Slab City & Quartzsite
Slab City is located in southeastern California, not far from the Arizona border. Back in the day it served as a military installation and as a result there are the so-called "slabs" (planes of concrete) jutting from the sand, as well as a few concrete tanks and bunkers still standing. Via what I suspect is some substantial looking-in-the-other-direction by the government, Slab City is the "last free place" in America, where you can literally drive in, choose a spot, and camp there indefinitely, without paying anybody.
I'd known about Slab City for awhile. I knew what it was conceptually, had seen photographs and read about it, and like everybody else, seen it depicted in "Into the Wild". But none of this information really prepared me for just how colorful and outrageous it would be.
Imagine hundreds of people, young and old, American and foreign, from all walks of life, camped in a desert flatland. Hippies, nomads, veterans, students, drunks, bums, hitchhikers, snowbirds, businessmen... anyone and everyone (although it seemed to be a predominantly male population).
There is no running water, no electricity, and no sewer system; there are no real roads; and there is nobody in charge. Residents live in everything from super-expensive Class-A motorhomes to ancient-looking schoolbuses. Every manner of car, van, and RV living can be found in Slab City, as well as some shack and tent dwellings.
Some people come just for a visit, like me; others spend the winter; and the real toughguys sweat it out all year long, even in the 125+ degree temperatures of summer. There are 3 social clubs. I attended the Oasis Club. There was a very good feeling at the Oasis Club, a real sense of community and friendship. On Saturday nights, there is a lively "open mic" type event at a makeshift concert stage called The Range. People go up and do acoustic sets while the audience mingles and parties down below.
By walking around Slab City, you can see many innovative "living off the grid" practices. Everybody has solar panels (a solar panel dealer/installer is a permanent resident). There are rainwater collectors, solar ovens, and complex arrangements of roofs and tarps to ward off the heat. The residents who have moved into the old military bunkers and containers have customized them into livable homes.
Of course, there are downsides to a place like this. The "anarchy" atmosphere means that people can dump trash wherever they want. Some areas in Slab City are veritable junk yards (composed largely of RVs reduced to their elements). While skeletal RVs can be kind of charming to look at, the endless piles of household trash are not. Almost every bush or tree has a bedding of waste around its roots. It seemed like the culprits were the residents as well as outsiders who come in to the Slabs solely to dump. I don't know which case is more reprehensible: outsiders driving in to dispose of garbage, or those who call this place home and still trash it.
What was all the more confounding to me was that just 3 miles up the road, in Niland, was a recycling plant where they PAY YOU for your scrap!!! I stopped by on my way out of Slab City and made a few bucks off my cans, bottles, and plastics. If somebody in Slab City organized a system of collecting recyclables they might be able to make a pretty penny AND clean up the place. Or who knows, maybe I'm being idealistic; maybe it's been attempted already, to no end.
ABOVE: The famous Slab City "shower". This concrete pit receives the run-off from a hot spring about 100 yards away. By the time the water reaches this pit it has cooled down. So you can climb down and wash up. Obviously the cleanliness of the water is questionable but its better than nothing (as well as quite refreshing on a hot day).
ABOVE: The Slab City library. I spent some afternoons reading and browsing in this lovely little open-air library.
Another famous Slab City landmark is Salvation Mountain. It's not really a mountain, more of a rock formation, that has been painted beautifully top to bottom in bright colors. The creator, Leonard, lives there year-round and is present to give tours. There was a regular stream of tourists coming into Slab City just to see Salvation Mountain.
The partying never stops in Slab City. Because really, unless you have a private past-time, there's nothing to do in Slab City but visit people, get drunk, and eat food. The oppressive heat for most of the day makes a cold beer pretty desirable as well - even if its 10 AM. You can make friends very quickly in Slab City and everybody is more than happy to share food, drinks, and stories.
Unfortunately, I need a little bit more than just partying to feel content. As the days passed, I grew increasingly itchy to leave. The ice in my cooler melted. I ran out of food and electricity. My porta-potty grew precipitously full. A swarm of black flies invaded my van and many duels occured between me, armed with a rolled-up magazine, and these desert flies. Justin 7, flies 0.
So, after attending The Range on Saturday night, I left the next morning. I'm sure if I'd stayed longer I'd have met many more cool people and developed a deeper understanding of its community. Maybe I'll go back one day... maybe not. If you want to see a truly other-wordly place and meet some colorful personalities, visit Slab City. Don't forget to pick up a shitload of beer on your way in, though!
OK, now for the other RV heartland in this corner of the country: Quartzsite, AZ. A perfect storm of conditions have made Quartzsite into an RV mecca: the presence of several enormous flea markets and swap meets, as well as a thriving rock trade; easy access to free BLM camping; being located halfway (more or less) between LA and Phoenix.
Quartzsite is apparently at its peak in January and February. I arrived at the tail-end of this and parked in the Hi Jolly BLM area (BELOW: a van among buses).
There's not much to do in Quartzsite other than shop. By the time I arrived, most of the flea markets seemed thoroughly picked over. But I did buy find a few treasures (aka junk). The BLM land was congested with buses, but it was clean and peaceful, and only 3 miles from town.
The best thing about Quartzsite was this rockin' used bookstore on the edge of town, Readers' Oasis Books, owned and managed by the famous Naked Paul (BELOW).
This bookstore had everything a used bookstore should have (including a fluffy cat sleeping on the discount paperbacks as seen BELOW). Big stacks of books, rare editions, collectibles, vintage paperbacks, books on tapes, records, and magazines. There was always the feeling that if I dug a little deeper into a stack I could find a real gem... I traded some books in and got a fair amount of credit for them. I talked to Naked Paul and it turned out he used to do a naked blues set in Providence in the 1970s.
BELOW: an abundance of stuff at one of Quartzsite's junk/antique dealers.
Thanks for reading!