The Slab City Snowbirds : On This Stretch of Desert, Modest Campers Line Up Next to the Sleekest Highway Luxury Liners

<i> Chris Hodenfield is a Los Angeles-based writer. </i>

Just because she had to give up almost everything she owned didn’t mean that Evelyn Bartlett was going to get rid of her two poodles, 15-pound cat and one-legged parakeet. She packed them up for her new life on the road. She now has them with her in Slab City.

It would not seem to be an inviting place to pitch your tent, Slab City. But a few thousand souls from all over the nation have come to a flat stretch of desert near the Salton Sea, and they call this barren expanse their winter home.

Evelyn Bartlett, a round woman with bright blue sunglasses, is a “tailgater.” That is, she makes her living at Slab City’s big weekend swap meets. She was settled deep in a plastic lawn chair next to fold-up tables holding old jewelry, bolts of cloth, rusty tools of unknown purpose, and books. The regular books were at one end, and the naughty books were in a box at the other. Behind her was a small battered trailer and an old Ford camper pickup. A tarpaulin overhead provided shade from the bright, hard winter sun.

All along the dusty road were a hundred other setups. Going back into the scrub on either side of Swap Row were the campers, motor homes and Airstream trailers of this haphazard, unsanctioned community--all kinds of living accommodations. You might spot a squalid tar-paper encampment reminiscent of Hooverville, and a few feet away would be the sleekest luxury liner ever to hit the highway.


Evelyn and Bob Bartlett had been living comfortably near Long Beach when he fell victim to Miniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that disturbs the equilibrium and, in effect, made him appear to be drunk when he wasn’t. It ended his career as a pipe fitter. After two years of almost no work, the Bartletts were forced to take to the road.

“We were staying up the coast near Pismo Beach,” Evelyn said in the calm, clear voice of her native Texas, “and it got so cold there I’d have the heater on all night. A fella told us about this place here, so we thought we’d try it. It’s all right. It’s quiet. Around 5 o’clock now it gets dark, and then gradually the portable generators start to go on all over and you hear this low hum. Then in an hour and a half, everybody’s had dinner and it starts to quiet down again. By 8 o’clock it’s just so quiet. And dark, too. You wouldn’t believe it could be so dark. But I’ve sure seen more stars at night than I ever have before.”

Her age was not immediately apparent; she could have been anywhere between 40 and 55. Her children are grown and gone, and she had the placid nature of a woman who has seen the most important things in life and whom nothing will surprise anymore.

“One of my sons has been traveling around the country on his bicycle. He rode that thing all the way to Nova Scotia and back. We heard from my daughter that he was going to take Highway 1 all the way up the West Coast to Canada, so Bob and I drove up to Morro Bay and waited by the highway for two days until he came by. So that’s how we got to see him.


“You can get used to anything. We got used to this. When we were doing good, we didn’t have enough warning about things, so we couldn’t get a good RV. But we’d had this camper here for 10 years and it’s OK. We used to have a ’73 Lincoln with quite a bit of rust damage. When it turned 150,000 miles, we had the engine and transmission rebuilt. Then, due to a series of accidents, we couldn’t finish it, so we put that 460 engine in the truck.” She looked at the truck in pride. “So that old thing has quite a bit of pep.”

Two women stopped to examine the Bartlett collection of hood ornaments. Evelyn half-gazed at them.

Looking over the field of campers, I couldn’t help but wonder about what they call conveniences.

“Water’s no problem,” she said. “You can get it in town at the market. They don’t mind as long as you also buy your groceries there. And one of the gas stations has showers. We’re self-contained here. You have to be. I couldn’t live without my shower.”

A smile appeared for a moment, then faded into a kind of frankness. “When you get married, you say you’ll take the good and the bad. Well, I’ve had the good, now it’s time for some of the bad. My husband was pretty depressed about his health for a long time, but I think now he’s come to understand it. We give him the medicine and hope it keeps away the dizzy spells.”

She held up the wrinkled paperback book in her lap. “I love to read, and I’ve read two books since Tuesday, so I’m doing all right.”

“You can get used to anything,” she said again. She lifted her sunglasses and wiped her eyes. She said she was getting over a cold.

Slab City got its name from the concrete monoliths and building foundations scattered around the sand. The popular legend says that they were left over from World War II days when Gen. George S. Patton’s tank divisions trained for the North African campaign. But Patton’s troops trained farther north, at Chiriaco Summit, 30 miles east of Indio on what is now Interstate 10. Where Slab City stands, about three miles from the town of Niland, once stood a Marine base, Camp Dunlap. Those abandoned concrete floors were evidently enough to entice some rover to set up camp in the desert. And, like a friendly house marked by Gypsies, it soon attracted a swarm of lawn-chair societies.


The local citizenry has embraced this wandering horde, too. You have to know the loneliness of this valley to understand why. The Salton Sea, which is below sea level, is a heat sink in the summer. (Some Israelis have commented that the Salton looks exactly like the Dead Sea.) A little north is the town of Thermal, which on TV weather reports is the famed sister city of Fargo, N.D. (As in, “Hottest temperature recorded in America today was Thermal with 125 degrees, and the coldest was Fargo’s 48 below zero.”) During the searing heat of the summer, a guy running a filling station can barely scrape by. But when the first snows hit the Northwest and the snowbirds pour down the California highways, the merchants see manna falling from heaven.

Imperial County, which occupies the southeastern corner of the state, holds a dozen snowbird hideaways. These wanderers go to the nothing dot-on-the-map of Glamis; they go to try the fishing on the Salton’s Bombay Beach; or they try Palo Verde, on the shores of the Colorado River. And in early February they join another billion desert crazies in descending on the Arizona town of Quartzsite, 20 miles east of the California border.

Rocks, jewels and rusty effluvia will be hawked along miles of tailgates there. If you are a yard-sale junkie, then you should know the song: “See Quartzsite and die.”

The frontier town of Slab City, which certainly hosts a few desperate lives among its 3,000-strong population, does not have a sheriff. (And, the local police say, it does not really need one, although the Fire Department makes regular trips to rescue senior citizens surprised by the desert sun.) A few people have tacked up pie plates to indicate a street name. A few businesses have gone up in the shade of trailer awnings. A man can get his trailer hitch welded, his hair cut and his soul saved.

I saw only a handful of teen-agers in Slab City. They seemed a flinty lot, and hardened by circumstances. But that would figure. Teen-agers don’t go out to the desert to retire, they go out to party and ride motorcycles.

When I returned to Evelyn Bartlett’s camp, her husband, Bob, was taking the sun on another lawn chair. He had a sizable paunch and wore a cowboy hat. He seemed a gentle soul.

“Been looking around, huh?” he asked. “It’s Reagan, I tell you. We were middle-class until he came in. They say building’s picked up again, but don’t believe it. Maybe a few houses have gone up. But a lot of people are here because of Reagan.”

“There’s a family down at the end living in a tent,” Evelyn said. “You don’t think they’d do that if they didn’t have to, do you?”


Bob picked up three strands of sparkling, lime-green necklaces. “Now, I found that I’m good at making jewelry, earrings. I’ll buy these for maybe a dollar, and I can make 20 pair of earrings out of just one. Here’s one like my wife’s wearing.” He brought out boxes of glass beads and baubles that had been carefully sorted.

It was a long way from fitting pipes in the Arco refinery.

“When we were staying at Pismo Beach, we rented a space at the swap meet in Nipomo. We’re liberal-thinking people, mind you. There was a Korean man who was having some trouble, and no one was helping him out. So when we offered to help him, we were told in no uncertain terms to clear out, we weren’t wanted. Those people up there didn’t like Koreans; they were worried that they were going to ‘take over,’ whatever that means. So we got out of there quick.”

“We’ll probably have to leave here around May,” Evelyn said in a mild voice. “It’ll be so hot. I’m not sure where we’ll go. We’ll think of some place by then.”

Talking with them that afternoon, I couldn’t guess the span of their personal horizon. They were respectable people. If they had fervent dreams of someday returning to a nice suburban house, it wasn’t apparent from their conversation. No neurotic wish list clouded up the day. I finally had to ask Evelyn what her highest hope was.

She seemed a little surprised by the question, as if she hadn’t really given her highest hope a lot of recent consideration. Hers turned out to be an elemental hope, something as simple as her desert life.

“I guess it would be that we stay as healthy as we can.”

Slab City may not have a long future as a wild camp. Surveyors have already tracked through, and developers are hoping to lease the land from the state to turn it into a formal RV park. Although that would bring in facilities and conveniences, it would also make life mighty inconvenient for the Bob and Evelyn Bartletts of this state; they’d have to keep drifting.

As I drove north from Niland and headed for the platinum ghetto of Palm Springs and points west, I felt considerably sobered. Seeing those retirees at ease in Zion, I was reminded of the hippies. It was like seeing an older generation follow in the footsteps of the drifters who roamed the planet in the 1960s in VW vans, some living on arts and crafts, some living on trust funds, and most of them harboring a grudge against their government. The Slab City people had discovered another strata of middle-class Bohemia. You have to expect that when you are at large in El Dorado.