The Last Free Place in America

Recently, I hired a recreational vehicle in California complete with a shower and toilet, a small kitchen, and I took off in search of my idea of the American Dream. The RV was a beast. It was branded and bulky but together we explored the camp sites along the Pacific Coast Highway, some with their own laundry facilities but most with portable toilets and a view of the Pacific Ocean to rival the best postcards. But after seeing a reference to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I decided that a real road trip meant travelling and sleeping in a car. So, I hired a van and drove into the desert. 
 
I lived out of my van for a month or so, every evening pulling into a numbered campsite, sometimes listening to the desert wind as it rocked the vehicle and I to sleep. There is something romantic about sleeping in one’s car. Not knowing where you might end up of an evening. Perhaps missing a shower or two. The ability to drive along empty highways without responsibility or anyone necessarily to answer to. This feeling was exacerbated in Slab City. The Slabs occupy an area of land just outside Niland in the Sonoran Desert and are home to a mostly nomadic community of reprobates and misfits. Tourists venture there to see Salvation Mountain or East Jesus, two outdoor exhibition spaces with large-scale installations. I spent time at the Slab City Library, where book donations are discouraged in favor of tarp, paint, and soap, and at Ca Ponderosa where you can rent a room for as little as US$29 a night. 
 
The owners of Ca Ponderosa, Spider and Shannon, got married when I was there, and you can see some of the images on my Instagram account. But not all is rosy in the Slabs. It has its own rules and I was told that, sometimes, the local police are fearful of venturing there. Periodically, there are burn outs which leave the harsh desert soil -- where a trailer once stood -- scorched black, and it’s a hot bed for meth addicts. It’s hard to imagine sticking out the summer in the Slabs when temperatures soar to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit and there is little relief from the heat. Most of the community leaves then but there are those who can’t. I met a couple, fallouts from the housing crisis, who have made Slab City their home. One man has a felony. Another, a trans woman, lives there with her ailing mother.
 
During my road trip, I realized that what encompasses the American Dream is the need to travel and to explore but to also have a home. According to a report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, there was an increase in the number of homeless people in 2017 to just under 554,00, the first time in seven years. There are more homeless people in California than any other state. These statistics seem at odds with America’s early pioneering spirit. Some of California’s earliest settlers made their way out west in search of gold and a better life. They, like many of the residents in Slab City, didn’t have portable toilets or laundry facilities. In Slab City, despite the sense of community, its residents are homeless in the traditional sense, and they have fallen off the grid. For many, getting back on it is almost impossible. They are stuck in this no-man’s land living off food stamps and sporadic seasonal work. For these people, like others in America today, the Dream is dead.
 
I started off on a journey along one of the most scenic highways in the America and ended up in one of its most unforgiving places. Slab City is not the Last Free Place in America as its commonly called. It is a place where the down and out seek refuge because the American Dream is broken, and their existence is evidence of this. Slab City residents may not pay to live in the Slabs, but they pay in other ways. There is no running water or electricity. The nearest supermarket is at least thirty-minute walk away. Justice is dealt through community consensus. Life, and the social contract, is a compromise, though. I didn’t find my American Dream on this trip and, Kerouac be damned, I returned to a home in the relative comfort of a city where I’m bound, like you, by the constraints of living in a modern society.