“When you get to Slab City, be sure to keep on going until you get to East Jesus.” Grateful for the tip I received from two cool chicks I met at the Salton Sea Mud Pots, I decided to follow their advice to seek out East Jesus (and avoid West Satan) after spending time at Salvation Mountain. If I had known what kind of a surreal treat I was in for, I would have allotted an extra hour or two for this tripindicular excursion. The time and depth of my maiden flight through Slab City and East Jesus were just enough to mystify and intrigue me to the point of journaling my thoughts on this adventure and wanting to go back for more.
As I rounded the corner from Salvation Mountain, I was flashed a smile and a peace sign from atop the portal (aka guard tower) of what is affectionately known as “The Slabs,” or Slab City. This Sonoran Desert campsite was once home to the U.S. Marines’ Camp Dunlap in the 1940s and 1950s. The area was eventually abandoned, with the structures demolished, leaving only the concrete foundation slabs behind. Thus the name Slab City was born and somewhere around 1965 people began migrating to this territory slowly but surely for a multitude of reasons. Slabbers consist of everyone from snowbirds, retirees and the impoverished, to wanderers, artists, students and escapees of Corporate America. People from all walks of life including those simply wanting to live off the grid… way off the grid. Common denominator being the fundamental concept of freedom. Slab City is considered the “last free place on earth,” as its land is technically owned by (the AWOL landlords of) the California State Lands Commission, where people inhabit space here free of charge with little to no oversight, but also freedom as it relates to a genuine “live and let live” community. People come as they are, free to be who they want to be, and free from the usual constrictions of modern societal standards, judgment and pressures.
On the flip side, Slab City is also free from any formal electricity, running water, sewage system, traffic signals, toilets or trash service, with the woefully unmet expectation of “pack it in and pack it out.” People live in creative adaptations of tents, campers, trailers, vans, buses and RVs and commute to the decaying towns of Niland or Calipatria for necessary supplies and goods and some even bring in or build their own solar panel systems for energy.
Consisting more of camps rather than buildings, the town boasts a library, internet cafe, Christian Center, skate park housed in the remains of the old military base pool, hot springs, shower and a water tank turned hostel as well as a spot called the Oasis Club where you can grab a cup of coffee, Builder Bill’s outdoor live music venue called The Range and of course, the private artist residency of East Jesus and its brilliantly eerie sculpture garden. While it looks somewhat post-apocalyptic at first glance, this nomadic community of like-minded individuals is a wildly fascinating cross-section of our contemporary culture.
Flash back to 2007, when Burning Man enthusiast Charlie Russell (rest in peace, May 2011) said goodbye to Oakland and headed out to Slab City to work with Salvation Mountain’s Leonard Knight, as well as establish a site where he could create and exhibit art on a larger scale. The official set up costs in Slab City were well within his budget: free! Upon settling in with his art cars, including his beloved VW bus and bejeweled work of art, Cinnabar Charm, Charlie’s original vision morphed into the prolific reality of a sustainable, habitable and ever-changing living art installation and community, East Jesus.
Little by little, Charlie crafted an entire complex of utilitarian spaces out of what many would consider useless junk. He fabricated living quarters out of the large shipping container that he had transported from Oakland with his belongings, along with hospitality and operations facilities, and a music room complete with a sound and lighting system. He devised an intricate system of solar panels that were used to juice up batteries for power, as well as installing a generator for back up. Sheer genius. Charlie wanted all who were artistically inclined to be able to take refuge at this sanctuary and safe haven where they could have the freedom to “do as thou wilt.” As others journeyed out to the desert, the sculpture garden grew in size. East Jesus is a nomadic civilization beyond the edge of the world, where free-range art lives and breathes. An other-worldly vortex of art, if you will, where every action is an opportunity for self expression. Re-use, re-purpose, and if all else fails, recycle. Find the beauty in everything. It’s the kind of place you could expect to encounter sightings of such mythical creatures as goblins, gnomes and the occasional unicorn.
I strolled through the sculpture garden one late afternoon in February and took my time contemplating each piece of art, utterly mesmerized. An elephant constructed out of tires, a giant alligator made from chicken wire and used plastic grocery bags,
I’m itching to spend more time with the residents time so I can deepen my knowledge about this unique and collaborative commune. The energy here is unlike any other. A cauldron of magic, love, passion, anger, discovery, expression, ingenuity and fantasy. Like an extended session on Freud’s couch.
While I am not at liberty to speak for or about the inhabitants of Slab City or East Jesus, I am altogether fascinated by this place and feel compelled to make a return trip for a deeper dive into the people who live here, who they are, what brought them and why they stay. I am strangely attracted to this freedom from modern life and must feed my artistic curiosity. I raise my Chocolate Martini to you, Charlie Russell, Lynne Bright, Builder Bill, Leonard Knight, Frank and everyone else who has ever brought their positive and creative energy to Slab City and East Jesus.