I camped on the outskirts of Slab City, across the road from Salvation Mountain and just down from what looked like an earth-berm house with “Jesus Lives” emblazoned across the front. I had driven through the Slabs. It was confusing. I didn’t know the lay of the land, and I couldn’t figure out where to park, so I headed back to the desert for some breathing space. Jesus Lives seemed safe.
Later, as I walked over to meet the neighbors, I realized this was no earth-berm house but an
abandoned bunker. Trash and bits of fiberglass insulation were strewn around the place. Scot (one t) and Jerry were hanging out. Jerry lived on the other side of the bunker. Scot was making what he called a wind generator with split tin cans taped to a bicycle rim and jammed into a car generator.
“All you need are seven revolutions per minute,” he said. Since he had painted the impressive Jesus Lives mural on the front of the bunker with nothing but salvaged paint, I gave him the benefit of the doubt on the generator contraption.
“Lock up your stuff,” was their advice to me.
Over the course of the days that followed, I wandered around Slab City, talked to some people, and got to know my neighbors better. Jerry stopped by to show me the hot springs, a clothes-optional, high-traffic pool. Scot gave me a little walking tour through town.
There was Bike Mike (assembles, fixes, and sells this vital form of transportation), Junkyard Joe (“He’s
totally nuts, but he’s one of my best friends.”). Builder Bob started the Range years ago and arranges concerts there every Saturday night. (“Once the lights go out, you can’t see how trashy the place is.”)
Everyone has a nickname at the Slabs, so a conversation might go like this: “Tell Spoon that Pigeon got her stuff.” “Moth lives in the cistern on the hill.” I never figured out if Cuervo was the guy’s name or his drink of choice, but I knew he lives in the third bunker over and has a horse, a mule, two dogs (one is half wolf, I heard), and a red truck.
The library that Peggy maintained until her death in 2003 is in a peaceful bower of palo verde trees. The place seemed forlorn, but the books were still neatly shelved. Lynn runs the Oasis Club (as a volunteer), which is the Slab City hangout. Coffee: 50 cents or free for members; a cheap meal twice a week.
Individual enterprise is alive and well. If the sun can recharge it, cook it, heat it, or move it, the Sun Works can build it. “He usually has a turkey cooking in his solar oven,” said Scot.
Another guy has a water-delivery business. He’ll set
you up with a 25-gallon water tank for $45 and fill it every month for $15.
Despite survival’s daily demands, art flourishes at the Slabs. Car art, fancy outhouses, and decorated trailers are everywhere. But nothing can touch Container Charlie’s place, called East Jesus because it’s east of Salvation Mountain. Container Charlie began decorating the shipping container he was living in, so the story goes, and didn’t know when to quit. Now his chunk of the Slabs is the final resting place for homeless gallery installations, most of which would never feel comfortable in a house anyway. The effect is like wandering around in a Bosch painting.
I stumbled through East Jesus, dazed and amazed, encountering more weirdness than I could properly absorb. Then, when I thought things could get no more bizarre, I heard the sound of a violin wafting from behind a wall of wine bottles. In an appropriately funky and cluttered performance space a blue-haired girl was playing the violin, a red-haired guy was on piano, and Flip was on guitar and vocals. They were working on their rendition of a Tom Waits song, “Come on up to the House.”
Well the moon is broken/and the sky is cracked. The only things that you can see/is all that you lack. Come on up to the house.
Come on up to the house/Come on up to the house. The world is not my home/I’m just passin’ thru. Come on up to the house.
Does life seem nasty, brutish, and short/Come on up to the house. The seas are stormy/And you can’t find no port. Come on up to the house.
It was sensory overload. I left all sniffy and weepy.