Walking into the Slab City Christian Center for the second time in less than a week, I find its caretaker, Smiley, in roughly the same circumstances, laughing boisterously through his salt-and-pepper beard and mooching beers from tourists. Three young Navy guys stationed in Coronado smoke cigarettes and soak it all in. I hover for a minute, listening to Smiley ramble about the old days when he could still drink jungle juice and outrun the law past the county line.
It's a hot Saturday in late August in the Imperial Desert, and outside on the Center's front porch, a group of sunbaked Slabbers chat cheerfully. An Angeleno with a video camera kicks back in a plastic chair waiting for weirdness to ensue. I drink beer and chat with an intelligent, middle-aged transient named Brian, who furtively smokes a bowl and reminisces about the '80s when The Slabs hosted a massive open-air market.
“It was one commercial zone, man,” he said. “People were earning a living out here. There was Linda. She used to run the CB radio net. She's still somewhere in the area. But all those people from back then are mostly gone.”
A squatter village outside the small, crumbling town of Niland, Slab City emerged in the '60s after a dismantled World War II-era military base left only concrete slabs. The California State Lands Commission became the area's absentee landlord, turning a blind eye to squatters and flocks of “snowbirds” looking to park their motorhomes for free during the winter months.
Save for the occasional sheriff's deputy rolling through in an air-conditioned SUV, The Slabs have, for decades, remained largely unaffected by government intervention, a situation that has evolved into a cleverly constructed, speed-fueled village made almost entirely of recycled materials. Complete with a library, Internet café, bed-and-breakfast and music venue, the city, like a neighborhood on the verge of gentrification, has also attracted an encampment of seasonal artists from Los Angeles who offer their own fascinating, tweaker-style sculpture garden.
However, the anarchic atmosphere that made The Slabs a twisted paradise and fashionable Southern California tourist destination could be about to change forever.
In a move that would likely invite increased government scrutiny, a nonprofit, known as the Slab City Community Group Inc., has applied to buy the land from the state for a nominal amount. Despite anger and resistance from many residents, the group maintains the move is necessary to protect the area from outside development and could improve conditions for many impoverished Slabbers.
“Yes, [the county] is going to try to make us do better sewage control, and we have in our minds plans for how to deal with that,” says William “Builder Bill” Ammon, “but whatever we have to do is better than losing our homes.”
Around dusk, I find Builder Bill setting up his weekly music concert at the Range, an artfully decorated performance venue bookended on either side by blue and white painted buses whose rear doors open flush with the stage floor. The sun goes down and strings of lights come on above an audience lounging in rows of mismatched couches and chairs. I watch Builder Bill belt out a verse of “House of the Rising Sun” while playing guitar.
A senior figure at what's often referred to as “the last free place on earth,” the 66- year-old former construction worker has lived at The Slabs for more than 15 years. Over the last two years, he's teamed up with a group of Slabbers and snowbirds who say they fear the state will sell their home, possibly to a renewable-energy developer that would clear the area for solar panels or a geothermal plant.
Everyone I talked to outside of Slab City, including employees at the State Lands Commission, expressed skepticism about the desirability of the land, which has been unsellable for the last 50 years. The roughly 640-acre plot is part of a remaining 462,000 acres of property known as the California School Trust Lands. Part of a federal program dating back to 1850 that gifted 5.5 million acres to the state for educational purposes, much of the property has been sold off or leased over the last century with proceeds currently going to the state teachers' pension fund.
“Who would want to buy this land?” I ask while Builder Bill sets up for the concert. “It's surrounded by other land that someone could buy where they wouldn't have to eject a whole village of people.”
Dressed in jeans and a Speedy Gonzales t-shirt, Builder Bill looks at me earnestly through wire-rim glasses and long white hair. “Here's the thing, the day we know the answer to that question, it's too late.”
If the Slab City Community Group Inc. bought the land, he acknowledges, the nonprofit would have to start paying property tax, and the county might start enforcing building codes, as well as sewer and garbage regulations.
“Within that community, some of them want to bring those services in and others don't,” says Ryan Kelley, Imperial County Supervisor for District 4, which includes Slab City, “and if they travel this path, they better know what the answer is before they make a decision that's going to have those ramifications.”
Over recent months, the community group rented a dumpster and hauled out tons of garbage. However, after the snowbirds left for the summer, the remaining 200 or so year-round Slabbers couldn't muster the $200 monthly fee. When I mentioned that the area seemed rather tidy, Builder Bill laughed that I just hadn't looked in the corners.
However, nobody will be forced to leave Slab City because they can't afford to help pay for basic services, Builder Bill says.
“I've been saying for decades that every county needs a Slab City,” he says. “All the homeless people who lose their vans that they're living in because there's nowhere to park the damn thing, right? It saves the government all of that hassle.”
Donations and grants collected by the nonprofit will pay for sanitation and other services, says Lynne Bright, a snowbird and core member of the community group. The 59-year-old retired Canadian bureaucrat and lawyer met her recently deceased husband, Mike Bright, at The Slabs in 2009. Married into the community, Bright has faced vilification for her role in the nonprofit.
“Over time, people will see that this is the right thing to do,” she says over a cell phone, explaining that it's too hot to be at The Slabs, “and over time, this will be the defining moment when Slab City grew up and became an adult, kicking and screaming maybe.”
Monday at the Christian Center, about five days earlier, Smiley and Dave, a 33- year-old recent arrival from Orlando, share the smallest joint I've ever seen with two German tourists stopping through on their way to San Diego. It doesn't take much prodding to get them fired up about the community group.
“There's this lady named Lynn Bright,” Dave says. “She's part of this committee or something. I don't know all the extremities, but what they really want to do is make it a rent-based land. It's not fair.”
After sharing similar concerns, Smiley adds on an unrelated note that The Slabs have recently started “changing for the better. People are getting a little bit of respect and thinking about their neighbor. That kind of vibration just kind of precipitates like a wave in an ocean.”
A guy named Doc in a long scraggly beard holding an umbrella and a purse rolls up on a beach cruiser wearing nothing but a dress, cowboy hat and a pair of sandals. Smiley pours some water into Doc's hat, which Doc puts on, letting the liquid rush over him.
Articulate and sharp witted, Doc tells me he moved to the slabs about four years ago. Like so many at Slab City, he fears both losing the land to developers, as well as potential secret dealings by the community group.
“The magic of this place is membership without rulership, and what they would do would bring rulership,” said the 52-year old former software engineer. “The first thing I ever saw them discuss, and I saw posted on their little office wall, was stuff about eviction.”
For the rest of the afternoon, Doc takes me on a tour of Slab City. People are poor but not desperate and rather inviting, eager to show me their homes and chat about the future and history of The Slabs. By the end of the day, the only thing I fear is getting caught in a tweaker rant of never-ending segues.
“We are what I consider to be the state's most cost-effective institution; we're all here because we're not all there,” Doc says smiling and trailing off.
The only prickliness I encounter is at East Jesus, the camp of Los Angeles artists, who have also put in an application to buy the plot of land they inhabit. For a month, I've been trying in vain to get them to talk to me.
“We got an email from you,” says a guy I later identify as Frank. Talking to me from behind a gate that separates their sculpture garden from a hip-looking camp marked as private, he asks rhetorically, “Why didn't we answer it? Because it's 116 degrees in the shade, man. We don't really do interviews in the summertime.”
To be fair, Frank probably gets an annoying amount of media requests. Every year, The Slabs attract an increasing horde of tourists, reporters, artists and even Hollywood moviemakers. The area's popularity exploded after Sean Penn's 2007 movie Into the Wild featured a short but electric cameo by Leonard Knight, the now-deceased creator of Salvation Mountain, a multi-colored adobe art installation that greets folks on their way into The Slabs.
Within an hour of pulling up to Salvation Mountain on Saturday, I run into two artists from L.A. painting and stenciling an old wooden boat, as well as a mother-daughter duo from San Diego touring the place as inspiration for the 17-year-old's multimedia high school class.
In 2011, as Knight's health waned, supporters and friends established Salvation Mountain Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to maintaining the mountain. After the creator of the recognized piece of folk art was hospitalized around 2012, the state offered to sell the land to the nonprofit for next to nothing.
“I told [the state], ‘We would love to own the land the mountain sits on,'” nonprofit board president Dan Westfall says over a cell phone near his home in San Diego. “He wanted me to take the whole 640 acres because he wanted it off his desk. I said, ‘No way.'”
Having met Knight in 2008, the 65-year-old holistic health practitioner became enamored with what he calls “the purest ministry” he'd ever seen. Spending weeks at a time out at the mountain, Westfall got to know many Slabbers, including Builder Bill and Bright, who are also involved with the nonprofit.
Similar to the cleanup issues at Slab City, there are concerns about toxicity from paint at Salvation Mountain. However, unlike the community group, Salvation Mountain Inc. has brought in money from tourist donations, as well as a $32,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation to pay for supplies and equipment.
That's a model The Slabs could replicate, says Builder Bill. “We can do that, and we actually have people that know how to do that.”
“Is there a worry that that's going to ruin the magic of the free-for-all atmosphere of the last free place on earth?” I ask.
“I'm sure that's what all the hoopla's really about,” he says. “Whatever the lies they made up to make their political arguments, that's what's really on their mind, and of course, we're here living that life, too. We don't want to mess that up.”
The state is now conducting a survey of the land in preparation to sell separate parcels to the three nonprofit groups. Within 18 months, the terms of the deal could be finalized and before the land commission board for final approval.
Back on the porch of the Christian Center on Saturday afternoon, I speculate with Brian about the future of Slab City. He traces all controversy back to the popularity of Salvation Mountain, which he argues has attracted too much attention for The Slabs' own good.
“Everything was copacetic until the money started happening, until Leonard died, and then other people took over. Now there's money involved. It's just fucked it all up. What's the old saying, ‘Drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, you're going to have trouble.'”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SALVATION MOUNTAIN
Mid-1980s: In his early 50s, Leonard Knight starts building and painting an installation on a mountain outside of Niland, CA as a testament to Jesus Christ and the Christian religion.
1994: The state expresses concerns that paint from the mountain may be a health hazard. Threatening to remove the installation, Imperial County officials back off after the idea proves significantly unpopular.
1998: After initial setbacks, the mountain structure grows by as much as 50 feet as Knight transitions from using sand and cement to adobe clay mixed with straw.
2000: The Folk Art Society of America designates Salvation Mountain a “folk site worthy of preservation and protection.”
2007: The movie by Sean Penn Into the Wild briefly features Knight giving a tour of the mountain. Subsequently, popularity of the mountain soars to more than 1,000 people a week in the fall and winter months.
2008: While vacationing in the desert, San Diegan Dan Westfall meets Knight and starts an enduring relationship, which includes extended stays at the mountain and an effort to care for the aging folk icon.
2011: Westfall and others start Salvation Mountain Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to maintaining Knight's legacy.
2013: Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation granted the nonprofit $32,000 for materials and equipment to maintain the site.
January 2014: Salvation Mountain Inc. applies with the State Lands Commission to buy the land the mountain sits on.
February 2014: Knight dies at the age of 82 at the Eldorado Care Center in El Cajon, where, at the urging of friends, he spent the last two years of his life due to health concerns.