Slab City.

I woke up around six thirty to see a text message on my phone from Phil saying that he had started making coffee. I quickly dressed and packed my things, and walked around to Phil’s room. He was outside on the cement walkway, brewing coffee on the camp stove. Phil wanted to head around the southern shore of the sea, so that we wouldn’t be seeing things we’d already looked at on our way east. It seemed like we’d have the time, so we filled our travel mugs and headed out of town. A woman in Salton City was gardening nopales in her front yard, the cactus filling a square in orderly rows. I wondered what someone would do with such an abundance of the cactus.

We stopped at the convenience store just on the edge of town that also served as a grocery store, post office, and laundromat for the citizens of Salton City. We got gas, ice for the cooler, and some of those cold, slightly greasy packaged danishes for breakfast.

Given the abundance of lightning that we saw the night prior on the south end of the sea, I was a little bit concerned that our way would be blocked by flooding, but this time the roads were clear. The highway was slightly elevated, though, and punctuated with washes that let water flow beneath the roadway and into the sea.

We pulled into Westmorland to photograph a now defunct taqueria. I wondered if their food had been good when they were still open. We drove through Brawley, and started north up the eastern side of the sea, and saw acres and acres of farmland growing hay, some of it already being cut and baled. We saw huge piles of hay bales, some taller than a two storey building and wider than a road. I saw my first Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation in person… the properties where cattle are made to live knee deep in their own shit until they’re fat enough for slaughter. It was disheartening to see these places situated right next to lush hay fields.

We must’ve crossed the Rio Nuevo, but I don’t remember it. Looking back, I wish we had stopped to look at it, but in the agricultural landscape I wonder if we’d even been able to see it from the highway, in the maze of fields and berms and canals and sluice gates.

We drove through Calipatria, which seemed barely a town. It turns out more than half the population of the city can be attributed to Calipatria State Prison. We saw a little booth, with a sign proclaiming “Salt Free Drinking Water!” On closer investigation, it would dispense the clean water in exchange for coins… a gallon for a quarter and five gallons for a dollar.

We drove through Niland and stopped at a grocery store to look for supplies. The grocery store was at the corner of the highway and the town’s Main Street, so the area out in front of the store was littered with odd sorts of folks; malnourished neandertals wearing blankets for clothing, and old ladies in flamboyant hats. You see, Main Street was the road out to Slab City, and I was not at all surprised to see a surplus of weirdness drifting into Niland. Slab City, after all, was not a self-supporting community, and folks would have to come to town for supplies and to get rid of their trash.

We headed east on Main Street, over a few miles of what transportation authorities and park services all over the country refer to euphemistically as “unimproved roads.”  We arrived at a place called Salvation Mountain and pulled over.  It was a hillside in the desert, covered in adobe and then painted.  Some of the face of the hill was sculpted, the adobe formed into raised words and images, and all of it painted in bright colors.  There was a section of the work that had slumped, pulling away the painted coating and revealing the brown earth underneath.  It was a joy to be away from the stench of the Salton Sea at last.  I slipped a folded dollar bill into the donation box and spoke to one of the men onsite.

The recent rains had seeped into the soil of the hill and saturated it, making it heavier.  It had slipped and pulled the adobe surface down with it.  He explained that the goal was to use the adobe to actually cap the hill, to prevent the moisture from seeping in and a repeat collapse.  Right now, though, they were struggling to repair the face of the hill.

The images and the words worked into the hillside were all within the theme of the loving god, sprinkled with bible verses.  Also on the site were two RVs, and a few art cars, painted to match the mountain.  Included was a sign that read “Need water? Ask at the RV,” and a threadbare sofa shaded by a makeshift canopy.

Further on, we crossed into Slab City, purportedly the “last free place on earth.”  We were there in the summer on purpose; the city would be more empty than usual with the snowbirds having traveled north to more hospitable climates.  The folks that would remain behind would be the hardcore residents… people who live here because they have no choice, or no tolerance for high density living situations.

We parked on Tank Road when we felt we had reached the Chrysler’s limit for unimproved roads, and got out of the car and walked.  We encountered a pet cemetery, full of tiny graves with sweet little markers.  Tank Road is, like many of the roads here, named for local landmarks.  At the eastern end of Tank Road were two now disused water storage tanks, enormous and round, that used to supply water for the military base that once stood where Slab City is today.  They’re now entirely decorated with graffiti, some depicting stampeding dinosaurs bearing the names of multinational corporations.

Across from the Slab City Christian Center, we saw a trailer with a yard covered in retrieved junk turned into art.  Out front stood a sign proclaiming it as The Church of Broken Toys.  It hosted an art car with pieces of old playthings glued all over it, and a broken television, and stencils used to paint graffiti that we had seen back at the Salton Sea.

Further on, we saw the Range, touted as an outdoor nightclub.  It was a large wooden platform hosting cable spools as tables and all description of recovered chairs.  The sign outside was topped by a welded steel cow skull.

I’m a little disappointed that I never really got to talk to anyone in the slabs… we were there around noon or one, in the heat of the day, so everyone was inside.  We got a few cheery waves from people passing in cars, but none of the interesting conversations that I had imagined were possible.

Art littered this place.  But what was even more widespread than art were the heaps of garbage alongside the road.  I guess that freedom does have a price; living with your neighbor’s filth.

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Author: adrennan

An artist and writer in Bellingham, Washington.

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