Go Live Off The Grid With The Residents Of Slab City

Categories: Life Stories

Set beside the Imperial Valley in southeastern California, the Salton Sea area was supposed to be Hollywood’s answer to the Riviera back in the 50s. But its developers failed to anticipate the raw sewage that would run up the New River from Mexico and make survival impossible for many aquatic species. Rotting fish guts and toxic debris soon littered the shoreline. Construction projects were abandoned, and yet another impotent vision of luxury tourism was left flaccid. Thanks again, trash!

Today the entire Imperial Valley is an apocalyptic dustbowl in the center of the California badlands. We set out to explore this fetid bouillabaisse. What we found were remnants of the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, a half-million-acre plot that was once the practice site for various governmental bombardiers. It is the place of business for the residents of a nearby compound known as Slab City—a mostly insane coterie of fun-hunting drifters, vets, addicts, artists, and crazies who subsist on sautéed snake, lukewarm Tecate, money earned from scrapping bombshell fragments, and what’s left of their wits. It’s pretty much all that remains of the Wild West.

Slab City, an ex-military base-cum-squatter haven in Southern California. With the help of two booze-guzzling sherpas, we traverse the Colorado desert to understand why so many call this wasteland home.

Go east from Los Angeles, and drive into the desert. Go past the Salton Sea, a derelict resort area that no one uses anymore, and look for a decommissioned Marine base known as Slab City. Many people call this section of the desert the "Last Free Place in America." How well would you fit in here? 

Deep In The Desert

People in Slab City give themselves addresses, because nothing is marked out here. Of course, the address doesn't matter much. Mail doesn't run out here, either. Nothing does. 

Off The Grid

There is no electricity in Slab City, except for people who bring their own generators. There is no sewer service, no water system. No trash trucks come to haul garbage away, and if you look up you won't see any power and telephone lines.  

Slab City gets its name from the numerous concrete foundations that dot the land, the only reminder of Camp Dunlap, a World War II Marine artillery training base. The state is somewhat of an absentee landlord on this 600-acre patch. Population estimates are anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand people.

A nearby RV has a generator. There's no running water, no power lines, no sewage service and no trash pickup, which can give the place a Mad Max post-apocalyptic feel. Rusted bicycles and box springs peek through small mountains of twisted metal. 

Past Life

This used to be Camp Dunlap, and it was once used to train Marine artillery forces during World War II. 

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