Hot Place in the Sun

Slab city and its neighborhoods: Poverty Flats, Niland Heights, Little Canada, Slab City Singles, and Drop Seven and Drop Eight

By 5:00 a.m. the place sounds like the Chicken Tabernacle Choir.
  • By 5:00 a.m. the place sounds like the Chicken Tabernacle Choir.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

The roosters start at exactly 4:52 a.m. At first it’s just one restless old bird grumping about the long winter night. But before long, his rabble-rousing has stirred every chicken within a mile of town. By 5:00 a.m. the place sounds like the Chicken Tabernacle Choir, and nobody in Slab City can sleep. At least nobody with his hearing aid on.

Slab City takes its name from the building slabs left over from Fort Dunlop Army Base, one of the places where General Patton trained his tank troops during World War II.

Slab City takes its name from the building slabs left over from Fort Dunlop Army Base, one of the places where General Patton trained his tank troops during World War II.

The night was cool, as winter nights usually are on this patch of creosote-covered desert between the Chocolate Mountains and the Salton Sea. But the cold won’t last. Yesterday the high in Pocatello was twenty degrees. Salt Lake City got up to twenty-three. Calgary was twenty-seven. Denver was a balmy thirty-six. But yesterday in glamorous Slab City, that Palm Springs on wheels, where snowbirds and chickens from all over the West make their winter roost, the temperature was a perfect seventy-one.

Rusty Lee Jones is the closest thing to a mayor Slab City has, and he doesn’t like to hear anything bad about the  town.

Rusty Lee Jones is the closest thing to a mayor Slab City has, and he doesn’t like to hear anything bad about the town.

“Ah, there ain’t so many chickens,” Rusty Lee Jones drawls. Rusty is about the closest thing to a mayor Slab City has, and he doesn’t like to hear anything bad said about the strange little town he has come to love. He pulls up his easy chair to a place facing the good, free, plentiful desert sun. “There used to be a lot more chickens running wild,” he recalls. Then, with a sly grin, he adds, “I don’t know what happened to them. They ain’t around anymore, though.”

An eccentric craftsman from Washington, about forty years old, who has his entire wood shop in the back of an old school bus, earns his living by making novelty windmills.

An eccentric craftsman from Washington, about forty years old, who has his entire wood shop in the back of an old school bus, earns his living by making novelty windmills.

Rusty’s an easygoing fellow who has a talent for getting along with folks. He spends his days sitting under the awning of his fifth-wheel trailer, registering newly arrived residents at Slab City. He listens to people’s problems, offers information and advice, and wishes everybody well. He’s too laid back to be a politician. He wasn’t elected, and he doesn’t get paid. He’s a volunteer. Nobody in Slab City does anything they don’t want to do.

Rusty estimates this winter there are about 2000 RV rigs at Slab City.

Rusty estimates this winter there are about 2000 RV rigs at Slab City.

“Everything on this card is strictly confidential,” he explains to a newcomer. “If you don’t want your wife Wanda to know you’re at Slab City, then Wanda won’t know. It’s just in case of an emergency, then we’ll know where to find you.”

An enterprising young man, working out of an old bus, has cornered the solar panel market.

An enterprising young man, working out of an old bus, has cornered the solar panel market.

The new arrival, a retirement-aged man whose wife is waiting in their RV, listens carefully to Rusty’s explanation, then politely declines. “No thanks,” he says. “I guess I’ve filled out enough cards in my time.”

Rusty understands. “No problem,” he smiles. “Whatever you want. There’s no rules here.”

The hookers and lookers moved their lawn chairs over to the main drag and began selling their crafts to the gawkers and looky-loos.

The hookers and lookers moved their lawn chairs over to the main drag and began selling their crafts to the gawkers and looky-loos.

Almost everything about Slab City runs contrary to the normal patterns of modem, civilized communities. There are no property taxes, no land ownership, no rent, no sales tax, no building codes, no sewer or water systems, no electricity, no paved streets, no mail delivery, no telephones, no elected officials, no jails, and no work. There are organized horseshoe games.

Leonard, the Preacher, lives in a camper that he has decorated to look something like a gypsy wagon.

Leonard, the Preacher, lives in a camper that he has decorated to look something like a gypsy wagon.

Just about the only semblance of community planning in Slab City is the grid-work of dirt roads that marks off residential sections about the size of city blocks. Within the sections, the residents can set up their homes anywhere they like. Some huddle together in clans, others prefer privacy. Overall, the population density in Slab City’s 640 acres is probably about the same as any small town.

Leonard spends most of his time working on a kind of Christian Mt. Rushmore.

Leonard spends most of his time working on a kind of Christian Mt. Rushmore.

The residents of Slab City don’t look like people living on the radical fringes of society, though that's exactly what they are. Most of them are retired grandmothers and grandfathers who can brag, as Rusty does, of not having had even a parking ticket for twenty-five years. It’s almost as though, after a lifetime of perfectly normal behavior, they suddenly decided to chuck it all and become nomadic anarchists, pursuing their vision of absolute freedom in a place that, as one of them put it, “would be worthless desert if there weren’t so many of us living here.’’

“You gotta live it to believe it,’’ Rusty says. “I never woulda thought I’d be living like this someday. My wife and I stopped here in the fall, about six years ago, just to check the place out. Ended up staying five months, and been back every year since. A lotta people here have had the same experience. Stay here a week, and you’ll never wanna leave. The place grows on you.”

Maybe such strange behavior is the inevitable rebellion against a lifetime of conformity, of getting to work on time and paying the bills month after month. Or maybe it’s just senility. It’s hard to say what’s gotten into old people these days. At any rate, the citizens of Slab City have created a town that has almost none of the stress and tension found in most cities.

“Oh,” Rusty says with a wave of his hand, “you put four or five thousand people together and you’re gonna have some squabbles. But in a city where you own the property you live on, you gotta put up with your neighbors. Here, if you don’t like who’s living next to your RV, you just move. That’s why they all got wheels on ’em!”

It’s not unusual in Slab City to see a retired executive living in a $100,000 RV, complete with solar panels and satellite-dish TV, right next to a family of die-hard hippies living in a broken-down school bus with their children, chickens, and goats. “Everybody here’s equal,” Rusty says. “It don’t matter if you got a million bucks in the bank or living on social security. You never know. Some old boy you see walking down the road in a pair of bib overalls is liable to be a retired bank president.”

Slab City takes its unpretentious name from the dozens of concrete building slabs left over from Fort Dunlop Army Base, one of the places where General Patton trained his tank troops during World War II. In the Fifties, after the base was torn down, the land was returned to the State of California, which owns it today. Before long, desert campers and weekend fishermen visiting the Salton Sea learned that the concrete slabs made clean and convenient places to set up camps. Guests staying at the hot-spring spas north of Niland used to organize dances on the slabs, and, eventually, retired people began hauling their trailers out to the slabs to spend the winter.

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