For most people in America, access to running water, sewage treatment, and electricity are a given. But for those who can’t afford a home, want to live outside modern society, or just need an escape from the snow every winter, Slab City might be an attractive place to call home. Located about 190 miles southeast of Los Angeles and built on an abandoned military base, Slab City has become a tourist destination and a residential community.
Far from being one of the most beautiful cities in the world or even the United States, Slab City has its own unique appeal for those who live there and call themselves Slabbers. It takes a certain kind of person to be willing to endure 120-degree days in summer, live miles from the nearest grocery store, and get by without running water. People do it, however, and many of them are proud of their self-reliance and endurance. What’s it like to live there? Many have ventured to find out, from journalists like LA Weekly's Paul Rogers to curious travelers looking to see if the community's unique charms are what they're looking for. According to those visitors and the residents themselves, one's impression of Slab City all depends on how you approach calling it home.
Since Slab City isn’t an official town or city, the state of California doesn’t collect property taxes, and there are no landlords to charge people rent. "Some people are there because they have nowhere else to go," Redditor /u/hippz explains, "while others are more than content not owning a tent or who refuse to wear shoes." Since the less fortunate Slabbers may be earning money through government assistance alone, they have to live off as little money as possible. One previously homeless Slabber claimed he spent only five or six dollars a month in addition to food stamps.
Without a lot of income, Slabbers resort to a bartering system. “Slab City doesn't necessarily run on money. It's not a place to really buy or sell things. Trading is a different story,” the Redditor also said. In addition to bartering supplies, many Slabbers trade their time and skills with one another. Slabber Paul Holman III, who previously worked at a Renaissance Faire building sets, noted, “I figured I could fit in here, and I had the skills."
However, some of the older Slabbers resent younger residents who show up without anything to offer to the community, like skills in repair or construction or just a willingness to share resources. “People had skills to offer,” said "Builder Bill" Ammon about Slab City’s previous generations. However, because new generations no longer do, “A kind of segregation has developed here.”
Summers in Slab City are harsh. Redditor /u/Time_Punk explains, “It’s 120 degrees consistently in the summer, and the summer is long. Being able to survive the summer out here requires massive premeditation and resources. Some people rig up misting systems and swamp coolers, but they also spend hundreds of dollars a month on gas for their generators. Also, there’s not as many people in the summer so you won’t have as many people to turn to.” While there can be as many as 4,000 people living in Slab City in the winter months, there may only be a few hundred during the summer as people migrate to cooler climates.
In addition to the heat, Slabbers must also contend with strong desert winds. “You definitely want a camper,” said Redditor /u/Monzaman86. “A tent will not work! Heed my advice as you will be cursing the 60 mph winds at the end of the day... your tent will disintegrate within a week.” Slabber Paul Holman III told LA Weekly: "It takes a certain mettle to stay here... You've got to have something inside of you that can sit through a windstorm for three days." But perhaps Redditor /u/Time_Punk summed up Slab City summers the best, adding, “Some people derive a source of pride and a sense of identity out of staying for the summer. Those people are idiots.”
Because of Slab City’s remote location, its lack of typical infrastructure, and the desire of some residents to live outside modern society, paid jobs are scarce. “There are pretty much zero jobs in the area,” claimed Redditor /u/futuredeserthermit. “Most people there seem to live off their savings. Once you get set up there, it shouldn't cost more $200 to $300 a month to live there.” While many residents barter for goods and services, some Slabbers make money by charging others for their skills, such as “Solar Mike,” who sells solar panels. Residents with working vehicles can make money transporting water, goods, or people.
Other Slabbers set up stands to sell merchandise like artwork and tie-dyed Slab City souvenir t-shirts to tourists and visitors. Slabber George Sisson rented out a few RVs to visitors to make money and eventually turned his project into an Airbnb rental that’s attracted people from around the world. “I only had two people show up, see the place, and turn right back around and drive out again,” he claimed. The nearby firing range can also provide a little income for Slabbers, as the most adventurous and brave enter when the range is not in use to collect shell casings to sell as scrap metal.
Although solar panels and generators can help keep food cool, growing food in the desert is nearly impossible. Since Slab City has no grocery stores, residents need to travel to nearby towns for groceries. “Niland is the main stop for day to day items, as you could walk to it and back if you had no ride, but there's usually someone that'll give you a ride if you hitch,” wrote Redditor /u/hippz. “That's also where you can catch the bus to the other towns. On top of residents, Slab City brings lots of tourists, and they all get gas at the SoCo, and get smokes, beer, munchies, whatever there or at Mei's. Only two stores in town.” Redditor /u/futuredeserthermit adds, “Food prices really depend on how far you can travel... If you can get to El Centro you can buy much cheaper supplies at Walmart or Costco.”
Some stores in Niland have realized that Slabbers on food stamps come into town at the beginning of each month for groceries, and they sometimes raise their prices. “Their prices are a bit high for some stuff, but it’s close by so that's nice,” wrote Redditor /u/RabbitSide. In order to get by, Slabbers need to be self-sufficient and stretch their food supplies. "I learned about powering my own solar and composting and jarring,” said Slabber Tallulah Kidd. While the desert conditions make it difficult to grow vegetables or raise livestock, some residents raise chickens, such as Redditor /u/RabbitSide who advertises, “Yep, we have eggs! We sell them $2 for a half dozen.”