The peeps split for a few days and left me here in THE HOTTEST PLACE in America right now: El Centro California, in the Imperial Valley. The city is 39 feet below sea level, and it’s been 100+ degrees since they left.
What does one do when left alone in the Imperial Valley? Explore of course. Learn some stuff. Look at art. Listen to music. Work hard and help some new friends. Watch the sunrises and sunsets. Take photos. Sweat. A lot.
After taking care of business, and checking out a bit of the town, I headed north to Niland California via Brawley (Cattle Call!). Niland is even lower than El Centro … 141 feet below sea level.
Not much in town, just a small grocery store and a motel that doesn’t seem to be in biz anymore, but it’s hard to tell these days. Yet, Niland lives, partly because of it’s symbiotic relationship with it’s neighboring community: Slab City. Niland is the bridge between “the slabs” and the rest of the world.
Slab City isn’t a “city” by any normal definition. There’s no government, there are no utilities, and there’s little sense of order at first glance. There IS a “welcome sign” and a world famous point of interest. And there is a small church, an internet cafe, a coffee shop, an art gallery, and an outdoor music venue that rocks every Saturday night starting at sundown.
But most importantly, there are people living there. Real people. They come from all over, and for all kinds of reasons, but the binder is this: Slab City is “The Last Free Place in America”. Not “free” as in money (although no one pays anyone else to live there), but free as in freedom. Look up “Slab City” on the internet and you’ll see plenty of references and discussion, but here’s my experience there.
I pulled into Slab City Friday morning. The first thing I see is an abandoned guard shack left over from the days when this property was a Marine base after WWII. It’s been closed and abandoned since the ’50’s and the state of California owns the land, but currently does nothing with it. Nothing.
I move up the road and see “Salvation Mountain”.
Again, look it up … you won’t believe what you read. But it’s real; it’s totally out of place in the middle of the desert so you can’t ignore it. I stop in. Walk around. Take pictures. I see a shack and there’s someone in the shade, so I go see. I meet Ella.
Ella is a docent, there to explain to the multitude of visitors what this thing is all about. She asks where I’m from and we share an “OMG” moment. Ella is from upstate New York, Watertown area in fact. But cooler still, she knows all about my hometown Rochester … her aunt, niece, sister … I’m not sure I remember which, owns the greek pastry shop (Savoia’s) right at the end of MY STREET!! She loves the Frog Pond restaurant on Park Ave, and even shares a secret about the area with me.
We chat for at least an hour or more, about snow up north, dust and heat in Slab City, and how her health has improved since moving to the desert. Ella has lived on the slabs for three years full time now. She loves it. Her husband, a 95 year old Canadian spends the summer in Canada but is due to return to the slabs in a few days. She’s proud that even at 95, he’s “built like a brick shithouse” and easily passes for 65. Looks like desert weather works for him too. He’s lived in the slabs for 50 years.
Ella invites me to join a work party / pizza party in the morning. A section of the mountain has collapsed and is under reconstruction. I say of course, I’ll be there.
I cruise down the ragged road through the slabs.
After wandering about and marvelling at some of the solutions residents have devised for shelter …
EJ is an outdoor art exhibit. My friend Kathy – artist, gallery director, and all-round awesome college professor and human being back home – almost certainly knows of this place. If not, I gotta drag her out here. Here’s some photos.
I could go, and on …
Getting close to sundown, I find a spot in the slabs to park the RV for the night. As I’m standing outside the RV watching the sunset over the Chocolate Mountains, and the Navy missle range between me and the mountains, a couple in a beat up hatchback slowly drive by me, wave and say “Hello Neighbor” before parking in front of a beat up sofa about 100 feet on the other side of a sagebrush. I saw that sofa earlier and noticed it had a couple sleeping bags on it. It didn’t occur to me that it was actually someone’s home. It suddenly occurred to me NOW that there are no flies. No flying bugs of any kind! Then I realized that so many “homes” on the slabs have wide open doors, or maybe just a curtain for privacy but no attempt is made to keep bugs out. They aren’t there. Must be it’s too hot for even bugs to survive out here. So, I guess a sofa in the desert is a good enough place to hang your hat at night.
I have no electric hook-up … no one does here … so I open all the windows and let the evening breeze do what it can to cool the RV for the night. It’s been 100+ degrees all day so it begins to get tolerable in the RV by … oh, say … 6am.
Sunrise at 6:20am.
Eight in the morning, I’m at the mountain and ready to work. I meet the boss of the project, Builder Bill. I meet several others, some residents, some friendly supporters, and some transients like me. We get to work making adobe (that word still makes me giggle over a year after retirement from the college computer gig), hauling it up to the mountain, and slapping it on.
We also do some interesting “painting” of the top of the mountain to help seal out invasion of water. (What water? It NEVER rains in sunny southern California, right?)
Hard work. People are exhausted and overheated by 11:30, and donuts, pizza and sodas arrive. We chow down, distribute leftover pizza to anyone who likes, I grab a couple extra cokes to stuff in the RV fridge and after lots of encouragement to come to the Range tonight, I agree to show up later, then head out to explore.
There’s a movie called Bombay Beach. I haven’t seen it, but I know it was shot at a strange and forboding place nearby. I’ve seen photos and heard the story of the real life (real death) town, and I can’t miss seeing it myself.
Down I go, down to the edge of the Salton Sea.
Elevation MINUS 226 feet!. A “former” beach town, Bombay Beach is now protected from the Salton Sea by a dike that wraps around the town on three sides. I’m not sure if it’s meant to keep out the sea (which seems to be drying up, if anything) or it’s a futile attempt to keep out the smell of the millions of dead fish washed up on the shores. Let’s say there’s no need for lifeguards on THIS beach.
Strangely, they say the sea has lots of fish … tilapia in fact … and that’s why there are so many birds, including white pelicans and a hundred or more avian species living here.
It’s on a migratory route, as I learned from visiting the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge on the way back to El Centro the following day. I saw a bobcat too.
I cruised the streets of town, and having seen plenty of death, I was looking for signs of life.
I saw three people. One was the friendly guy in the grocery store. Another was a guy walking shirtless and barefoot to his trailerhome’s backyard. Another was an old woman, shuffling down the street, smoking a cigarette, and saying something unintelligible but clearly course as we passed. Have you ever seen one of those movies where there was a quick flash of an image of someone’s face that was truely scary?
Yeah, it was like that.
I got a few snapshots for memory sake but nothing creative. Couldn’t get comfortable here. Decided to GTF outta here. Hit the road back to Slab City where I was beginning to feel very welcomed, safe and at home. Whoa!
Picked a new campsite just a short walk from The Range. Builder Bill, busy guy, runs this open air music stage. EVERY Saturday night is open mic night for any talented residents and it seems visiting guests as well. And it was GREAT! Even though the summer head-count at the slabs is only a couple hundred (swells to a couple THOUSAND when the snowbirds return in the winter), the place was packed! Bill, Ella and MJ (all co-workers at the morning’s work-party) saw me sitting there and came over to chat. And all three were on stage performing at one point or another. Ella sings, MJ drums, and Bill plays a mean guitar.
I didn’t stay too long as I wanted to get up early, catch the sunrise again …
and hit the road back to El Centro. Things to do. But the music played till late at night. Not enough to keep me awake too much, but comforting to know new friends are nearby and having a great time.
As I sat in a laundrymat the next morning in Brawley, and hoping that the paint and adobe will wash out of my sox and shorts, I start thinking I could have stayed just one more day and night on the slabs, for free of course, and saved another $45 fee at a RV park in EC where I am now.
But that’s just searching for justification.
Freedom requires no such thing.