We spent our first night in California at Pilot Knob, a BLM site just over the border from Arizona, outside Yuma. It was a vacant, dusty field, and we just pulled in far enough that we could have some mild privacy without getting ourselves stuck in the sand that got more loose the deeper we drove into the abyss. There was some black mass to the east, a burned out camper, and a lone RV parked the north, tucked way in the back of the field. There was some other debris spread about, between the black mass and the singular RV. Time passed as it does, I took some photos and did some work while Evan disappeared to explore. After a while, I got worried when he didn’t answer my phone calls or shouts into the empty space. I put on hiking boots and grabbled my knife and headed out into the settling darkness. He was just on his way back from the black mass, and took me over to see it.
It was getting a bit dark by the time I got over there, but I could see that the mass was actually all rusted out oil cans. Hundreds, thousands of them, piled up and buried in the sand. We wandered until it was dark, and we had a hard time finding our way back to the camper because we couldn’t see it, even with the light we had left on. The darkness was impenetrable. When we finally made it home, Evan made green chile stew, and we watched traffic pass by on the highway, so many people going somewhere, until it was time to sleep.
In the morning, we watched the sun rise over Arizona, made coffee, and did a bit more exploring. There was a camper with no metal or glass left, no engine, no axles, just a tiny house floating on its side. There was a sea of car tires and a lot of human belongings like slippers, an old television, a gym bag containing a book: how to run a successful business, the entrepreneur’s guide. A pile of computer parts: mouse, cables, modems, motherboards. There was a side of a Penske truck, asserting the truck must be returned in clean condition. We headed to the west, which was nothing but an empty wash, got back into the camper and drove away.
In El Centro, we tried to get coffee. The first coffee shop was closed for construction, and the second place we picked out was in a gym and had no pastries (I’ll skip over the hangry tantrums we both had later, as the result). We headed towards Imperial, which we heard had a hot spring. The GPS took us down two wrong dirt roads, and on the second one we decided to park and walk to find out destination. We hoofed it over a semi-cemented sand dune, and when we got to the correct dirt road, it was merely a sandy path in the center of an open sand field, with more sand dunes in the distance. We walked towards a cluster of palm trees we saw in the distance, and when we got there, it was a literal oasis.
There was a naked older Hispanic man just settling into the pool. It was a perfect temperature. Major Tom, who cannot swim and is typically afraid of water, immediately crawled in and tested his buoyancy, so thankful for the respite from the hot sand and sun. We stripped naked and took his lead. The man, who was endowed as men go, was also adamant to show me, and kept trying to position himself in my view, which I constantly averted. Eddie, the guy, tried to put Major Tom on a raft, which didn’t work out so well. He told us how he has been coming here for 25 years, and keeps it maintained. We were lucky, because typically the four wheeler crowd stops there after riding the sand dunes, and there are upwards of 20 people at a time. It was very peaceful, despite the Blue Angels practicing overhead.
Eventually, one of his friends showed up, then another. They were both naked. As in, they showed up naked. As in, they walked down the road wearing nothing but backpacks. We hung out with them for a while, chitchatting about beer, living off the grid, and other hot springs in the area. One of them might be a character in an R. Crumb cartoon. The other, Bob I think it was, was the one who brought beer. When we told him we were headed to Slab City, he rolled his eyes and wished us luck.
“No, go,” he said. “Check it out. It’s just sad is all. Kind of gross. The water there is murky. Real murky, real hot. People bathe in it. I dunno, not my scene is all. But you should check it out, maybe you have a stronger stomach than I do.” He had just told us that he drank a glass of milk, a glass of Sunny D, and a glass of water, and had a salad, before walking over here, naked, in the hot sun, and was currently drinking (inevitably warm) beer in the warm water. Then again, Evan later told me he read on the internet that a dead body was found in the Slab City hot spring, so everything is relative.
As I got dressed to leave under my towel, the way girls learn in junior high locker rooms, they asked if we were going to take some photos. Maybe young people usually take photos, or maybe they saw my tripod. I told them I probably should, but I’d do it in the sun so they wouldn’t end up naked on the internet.
“Bob’s already on the internet,” the R. Crumb character said.
“Yeah, I’m all over the internet,” Bob said.
I backed away, set up the tripod, and started shooting off photos. About four shots in, Bob jumps out of the pool and runs in front of my lens.
“Am I in the shot?” He shouts, laughing, as he darts across my screen.
“You are now,” I say, and release my shutter.
Slab City is located on a long dirt road behind the Niland dump. You first enter by passing a rather ominous, yet empty, info booth, with painted graffiti about reality and what it is or isn’t. Then there’s the famous Salvation Mountain, an impressive hill made of sand, water, and paint, with a sort of sculpted mural built and painted into it about Jesus and God and Love. Then the road sort of meanders and splinters like water marks down a hill. Slab City is gigantic. Utterly huge. At some point we came to an intersection, and, unable to agree on which way to turn, decided to just park the car and walk around. We headed to East Jesus first, passing a number of campers but mainly shanties. There was a fort made by a Desert Storm Vet who had anti-government slogans painted all over the large fortress walls. It may go without saying, but he does not like Obama. As we neared a wash, two men in the arroyo were yelling, “Dog, dog, dog!” as we approached. They were, I think, trying to wrangle their own dogs onto their compound on the other side of the arroyo. They didn’t succeed, and Major Tom almost got into a fight with one particularly territorial female dog. Around this time, we approached a fork in the road. West Satan or East Jesus? We didn’t know we had the choice. We chose East Jesus, because, while our people were likely in West Satan, it was a gamble we didn’t really want to lose.
At the end of the road (both roads, I believe, ended up at the same place), was an area full of art sculptures. They were large, impressive, sincere, and anti-establishment. Oil can elephant, painted televisions with chairs facing them. Awesome.
We put the dog back in the camper and headed in the other direction, towards the Library. At the internet café, we met Donita, aka Mush, who will have lived here for a year in May. She gave us the lay of the land, telling us how to get the things we need, when things happen (mostly on Saturdays, like the swap, group breakfast, open mic night). She introduced us to a girl in the shadows who has lived here since 1998. Her mom moved here in 1992. Her face was painted silver and she told us she was taking herself off “movie duty” because she put on Fight Club the night before and got too riled up. There are other families here who have been here for generations. Uncles, cousins, grandmothers, daughters, babies. But the sunset and sunrise are unimaginable. Everyone here yells. The dogs constantly bark. Last night there was a party outside our camper, but everything got dead quite—the people, the dogs, the music—by 9 pm.
It feels toxic here, and I don’t know what it would be like to be a kid here growing up. Maybe magical, maybe tragic. A bit of both. There is a military base nearby that has artillery practice in the afternoons. This morning we woke up at sunrise to roosters crowing. The sunrise was the most brilliant red I’ve ever seen in the sky, and the whole sky was filled with it. We made coffee, found the hot springs. The water was, indeed, murky, and people weren’t bathing but were lamenting they forgot the soap to bathe. It smells like human feces and there is toilet paper stuck to the shrubs near the hot spring. The murals everywhere are breathtaking, hyper-realistic sci-fi works of art. This place is both too real and a fantasy, a dream and a nightmare. As one dog charged at us to the end of his rope, another sat curiously on a chair and yelped to us. Down one street are shanty structures and tarp walls and campers that don’t move; down another are architectural wonders of off-grid living with personal water towers, garden, deck, and metal sculptures. Yin, Yang.
We stopped by the internet café again, and the woman with the face paint’s face was still painted. She screamed belligerently about a “cunt bitch” and “Mother Earth” and chased some guy out of the café who said, “you brought that violence on yourself.” Meanwhile, an old hippy brought out a few bottles of orange soda and a Gatorade cooler full of melting sherbet. People helped themselves until a woman went back for seconds and got dope sick. Someone asked her if she was okay and she said she needed more insulin but was running low. She dropped something in the sherbet and stuck her hand in there in search of it. A few people moved off the couch to give her room to lay down, and she spent the rest of the time there groaning with body aches and sounding like she might throw up. The internet wasn’t working and the flies were incessant. Some guys outside, including the one chased out by the woman with the face paint, listened to thrash metal and sang along.
Back at the camper, our neighbor, where the party was happening the night prior, was playing the piano. A real, honest-to-God, wooden upright piano. We threw a few ice cubes in the rest of our coffee and sat outside writing, reading, and appreciating the best of Slab City. Eventually, of course, another man came by when Evan was on a walk and talked to me about Pennsylvania, himself, my tattoos, and how it’s dangerous to be a single woman alone here. Evan came back and he tried to convert us to become Born Again.
After sundown, we took the dog for his evening walk, choosing the route with the friendliest dogs and the least yelling people. A man popped out of the dust forest behind us, screaming obscenities and walking in our direction. We picked up our pace and took the first turn we came to. He kept yelling we couldn’t see him, and our inner-children were excited and scared as if we had broken into a haunted house, but it was more like we had stumbled into a GG Allin performance, only it wasn’t a show. Suddenly the yelling stopped, and we ducked into another field. I turned my flashlight off. Someone else passed us in the other direction. I have poor night vision, but the darkness in this hazy place is thick, despite the moonlight, and things even close can barely be seen. Even the flashlight offers little relief.
“If yelling guy is still out there, he’ll eat that guy first and we can get away,” I said, joking.
We walked back in the direction we came, in the dark. Eventually, I turned my light on and he was gone.
End note: Today, we left Slab City for Joshua Tree. I’m finishing this post at a Starbucks in Mecca, California. On our way here, we passed the Salton Sea, a lake of murky brine on a beach of fish bones. The red mountains behind the sea were in a morning fog, and the blue desert sky reflected against the sea, giving it a clear, romantic look. The fishbone beach looked, from the distance, to be a fine, clean white sand.
From a distance, like so much in the Imperial Valley, it was breathtaking.