Slab city, the last free place in America, or so the sign says as you drive onto the old abandoned military base. Considered a required pilgrimage for most people living the RV or van life, I figured it was time to check it off my list. Damn, it’s definitely checked off.
Slab city or, the slabs as the residents call it is a home to hundreds of people who for whatever reason could not find happiness in regular society so they decided to take part in a town of their own. Originally a navy base of some sort, nothing remained after it was abandoned except the concrete slabs of the building’s foundations and a basic system of roadways. Now the space is taken up by a mixture of RV’s, tents, plywood and pallet homes and sometimes just a random tarp with a human under it. Look carefully, that human might be camouflaged as a pile of dirt, some of them are hard to distinguish.
As i drove into the slabs for my first visit it was much as the YouTube videos and internet pictures portrayed it. Dogs roaming free all over, dreadlocks everywhere, dirty people, and a general state of rebellion from society.
With no form of government overseeing it, the community exists with no health or sanitation department. Trash is scattered everywhere. It is literally one giant junkyard/city dump. Human waste is a common smell as you walk through the streets. Paper, food containers, cups, bags and more exist within an arm’s reach virtually anywhere you roam.
A pleasant surprise is there are no visible rats, I’m betting the packs of dogs roaming freely got em.
Fresh water is another non existent luxury here. All water must be brought in and stored in containers. Some dwellings have tanks holding several hundred gallons while others exist as a simple five gallon jug or less.
Any electricity is maintained by your own solar panels, windmill or other homemade contraption.
Homes, as the residents call them range from complete single wide trailers at the top of luxury to a plastic tarp with holes under a tree. Abandoned by the state, county, or any other official government these structures have zero code enforcement for safety of any sort. Pallets, car frames and what the rest of the world considers junk is commonly used to construct walls around your “property” to restrict access to an undesirable element. Claiming property is very informal and completely up to “I’m here, its my space” and arguments often ensue. The basic unwritten role is that if nobody is there then park your camper then that’s your space. Unfortunately if you leave that space for a day or month or however long, someone else can come in and claim your spot in the prime real estate area.
As the population increases, the land is getting scarce so arguments are not uncommon.
The people, oh where to begin on the people. A cultural anthropologist would have a career of study just on these individuals in the slabs. With children of preschool age to an elderly man of 86, this is a full community. I feel some sympathy for these children who are unbathed and think this is how normal society is in the United States.
There was always a smelly dirty kid in school. Everyone knows who it was, every school had one. They were spotless compared to the youth of Slab City.
Clothing and hair styles are a fashion show of their own. Dreadlocks being the most common form of headgear displayed, the other form is a simple messy top due to the non existence of hair brushes that have obviously been banned from existence.
Dark clothing is the outfit of choice for evenings and night whether its for hiding or for committing crimes, everyone looks like a ninja after dark. Slab city is a great place if you want to be a man with a dress or walk around looking like Gandalf complete with crystal ball and pointy hat.
If your shirt has buttons, well you’re the high class ready to go to the prom! Day after day of the same clothes is another normality where getting out of your bed or sleeping bag fully dressed saves time on the choosing an outfit each morning.
Finally we come to shoes or commonly the lack of shoes. Rocks, sticks or thorns are no match for the feet you’ll see wandering around permanently stained from dirt with callouses at least a half inch thick. The bottoms of feet, darker than the inside of…well you can imagine.
Mental illness and instability is very noticeable with residents of all ages. Often stories are made up about how the world works, history, or other facts are distorted and multiple personalities come out from one day to the next. Depression and anxiety exist in almost every resident. With no counseling except from others with similar conditions, treatment is non existent.
The horrifyingly common form of washing your body comes in the form of a natural hot spring pool on the outskirts of town. At approximately 100-105 degrees here lies the clothing optional ares where most residents take their not too often bath. This literal breeding ground for bacteria is daily grown from open wounds, scabs and who knows what else.
Disease is rampant with hepatitis affecting about 50% of the population. When asked, and yes i actually asked people, half the ones i talked to contracted it from dirty needles. Unfortunately logic dictates the percentage is probably much higher since almost no one has medical insurance and are not tested regularly, so many probably don’t even know if they have been infected.
MRSA was historically an epedemic a year ago. The facebook pages, which are the local news, often have posts of people looking for antibiotics for animal and insect bites, or other unknown infections.
Practically no one has money of any sort. Commerce consists of trading items back and forth whether they are your own items or if someone isn’t looking and you can use their guitar to get a free tattoo. The first of the month is the only time when real cash appears from social security benefits to whatever other kind of government aid. These people hate the government but they sure wont say no when it’s handing out free cash.
What about crime in this paradise you ask? Crime is common and like all the rumors you hear elsewhere, the slabs are dangerous. On my first day there, a team of about 20 federal agents invaded and took away at least four residents, one to be extradited to another state for a long list of crimes. Hiding out in slab city is a common reason for residency. Practiclly everyone is hiding from something and most of the names used are an alias. To know someone’s real name is a huge sign of trust.
A few days later i was at the weekly music gathering there were police lights all around and even a helicopter landing and then leaving. I asked someone what that was all about and they simply replied “someone probably got stabbed or shot, happens all the time”. The next day I learned someone was indeed stabbed and flown to a hospital. Nobody even knew his name.
During my 10 day visit, two trailers were burned down. Apparently if you piss off the wrong people they will burn down your camper or whatever you live in, but they will leave your car alone so you can get out and never return. Just daily life in the slabs as not a soul reacted at it with any concern.
Thievery is the most common crime. Everyone I met has been robbed at one time or another. That’s the way of life, don’t leave your camp spot without a neighbor watching, ever. Even when reported to the outside police nothing will happen. The police as a rule do not come into the slabs unless they are called.
Everyone, and I’m not kidding, everyone is armed. The big rambo hunting knives on belts are the most common forms of self protection. No intention of hiding them either, they are right out in the open. Walking sticks and canes are also used by many people that have perfectly good functional legs. Often you’ll see a few nails in the ends of these sticks. Remember above when we talked about garbage? These nails are not used for picking that stuff up. Being within the state of California, guns are very restricted legally but with the sounds of gunfire after the sun goes down they are obviously abundant as well.
Drugs are everywhere, pot is the most common and since it’s california they can legally have it out in the open. Comically it is traded just like a form of currency, I got a good chuckle out of that. Meth and heroin are extremely common, everyone knows where it’s even manufactured which says a great deal about the quality of police for the state and county. By the way, there are undercover officers in the slabs which raises the question of why our government isn’t doing anything about it? How do i know this do you ask? Well I’m not all drugged out and when you’re sober it’s pretty easy to tell who’s who.
Within the general population there is zero motivation to make themselves or their community better, they nap away each day and just sit back watching time go on. If that’s paradise for them, then wonderful, they have found their vision. If just a couple of them got up and tried to organize to make things better slab city could be a really nice safe little place. Unfortunately however being a leader puts a target on your back against those who want a lifestyle of no government organization, quite the dilemma. A small group of individuals has gotten together and started little stores or gathering spots for morning coffee or meals.
Christian missionaries do come in and try to help. Unfortunately their motivation is clear, they are doing things for their own sense of worth and have little effect where it’s really needed. If just one weekend a group of missionaries got together and the trash could be dramatically improved. That’s how to help your fellow man and just one small examples of what they could do. But i won’t blah blah about religion.
Of all the negativity you’ve read, there is one thing that you won’t find common to other towns. The people i talked to were some of the nicest most helpful individuals i have ever met. They won’t hesitate to give you a hug when you see each other and it’s a genuine hug, not given out of a sense of custom like the impersonal handshake of modern society. Once you have a group of friends they all take care of you just like you’re part of a family. You won’t sleep cold or go hungry. The elderly in the park, and there are quite a few, are left alone. They all reside in one area and it’s an unspoken rule to let them live quietly and peacefully. Unfortunately even with that they are still targets for the thieves, but not violent crimes thankfully.
Why did I stay for ten days with all this danger? The weird thing is that the people are so nice that you can forget what really goes on there. Until I sat down and wrote this I was simply blinded as most of the residents probably are as well.