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Out There

Doug Adrianson is editorial page editor for The Times' Ventura edition. He last wrote for the magazine about winemaker Jim Clendenen

Off the grid and way off the radar screen of millennium-mad America, Slab City is alive and well and fully Y2K oblivious. On the far side (in every sense) of the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley, the sun-blasted ruins of a World War II military base have mutated into a thriving city of squatters.

Here, mid-Mojave, 141 feet below sea level, more than 1,000 of the nation’s loose (sometimes lost) marbles roll to a stop each winter and click into a social mosaic that both reflects and rejects the society left behind.

Ramblin’ retirees roll in at the wheel of $200,000 motor homes bristling with satellite dishes and solar panels. Families downwardly mobile since the Dust Bowl hole up in sandblasted trailers and wait for a change of luck--or at least the next relief check. Hermits, fugitives and assorted burnouts spin to the fringes; joiners congregate around campfires.

“It’s like they took the town characters from every town in the country and plunked them all right here,” says Pat Curtis, who lives in a school bus and makes drums out of gourds and goatskin.

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The great state of California would love to be rid of it, but any buyer would inherit a money-sucking migraine of federally required mine-sweeps and toxic cleanups. For now there are no takers for the former Camp Dunlap, 640 acres of sand and creosote bushes broken up by only a vague grid of crumbling roads, two squat guard bunkers and about 40 concrete foundations: the eponymous slabs.

So there is no rent to pay here--stay as long as you can take the heat, for free. There is also no running water, no electricity, no phone line, no septic tank, no store or school or work. There are also no traffic jams, telemarketers, mortgage payments or politicians.

For all its isolation and menagerie of free spirits, a sense of community has evolved that many Slabbers find more civilized than what they fled. Under the infinite desert sky, lit only by stars, serenaded only by coyotes and the wind, life here seems like a bargain indeed.

Unplugged

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In the glow of a crackling campfire, an oddly matched circle of friends beats ancient rhythms. Pat Curtis and Brad Allen, window-sign painters who travel in a white school bus with Colorado tags and a red travel trailer, make and sell these drums and sing in a trio with Tugboat Willy, whom nobody here knows as William Hugoboom, 52. A beefy white guy with a black nimbus of beard and hair, he was an administrator at a black church in Oakland years ago and toured with its gospel choir.

Others in the circle with Tugboat and Brad are sisters Alice Scherer, 79, and Evangeline Lind, 81. As sparks from the fire spiral toward the stars, the trio harmonizes on its own “Slab City Song”: “I’m going to Slab City, and oh, I feel good/I’d take the whole world with me if I could/It’s a little bit of heaven between the mountains and the sea/Where no one tries to tell you how to be./I’m going to Slab City, and oh, I feel fine.”

Desert Mermaid

Midway to nearby Niland, pop. 1,138, warm spring water gushes through a pipe and sends up an organic, earthy scent as it pours to the floor of a concrete pit, then out to an irrigation canal. Green algae make the most of the rare oasis. Brenda Hight, 16, hikes now and then to this outdoor shower to wash her hair and shave her legs. She’s being home-schooled until she can get teeth to replace the mouthful that fell out because of a hereditary condition.

At peak season, about 40 kids live in Slab City. What do they do for fun? “We get to ride dirt bikes out through the wash,” says Brenda’s cousin Fay. “I love to go flying through the air.”

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Lou Smiley’s business card says “itinerant craftsman” but his CB handle sizes him up even better: Stargazer. Slab City is a heavenly place for an amateur astronomer, says Smiley, a retired auto mechanic from Nyack, N.Y. A friend there told him about the SKPs (Escapees), a nationwide network of RV rovers. “From them we learned how to live on the road, how to conserve cash and energy, how to use solar power.” When summer approaches, he and his wife of 22 years caravan in their separate campers (“She likes it hot, I like it cool,” he shrugs) back to the Northeast. “Nobody in their right mind stays here in the summer. There are a few people who do stay here in the summer--but they’re not in their right mind.”

60,000 Gallons and Counting

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One day in 1967, back when he earned his keep shoveling snow off the roof of an IBM plant in northern Vermont, Leonard Knight met Jesus. “I just started saying, ‘Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart.’ I said it 10 or 11 times. It changed my life.”

After a years-long, ill-fated quest to launch a huge hot-air balloon with the message “God Is Love,” Knight in 1985 began pursuing a second mission. So far he has spread some 60,000 gallons of paint over the hillside marking the main entrance to the Slabs. His canvas of sunbaked clay has been transformed into adobe terraces, bas-relief flowers and gigantic words of praise. Knight, 67, lives in a similarly painted ’51 Chevy truck--"It runs better than I do now,” he says--and a ’39 firetruck. “It’s a happy life, lots of freedom.”

A while back, Imperial County officials declared Salvation Mountain a “toxic nightmare” and revved up the bulldozers. Lovers of primitive art rallied successfully to save it. “In 14 years, I’ve never considered this work,” says Knight. “It’s the most fun, enjoyable thing I’ve ever done.”

News at 6

In a universe unregulated by clocks, most folks still stop at 6 p.m. each weekday for the news. Inside her breadbox-sized trailer, community anchorwoman Linda Barnett keys the mike of her CB and delivers the announcements. Someone needs help fixing a generator. Animal Control will be offering rabies shots. There’s a spaghetti feed in Niland.

Once an X-ray tech in Denver, Barnett, 47, came to the Slabs in 1990 after landing on disability. She embraces the live-and-let-live ethic, to a point. “Support the Trash Man, and everything will be fine. But if you turn it into a garbage dump, we’re gonna lose it.”

$70 Richer

A battered Ford van containing Buddy Rydell, Jessy Morgan and Downey Holcomb wheels into the dust outside Linda Barnett’s place, just in time for her broadcast. Moments after she advertises their firewood, a buyer races up and commandeers the whole load for $70. With happy whoops, they follow their customer, a Canadian snowbird nicknamed “Coffee Cup,” to his camp. Holcomb tosses chunks of salvaged salt cedar from the dark bowels of the van and Rydell pitches them in a heap under a tangle of creosote bush.

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Holcomb’s family came from Oklahoma 30 years ago and runs a recycling center in Niland. Rydell, a ’93 Escondido High grad, has wrapped up a season of carpentry in Arizona. Morgan left Santa Ana 20 years ago because Niland seemed like a better place to raise her four children. As the trio piles into the van, Rydell says: “Has anybody told you they love you today?”

The others mumble, shrug, not really.

“God bless you!” he calls out, as off across the desert they roar.

Going on 2

Cody Breeden, almost 2, and his little three-legged dog, Weasel, nearly wound up in Tucson. But the Slabs beckoned. “We heard that people have kids out here, that it’s a good, safe place to have your children and nobody will come mess with you,” his mom, Shannan, says. “We’re good parents and stuff, but people don’t always agree with the fact that we live in our vehicle.”

Shannan, 30, and Scot, 29, make jewelry out of crystals, pretty stones and wire all winter, then hit craft fairs in the spring. With another child on the way, they hope to trade their van for a motor home. “We want to have a sink,” Shannan says.

Fort Herman

At dawn, a red-faced fellow with white hair and severe black-rimmed glasses marches toward Niland with a duffel bag in one hand, a Budweiser box bound up with twine in the other. This would be Leroy Herman, 81. Passing the rusting carcass of a burned-out bus, he says the neighbors got together to run its owner off. “He was a nasty man. He swindled everybody, so they took revenge on him.” Herman, too, had a bus, in which he lived and worked as a gunsmith. He believes someone firebombed it to put him out of business. “Everything was burned--and I haven’t cried yet. I refuse to let them see me cry. What are you gonna do with people like that, who want to destroy you?”

Herman says he was born in Kerman, Calif., spent 10 months in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II and later sang and played bass fiddle in L.A. nightclubs. “I had to quit because there was so much dope on the bandstand and so much drinking, and then the homosexuals and the lesbians came in, and I couldn’t take it.” He resettled here 14 years ago, amassing a compound of buses, sheds, junked trucks and just plain junk. These days, his flagpole wears only one red stripe and part of a blue field with star-shaped holes. “I keep that flag up because it’s frazzled,” he says. “Just like me.”

Established 1956

Few Slabbers have a better claim to the title “pioneer” than the Anglins, a.k.a. Colorback and Hadacol. Nadine, 77, and Ervin, 81, arrived in 1956 after years in Fullerton. They loved to fish, and a friend told them the Coachella Canal was a good place for catfish, Erv recalls.

They liked it enough to winter here for the next 43 years. In ’96 she made a quilt embroidered with the CB handles of 1,200 slabbers. Among the other pioneers immortalized on the quilt is Skirts. “This gentleman was a very well-educated man. His wife died and he started wearing her dresses. And he would go into Niland in an old truck and the kids would go ‘ha-ha-ha-ha.’ ”

Their handles came from a radio station just over the Mexican border. “It advertised Colorback hair color and Hadacol spring tonic,” says Erv. Colorback keeps diaries--a row three feet long. From them and area newspaper archives she compiled a history of Slab City, hand-bound 500 copies with staples and red tape, and sold every last one.


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