Reality Ahead : The Time We Almost Airbnb’d in the Last Lawless City in America

Stories, PeopleMarch 14, 2023

Everyone has a film in which they are willing to suspend their disbelief in exchange for the comfort a certain narrative brings them. Mine was Into the Wild. Since the creation of the movie based off Jon Krakauer’s novel of the same name, countless young folk took to the idea of overthrowing materialism, institutionalism, and any other isms that might stand in the way of so-called freedom. As fresh university grads, much like the protagonist in the movie, my friend Maddy and I made the pilgrimage into the Californian desert, to a patch of the last seemingly ungoverned land in the States, called Slab City.  But first we had to visit a place for the most unfettered of minds.

Salvation Mountain was nothing short of wholesome magic. A man-made adobe artscape colored with some ten thousand gallons of paint, the mountain lives in waves of blue and white stripes with flower gardens in red and pink. Follow a yellow brick road to signs with crosses and hearts and quotes that read GOD IS LOVE. It’s hard to miss that LOVE is everywhere: it’s reminder of devotion, to creation, in every sense of the word. That’s what it takes to be a creative. To give in to the deep curiosities which tug at your heart and then follow them into the wild throes of a fully realized imagination. It is to believe.   

Maddy and I meandered through the multi-coloured nooks and under stalactites of drippy paint – the exact spot Leonard Knight, the artist, improvised his lines in the movie. I was particularly drawn to this scene for its profound and quiet tension of love and pain, wonder and wisdom. He’s asked, “You really believe in love then?” to which he answers, “Yeah. Totally. This is a love story that is staggering to everybody in the whole world. That God really loves us a lot. Does that answer that?”

In replacement of Leonard, who had passed the year prior, a tattooed and shirtless “Slabber”—Slab City local—walked around offering information and bottles of water to sweaty visitors. “This kind of place melts people’s brains,” he told us as we accepted our cold drinks. Then, with the novelty worn off and heat exhaustion setting in, we were ready for our Airbnb which promised a “yurt haven, with chia seed waffles and hibiscus tea in the morning,” and left for our temporary new home, in the Slabs.

A once-upon-a-time hippie commune—as it is romantically portrayed in the movie—could now be more aptly described as a trailer park in the middle of the desert. Slab City has been described as a miniature de facto enclave of anarchy, idyllic for snowbirds and squatters, offering respite to eccentrics and those pushed out of society. It seems common knowledge that your neighbor is strange enough to live in a desolate lawless-land. Or, said stranger has gone rogue from their old life. To come here is a kind of punishing oasis. It is a means of escape but to do it the hard way.

Entering the Slabs, you are greeted by a graffitied electrical box that says: Slab City, Welcome. It quickly shifts gears with the next box that reads: DANGER, REALITY AHEAD.

The first thing our host, Ray, said to us upon arrival in our rental car is that he liked the looks of our tires. He was a shirtless 60-something with a wild tuft of hair, sun-exposed leathery skin, and a belt around his thin frame, most noticeably of which had a holster with a long, curved knife.

We took the tour from the homemade water filtration system and a solar panel run toaster oven (Slab City is off-grid), to an unkempt mattress on the dirt, under a poster of the human body, which was advertised as his “healing and massage center.”  He showed us how we would find scorpions in our bed at night (with a black light); we were given a TASER to walk around the neighborhood with (you know, because someone at the internet café recently had their leg chopped with a machete); and every hour on the hour our host’s watch alarm would ring, prompting him to mutter under his breath, “I love myself, I love myself.” 

Around sunset when we were about to trade in our expectations of desert skies and spontaneous concerts for safety concerns and heat stroke, the reality sunk in that this could be worse than it even appeared. The small town kid in me had no trust issues (it would make a good story, right?) but Maddy’s city sense noped us out of there. We drove in the night to a motel in Indio.

We could have paid attention to the signs given by the landscape: the Kansas-like roadside tornado, the smell of fish decay which overpowered the nearby Salton Sea. But we didn’t. We wanted to believe such a place that exists in fiction could also exist at our feet. If movies have taught us one thing about the desert, it’s this: never trust a mirage.

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