Dec

21

 In Utopia everything is perfect. The word was first used in the a book Utopia in 1516 by Sir Thomas More, and now on a cactus pocked square mile of desert in southern California 200 residents say they have the last word on the ultimate utopia, 121' below sea level teetered on the southern end of the San Andreas fault.

The features of utopias throughout the ages include:

Right to do whatever a person wants
Lack of religion
Equality among people
The people are the government
Information, independent thought, and freedom
Abundant supply of necessities
No forced work and available time to achieve anything
Harmony
No fear of the outside world

Some argue that a utopian society has no social evils. This is where Slab City totters between utopia and dystopia. The eleven characteristics that distinguish Slab City from its predecessors are:

Salvation Mountain
No Rules
State ownership of land
 Highest per capita arson in USA
Best metal scrapping on the Chocolate Mt. Bombing Range
Highest per capita methamphetamine use in the nation
Largest illegal alien smuggling rings
Hottest temperatures at 125F in the shade
Coachella Canal which runs uphill
Probably the highest number of warrants per capita
Most per capita bogus SSI claimants.

 A walk through Slab City demonstrates these features. My day begins by rising with the sun and hiking three hours through the open desert in a no-man's land between Slab City and the Chocolate Mt. Bombing Range. The air is incredibly clear, fresh and cool. After the hot summer, you breathe it like drinking cool water. Creosote bushes pepper the desert floor reaching two stories and the highest I've seen in the world. In the early 1960s, a chemical company in Oakland hired 20 men to harvest creosote leaves near Niland, CA. Some workers moved closer to work by living in small trailers at the abandoned military Camp Dunlap. This was the start of what was called Niland Flats, then the Slabs, and now Slab City. I've planted sunflowers gardens at two secret springs that are beginning to bloom. There are also Broadcast flowers at a penny a seed that you cast near moisture and are rewarded a month later with many colorful faces.

A person coming out of wild country into town develops a righteousness of things. First I swim across the icy Coachella Canal. Entering Slab City is like hitting a brick wall. Suddenly you're in a green cloud of marijuana fumes. In H.G. Wells' In the Days of the Comet the collision of earth with a comet releases a mysterious green gas that transforms and purifies human nature and utopia follows. These are the highlights of today's walk:

 First a stroll through the green cloud on the 18-hole golf course of total sand traps with ATV's in place of golf carts and hula-hoop holes. Then to the Anarchist Library to check for new Louis L'amour titles, and across the dirt track for an hour at the Internet Cafe. By this hour the adjacent Sunrise Coffee House is vacated of snowbirds, but the Skateboard Park is rolling. The park is General Patton's abandoned 50-meter swimming pool with slides of concrete culverts and jumps off burned cars. On to the hot springs to glance at the naked girls next to Salvation Mountain. Up on the hill, the cosmopolitan Slab City Hostel, Ponderosa Acoustic Guitar Circle, and a shantytown Air B&B are listed in tourist guides, alongside the Blue Church and East Jesus Sculpture Garden. Everything is run off the grid on solar, propane, a handful of generators, and firewood. This walk is through a shadow media that provides the truth about what's going on America.

I identify with many of the residents because in the last ten years I haven't known stability, moving one place to the next, slept outside, haven't worked nine to five from Monday to Friday, and have not counted on anything except surprise and unpredictability. There are scores of stories everywhere, and the faster and farther you walk the more you hear.

A rabbit hutch has just jumped off the back of a pickup and crashed on the road. Three got away, two are roasted to eat, and a youngster has picked up an injured one drawing itself forward with use of only the front legs. I advise him to give it to the Animal Rescue to attach a skateboard to replace the rear legs. 
 
A man in a trench coat is coatless today and beseeches, ‘I lost my trench coat that was given to me by Sonny Barger. Please ask around!’  Within an hour, it’s located.   
 
 The town crier begs me to spread the word of a girl’s boyfriend, who left her three days ago, was just found dead in his car in Texas, and the girl must notify the next of kin.
 
I talk guy out of burning his neighbor's trailer for poisoning his barking dog.
 

A man shouts through his beard at me in shorts, 'I've got on five dresses and am shivering!' Aren’t you cold?’
        

A young Arkansas traveler went to a party last night, and was beaten up and thrown out the door for refusing to drink and smoke.

Wave goodbye to the beautiful peg leg librarian who has empathized with the pipeline protestor who lost her arm to a grenade, and is pulling out to join the clash in chilly North Dakota.
 

A new resident wants to ferry his second vehicle from LA, but the librarian with the only driver’s license and no warrants just left town. 

I soothe a domestic quarrel between a guy who says that his girlfriend beat her head on the side of the trailer to build a 'portfolio' against him, while she claims he hit her.
 

A lady in a hurry to get her home box up hires me for three hours to erect a Slab style pre-fab home on her slab that used to quarter WWII soldiers. The materials costing $150 in a pile on her cement are: 12 4×8’ OSB sheets, twenty 2×4”s cut to 8’ length at Home Depot, four strap hinges, and a hundred screws. The completed shanty is an 8’ cube.

Orchestrate pulling a Georgia Dodge van out of a sand pit.
 

A new mother pushing a baby carriage asks to trade Oxytocin for diapers.
 

Stumble on a newly abandoned camp where someone left four bicycles, and ride them one-at-a-time to grateful recipients. 

 Diagnose and treat a Parvovirus dog.
 
Stroll through the local Walmart, ten acres of trash as organized as the real store with abandoned clothes, appliances, etc. that display one man’s trash is another’s treasures. I find a red bin with my backward writing label, empty, stolen from my property in Sand Valley two years ago, that caused me to migrate to this town. 

My belongings – clothes, laptops, kitchenware, etc. – arrived before I did and keep turning up around town to contribute to the odd barter economy. The gold standard that was abandoned in the 1930s has been replaced in Slab City by marijuana. You may trade goods, secure a cash loan from 'Frank the Bank', or secure a meal on credit from the cafe, if you are known to have a marijuana stash. With virtually no cash, barter runs the market. Scrap metal from the nearby bombing range contributes, and illicit drugs and prescription pills, and sex. I've never seen barter succeed in a drug culture or den of thieves, and Slab City is both. Welfare supports most of the population with trumped disability claims - dyslexic, Parkinson's, asthma, etc. Many claimants cultivate their injuries for months like the beggars of India who maim themselves to have an income for life. The town is saturated with ex-cons on early parole who are snitches. If you don't imbibe or aren't on welfare, you are suspected of being a snitch. I must be a slave to good habits to keep from being swallowed by the dyspeptic community: walking, reading, good food, no alcohol or drugs, and doing good deeds.

Newcomers to the Slabs oasis claim they are escaping from the tyranny of outlying America. They could not afford the luxury of moving out of country, and so they hitched, drove a jalopy, van-pooled, or hoboed here on Union Pacific. Many arrive penniless, and are helped onto welfare by other residents. A younger group arrives in economy sedans with tents to learn how to live off the grid. Some seniors come in fancy rigs to stretch their retirement income. Plus there are runaways, seekers, hippies, mystics, and stopovers like the protagonist of the Sean Penn film Into the Wild who adventured across North America culminating in his death in the Alaskan wilderness. The barrier to most for staying to become full time Slabbers is the terrifying summer heat. One long-term resident explains that to become a true Slabber, you have to live here two years: the first you may succeed by being stoic or a genetic fluke, but in order to survive the second summer you have to be crazy.

 The Slab City motto is 'No Rules' on the premise that every person is entitled to be as radically different from everyone else as he pleases. Most Slabbers are damaged, which has given rise to a blanket empathy. Everyone assumes everyone else has something to be private about, and are comfortable about it. My chief pleasure is to arbitrate. Once you have visited a camp you know the mind and habits of that person. In a little community that disallows laws and abhors police, there can be no living together without understanding, and understanding means compromise. Yet there will be disagreements and sometimes I'm called for. The method is to approach the disagreeing parties independently, and offer to be either the mediator or arbitrator. The latter involves responsibility and possible retribution which I try to avoid. As the mediator, I give each party about one minute to summarize his side of the argument, and then bring them together and in another minute paint the big picture and offer a compromise. It usually involves an assuaging phrase like 'Be bigger than the situation.'

Despite a few harsh consequences, the cement slabs offer individuals loosely glued by elbow room and their allowances for each other's freedom a fresh start on life. It's the only place I know of where there's no law against doing fun things. I canvass for the reasons they come to Slab City, and the universal appeal is for freedom and drugs. Each arrival seemed to have reached a turning point in his life – change or stagnate – and he has made a firm decision to live free or perish. And then at Slabs he learns to say, 'I will not run anyone's life – nor let anyone run mine.'

The females are strong, scruffy, pretty, sensuous and, for the most part, available. There is zero desire to hunker down and look up to man. It's normal to see them standing on a slab fist-to-fist in fights with lovers or detractors. Femininity means instant gratification of sex and being able to quickly hop into the next sleeping bag without grievance or permission. Slab City girls never call themselves ladies, and are comfortable with nudity, except among children, at the summer canal or winter hot spring.

Slab City displays many traits of a socialism Utopia. All of the land is owned by the State, except for a sliver I have a container on. The cash money is almost totally in the hands of a handful of individuals who run Salvation Mountain, the town gateway. Though the State owns the land care of General Patton via the California Teachers' Association who could not build a resort for employees due to unexploded ordnance, it may not seize it, and can hardly police it. There are no taxes and no building codes. There is no incentive to improve one's life; no one wants to improve his life, thinking this is as good as it gets. Anyone may arrive with a home on wheels, or paint 'occupied' on a plethora of used tires and plant them on a slab or perimeter as a 'quick deed'. Where else can you go and be free, with no restraints, and live cheaply? The town draws the most from December to February when the population swells from the hard-core year-round 200 to over 1000.

The alleged goals of Utopia have been the abolition of poverty, achievement of general prosperity, with the elimination of money, society is largely individualistic, communal living, citizens only do work which they enjoy leaving them ample time for hobbies and habits, peace, harmony, and a hippies' brotherhood. The historic results have been terrifying except in Slab City where the beat goes on.

One man's utopia is another's dystopia.

My place in Slab City seems to be a Henry Kissinger solving little disputes and moonlighting with veterinary, legal, and medical advice as I walk from tent to shanty. The winding walk through town ends again at the Coachella canal, the green cloud clears as I swim to the other side, and climb the 30-degree bank to the open desert.

Behind me, Slab City resembles an old Hooverville fallen on hard times. There's nothing you could offer me that I'd swap for one afternoon stroll through Slab City. Once a person has walked this town the newspapers, radio, TV and movies become meaningless. The goal was to learn, to see, to know, and to understand. Behind me in the city seconds count, and when I look up at the desert, I see the centuries pass like seasons.


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