In an abandoned Marine Corps base in the Southern California desert lies Slab City, home to a makeshift community of artists, misfits, snowbirds and survivalists. Known as the "last free place" in America, it's a living testimony to freedom in all of its contradictory forms, both beautiful and bleak.
The settlement got its name from the concrete foundations left behind when the U.S. government shut down Camp Robert H. Dunlap, a Marine Corps base located near the tiny desert outpost of Niland, California. When Camp Dunlap was in operation during World War II, there were 30 buildings, 8 miles (13 kilometers) of paved streets, water and sewage treatment plants and even a swimming pool.
After the war, operations wound down. In 1956, Camp Dunlap was fully dismantled, and all 631 acres (255 hectares) were handed over to the state of California in 1961. Since the state had no plans for the desolate site, squatters soon began to occupy the leftover concrete slabs, which served as sturdy foundations for makeshift encampments. And just like that, Slab City was born.
Out of Anarchy, a Community
Ken and April Pishna spent four days at Slab City in 2019, and the place left a lasting impression. The couple sold their home in Colorado and have been traveling the country in an RV, recording their experiences in their blog and podcast Living a Stout Life.
"Slab City is very unique," says April. "I've never come across a place like it anywhere on earth."
Both weren't sure what to expect when they decided to forgo a visit to Joshua Tree and instead visit Slab City, also known as the Slabs. They were prepared to see wild art installations, ramshackle dwellings and lots of trash, but didn't expect to find a community.
"The one thing that surprised me when we got there was how organized things are," says Ken. "Everything you hear about Slab City — that it's lawless, it's the last free place, people just do what they want — is true to some extent, but there is also very much a community there."
The original grid left over from Camp Dunlap's paved streets is still there, and Slab City's year-round residents (roughly 150 people willing to brave the summer desert heat) have built permanent homes out of decommissioned campers, pallets, telephone poles and everything you can imagine (discarded dolls is a recurring theme). The results are chaotic-looking but well-kept dwellings that are respected by neighbors and visitors, the Pishnas say.
Even without an electrical grid or running water, there are hallmarks of normal community life at Slab City: coffee shops, cafes, bars, lending libraries and music venues. Commerce operates by donation or barter, and several of the larger entities at Slab City, like Salvation Mountain, are registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.
Some of the more permanent and elaborate art installations, like East Jesus, have posted visiting hours like a regular museum or art gallery. (East Jesus also posts a detailed and colorful survival guide on its website. "RULE ZERO IS: DO NOT PISS US OFF. Any questions? Refer to Rule Zero.")
As many as 4,000 people live at Slab City in the cooler winter months, according to The Washington Post, and visitors are more than welcome. (However, some attractions are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.) Their first night at Slab City, the Pishnas were invited to a campfire sing-along. The next day, they hung out with new friends at the coffee collective and attended a chili night at a Slab City hostel.
Who Lives in Slab City?
The answer is all kinds of people chasing all kinds of ideas of what it means to be "free." That includes retirees and snowbirds looking for a dirt cheap place to spend the winter, off-grid survivalists and preppers who want to live free of government intrusion, found-art enthusiasts, hippie dropouts, religious pilgrims and homeless people struggling with mental illness and drug addiction.
"There's quite a range of people at Slab City," says Ken. "Some feel disgruntled with society and want something different. Others are there because they don't want to be under the government. We met a family with two young kids who came every year for a few months out of necessity, because it was cheap. It's a very interesting dynamic out there."
Among the permanent residents, April mentions Caribe, a military veteran originally from Puerto Rico who struck up a conversation with the Pishnas and showed them around his house filled with upcycled goods and a telescope. Then there was a retired professor who had rigged up a large solar oven and a hydroponic garden that grows fresh veggies in the unrelenting desert sun.
But Ken and April are quick to say that there was a darker element as well, plenty of people who were openly using hard drugs, stumbling around the encampments and living in trash-filled broken-down vans. And there were others who were clearly battling mental illness, like a neighbor who woke them every morning with a stream of screamed obscenities.
As the final verse of the "Slab City Song" says:
If the man is callin’ in all your tabs.
If yer troubles are so many you can’t list ’em.
Then just chuck it all and join us on the slabs.
Just chuck it all and join us on the slabs.”
The Best and Worst of Humanity
To visit Slab City is to open yourself up to a truly one-of-a-kind experience in which the best and worst of humanity are on display. You'll find grand expressions of love and acceptance like Salvation Mountain, challenging and oddly beautiful works of art, and a welcoming community willing to share their lifestyle. But you'll also encounter junkies, homelessness and a whole lot of trash.
The Pishnas met some really cool people and saw some truly awesome art, but after four days at Slab City they were ready to move on.
"Even in November, you're in the desert in the heat of the sun," says April, "and you see the harshness of life that's there. It becomes part of you and you feel the tension and some of the desperation that people have. You feel the freedom, too, but the rest can take a toll on you."
The Pishnas are really grateful that they stayed at the Slabs, though, even if they still haven't made it to Joshua Tree. The couple recommends that if you visit Slab City, that you don't just drive through, but take time like they did to "embed yourselves in the community," which is the only way to truly get to know a place.