United States | Concrete Commune

A city of lost souls and the financially downtrodden breathes life into the southern Californian desert

Builder Bill at The Range, the concert venue he built, which serves as the social hub of The Slabs. Bill calls Slab City a place you can just “be yourself and exhale”. JAMES HALL FOR THE CARAVAN
01 July, 2012

ON A BALMY Afternoon in the late 1990s, Bill Ammon was installing windows on a five-bedroom home in his native San Diego when it dawned on him. “Not only will I never have a house like this,” he remembers thinking to himself, “but I’ll never even be allowed to set foot in one.” Flat broke, his zest for manual labour flagging with age, the gruff, then 40-something contractor started to get “a little less motivated, a little less employable”. Before long he was living in a van, foraging in dumpsters and selling whatever he could to get by. Of course, wealthier people don’t take kindly to poor folks sleeping in derelict vehicles along neighbourhood sidewalks. After one too many run-ins with the law, he decided it was time to skip town. In 13 years, he’s never gone back.

Some friends had told Bill about a place deep in the Mojave Desert in south-eastern California where he could live rent-free, without the hassle of police and meddling citizens. Work was scarce, and there was no electricity or running water nearby. But low costs and his skills as a scrounger would serve him well out in Slab City, or The Slabs, a squatter’s camp spread out on the site of a decommissioned World War II-era Marine Corps training facility. The sprawling camp, 155 miles east of San Diego and about an hour’s drive from the Mexican border, gets its name from the concrete slabs that were left over when troop barracks were torn down. Although state-owned, the abandoned area became an open secret among misfits and drifters who started coming by road and rail. They were soon followed by hippies, artists and “Snowbirds”—mostly retirees with pensions—lured by the warm winter weather and free parking for their Winnebagos. More recently, recession refugees have been turning up to try lean living absent pushy landlords, mortgages and taxes.

Whatever brought them here, year-round and seasonal residents alike call Slab City “the last free place in America”. Beyond the fringe of mainstream American society, amid endless sand and scrub, lost souls and the financially downtrodden can find their footing without material distractions. Troubled ones can hide. “There’s always been a Wild West element out here … and you have a sparse population that mostly came to get away from the police or somebody and start over,” Bill, now a white-haired 63-year-old, says. “Whatever you’re doing or not doing, you’re OK. Just don’t mess with anybody else.” His neighbours include an ex-con from Boston, two widows in their 90s, a solar power entrepreneur and a man who, after losing his job and home when the economy tanked, moved to the Slabs with his wife and six children.

Driving out to Slab City from San Diego is a bleak foray into the guts of California’s poorest county. The city of El Centro, once a thriving agricultural hub, at the elbow where the highway turns north, has the United States’ highest unemployment rate at 30 percent. Further along, the stench of cow manure fills the air as a two-lane road winds towards the Salton Sea, a vast man-made lake too salty for most life to survive. Niland, the last town before the Slabs, is a casualty of machine farming and a crystal meth epidemic that has ravaged the region in recent years, with a post office and grocery story and not much else. Five miles on, Salvation Mountain, a multicoloured homage to Jesus on a three-storey-tall hill of adobe and hay covered in acrylic, welcomes you to Slab City, flanked in the distance by the Chocolate Mountains. On most days, the ridges echo with bomb explosions and machine gun fire from the gunnery range that borders the camp. Arrive on a weekend evening and you might hear guitar music from The Range, a ramshackle concert venue that is Bill’s enduring contribution to The Slabs.

Back when he first turned up, Bill recalls, “everyone had some sort of trade that could support ‘em”. Frank “The Welder” put on trailer hitches for people. “Buffalo” Bob fixed water-pumps. Another guy repaired CB radios, which people relied on to keep in touch when night fell or when the 49 °C summer heat discouraged walking around. Problem was, he says, “there was no social life”. Aside from the swap meets along the main road and casual campfire gatherings, things could get pretty dead on The Slabs, especially in the off-season when the camp’s population shrunk from more than 1,000 to less than 100 stalwarts. So Bill got to thinking: between his background in construction and his knack for breathing new life into found objects, he could build a stage, piece by piece, scrap by scrap. It was his calling. Bill from San Diego became ‘Builder Bill’.

Ten years later, The Range is a mongrel of plywood and nails, with car seats and ripped furniture for the audience. Bill swears it was designed to be mobile—wishful thinking at best. Yet it has evolved into the beating heart of the Slabs, drawing large crowds every Saturday night for live acts of varying quality, including some travelling celebrities. Fifteen minutes of fame came in 2007, when Sean Penn and his crew shot some scenes for Into the Wild, a film about a soul-searching wanderer who spent a few weeks at the camp before an ill-fated trek into the Alaska backcountry. Brief as the interlude was, locals agree that the movie captured the softer side of Slab City, which is obscured by its rough reputation. “Few people knew us for something positive because we used to be known for [illegal] alien smuggling, drug smuggling and so on,” Bill says. “I’ve substantially changed the mood of the town, and I give myself credit for it.”

Hollywood’s attention also has its downside. In recent years, many Slabbers complain that younger, more naïve travellers have been showing up without any money or useful skills to trade on. Those who come drunk on romantic ideas of neo-frontier life are fast sobered by the reality of going off-the-grid. While free food and hospitality are extended to most newcomers in need, freeloaders are not tolerated. “Gypsy kids,” Bill grunts, the sun-carved creases on his forehead arching into a scowl. “We’ve had to run some of them off.” Trash is also a point of contention; year-Rounders are quick to blame Snowbirds for the scattered piles of garbage in camp, and vice-a-versa. Such tensions have been aggravated by a rise in thievery. The donation box at Salvation Mountain, for example, keeps getting robbed now that its much-loved creator, Leonard Knight, a Vietnam veteran turned born-again Christian, isn’t around to look after it.

Slabbers prefer to take care of their own problems. But when a situation gets out of hand, firemen must drive over from Niland to sort things out, a not uncommon occurrence. In more than 40 years on the job, Michael Aleksick, 63, the recently retired fire marshal, says he’s been repeatedly shot at, stabbed and gotten in too many fistfights to remember, typically with people high on meth. Bikers come through from time to time and raise hell. There are also “Scrappers” who collect scrap metal from the gunnery range and sometimes get blown up in the process, he adds, flashing pictures of stockpiled shells and grenades he’s confiscated—and a man with part of his leg blown off. “You just never know what’s gonna happen out here. I’ve tried to leave for years but this job never gets dull.”

Slab City’s unruly ways have not kept people from coming in hard economic times, some with children in tow. Take “Shotgun” Vince Neill, who lost his home and audio-visual business in northern California when the economy went belly up. When the family arrived at the Slabs, a friend gave them a trailer that now anchors a compound with a separate office, guest room and what he calls a “children’s stage”, his “healthy alternative” to the heavy drinking and pot-smoking that goes on at The Range. On weekdays, a bus comes to take a handful of Slab kids to school, but Vince prefers to teach his in the great outdoors. Math and English are supplemented with lessons on catching scorpions and rattlesnakes. Chores are many. “They’re getting more of an education out here than in a regular city,” he says. Odd jobs, food stamps and donations keep the family going until they move to Los Angeles for the summer.

Then there’s John “Balu” Holdson, a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast who spent the better part of the past decade in New Delhi. He ran a popular bike shop for foreign backpackers looking to tour the country on Royal Enfields, earning the nickname “Bulletwala”. Having sold the business, he returned to his native New Mexico and, on a whim, checked out The Slabs and liked them so much that he paid $700 for a trailer that is home for the winter months. In his view, it’s a continuum of the vagabond ways he grew accustomed to overseas: living on the cheap, meeting people from all over, trading stories by an open fire over beers. And a vivid reminder that home can be as strange as anywhere abroad. “It’s just far out in every way,” he says.

Builder Bill thinks of Slab City as “a kind of reservation where you can just be yourself and exhale”. These days he lives on less than $100 a month, and now that he receives a social security cheque several times that from the government, he feels “like a rich man with more money than I know what to do with”. The cost of running shows at The Range—his main extravagance—is offset during the winter season by the sale of hot dogs and sodas, but for the rest of the year thin crowds mean Bill pays out of pocket. Which is alright, he says, because he’s providing a valued service to the community that gave him a place and a purpose when he was down and out.