Island in a Mirage

Jason Houge


California, United States

The desert is a special place of absolute silence and intense heat - like an incessant blow-dryer to the face. Everyone and everything thirsts. Without adequate water, delirium sets in and death soon follows. If the intense heat and lack of water doesn’t kill you, the earthquakes, scorpions and snakes might. To live here you need to be desperate, resilient, or crazy; or any blend of these.

Sitting about 45 meters below current sea levels, in the Sonoran Desert, rests a largely unacknowledged community; as far as any government is concerned. Slab City, as its known, can be found southeast of the Salton Sea and about a mile from Niland, California. Much has been written about the Slabs and its history is readily available online, but what it truly is can be hard to see for many.

Tourists frequent the area to experience the outsider art of Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain and the chaotic performances and assemblages found deep in the Slabs at East Jesus and West Satan. Many come during the winter months to explore solar energy and off-the-grid living. However, the circumstances that allow the community to exist are as unique as the place itself. Slab City is truly an experiment with peaceful anarchy that has spanned more than half a century. It’s an anarchy with one rule: respect your neighbor. Because there exists great freedom in this type of culture, it’s the permanent residents, often desperately seeking relief from over-capitalized lives, who have found their salvation within the Slabs.

Andrew, a resident originally from New Zealand, refers to the Slabs as an ‘Anglo Refugee Camp.’ He explains that most Slabbers are here because they can’t afford their medical care. He estimates the average income for each Slabber to be about $200 a month. On that income a person can afford their medications and still have a reasonably decent life in the Slabs. How well one lives depends upon how responsible they are with their income and supplies.

{{ readMoreButton }}

  • Leaf stands by as the first water delivery is made to the new pig pen at the California Ponderosa; Slab City, USA 2018

  • Spyder and his son, Daniel Wild, rest after building the pig pen at their family's camp, The California Ponderosa; Slab City, USA 2018

  • Shannon and Spyder Wild, recently married, took over the California Ponderosa after the camp's founder, George, decided it was time to move on from the Slabs. Shannon uses social media to keep other Slabbers informed about the chili dinner schedule at the California Ponderosa; Slab City, USA 2018

  • As the summer sun rises over the Chocolate Mountains, the temperature quick rises. The morning and early evening hours are the best hours to get work done in the camp; Slab City, USA 2018

  • 117º f in the shade. A week earlier record high temperatures killed 5 people and 2 dogs in the Slabs. Slab City, USA 2018

  • Every resident is in the process of creating something all the time. Often in the form of adding a new expansion onto a residence or creating an assemblage made from found materials. Additionally, artists and art students frequent to area to visit Salvation Mountain at the entrance of the Slabs or either of the two art sites: East Jesus and West Satan, deeper in the Slabs; Slab City, USA 2018

  • At 101 years old the WWII veteran, Ted Block, moved to Slab City because he could no longer afford his home in Bombay Beach, CA, a former beach-front resort town just north of the Slabs on the shore of the Salton Sea; Slab City, USA 2018

  • Pastor Dave ensures "each Slabber at least one good stick-to-the-ribs meal each week"; Slab City, USA 2018

  • After the death of Leonard Knight, the creator of Salvation Mountain, Ron became the head caretaker of the monument; Slab City, USA 2018

  • Papa Cat, originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, runs the only cat sanctuary in the Slabs; Slab City, USA 2018

  • An elderly chihuahua greets guests in the morning at the East Jesus art site; Slab City, USA 2018

  • Our Lady of Lost Souls and Beautiful Freaks, East Jesus art site; Slab City, USA 2018

  • Images of paradise adorn the wall of a structure at B-Side camp, a half mile from the cold shower; Slab City, USA 2018

  • Sourcing fresh drinkable water is the biggest struggle for residents. Some create filters to clean nearby canal water, others travel to neighboring Niland, CA to buy fresh water from the town's only store. There are at least three people who run daily water deliveries to residents who can afford it; Slab City, USA 2018

  • Doc is a former computer programmer and long-time resident. Slab City, USA 2018

  • Families risk arrest and drowning in swift currents to swim in the cool waters of a nearby canal; Slab City, USA 2018

  • "If you want to understand freedom, just look at the life of dogs in the Slabs," says Andrew, a resident originally from New Zealand, who helps Pastor Dave dish out free meals at the Haven. Nearly every long-term Slabber keeps a canine companion. Although they seem to roam free, most dogs stay close to home; Slab City, USA 2018

  • A dog is truly a Slabber's best friend, but a pack of dogs is even better. Dogs help prevent theft and ensure the safety of the family from snakes and other dangerous animals; Slab City, USA 2018

  • Dogs are so highly revered in the Slabs there are two pet cemeteries to lay one's best friend to rest in; Slab City, USA 2018

  • As the sun sets during an evening walk, Tammy finishes off her bottle of water. To stay hydrated in the desert heat, a person could drink an average of 3 to 4 liters of water each day; Slab City, USA 2018