Slab City California: The Last Free Place
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Slab City California – Free and Unique
Residents like to call Slab City “The Last Free Place”. It may not be the only free place to camp or boondock for the winter, but it’s surely a unique place and it's definitely free! Retired RVers like us are always on the lookout for cheap places to camp in warm climates to spend the winter, so when we heard people talking about Slab City in desert of southeastern California and the 3000 thousand snowbirds who gathered there in the winter, we perked up our ears. We were also curious about the famous Salvation Mountain, a folk art edifice erected at the entrance of Slab City. As we were camped on the shores of the Salton Sea in southern California, it was an easy drive to Niland, California to check out Slab City.
Everyone Welcome to Slab City
A handmade sign at the entrance road to Slab City claims, “Welcome to Slab City, The Last Free Place” and it truly is a mecca for those who want freedom from the humdrum life of the average suburban or city dweller.
Slab City is one of the unique places in the U.S. It’s located in southeastern California on the east side of the Salton Sea in the Colorado Desert. It is 121 feet below sea level. Originally a World War II Marine base, when Camp Dunlap Marine was decommissioned by the military, a group of service men continued to live there. It has been inhabited ever since.
Slab City Residents
RV'ers Live Free and Off the Grid in Slab City
There are about one hundred and fifty permanent residents who live in Slab City year around, braving triple digit temperatures in the summer months, but the majority of the residents are the RV snowbirds who start arriving as early as October to spend the winter boondocking in the hot, dry climate. Permanent residents make their livings in a variety of novel ways. A few collect and sell junk and scrap metal. Others might be migrant workers. Others have small pensions to support themselves. What they do all have in common is their staunch belief that Slab City is a place of true democracy. Everyone is free to live as they please as long as they don't intrude upon the liberty of others.
Retirees and snowbirds who winter in Slab City have to be resourceful and adventurous. There are no gates or guards, no public services, water, sewer or propane. There are no police or other public services. Residents of Slab City must live off the grid. Many RV'ers who winter in Slab City use solar panels or small windmills to generate their electricity. Others use propane or gas generators for electrical needs.
Although lacking in community services, there is a sense of community spirit in Slab City. It may seem rough and lawless, but permanent and winter residents have formed a community that is evident by signs on the bulletin board advertising free jam sessions, occasional potluck gatherings. A community church has been formed and holds services in a roughly built community center. There is also a library and book exchange operated by some residents. Other activities are organized by volunteers, both permanent and temporary.
Driving through the area, you see hundreds of rigs of all ages and conditions. There might be 40-year old trailers or very new and expensive motor homes. Some residents look like they live there full time and have set up little yards decorated with cactus or various kinds of junk sculptures. There's a church and someone has set up a library. One place has several old vehicles decorated with all kinds of shiny found items like hubcaps, bicycle parts and car parts. (see picture) Others are set in the midst of trash and various cast offs from years gone by. We dared not ask where people dumped their waste water or sewage, hopefully, at a dump station in Niland, but some places didn't look movable.
Camping in the Desert
Niland, California - The Closest Town
The tiny town of Niland, California is about three miles away. Campers at Slab City can get propane and use the ATM at the gas station at the south end of Niland. Post office boxes can be rented by those who are there for several months. There is a dump station at the fairgrounds available for a $3.00 fee. Water is available at the grocery store, but you can also pay the local water company to rent and deliver a water tank to your site. There is a free dump and water station about twelve miles south of Niland at a rest stop.
The slabs for which Slab City is named are concrete slabs that used to be the floors of military offices and housing units. The buildings were removed long ago, but the slabs remain to be commandeered by RV'ers who use them as parking pads or patios in front of their RVs.
While there are many BLM (Bureau of Land Management) areas in the Southwest that have dispersed camping and are well used by Snowbirds (See Camping Cheap), there is no place quite like Slab City. Little communities spring up, sometimes consisting of people traveling together or coming from a common location. They might form a group around one of the slabs where they can hold get-togethers or gather in a group in an open area. Some permanent residents have erected shelters for their belongings, or have commandeered one of the bunkers for shelter and storage. Here and there, you will find items lined up for sale or trade as people are always trying to supplement their incomes.
Salvation Mountain Folk Art at Slab City
Near the eastern entrance to Slab City is Salvation Mountain, a most amazing piece of work created by Slab City resident, Leonard Knight. He built Salvation Mountain and it’s outlying “rooms” out of straw, adobe, tree limbs and found objects. Then he covered the whole thing with numerous layers of paint which seems to be the glue that holds it all together.
Leonard’s cheerful and primitive paintings
and collages decorate both insides and outsides of the structures. He has worked in a collage of biblical
quotes, folk art flowers and hearts and his own message of love. Looking past the religious aspect of his
creation, it is an incredible folk art monument with verses, flowers, trees,
windows, rooms and collages. He claims to have used over a 100,000 gallons of
paint on it. Numerous empty cans of paint, all donated, stand in the courtyard as evidence of the quantity of paint he's used.
Leonard Knight, Slab City Folk Artist
Leonard Knight, originally from Vermont, came to Slab City thirty plus years ago. He is a rugged 78 year old maverick who looks solemn and full of fire and brimstone. But his twinkling eyes give him away. In reality, he is hospitable, good-natured, witty and creative. His mission when he came to Slab City was to erect a cross on top of a small bluff. Today Leonard's project has gown into a mountain; a spectacular edifice of foraged wood, straw and adobe covered with paint and decorated with folk art. Salvation Mountain has been a work in progress for more than thirty years.
Leonard has become an internationally known folk artist whose work has been documented by museums, art critics and journalists. Amazingly, there is a steady stream of visitors who travel to this remote setting to see his creation and meet this eccentric, likable artist. He gives a personal tour to each group of visitors and welcomes questions, comments and pictures.
Leonard Knight and Salvation Mountain Photos
Niland California, Three Miles from Slab City
Slab City is not on the map, but it is located about 3 miles south of Niland, California. Locals can point the way.
Leonard Knight's Museum
Leonard himself gave us a tour of the inside of his "museum". At the end of his tour he encourages everyone to climb to the top on his yellow brick staircase and then to come over to his van to see him. We were a little hesitant to stop in to see him fearing that we’d be in for either a sermon or a plea for money, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. At his van, Leonard thanked us for visiting and gave out postcards, a CD and a picture puzzle of his mountain. There is no hint of asking for an admission fee or donation, though he graciously accepted a donation when it was offered. He thanked us all for coming, saying that we made his day!
We took many photographs of his bright and cheerful paintings which create a joyful oasis in the desert. It was like visiting a small piece of the Land of Oz, and we all left smiling.
Salvation Mountain Poll
Have you been to Salvation Mountain?
If you visit...
Although we did not camp there the year we visited, we could see groups of RVers congregating together in the same way that they do at other dispersed camping locations in Arizona on BLM land. There might be several rigs from the same state, or a group circled together flying a Canadian flag. Other people, loners, find a spot in the vast desert away from other rigs.
For those who think they might like to come here to take advantage of the free camping, be forewarned, it's an acquired taste. But it's definitely worth a trip out of your way to walk up Salvation Mountain, talk to Leonard Knight and see Slab City, "The Last Free Place."
This article Copyright ©2011 by Stephanie Henkel
Update on Leonard Knight and Salvation Mountain
In December 2011, Leonard Knight was placed in a long-term care facility in el Cajon, CA for dementia. The future of his life's work, Salvation Mountain, is uncertain.
A group of local residents near Niland, California, concerned about the future of Salvation mountain, have formed a non-profit board to help preserve the project. There are complex issues surrounding the folk art. At the moment, no one knows who really owns the land where Salvation Mountain stands; is it state land or federal land? Another problem is that Salvation Mountain is built of somewhat unstable materials which will deteriorate over time if not maintained. The board feels that there should be a full time caretaker in residence at the mountain, but without funds, they are unable to hire someone.
The fate of Salvation mountain is, at present, uncertain. As more information becomes available, I will update this segment of the article.