The snowbirds who gravitate to Slab City in the Sonoran Desert in California are not your usual run-of-the-mill types that have condos in the Coachella Valley. But snowbirds, those looking to escape their harsh winter climates by moving to a desert locale for the winter, come in many variations. Those who turn up in Slab City are often at the lower end of the income scale: squatters, tweakers, and down-on-their-luck types. With winter numbers swelling to close to 4000 in recent years (attributable no doubt to hard times and recession), some of the 200 full-time residents who call Slab City home year round are very much into living an off-the-grid self-sustainable life. And fair play to them.
About an hour’s drive from the Mexican Border and within a couple of hundred miles of San Diego and Los Angeles, Slab City is in the California Bandlands, set on state lands that were once home to Camp Dunlap, a US Marine base that at its height during WWII ‘housed a laboratory for testing how well concrete survived in the harsh climate of the Sonoran Desert’. All that’s left are the concrete slabs the buildings once sat upon. There’s no electricity, no running water, no sewer system. No one pays rates or utilities or taxes. It’s as off the grid as you can get while still being a community.
En route from Maricopa AZ to San Diego CA, we stopped off for the night. I was curious. Himself didn’t need much convincing. Slab City was something we both wanted to experience. Solar power and generators fuel the Internet service that has some locals offering AirBnB. We stayed at the California Ponderosa, hosted by the wonderful Rodney Spyder and his wife Shannon. The dirt roads out of the nearest town, Niland, gave us some inkling of what to expect. Spyder’s repeated warnings on his site left us under little illusion that this wouldn’t be quite what we’ve gotten used to. But it was an experience. An eight-year resident of Slab City, he bought the place about a year ago from the original owner George, a Viet Nam vet who arrived in Slab City back in 2012 and opened the Ponderosa for business in 2015. We’d booked ourselves into the Littlest Barn in the Desert and weathered the winter night by bedding into the bottom bunk. With a single light and a couple of USB ports, we had what we needed. The outhouse was a walk away and the shower, if we’d wanted one, required 10 minutes’ notice. There was a kitchen we could have used to cook and an outdoor living room to sit and chat.
That night, we sat around the fire swapping stories. The conversation was a tad surreal running the gamut from arrest warrants, acid trips, and the upcoming Slab City prom, to using the innards of a washing machine to build a fire pit.
Spyder took me on a tour of the Ponderosa, introducing me to Willy the pig who miraculously sired 11 piglets after supposedly being fixed. He and Miss Piggy are part of Spyder’s plan to be living sustainably in Slab City within five years – no need to go to town, except for gas, he says. And water. He has plans for an aquaponics system, with some 4000 gallons of water he can use to irrigate his veg and plants, raise Koi, and use to keep cool in the summer. He has some chickens on the go, and his AirBnB Superhost status gets him a steady stream of visitors. He’s teaching himself guitar and most nights, the fire is lit and the stories flow sweetly with the music. Shannon makes Chilli on a Tuesday. Pretty much every night someone somewhere in the Slabs is singing or cooking and seems like everyone’s invited.
The trouble with the world, he reckons, is that people ‘just don’t show enough gratuity’. But he wasn’t talking tips, he was talking thanks. Voicing or showing simple appreciation for what they have and what they’re given. Nothing more. Neighbourly respect is very much part life in Slab City. People look out for each other. They swap and trade skills and barter for what they need. And while all those we spoke to had nothing good to say about the tweakers (meth heads), the air was pungent with pot and there was no shortage of sharers.
Unlike many of Slab City’s residents, Spyder and his family live there year round. They’ve tried leaving a few times, but the Slabs have a hold on him. Back in the day, he’d planned to be ordained a preacher but life happened. Originally from the East Coast (Maine, Rhode Island), he made a decent living as a scrap merchant, something that definitely helps him in Slab City. He has an eye for junk and how it can be turned into art. A fan of the TV series, The Ranch, he plans on modelling his entrance to the Ponderosa on that of Beau Bennett’s place. ‘Ponderosa’ he told me ‘means family.’ And I suppose, urban use and Ben Cartwright’s Bonanza have made it so. ‘I want to leave a legacy, a place where people can get away’ he added. And Slab City is certainly that.
We came. We saw. And we’re talking about going back for a few weeks sometime. It’s on the list.