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Life among the slabs

John Steinbeck would have loved Slab City.

It wasn’t on his route. It’s rarely on anybody’s. But on an abandoned military base in the desert of southeastern California, there are some highly colorful characters among the snowbirds and squatters who call it home, for now.

Dubbed “the last free place,” Slab City is a collection of loners, losers and lovers, of the freewheeling and the freeloading, of people on the run or simply on vacation, of vagabonds and vagrants, of the rebellious and the rebounding, of dreamers and drifters.

It is full of tumbleweeds — and many of them are human.

Steinbeck — between his compassion for the destitute, his distaste for bureaucracy, his sense of social justice and his love of a good story — would have found the barren desert fertile ground.

Here’s how another author, Jon Krakauer, described it in his book, “Into the Wild:”

“The Slabs functions as the seasonal capital of a teeming itinerant society — a tolerant, rubber-tired culture comprising the retired, the exiled, the destitute, the perpetually unemployed. Its constituents are men and women and children of all ages, folks on the dodge from collection agencies, relationships gone sour, the law or the IRS, Ohio winters, the middle-class grind.”

There was no teeming when Ace and I rolled through on Thanksgiving; likely, most residents were inside enjoying the same big dinners people in real houses have. We spent most of our time — after driving around the community of RV’s, campers, trailers and live-in school buses — trying to coax what appeared to be an abandoned Chihuahua, laying on a huge pile of help-yourself clothing, into taking a treat.

Slab City is named after the concrete slabs and pylons that remain from the days that the land was part of a World War II Marine barracks, called Camp Dunlap. After it shut down, some servicemen remained, and others — seeing it as a place where one could both be free and live free — arrived.

It’s estimated that several thousand campers use the site during the winter months. Several hundred people live there year-round — tolerating the brutally hot summers in exchange for free rent. There is no charge to park a rolling home in Slab City. There’s also no electricity, no running water and no toilets, portable or otherwise.

To Imperial County, and the state of California, it has been a thorn in the side, but at the same time — because of the tourists it and neighboring Salvation Mountain attract — it contributes to the economy of surrounding towns.

At one point, the state considered turning it into an official state camping area, and charging fees, but because it includes Salvation Mountain — one man’s unauthorized monument to God — that was seen as too much of a link between church and state.

Instead, the county and state seem to be taking a hands-off approach — not kicking anybody off the land, but not going so far as to supply even portable toilets.

Meanwhile, Slab City has managed to cement itself into American culture.

In addition to appearing in the book and subsequent movie, “Into the Wild,” Slab City served as a setting for one of Sue Grafton’s mystery novels, “G is for Gumshoe.” The Shooter Jennings music video, ”Fourth of July,” was partially shot there, and British photographer Leon Diaper focused on it for his documentary series, ”The Last Free Place.”

At the same time, it has evolved into a community,  with its own social organizations — people that get together in real life, as opposed to on the internet. It’s not all peace and harmony. Conflicts arise between the year-round permanent residents, and those just passing through, especially those passer-throughers prone to leaving their garbage behind.

Some think it needs more rules; others say that’s the sort of thing — like taxes and rent and police — that they came there to get away from.

It’s a fascinating little social experiment — every bit as unplanned as the formation of the nearby Salton Sea, and every bit as impromptu as Salvation Mountain, which we’ll tell you about tomorrow.

Comments

Comment from debbie
Time November 28, 2010 at 11:17 am

John, it’s interesting that since reading your blog , I’ve became intrigued with John Steinbeck
I loved ( the movie ) The Grapes of Wrath, but I’ve never really read any of Steinbeck literary work.
I too have had a wanderlust spirit and always wondered how it would feel to just take off on the open road to parts unknown and no agenda.. Perhaps that is why I have enjoyed reading your travels with Ace so much. What’s interesting is when I was reading Wikipedia’s page about Steinbeck, I noticed that Steinbeck was born on Feb.27 which would make him a Pisces ( which is my astrological sign as well).
Now, I don’t know if you ‘follow the stars’ ( and planets) or not, but Pisces people are very much those who have much compassion for the ‘downtrodden’.
We are dreamers ( day and night ), animal lovers, wishful thinkers, and secretly believe that magic truly exists over the rainbow

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