Penny Puckett came to Slab City and fell in love.
After four years of “bumming around and hopping freight trains,” the 25-year-old from Kansas City arrived at this hardscrabble section of the Imperial Valley desert and immediately embraced its sense of liberation from society’s rules and norms.
What others might view as desolation and deprivation, Puckett saw as a way to reduce life to its essence: water, food and shelter (plus Internet and cellular phone service).
“Slab City people have a great need to live with just the bare necessities and are happy about it,” she said.
Puckett also met and married the man of her dreams: a T-shirt design artist who lives in an art colony-style portion of Slab City known as East Jesus. A videotape was made of the couple’s Halloween nuptials and shipped to Puckett’s family.
The couple have yet to devise a long-term plan. But for the time being Slab City suits them just fine.
There are no municipal services, no streetlights and no water or sewage services. But nobody charges rent or collects fees or tries to impose homeowner covenants.
Several hundred people — ranging from the free-spirited young, retired “snowbirds” from colder climes and the tight-money crowd of all ages — live in a ramshackle collection of tents, trailers, aging mobile homes and other ad hoc dwellings. But this unlikely community appears to be growing, perhaps because of the troubled economy.
“It has a post-apocalyptic look and we like it that way,” said Don Case, 41, who worked as a chef in Colorado and is planning to move to Alaska — someday. “It’s peaceful here, people have it together.”
Case has put together a small kitchen and cooks for several neighbors. His specialty: quail fajitas, made from the tiny birds that are prevalent in Slab City.
The community is spread over about 600 acres of rutted roads and bushes. To the west is Niland (population 1,100) and the Salton Sea. To the east is the Coachella Canal (ripe with catfish) and the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range used by the Navy.
During World War II, the Slab City site was Camp Dunlap, a Marine artillery training base. But ownership of the acreage passed to the state in the 1950s.
Even when it had money, the state government never showed much interest in Slab City. A plan to sell the site to a San Diego developer in the 1990s fell through; so did an idea by Imperial County to turn it into an RV camping ground.
Now that the state is broke, Slab City is out of sight and out of mind, just the way its residents like it.
“This is the last truly free place in America,” said Jim Merton, 54, who spends the winter at Slab City and the summer in Washington. “I can smoke some weed, drink some beer, be loud and rowdy, skinny-dip in the canal, and there’s nobody to tell me I can’t have fun.”
Imperial County Sheriff’s Lt. Charles Lucas said Slab City residents do not pose a major law enforcement challenge. “They’re just trying to live out there,” he said. “They’re a mirror of what goes on in other places.”
For some, Slab City has long been a way of life. Others are refugees from the national recession.
“A lot of us just have nowhere else to go,” said Tracy Moss, 73, who came to Slab City with her husband, Ray, 55, an itinerant preacher, when they lost their home in Queen City, Texas.
Moss prefers her Slab City nickname: Magenta. Nicknames are big here, including Terrible Jim, Container Charlie, Biker, Half-Pint and Moth.
Half-Pint rides a mule named Applejack. When a reporter sought to ask Half-Pint a question, she and Applejack galloped off.
C.B. Linda puts out a Slab City newsletter, which she will sell to outsiders for $3.
Her latest newsletter explains what she calls Slab City Ethics, among them: “Unlawful, violent or disruptive behavior will not be tolerated. TRESPASSING IS NOT OK. A campsite owner may be absent for awhile. Do not assume that it is abandoned. Ask the neighbors. Theft is not tolerated. NO DUMPING.”
Alas, C.B. Linda’s rules are not universally followed.
Mounds of trash dot the rough landscape, including large collections of beer cans. Break-ins are so common that one Slab City resident said he leaves his trailer door unlocked so thieves do not break it down when he is away getting provisions.
Which is not to say that the trappings of civilization are not present in Slab City. There are Saturday night talent shows, movie nights, several open-air eating places, an Internet cafe, a small library and a prefabricated building that is used for Sunday church services and a Wednesday night Bible study class.
The pastor is Patrick McFarland, 61, who lives in Slab City with his wife. To McFarland, Slab City is a community of lost souls, driven to the desert by a crumbling civilization that has rejected God and is paying the spiritual price.
The recession, he said, is only the beginning of the wrath that America will soon feel. The Slab City residents are too poor to contribute to a collection plate but there are compensating factors for a pastor seeking a congregation.
“I have a captive audience,” McFarland said.
The name Slab City comes from the concrete foundations that remain from the World War II buildings. A huge swimming pool from that era is now a place for youngsters to ride their skateboards.
There are two large water tanks, long empty. One is festooned with corporate logos, apparently the painter’s idea of a satire of consumerist culture. The other is painted with erotica, including various positions from the Kama Sutra.
A deputy from the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department visits Slab City on occasion. Federal Express will deliver, but the U.S. Postal Service will not. The Calipatria school system sends a bus for Slab City children.
Vince Neill, 38, is living in a trailer with his wife and six children. He’s working on an idea for a reality TV show, “The Homeless of Los Angeles.” He came to Slab City, he said, after being hassled on repeated occasions while trying to park his trailer in Malibu.
Slab City, Neill said, teaches self-reliance to children that they could never learn in the city. Other skills too.
“I’m teaching the kids how to catch rattlesnakes,” he said.
The most famous Slab City resident is Leonard Knight, who for three decades lived near the entrance and painted his religious message, “God Is Love,” on a hill that he calls Salvation Mountain.
Journalists from near and far have visited Knight, who appeared as himself in the 2007 movie “Into the Wild,” directed by Sean Penn. Several scenes were filmed at Salvation Mountain; a Slab City resident gave Penn a handmade bong.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sean Penn starred in “Into the Wild.”
In recent months, Knight, 80, suffered health problems and moved to Niland. He visits Salvation Mountain only sparingly to talk to the steady stream of tourists.
East Jesus, with its free-form sculpture and rusting car carcasses, was the creation of an artist named Charlie Russell, who died this year at the age of 46. His ashes were spread around Slab City and a memorial to him adorns the entry to East Jesus.
For the artistic minded, Slab City can provide inspiration not found in more mundane places.
Greg Holmes, 47, who is living in Slab City while he launches his singing career, has a ballad devoted to his muse:
To the truth of the common day
On the Way to Bombay
On the way to Mecca
I’ll watch the sun go down
I’ll watch it rise