Look up “best day trips from LA,” and you’ll surely come across gushing reviews of Salvation Mountain. The local landmark—a 50-foot clay hill sculpted by folk artist Leonard Knight and painted with messages like “God is love” as a testament to his open-hearted vision of Christianity—is one of the most notable fixtures in the Southern California desert. Its colorful peaks have served as the backdrop for countless road trip snapshots and “boho chic” influencer photoshoots; it’s even appeared in music videos by everyone from 2000s icons Coldplay to Korean girl group LOONA. But far fewer people have ventured out to Slab City, the unincorporated, “lawless” community that exists just beyond the peak’s shadow.
Google “the Slabs”—a nickname fondly used by the residents—and you’ll find the Internet singing a far less pleasant tune. Many people have warned of the city’s danger—such as Reddit user “u/Jermmz77,” whose essay-length post, “I was hunted at Slab City,” made the rounds four years ago. Jermmz is skeptical of the city from the start, referring to buildings as “sinister looking [sic]” and the residents as “these fuckers.” He goes on to describe the titular “hunt:” when another resident made him feel uneasy, he took off running and veered onto occupied property (not private property—all Slab City land is legally fair game), cueing a few Slabbers to follow him with flashlights and dogs.
Other netizens have lamented the area’s less-than-tidy appearance—such as Chris “Tarzan” Clemens, an “adventure blogger” from Indiana. His account of the city concludes with an original poem: “Where there are no rules / Follows no accountability / And the one who suffers / Is Mother Nature.”
On November 8th, 2020, I stopped by Slab City myself. I was not stalked by angry “fuckers;” I did not find myself wading through mounds of trash. In fact, you could say I had a pretty ordinary Sunday afternoon.
The plan was not always to visit the Slabs. At first, my friend Peter and I were simply going to camp in Joshua Tree for a night and head home. But we had never been to the desert, and the fabled ethos of the American road trip took hold of us. Thus, we decided to roam around SoCal for a few more golden hours.
Being lifelong East Coasters, we had spent hours scouring the Web for the West Coast’s “best-kept secrets.” Naturally, we had heard about Salvation Mountain. We had also heard about Slab City—and we found this destination even more intriguing.
As a writer, I’m tempted to explain Slab City with a metaphor—but that would run the risk of romanticizing or mystifying or denigrating it, all of which could be dangerous. Better to start with a history. Slab City as we know it today was founded in the mid-20th century, decades before Salvation Mountain came to be. The land was originally used as a Marine Corps base known as Camp Dunlap, but several years after World War II, the base was dismantled. By 1956, only some concrete slabs from buildings remained. Seeing a beginning rather than an end in this rubble, campers and drifters soon flocked to the site, taking advantage of the unclaimed land and the slabs themselves, which could be used to construct dwellings. Ever since, the land has been home to those who prefer to live off the grid, from young runaways to retirees with RVs.
Slab City has no official municipal government. No police force roams its unpaved streets. There are no landlords—all housing is first come, first serve. Its residents call it “The Last Free Place on Earth”—and striding across its open plains, caught between blessing its blue skies and cursing its bitter November winds, you get the sense that maybe it is.
Peter and I wanted to visit Slab City—but we feared that they might not want us. After all, COVID was still on its rampage, and though we had tested negative and isolated ourselves before our camping trip, we were sure the residents would be pushing a no-visitors policy. Our goal was to park at Salvation Mountain’s base, spend a meditative moment appreciating the artwork and Bible verses, and yes, take a few wistful pics. When we were finished, we hopped into our car, ready for a straight shot to our Westwood apartment… and then, on our way out of the region, we spotted the Slab City Community Bulletin Board.
We craned our necks, but the print on the signs was too small to be read from the car. We pulled over and soon found ourselves studying the minutes from the most recent Slab City Board of Directors meeting. The notes were far from what one would expect from the menacing, gun-toting, u/Jermmz77-chasing outlaws of legend. A “Trash Project” was mentioned; so was a website called “SCCGI.org.” I would later type in the address and learn that the acronym stood for the “Slab City Community Group, Inc.”—a nonprofit that aims to “sustain artistic expression” in the Slabs, “connect Slab City Residents with each other,” and support the city’s “low income,” “elderly,” and “disabled” residents.
When we were finished reading, we stepped back and scanned our surroundings. The bulletin board was flanked by two trailers—one relatively nondescript, and one adorned with a beaded curtain, a clock permanently fixed at 4:20, and a sign advertising “Gifts+Art,” “Oils+Herbs,” and “Potions+Spells.” A Slab City small business?
Call it magic—we were drawn in. We crept toward the home’s picket fence—which would have screamed “quintessential suburbia” had it not been painted Barbie pink—to see if anyone was there. As we approached, we noticed another sign: “Trespassers will be hexed.”
“Hello?” we called. No reply.
A lingering Slabber in a cowboy hat noted our plight. “You going to Penny’s place? Knock hard. She might not hear ya with the wind.”
To knock on Penny’s door, we would have to unlatch the gate and step into her yard—would that make us deserving of a hexing? Hoping the answer was no, we proceeded—and Penny emerged to greet us.
Penny, far from a frightening fairy tale witch, was a middle-aged woman with wispy blonde hair tied into a bun. When we asked about artwork, she told us she didn’t have any canvases to sell us—she was keeping her shop less stocked than usual, due to the slower sales days of the COVID era. Yet she didn’t want to send us out of the Slabs empty-handed. She rummaged around on a table and pulled out a postcard with a photo of a whimsical polka-dotted structure that looked like something out of The Wizard of Oz. “My friend Dot has her own gallery at her place, just past East Jesus. Check it out and tell her Penny sent you,” she said. She handed us the card—ours to keep—and wished us luck. As we closed her gate, we caught a glimpse of Cowboy Hat cruising down the street on a Onewheel, pulling an elderly Slabber on a bicycle behind him; he gave us a hello-goodbye wave.
No longer were we ambling aimlessly—we were on a quest. East Jesus was the name of the sculpture garden on the edge of the Slabs—a name derived from the expression “East Jesus Nowhere,” meaning a place beyond civilization. As we cruised through the Slabs’ labyrinthine passages without catching a single glimpse of “the outside world” on the horizon, we realized just how removed from traditional society we were—yet the locations that we passed revealed some semblance of a town center, with locations like a skate park and club.
At one point, we stopped for directions at a trailer marked “J Lee’s Video Library.” A woman there—J Lee herself, perhaps?—kindly pointed us the right way; then she told us we were free to check out the trailer’s interior. We found ourselves browsing through everything from ’80s workout VHS tapes to a boxed set of Glee. When we emerged, we noticed a small tree decorated with stuffed animals as if they were Christmas ornaments; a plaque read “the Enchanted Forest.”
The closest thing to the Slab City of the Internet’s imagination that we saw was some sort of outpost laden with signs warning that troublemakers would be shot. Yet when I smiled at the Slabber standing guard there, he grinned and waved back at me. The notion of fear in Slab City is somewhat paradoxical: on one hand, it seems to be one of the residents’ best tools, wielded carefully to keep tourists from getting too out of line. At the same time, being too fearful in Slab City is a grave error. Exhibit too much paranoia and the locals mark you as an interloper—and with good reason, since historically, fearful, self-righteous types have been propagators of harm and disrespect to minority communities. All in all, “The only thing to fear is fear itself” seems especially apt here.
When we arrived at the House of Dots, Dot herself was nowhere in sight. “Sorry, you missed us,” a sign in the yard read. Yet we soon realized that we weren’t alone. A ragtag band of critters had plodded up to us—two curly-haired dogs and one cat who greeted us with a “meow.” Could these have been the same creatures that had given our boy Jermmz such a fright?
After giving us their nodded regards, the dogs laid back on their haunches. The cat, on the other hand, had decided to be our tour guide. He circled us and brushed up against our legs; then he led us to East Jesus’s entrance.
East Jesus was not the “Enchanted Forest” we had seen outside the video library (although that was beautiful in its own way). The garden is officially recognized as a museum by the California Museum Association and is maintained by the Chasterus Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to create meaningful, sustainable art installations from the “waste products of post-industrial excess.” Among its winding paths, we observed wonders big and small, from a giant elephant made out of tires to a series of panels promoting satirical conspiracy theories about dolphins (did you know that “dolphins were genetically engineered by Stalin to destroy freedom” and “Cuban dolphins killed Kennedy and Jesus”?).
One of East Jesus’s most popular exhibits is a wall of TVs painted with phrases like “White people yelling at each other,” “The television will not be revolutionized,” and plenty of foreboding, catch-all “blah”s. While the installation was striking, I was more moved by the Black Lives Matter monument recently added to the garden. It was similarly made out of repurposed televisions, but these ones were marked with some of the last words of Black Americans who had been murdered by police officers. This wasn’t a symbolic gesture by a mayor or governor being watched by the eyes of the world. This was an anonymous tribute in the middle of the desert, proclaiming a message so crucial that it needed to be spread even to the most remote corners of the country. I had assumed that Slab City would be apolitical because it was so far off the grid; my suspicions had been deeply incorrect.
The sun set as we emerged from East Jesus’s gates, and in Slab City, sunset means it’s time for day trippers to go—not because things get dicey after dark, but because Slab City is home to many people who like their space, and the moon is the city’s cosmic “do not disturb” sign. We hopped back into our car and set off for home… but first, we made one final stop at the Slab City Gift Shop.
Like most Slab City businesses, the gift shop operates out of the “front lawn” of a Slab City resident’s home. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the name of the man who showed us around, but I do remember that he gave us the name of the artist behind each of the wares he was selling: “These facial scrubs were made by my friend Penny” (yes, that Penny!). “These t-shirts were designed by my friend Rock-’n’-Roll Randy.”
As the shop owner rang me up for my new piece of Rock-’n’-Roll Randy couture, I noticed a sign that read “questions free, interviews $100.” As much as I would’ve loved to sit down with him and hear his tales of desert nights unconstrained by bills or 9-to-5s, I understood. There’s a reason that Slab City residents decide to live off the grid, and that reason is not to become some kind of uber-hippie anti-establishment wizards quoted selectively in YouTube documentaries.
Before we left, the man invited us to return once the pandemic had died down for a traditional Slab City jamboree around a campfire. When we parted, we said, “See you around.”
I don’t intend to fetishize or over-glorify Slab City with this account. An airbrushed portrayal of the Slabs would not only be inaccurate, given that the Slabbers are not folkloric figures—it would probably also tick off the Slabbers, who to some extent enjoy the Slabs because of their grittiness and propensity to draw in roguish, free-thinking types. Yet I will say that if you visit the Slabs and aren’t stricken by the contrast between their so-called “lawless” lifestyle and our more “civilized” modern America, you’re missing something crucial. How many of our cities donate more money to the creation of art than to a police force or prison system? How many of our laws encourage us to view our neighbors as a community of “friends,” not simply strangers we share space with? These questions were especially heavy on my mind as I considered what living in Biden and Harris’s America might mean, hoping that the shift of power would make way for concrete policy changes and not just overhauled symbolism.
If you’re asking yourself, “Should I visit Slab City?”, I’d like you to ask yourself what part of your mind is saying “No.” Then sit with that answer before proceeding.