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Slab City — A Desert Escape from Home Loan Imprisonment

Dry and cracked desert ground
Accessible by a far drive east on the 10 freeway, nestled deep in the inland desert of Southern California, rests a spot few could imagine, let alone know exists. East of the Salton Sea, and just outside of a small town called Niland is a location some call "the place of last resort."

“Where are you going?” a deputy asked a New York Times reporter, even though the officer already knew the answer since the road they both sat on led to just one place. “The best thing to do,” he advised, “is to turn around.”

What’s become a refuge for free-spirits, degenerates, the unemployed, those wishing to remain anonymous and off-the-grid, and, now, foreclosure victims whose home loans failed them, is a barren wasteland known as Slab City—and it’s the home to a group of people in an environment unlike any other.

Despite its name, Slab City isn’t a city at all, but instead a collection of outcasts and nomadic residents who have banded together on a land owned by nobody in an attempt to live within a community separated from the hassles—and amenities—of everyday life.

Post-Apocalyptic Society

To develop a mental image of Slab City, imagine what the world would look like post-apocalypse. If that picture was influenced by the infamous trio of movies featuring Mel Gibson as Mad Max then that mental image is probably looking pretty accurate.



Slab City, called such due to the large concrete remnants of the World War II military training base, Camp Dunlap, is now a barren wasteland, filled with sporadically parked run-down trailers, wheel chairs, recliners, rusted barbeques, graffiti, wooden crates, shredded couches, and make-shift buildings crafted from rubber tires, particle board, and other pieces of discarded debris.

“There ain’t no rules,” Cole Robertson, a retired 72-year-old construction worker told a NY Times reporter. Roberston told tales of his neighbors, ranging from old transvestites, recluses who hear voices, and even a “no-good” who tied his kid to a tree and left him to bake in the sun.

The other residents of Slab City prove to adhere to no cookie-cutter frame or common stereotype either. With inhabitants of men and women, consisting of both young and old, singles and families, liberals and conservatives, believers and atheists, home loan borrowers and nomadic travelers, and everything from musicians to magicians, this desolate location is America’s true mixing pot.

‘The Last Truly Free Place in America’

“When I first got here,” began Sandra “Sandi” Andrews, 61, a mother of eight without a retirement plan, as reported by the Time Magazine, “I thought this is a whole new planet, there’s no place like it.”

After three years of roughing it in Slab City, Andrews claims she’s living on less than $100 a month and making an income by selling her paintings out of her converted bus-turned-art-studio to tourists and other residents.

“This is the last truly free place in America,” another resident named Jim Merton told the LA Times.

The phrase “It’s the last truly free place in America” may not be too far from the truth either. Victims of the 2007 economic meltdown are suffering all across the nation, but Slab City residents have turned their back on corporate imprisonment and stress caused by debt. Home loans, credit cards, utility bills, city regulations, and even law enforcement are non-existent. Ad hoc structures that adhere to no planning codes populate the landscape and make up many of the community-shared buildings. And paid off RV’s requiring no mortgage loans are what most call “home.”

“I can smoke some weed, drink some beer, be loud and rowdy, skinny-dip in the canal, and there’s nobody to tell me I can’t have fun,” said Merton.

The free-spirit lifestyle is very prevalent amongst “Slabbers.”

On a Saturday evening, it’s not uncommon for the residents—and tourists—to make their way to what’s called the Range. In the black of night, where no street lamps guide their way, excited guests shuffle to the stage built out of one of the famous slabs of concrete that contributed to the city’s illustrative moniker.

The Range’s stage is the community’s gathering point, where every weekend there are artists boasting many different talents who put on performances for their audiences that sit in ripped-up couches and bench seats lifted from abandoned trucks.

“It’s kind of like living in a carnival here,” said “Drummer Gene” Malone to a Salon reporter. “I’ve always been in bands, and now I get to play and not deal with anything else. What could be better than that?”

The audience at the Range couldn’t agree more. Mothers, children, drunks, preachers, tweakers, recluses, long-time residents, and brand new visitors all enjoy the music and performances the Range has to offer.

Everybody attending the Range seems happy, but it’s a sad façade—a mere break from the reality that brought them to the Slabs in the first place.

Behind the on-beat clapping, the dancing, and the large smiles rests the reasons that drove everybody to the location nestled in Southern California’s hostile desert.

“It’s the economy, stupid,” said one newcomer to a Salon reporter who asked what brought him to Slab City.

The economy is a reason shared by many of the Slab’s migrants.

It’s exactly what brought “Chicago” Joe Angio and his wife to this life away from life. The two are both college-educated, they once owned a business, a house, two cars, and were debt free aside from a home loan payment. Then after the economy crashed, they lost their jobs, fell behind on their home mortgage loan, and struggled just to keep their basic utilities going. As they defaulted on their home loan and foreclosure was imminent, they decided they needed to act. They sold everything, bought an RV, and made their way to Slab City.

This experience is not uncommon amongst other residents. Victims of foreclosure and failed mortgage loans are becoming more and more common in this off-the-grid location. Debt and creditors seem unable to track Slabbers, and once one owns an RV free-and-clear, there’s no such thing as a home loan or any equivalent.

That’s the reason why a 25-year-old woman from Kansas hitchhiked all the way to the Slabs. She told a Salon reporter that she didn’t want to worry about paying bills all the time. A home loan, to this group, acts as little more than galvanized steel shackles.

“It’s not a lifestyle for everyone,” Chicago Joe told a Time Magazine reporter. “But this lifestyle has grown on us tremendously.”

The couple, who used to live on $4,000 a month and who were weighed down by a heavy, impotent home loan are now able to get by on just $200 a month—which, as the Time Magazine reporter explained, is less than the couple’s electricity bill on their previous house.

Slab City, the desolate refuge for those that society often rejects and who reject society themselves, is a strange place many never would have thought existed. As unusual as it seems, its existence shouldn’t be that unexpected, as much of the nation’s lower- and middle-class have had their lives devastated by failed mortgage loans, credit card debt, lost jobs, or a combination of all of those reasons and more. Slab City is the debt-free dwelling of those who reject society’s norms, and dare say, “I will not be burdened by home loans, money, materialism, or corporate greed.”