Deep in the desert, haphazardly tucked a few miles off a highway that runs parallel to the dehydrated fish coated shores of the Salton Sea, lies a city. Not by definition as much as by name, Slab City is a reconstructed military compound, inhabited by vagrants, meth heads, veterans, cons, and women fleeing abusive relationships. There is some normalcy–a few hippies and wanderers drift in and out of the paper town, but most of these people are seeking something. Or, at the very least, running away from it. It’s called the last free place, a sort of no man’s land, lawless and apocalyptic, a sign of the end times, or, for the people residing within its borders, new beginnings.
It sits a few miles up from the town of Niland’s city dump, past Salvation Mountain, the bizarre life’s work of an eccentric man of God, where bales of hay and piled concrete illustrate a life chasing the holiest pursuits. Alice’s Wonderland for Jesus freaks. Blessed be the name.
As the tires of your car carefully maneuver over the dirt treads of a loosely sanded road, you pass by tents and RV’s, mobile homes and trailers, shanties in a desert paradise. But there is no one there. No people walk about. They see the dirt kicked up by tires and they flee to the refuge of their homes, peering out at you from faded paisley window clingings and broken glass. You could be a parent or a cop. A lover or a dealer. You’re probably just a curious stranger but these people have nothing left to gamble with except themselves, and no one is willing to take that bet.
Towards the back of the town lies an artists colony, East Jesus, which rewrites the history of kitschy garbage from the dump down the road. It rewrites it into political messages, notice of the end times. Weary soldiers constructed from ash and mud lay praying in the desolate sand and a mammoth of old tire walls stands proudly on guard before the barbed wire entrance of this strange mirage. Shattered glass protrudes sharply from the earth in mirrored circles and tin cans painted in shades of vibrancy tell the time of day like sundials in the earth. Television screens are plastered in red paint, watch me, love me, adore me, fry your brains and rot your minds. Wooden mallards perch in silent circles, sitting ducks in a row.I walk spellbound, captured by the oddities and entranced by the strange shadows that dance around me. These people have abandoned the world in favor of creating their own and there is something glorious in such tragedy. Though little grows here you can see a small sprig of hope force it’s head through the concrete remnants of a crumbling barrack, and my feet know they tread on sacred ground.
Despite the fact that it’s hot and dusty and my throat is raw and my mouth is dry I don’t want to leave. I’ve romanticized this idea of a great escape and I want to be free here. I want to submerge naked beneath the sulphuric waters of the hot springs, aware and unashamed. I want to lie bare upon the sand, photosynthesizing with the sun. I want to watch my skin caramelize and my hair ignite in streaking strands of hot white flame. I want to be here, shielding my face against the strong desert sandblast of a coarse-grained wind.
Because freedom is worth the compromise. These people aren’t here because they love the burn of the sun they are here because they are ignited by some uninhibited force. It fuels their fires it is their gasoline it is their passion to be wild and untamed in a desert wilderness. To create art from trash, sculptures from shattered fragments of potted plants and towers from the rotted beams of a schoolhouse fence.
A wild abandon lingers here. I can feel it’s flames lick at my fingertips it is hot and it is powerful and I delight in the warmth that it brings.
I want to be like them. I want their sinewed hands and their open minds. I want their weary faces and their flaming hearts. I want the world to read the story of my life upon the fine wrinkled visage of tanned and freckled skin. Reach your hands out. Close your eyes. Touch me. Trace the patterns of this world, the little grooves where fine dust lingers, where grime settles and peace resides. Feel the tributaries that travel down the body from a sun that’s seen a billion horizons. Read their words. Hear their silent beckonings. And rest. Let me lie here upon the sandy skin of an ancient world and do not awaken me from this dream. For I am more awake than I have ever been before.