Freedom, free, free spirit. You hear these words dropped about Slab City as often as Chocolate Mountain bombs. And when they drop, they are meant to shake the ground. But sometimes, like a discarded plastic bag, they blow into a creosote bush and flap free free free free free at whim of the wind.
Just about everyone who comes to Slab City comes seeking freedom from something – winter, property taxes, loneliness, the law, sobriety, the status quo. Some come with high-tech RVs: “How do you spot a snowbird?” goes a saying in Slab City. “The women look like they can’t get pregnant, and the men look like they are pregnant.” Some come with higher purpose: Northeast 650 yards along the ridgeline shouldering The Tanks, along the same crumpled blanket of desert, Salvation Mountain rises. “God Is Love” proclaims the 50-foot-high, 150-foot-wide magnum opus erected by 80-year-old Leonard Knight. For 27 years he has been sculpting a patchwork of paint, adobe, and scraps to promote his gospel message. As many as 100 tourists a day visit Salvation Mountain.
But whether you are rubber tramp (RV nomad), leather tramp (hitchhiker), or tourist pilgrim, a sense of never-ending vacation permeates the community around the New Year, when the population swells. Folks fish the canal or hit the 18-hole Gopher Flats Golf Course. Here, the greens are sand-brown rather than grass-hued, and course construction is always in progress. “Morning Coffee, Meals, Mail, Happy Hour, Library, Movies,” says the wall of the mobile home housing the Oasis Club, one of several social clubs in Slab City proper, which begins over the ridgeline from The Tanks. On Saturday nights, people gather at The Range for live music.
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In the spirit of the Hitchhiker Happening, my husband and I hop a ride to The Range. The van in which we ride reads Ausum Construction. There are no back seats, so our butts are on the floor. Nine humans and a dog are so packed into the vehicle that we can’t see the people next to us, let alone where we’re going, or how to get back. One 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 finally allow me to survey Moth’s attire: plaid pajama pants, a white hemp shirt with no collar, a red vest from Central America, a braided hemp and bead necklace, and a navy and red patterned scarf over his long hair, pirate-style. I later learn that Moth is one of the few permanent residents at the Slabs. He might be a hitchhiker, but he would be there no matter who or what was gathering.
With his close-cropped blonde hair, blue eyes, and Scandinavian complexion, my husband Marc looks like a ski instructor who has lost his way to the slopes. His puffy down jacket and hiking shoes seem to confirm this. We 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 serves up 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 strands of Christmas lights. To get to the stage, we first pass a metal drum burning old pallets, around which people huddle, warming themselves. Others sit in rows of seats extracted from old cars, buses, and theaters. Three Slab City locals wearing jeans, hooded sweatshirts, and ballcaps 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 year-rounders and folks who migrate here only for winter. There’s hardly a uniform, yet Marc and I stand out like pots of coffee at a Mormon wedding.
A very tan woman with several missing teeth sways toward us and introduces herself as Darla. “Are you hitchhikers?” Darla 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.” Doris and her man, Jerry, tell us that they live in Slab City year-round. Some days in the summer get to 140. Jerry has been a permanent resident of the Slabs for years, while Darla has only been around 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 Jerry’s drunken pucker while Darla watches with sleepy blue eyes and wide, bliss-snaggled smile.