A Night in Slab City, California: The Last Free Place?

Our first glimpse of slab city.

Our first glimpse of slab city.

Please note that we have changed the names of the Slab City residents we met in order to protect their privacy.

Tom, Indy, and I rolled into Slab City on a painfully hot afternoon in November. The entrance was mostly deserted, aside for bits of trash blowing across the dirt road that leads into this “city”. To be honest, the entrance to Slab City has an ominous feel to it- first the giant Salvation Mountain praises Jesus in bright, frenzied colors that feel unsettling. Continue driving and you’ll pass the charred skeleton of a burnt out RV encampment. Finally, you reach a dead end where you can turn right or left at a hand-painted sign listing a myriad of camps. We chose to turn right and proceed deeper into the maze of slabs.  

Slab City has been on our radar for years- a completely unregulated area that falls outside the jurisdiction of any local law enforcement, where land is free to camp or live on, where anyone can come to stay rent-free for as long as they want. This place is known for drawing anarchists, artists, and wanderers. It is nicknamed “The Last Free Place”. Naturally, we had to check it out. 

As we drove deeper into Slab City we began to see hand painted signs for community services like a library, an internet cafe, and… a pet cemetery. The roads in the slabs seemed to be delineated by desert brush and piles of garbage. The flies were thick, and stray dogs wandered freely. We passed a camp built out of the rusted shells of old cars and busses, giant stacks of old stuffed animals; the whole setup splatter painted in eye-catching neon colors.

We planned to stay the night in Slab City, and were beginning to question that choice when a friendly looking man waved at us from a makeshift house across the road. We noticed that in his front yard the man had spray painted “Visitors Welcome” on a large truck tire. Sitting in and on the tire were a variety of stuffed animals, possibly to make the whole thing more inviting? I decided this was our chance, so I hopped out and introduced myself, explaining that we had heard rumors of Slab City and wanted to check it out. The man, who asked us to call him Redtail, seemed excited to have visitors, and within minutes he had set us up with a camping spot in his “yard”. (We learned early in our travels that Flexibility is key to happy traveling!)

Once we’d parked the camper Redtail introduced us to his neighbors, a group of three motley youth who had lived in Slab City for the past 6 months. When I asked them what they liked about Slab City the youngest one, a girl of maybe 19, said “In Slab City all your dreams come true, it’s like Neverland where you never have to grow up.” Then she walked me to her camp where she showed me her home, a small teepee-shaped tent. She told me “I’ve always wanted a teepee!” She had found it in Slab City, discarded by a resident who either moved on, or upgraded their dwelling. The enthusiasm of these residents was contagious, and we decided that in the morning we would explore the slabs.

We slept well, outside of the excited screams that woke us in the middle of the night. In Slab City the party never seems to end, and unless you head out to the far edges it’s not a very quiet place. 

The entrance to Slab City's pet cemetary.

The entrance to Slab City's pet cemetary.

In the morning Redtail made us coffee and offered us basic directions so we could get the lay of the land. He also pointed out the local thieves as they walked by checking for unsecured belongings. After coffee we locked the camper up tight and set out on our self-guided tour of the city.

The first stop on our tour was the pet cemetery. The entrance was a small wooden arch with the word love painted at the top. It was flanked by a barrier of spray painted rubber tires. Inside the cemetery were a myriad of makeshift memorials, many from re-purposed materials like pvc piping and scrap wood. The cemetery was large, which wasn’t surprising since nearly every person we’d met in Slab City had at least one pet dog. Slab City actually has it’s own animal shelter run by volunteers, and many of the pets in the city come from the shelter.

Next we found the library, the most unusual library we’ve ever been in. Built out of old dog runs, chicken coops, and discarded trailers, there was a post-apocalyptic feel to it. The inside was   covered in art, and there was a large selection of books organized into different genres. There was also a bar inside the library where you could get a beer or cocktail for a small donation. A shirtless man wearing eyeliner and flowing pants introduced himself as one of the librarians and asked if we needed help finding anything. After browsing the stacks for a while we left a donation to help the library acquire more books, but declined the beer. 

As we walked back to our camper we were stopped by a pair of men sitting in an open tent on the side of the road. Between where they sat and us there was a large, rusted metal frame with nothing inside of it. “Hey! You’re on tv!” One of the men yelled at us. “Do something funny!” It took me a moment to figure out this game, but then I laughed and did a little dance and turn. They clapped and laughed, and offered us bottles of water for our walk (it was easily 95 degrees by this time). They said watching their makeshift roadside “television” was a way to pass the time in the heat, and I could see that it was a great way to make new friends in this strange place. 

Inside salvation mountain.

Inside salvation mountain.

Next up was the famous Slavation Mountain. A large-scale art installation created by Leonard Knight. Knight began his work on Salvation Mountain in 1984, and continued to add to it until 2011. The resulting installation is a massive, brightly colored hill, and a maze of dizzying, cave-like walkways that visitors can peruse at no cost- though donations are accepted and appreciated. We spent a long time climbing up and into Salvation Mountain, admiring the incredible amount of time and effort that went into this very unusual art piece.

After exploring Salvation Mountain we walked through the sweltering heat back to our camper, followed by barking dogs, and swatting away flies. After some discussion we decided it was time to say goodbye to Slab City. We thanked Redtail for his hospitality, and promised that if we ever return to the slabs we will certainly stop to visit him. 

We drove out of Slab City quietly, both of us contemplating this place that was a paradise to many of its residents. We weren’t sure we’d ever return, but we were both sure that there is nowhere quite like Slab City, the last free place.