NILAND, Calif. - To stay or not to stay, that is the question for many at Slab City, a place that some refer to as being “off the grid of normal society – the last free place on earth”.
University student Austin Ryan said, “It’s inspiring to just see people living life and not playing by the rules.”
Salvation Mountain caretaker Ron Malinowski said, “I realize that this is a very unique place. Where it’s all about love, god, happiness – everybody’s welcome here.”
Slab City Community Group President Preacher Dave said, “I view Slab City as a living laboratory.”
A place with no rules, no structure.
Viper Lounge founder Jimmy Austin said, “The tribal people, the family here - that attracts me the most. And also the fact that you can be free and be an artist here.”
“And this is a refuge for people that don’t quite fit,” said Builder Bill Emmett, founder of The Range, an open mic music stage at Slab City.
“The art and my freedom to express myself here, and my freedom to build what i want here, which has led me to running this library,” said Cornelius Vango, Slab City Library caretaker.
A man who goes by the name of Caveman, and is the co-manager of Slab City Library, said, "It's hot. It's hard, stressful, and amazing.”
T.D. Walton, who is working on an experimental garden that nobody has seen yet, said, “I am here on a mission and it is a special mission in nature. It is to give people a glimpse of the garden of Eden.”
But this free squatters' paradise may not be free for long – the State of California, after many years abandoning the area that began as a military training camp in the 1940s, is now trying to sell it off.
Niland Chamber of Commerce President Hollis Daker said, “They are diving it up. They’re separating it. There’s going to be sold. I think one piece of property has already been sold up that way.”
Slab City is in the north end of Imperial County, 156 miles east of San Diego, and about 50 miles north from the Mexican border. Temperatures rise as high as one 120 degrees in the summer.
The average population of 150 swells to nearly 2000 in the winter season.
“Mostly an experimental community. We’d even call it a safety valve for homelessness in the imperial valley,” Preacher Dave said.
People come here for many reasons. Some are just passing through.
Russell Heinnold came to Slab City to see what it was like.
“I was cycling across the country on a bicycle. And, i rolled into slab city. I just wanted to see what it looked like,” Heinnold said.
“I’m not sure yet. I’m about to graduate and I’ve no idea what I’m going to do afterwards. So, maybe I’ll stay,” Ryan said.
“I thought it be a good place to come play some music,” James said.
And some call this place their home.
Builder Bill came and founded the range where there’s open mic every weekend.
“I’ve been living here for 18 years now. And I run the older music stage down the road here. And I’m involved with the corporation that takes care of salvation mountain,” Builder Bill said.
Vango and Caveman found a reason to stay with the free library.
“Most of us were drawn to this environment because we were already kind of on the fringe of society,” Vango said.
Slab City Hostel Manager Balu said, “I’m having a hostel which brings all the international people to the hostel. So, it feels like I’m still traveling.”
Preacher Dave sees the place as a halfway point or restoration for a small congregation he leads.
“As a place where people can come and get themselves together to move on to something else,” Preacher Dave said.
Ron Malinowski said he’s living his dream by taking care of the monument Salvation Mountain located at near the entrance to Slab City. It draws thousands of international tourists annually.
“And I’m living it. And I’m out here dedicating my life to doing something good for all of mankind.”
But, all this freedom may be gone if the State of California sells off the land to developers or solar companies that have shown interest in the area.
“It could be purchased by a solar company or some corporation can come in and buy it. And then the people of slab city would obviously be kicked out,” Balu said.
To protect their paradise, Slab City squatters that normally would prefer solitude have banded together, forming three groups to try to buy their land.
“Our goal is to keep it the way it is within certain boundaries,” Preacher Dave said.
One group has already bought their small piece of land. But the other two groups are still far from their goal.
“It’s just a lot of paperwork and a lot of red tape,” Balu said.
The Last Free Place on Earth may still be lost if the two remaining local groups cannot come up with enough funds to reach an agreement with the state. Then, for the thousands that come, go or stay – Slab City will be a squatter’s paradise no more.
“I just would like to live in peace out there without the threat of being kicked off,” Balu said.