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. Most of the community’s 150 or so perma-residents, those living here year-round, subsist on government checks and have been driven to The Slabs by poverty. Some are looking for freedom from the American government; others drift in with little more than a stretch-marked thumb and a dusty backpack.
“We remember those hitchhikers who have gone before us and now passed onto higher ground. Add a stone with your name and another’s,” black hand-painted letters insist.
The Hitchhiker Tribute Rock Cairn crouches among tufts of creosote bushes whose smell spices the air around Slab City. The sole sign of the Colorado River for which this desert is named, the cement-lined Coachella Canal, skulks along the community’s eastern limits carrying pallid green water from the north to the Desert Empire’s date plantations, Palm Springs resorts, and Coachella Valley boomtowns.
The only booming at The Slabs comes from the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunning Range, where the U.S. Navy and Marines still practice bombing and gunning exercises. Sometimes in the darkness of night, a row of flares dropped from an airplane might look like a spaceship, an invasion from Mars. And when they bomb, the ground shakes.
The hitchhiker memorial stone mound nests in a forgotten slab at the intersection of two knee-high foundation walls. In the immediate foreground, a forty foot-tall water tank hunches against the shoulder of an equally tall ridgeline, the only one of three tanks still standing among a circle of concrete footprints. Dry for more than 50 years, it now houses whichever Slab City itinerant adopts its graffitied husk.
This parched, graffittied sentinel of concrete watches over the little ceremony attended by the half-dozen hitchhikers who have traveled from, literally, all over the globe.
There’s Bernd, who’s visiting from Tasmania; Ben, who’s just recently finished his third season working at the McMurdo Station research center in Antarctica; Frank, who’s from Maryland but hitchhiked to Slab City from Southern Mexico; Rex, from Arizona; Marty, from Buffalo; and Morgan Strüb, the organizer of the gathering, who came from Phoenix. Each has combed the area around The Tanks for a stone, just the right stone to stack onto the hitchhiker cairn. And now they are passing around a black marker with which to write tributes on their stones.
“Add a stone,” Strüb encourages.
But I hesitate. After all, I have done no more hitchhiking than thumbing a ride upriver to retrieve my truck after a kayak run.