaid shirt. As he steps into the circle, he explains that desert dust had clogged the zipper teeth, and the soap acted as a lubricant for the pull.
“If anyone has any ideas about creating a hitchhiking monument around here, let’s talk about them,” says a slightly older man in a green Army surplus coat He also stands well over six feet tall.
They are among the dozen men, one woman, and a dog congregated around this campfire in California’s Mojave Desert. Gathered for the 2008 New Year’s Hitchhiker Happening, they sit in foldable chairs or on van benches divorced from their vans, the worn pleather upholstery exposing fragile foam stuffing beneath.
Three tents, a bivouac sack, and a tarp-covered bedroll sprawl immediately outside the campfire circle, while a camper van parks on the fire’s western flank. Beyond that lies desert, desert, desert. And Slab City, aka The Slabs.
An off-the-grid community of squatters, snowbirds, and nomads who’ve pitched camps across 640 acres of open desert, Slab City takes its name from the concrete slabs and pylons that remain from Marine Barracks Camp Dunlap, an abandoned World War II training facility in the Mojave.
If you were to thumb your way to The Slabs, you might hitch east from Los Angeles past Palm Springs into the Mojave Desert. You might then thumb a ride south from the Coachella TA Travel Center truckstop off Interstate 10. The fetid smell of the Salton Sea would seep into your nostrils as your ride drifted toward Niland. If dilapidation were a state, Niland would be its capital. The Slabs, state-owned and state-ignored, hunker across the railroad tracks from Niland, attracting as many as 3,000 people each winter. Just about everyone who comes to Slab City comes to get away from something: winter, property taxes, loneliness, the law, sobriety, the status quo. Some come with high-tech RVs, while others drift in with little more than a sore thumb and a tattered backpack.