Slab City, Here We Come: Living Life Off the Grid in California's Badlands

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Claire Martin / Oculi / Redux

Leonard Knight stands with his art creation "Salvation Mountain" in California's Slab City, a squatters' camp about 190 miles southeast of Los Angeles

Watch: Off the Grid in Slab City, California

"Chicago" Joe Angio and his wife Anna did everything by the book to secure their slice of the American Dream. They earned college degrees, started a small business, bought a house and pair of cars, paid their taxes and credit-card bills on time. But when the economy tanked, so did the dream. Between two jobs they could barely pay their mortgage, reaching a point where they had to choose which creditor to shortchange at the end of the month in order to keep the lights on. With foreclosure no longer a matter of if, but of when, the couple looked on the Internet for the ideal place to lay low, spend less and experiment with solar power to "get more for our buck out of our environment." They bought a used RV and went off the grid. Way off.

Slab City, their home for the past three months, is a squatters' camp deep in the badlands of California's poorest county, where the road ends and the sun reigns, about 190 miles southeast of Los Angeles and hour's drive from the Mexican border. The vast state-owned property gets its name from the concrete slabs spread out across the desert floor, the last remnants of a World War II–era military base. In the decades since it was decommissioned, dropouts and fugitives of all stripes have swelled its winter population to close to a thousand, though no one's really counting. These days, their numbers are growing thanks to a modest influx of recession refugees like the Angios, attracted by do-it-yourself, rent-free living beyond the reach of electricity, running water and the law. And while the complexion of the Slabs, as the place is locally known, may be changing in some ways, the same old rule applies: respect your neighbor, or stay the hell away.

"It's pretty much as close to the Old West as you're gonna get. Most of us don't own guns or none of that garbage, but if we have problems, we take care of [them]," says Ray, 56, a former drug addict turned born-again Christian who has traversed the country six times with a giant wooden cross on his back. Katie Ray, 30, a perennial visitor from Oakland, Calif., calls the place a "postapocalyptic vacation zone."

Although Slabbers tend to defy easy characterization, de facto neighborhoods ("Poverty Flats," "Lows") and tribes have emerged. There are Year-Rounders who brave the 120°F summer inferno, and Snowbirds who land from as far as Canada with their souped-up RVs and pensions, soul-searching Gypsy Kids who arrive by train with little more than the ragged clothes on their back, Spaz Kids and their electro-psychedelic outdoor parties, and Scrappers who risk life and limb to collect shrapnel from the gunnery range that flanks the camp, where Navy SEAL teams train year-round (and where rumor has it they prepared for the Osama bin Laden raid). That's to say nothing of the rowdy bikers who pass through, or the meth-addled loners on the outer edges inclined to greet a trespasser with a gunshot. If the Burning Man festival were a permanent settlement instead of a weeklong escape — remixed with a hard dose of reality — this might be it.

"The Last Free Place in America" lives up to its nickname. Want to hang out nude in thermal mud baths or skateboard stoned in the bowl of an Olympic-size pool? Go for it. In the mood to construct outlandish pieces of art with scrap metal, dig an SUV-size trench for no particular reason or play 18 holes of golf on a grassless course to the sound of bombs in the distance? This is the place. Yet despite the anything-goes reputation, those who stick around the Slabs long enough insist they are made to feel welcome, provided they have the right attitude. Free meals and entertainment are on offer, capped by Saturday-night concerts at the Range, a clapboard venue that showcases live acts of varying quality. This bohemian aspect was featured in the 2007 film Into the Wild, rare mainstream attention that drew a surge of newcomers to Slab City.

One of them is Sandra "Sandi" Andrews, 61, a nomadic mother of eight without a retirement plan. Her daughter saw the film and figured it was her mom's kind of place. She was right. "When I first got here, I thought this is a whole new planet, there's no place like it," she exclaims. Initial concerns about her safety as a woman alone did not last long. Three years on, she's surrounded by friends and lives on less than $100 a month, supplementing her Social Security check with paintings she sells to tourists that stop by her studio, a converted school bus. Among her neighbors are two widows in their 90s and an 89-year-old who jokes that she'd die as soon as she set foot in a retirement home. "We've all chosen and like Slab City," Andrews says, "so the caring and sharing is always there."

Well, it depends on whom you ask too. "Builder Bill" Ammon, 63, a year-round resident who manages the Range, says that when he moved from San Diego to the Slabs back in 1999, the community was more tight-knit. "In those days, you could be poor and be separate from the engine of the world and still be all right," he says, fondly recalling how most everyone talked to one another on their CB radios and exchanged services and goods at regular swap meets to support themselves. "People had skills to offer." These days, he grumbles, a new generation of youngsters is turning up ill equipped for the sobering demands of life off the grid, looking for handouts. No one is left to go hungry, he notes. But if they don't adapt, they are given the cold shoulder, which may help explain the rise in petty theft at the camp. "A kind of segregation has developed here" between young and old, he says.

No one would disagree that the Wild West element has its darker side. Hang around the evening campfires a while and strange stories pour out: disappearances, mysterious drownings in the mud baths, the man who showed up in camp with his finger apparently bitten off, claiming he'd been attacked by a cannibal. The border patrol keeps a visible presence, searching for illegal immigrants that ply the region. When there's serious trouble, though, firemen must drive over from Niland, a derelict town five miles to the west that boasts the closest grocery store and post office. In 40-plus years on the job, Michael Aleksick, 63, the recently retired fire marshal, says he's been repeatedly shot at, stabbed and gotten in too many fistfights to remember, often with people he knows. Crime has worsened. "The crystal-meth influence," he says, "has been huge."

"There's the good, bad and the ugly," says "Shotgun" Vince Neill, 38, a newcomer who got his nickname partly for stopping a man from stealing a friend's solar panels with a blast of rock salt. He first visited the Slabs as a boy and returned this winter with his wife and six children in tow after he lost his audiovisual business and their home in Northern California. Sometimes he worries about his family's safety, but Neill reckons that Slab City's problems are proportionate to any normal city in the country. And he has no regrets about bringing his kids (ages 2 to 18). In this case, math and English lessons are rounded out with training on catching scorpions and rattlesnakes. "They're much happier learning in the great outdoors; it's the best school," he says. Still, Slab City is more of a parking spot than a long-term solution: come summer, the family will head to Los Angeles so he can look for full-time work.

Others, like "Radio" Mike Depraida, 60, keep choosing to return. The native New Yorker was living the fast life as a consultant and photographer but grew weary of the hectic pace and an apartment building where he didn't know his neighbors. A chance visit with friends three years ago got him hooked on the Slabs, and he's since become the perpetually tan guy in a polo shirt who operates a radio station and greets travelers with a gin and tonic at his makeshift tiki bar. The freedom and mix of people keep him coming back, a dearth of single women notwithstanding. "Why are these some of the most intelligent people I've met in my life?" he asks aloud. "I came to the conclusion that if you're smart enough to get out of the rat race, well, then, you're pretty damn bright."

Chicago Joe and Anna are proof positive. They ended up parking their trailer in East Jesus, a renegade open-air art space with Mad Max accents. The view outside their window features a half-buried coach bus and, beyond that, a giant mammoth made of tires; their neighbors include an ex-chef, a documentary filmmaker and a wandering magician cum tattoo artist. What started as an adventure has settled into a routine filled with solar projects and other odd jobs that will keep them busy and fit. Joe's already lost 80 lb. "People back home still think we're crazy for doing what we've done," he says. "It's not for everyone, but this lifestyle has grown on us, tremendously." The couple swear their relationship has also improved because they no longer fight about money. It's not hard to understand why: their living expenses have dropped from about $4,000 to $200 a month. Less than their electricity bill when they owned a house.