Slab City: Inside California's renegade desert community

You don’t live in Slab City because the rest of the world welcomes you. Ruth Fowler visits California’s most unlikely new Airbnb hotspot

Ruth Fowler
Friday 13 October 2017 16:30
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“They call it the Third Reich, Hell’s Kitchen. Gets hot as a motherf*****. But there’s music everyday. Soothes my soul.”

Stix… (“the dot-dot-dot’s the most important part”), a Slab City resident, is talking to Kristin Gogol, a 23-year-old middle school science teacher from Washington DC. Around them, solar-powered lights flicker on and off, entwined around a dead branch jammed into baked pond ground and adorned with plastic dolls missing various eyes and limbs. An intricately crafted mobile made of cut-up beer cans twirls lazily. Dogs howl in the thick hot night, and someone is pumping out rave music across the stifling air.

Kristin had never heard of Slab City before she stumbled across a cheap Airbnb listing for an RV in the Sonoran Desert while planning a 10-day road trip around California. Near Salvation Mountain – a huge art installation made of adobe, straw, mud and lead-free paint, which has long drawn movie crews, photographers and bands from afar – are the concrete remains of Camp Dunlap, a WWII military barracks.

Residents of Slab City – a transient community of artists, retirees, the desperately poor, snowbirds, criminals, anarchists and grifters – have been squatting amongst the abandoned concrete slabs since the 1950s.

Numbers can swell to around 4,000 in the winter when the temperature drops, but for my visit this summer, it’s 120 degrees and there are only 150 or so residents left – plus two Airbnb digs, still open for people like Kristin, who admits she didn’t expect the unbearable temperatures of summer in the California desert.

It’s an unusual place for an Airbnb, but George Sisson, who started the California Ponderosa in December 2015, had nothing much to lose. In his sixties, he had no income aside from social security and food stamps, and one day he heard rumours about a place with no rent, no landlords, no property tax and no one to bother you.

He drove in, found a spot, and claimed it as his own. Over the next few months, he brought in a couple of beat-up RVs and a tiny cabin on a trailer. He built an open fireplace, a fence around his staked-out land and some structures for his makeshift kitchen. He discovered how to bring water in from Niland (the nearest town), got his sewage disposal figured out, and set up solar power and an intricate battery system.

He started off charging $15 (£11.20) a night for one RV with no running water. Then, shocked by the enthusiastic response from tourists, he gradually increased his prices to as much as $40, and spread out his real estate.

George Sisson’s art at the California Ponderosa

Now George offers a “honeymoon suite”, a cabin and a trailer on Airbnb – and he’s hosted over 150 guests from all around the world. “I only had two people show up, see the place, and turn right back around and drive out again,” he tells me, scratching his scraggly white beard and swigging a bottle of whiskey, while behind him, his friend Jinxy, tattooed and lithe, sings a song from the Jungle Book while strumming on a banjolin.

Across the way, Slab City Hostel nestles next to an internet cafe, which is basically a wireless router in a tattered tent. The hostel used to belong to George’s friend, Balu, but he sold it to another resident and took off to travel the world with the money.

Beat-up RVs, junk, dust, yurts, sheds and canvas structures punctuate the landscape. There’s a pet cemetery, and a chair set in front of an old TV bearing the legend “TV Tony” – a now deceased resident who sat in front of the box all day long. As long as no one’s claimed the land, it’s yours for the taking. One guy, Vietnam veteran Doc Spencer, rocked up four months ago with an inheritance, and now has a garden and waterfall spilling into a shaded tin pool, next to a luxury RV.

Comparisons to Mad Max and Burning Man are inevitable, but they have nothing on Slab City, with its strange, nostalgic air of tragedy, and the kind of determined, ingenious survival skills of the desperately poor that we like to refer to in the days of Trump as “resilience”. The first time I stayed with George, a young kid tried to sell me meth outside The Range – the community’s Saturday night music venue, where they also hold the yearly Slab City Prom.

Addiction is rife, and crime does happen, but the community tries to be self-regulating – even though the police occasionally cruise through to check everything’s OK. As I wandered around, George filled me in on people. “Those poor f***ing dogs are chained up 24/7, barking and going crazy. Ain’t no way to treat an animal, but here you don’t mess with people’s business – unless they steal your sh**.”

A prim, middle-aged woman in a suit stood holding a clipboard outside an RV, and a young, worried-looking woman held a baby while her shirtless partner threw a protective arm around her shoulder. “CPS [Child Support Services]", said George. “Some dog got loose, bit their kid. Had to get airlifted to hospital on a helicopter. He’s still got a big scar over his face. Now CPS come round all the time to check on the parents and hassle them. Wasn’t even their dog.”

You don’t live in Slab City because the rest of the world welcomes you, and perhaps this is its charm for the reams of tourists who drive all the way in, past the Salton Sea to take pictures at Salvation Mountain, check out the artwork at East Jesus, slink past West Satan (another area amongst the slabs), and, now, book a night in what Slab City residents call “the last free place in America”, in order to hang out with people who found society offered them nothing, so they built their own society instead.

Willy Fry, a former highway patrol officer, now lives in ‘the last free place in America’ (Ruth Iorio)

George says he loves hosting, loves the extra income and loves the new people constantly coming into his camp. “At first the community was kind of worried, but I told them, these ain’t no dirtbag kids ripping sh** up. These are sophisticated people.”

Jinxy, who looks after the camp during the summer while George escapes to the mountains, is more jaded – probably because of the heat. “It’s tiring, hosting. One week I had three new sets of guests every single day for four days. I had to be on, all the time, cleaning the RVs, taking them on the tour, being welcoming and sh**.”

Jinxy also runs a self-help group every Sunday for women in the community. “They come here with some dude. He breaks up with them, they hop onto the next dude who can provide for them. I started it because I needed it as much as anyone.”

Last year, because of the falling exchange rate, a lot of the snowbirds from Canada failed to make it down to Southern California and Slab City’s population dropped to under 2,000 for the first time in years. The only store for miles, in Niland, has started jacking up its prices at the start of the month in anticipation of residents’ benefits cards getting refilled. Pretty much everyone I speak to in Slab City and Niland says their only income comes from the state, and tourists.

Other residents talk about their plans to lease their land, homes or RVs on Airbnb for extra cash – maybe even sell their mini Airbnb empire to the next drifter who needs a little extra to top off the social security. “How do you sell free f***ing land?” Jinxy muses as she swigs a warm beer. “How is this a free f***ing place if you’re paying for it?

Travel essentials

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies from Heathrow to Los Angeles from £470 return. From there, it's a 200-mile drive to Slab City, which takes 3-4 hours depending on traffic.

Staying there

George Sisson's California Ponderosa starts from £23 per night.

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