Snowbirding 101

Good, bad and . . . bizarre

After a decade of reluctance, Lynne Benjamin finally experiences Slab City

For almost 10 years we had heard about The Slabs or Slab City (as it is called) and for almost 10 years we avoided staying there.

But when our friends Diane and Andy said how much they enjoyed their time there, we thought we might as well give it a shot.

Slab City is situated about three miles outside Niland, California, on an old military installation—Camp Dunlap—that was built during the second World War and abandoned shortly after. It may be the time of year or just the time of man, but everything around there—the buildings, the desert, many of the people—gives the impression of being worn out, burned out and/or abandoned.

In 1946, everyone and everything that could be moved was taken over to Camp Pendleton, California. So now we have a section of desolate land (one square mile) with nothing on it but the occasional water tank or bunker that couldn’t be sold or moved and a collection of concrete slabs where more than 30 buildings used to be— thus the name Slab City or The Slabs.

We followed Diane and Andy’s directions and found Ray Hound Road. Chili Bob, Mary and Rich were there with a very welcoming evening fire.

“Would you like me to take you on a tour?” asked Chili Bob.

No rules, no fees

Despite its name, Slab City is nothing like an official city. In fact, part of the attraction is that there are no rules and no fees—so they say.

The first place Bob took us was the main library. The woman who started the library died and is buried right there in the front yard.

Next we went out to Gopher Flats, the 18-hole golf course next to the military bombing range. Each (gopher) hole is marked with a red flag. It is reputed to be quite a challenging course.

Bob was going to take us out to the mud volcanoes but we had been out there last year. Instead we visited the Queen of the Slabs and her daily yard and tool sale. Many, many of the folks who stay out on the Slabs have pets—especially dogs—and like most living things, pets die. There is a pet cemetery dedicated to the memories of these treasured friends and I was told that there may be some human ashes there as well—people who wanted to spend eternity with their best friends.

It’s interesting how communities evolve and how various social conventions develop. Selected sections are cordoned off—some with yellow tape, some with old tires outlining the perimeter and some where you are simply made to feel uncomfortable if you are not part of the group. Still others have signs posted—for example, the area where the LOW’s (Loners on Wheels) stay; another where they call themselves Escapees; others where people with ATVs gather; and still others for naturalists who reject the use of generators. There is one area that has been tagged Poverty Flats; another is called Beverly Hills. Almost every form and description of housing exists. Dwellings constructed from recycled, rejected materials stand beside motorhomes valued at close to three-quarters of a million dollars.

There are two separate music stages, two libraries, a church, a café and various businesses, including a solar sales shop.

A vibrant destination

If it stands still long enough, it will have graffiti on it, be decorated or painted (usually with some startling colour of donated paint).

The Oasis is one such gathering place. This is the place where a bunch from our group goes to have breakfast and play poker once a week. The trailer that sat out front used to be white but someone donated some cans of paint and just before we left it became interesting shades of pink, lavender and yellow.

You can't say the folks are not creative—where else would you see vehicles decorated with absolutely everything imaginable?

The most famous construction at Slab City is Salvation Mountain, which stands on your right just before you get to the entrance to Slab City. It has been featured in a number of documentaries as well as the movie Into the Wild, and is resident Leonard Knight’s artistic tribute to his Christian faith. There are always vehicles parked and people walking up to see the mountain.

Our stay there was fascinating and an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world. But now we’re off to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to stalk the elusive desert wildflowers.

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