The structures appear mirage-like on the horizon. First a single tent, seemingly burnt pale by years of neglect in the desert sun. Then a few miles down the road a camper van decorated with two skeletons perched on the roof, holding the American flag.
As I approach, more dwellings appear – three, four – in small groups, or spread out at random. Maybe 50 or 100 in total. A sprawling mass of reclusive humanity lay hidden within, not yet visible to a casual visitor.
I had become fascinated by Slab City after I first heard about it in the film Into the Wild. The Slabs, as it’s known, is a largely transient community of vagabonds and vagrants living on the remains of an abandoned army base in the California Badlands. This concept of disconnecting from the norm disturbed yet excited me. Here was a group of individuals who, by their own admission, had given up what most of us strive to hold on to – jobs, loved ones, material possessions. What was their goal? What was their reasoning? These and many other questions run through my mind as I park the car next to a sign that reads ‘East Jesus’.
Leaving the relative safety of the car, I head down a small dirt track towards a collection of caravans clustered loosely together. The heat is oppressive and seems to suck the moisture from my very bones. Rusted old junkers with smashed windows and missing tyres line one side of the road. Children’s dolls with their limbs torn off lie scattered in the dirt, and an ancient couch with one spring protruding proudly from the stuffing sits miserably to one side. I notice a plastic camp chair with the words ‘Welcome to Camp Deal with the Devil’ scribbled on the underside in
I am still busy taking it all in when I hear the unmistakable sound of voices, angry voices. The last thing I want to do is cause any trouble – me, some kid fresh from the urban world somehow getting caught up in a desert brawl. My overactive imagination plays out the discussion about what to do with my body: ‘We can just bury him out back, or leave him for the vultures.’