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.