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Welcome to Slab City

The following article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into California.

(Image credit: Flickr user Gerry)

Here’s a look at one of the most unusual, most unlikely, and, strangely, most beloved campgrounds in the entire United States.


When the United States entered World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it was just a matter of time until American soldiers would go into battle against the German and Italian forces occupying North Africa. So in 1942, the Marine Corps opened a base called Camp Dunlap on 630 acres of desert land in Southern California, where it trained troops to fight in conditions similar to those in North Africa.

Camp Dunlap wound down after the war and closed for good in 1956. The military stripped the base of everything of value, and after they cleared out, the citizens of the nearby city of Niland tore down the few remaining buildings and used the lumber to build a church. All that was left were the concrete slabs that had served as the floors for dozens of portable buildings and tents. A few ex-marines decided to stay behind, roughing it on campsites they built on the slabs. “The Slabs,” or “Slab City,” as it’s called, has been occupied ever since.


(Image credit: Flickr user Don Barrett)

Only the toughest and most determined “slabbers” could stand to live at the site year-round; in summer the temperature can climb past 120°F in the shade, what little there is. But over the years, the site became a popular wintering spot for RV “snowbirds.” By the 1980s, more than 3,000 campers, travel trailers, and motor homes were descending on the site each October and staying until April, when they packed up and headed north again before it got too hot. Slab City had a lot to offer its “citizens,” most of whom were on limited or fixed incomes: It was warm in winter but not unbearably hot, and because it was owned by the state (and not private property) it was legal to stay there. It didn’t cost a penny in rent, and because it was just 50 miles north of the Mexican border, affordable prescription drugs and medical care weren’t far away, either.


(Image credit: Flickr user rocor)

Before you quit your job and hit the trail for Slab City, there are a few things you need to know. For starters, there’s still no water, electricity, or sewage service. There’s not much fresh air, either: Slab City is just three miles from the Salton Sea, a dying body of water that’s bigger than Lake Tahoe. Fed by salty runoff from the irrigated fields of the Imperial Valley (known as the Valley of the Dead before the irrigation went in), the Salton is already saltier than the Pacific Ocean, and by 2017 it will be so salty that nothing will be able to live in it. The fish die-off is already well under way, and as migratory birds eat the diseased and dying fish, they die, too, and end up in the lake. The overpowering stench has been compared to a combination of cow manure, skunk spray, rotten eggs, urine-soaked hallways, and vomit.

And while Camp Dunlap has been closed for more than 60 years, the adjacent Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range is still open for business. It’s attacked day and night by bombers and fighter planes using real ordnance. As if the loud noises and trembling ground weren’t enough, some Slab City denizens make extra money sneaking onto the range at night to collect shrapnel that they sell for scrap metal. The military sends out patrols to stop them, but the county sheriff has caught more than one “scrapper” red-handed trying to bring unexploded cluster bombs, antitank rockets, and even Sidewinder missiles back to Slab City. A few of the scrappers have been blown to bits by the bombs.


(Image credit: Flickr user Marc Cooper)

So is Slab City the last bastion of true freedom and independence in America, or is it a stinking, sunbaked, postapocalyptic ticking-time-bomb vision of hell on earth? It depends on who you ask. It’s certainly not for everyone: A 1989 survey of visitors to the Salton Sea area found that not only did most of them say they’d never want to return, more than half said they were afraid to return.

And yet in spite of it all, people keep coming back. They’ve created quite a thriving community in Slab City, complete with swap meets, a library, a singles club, a Christian center, a church, a pet cemetery, and an outdoor stage where people gather to listen to live music every night. Nearly everyone has a CB, and they’re usually tuned to channel 23, the unofficial Slab City channel, especially for the 6:00 p.m. nightly news bulletins and announcements. Many residents are better known by their CB handles (Stargazer, Brain Dead, Cardboard Johnny) than they are by their real names.

(Image credit: Flickr user bellbeefer)

When groups of snowbirds start arriving in October, they tend to cluster their rigs in groups for security. But the various factions at Slab City—snowbirds, year-round slabbers, migrant laborers, the Apple Dumpling Gang (dune buggy enthusiasts), and even the local sheriff’s deputies, who patrol the area regularly—manage to interact on a daily basis without much fuss. Many slabbers have built small businesses that provide services to other residents. Does your rig need a new fan belt? Do you need water hauled in, or your garbage hauled out? Is your TV on the fritz? Do you want to replace your electric generator with solar panels? Someone in Slab City can take care of it for you. They even have an Avon Lady.


Imperial County isn’t crazy about Slab City, and neither is the State of California, which owns the land. But nobody wants the responsibility—or the expense—of closing it down and cleaning it up. Forty years’ worth of abandoned cars, burned-out trailers, and other junk would have to be hauled away, and the hundreds of “gopher holes” (makeshift septic tanks) scattered around the site would have to be dealt with. And who knows how many unexploded bombs are still lying around? On more than one occasion the state has tried to sell Slab City, perhaps to someone who would clean it up, put in utilities, and turn it into a commercial campground. But who would pay to camp between the stinky Salton Sea and a live bombing range? And as much as the county must hate to admit it, when all those RVs roll into town each October, they pump a fortune into the economies of Niland and other small towns in the area.

(Image credit: Flickr user rocor)

Even if the county could get rid of Slab City, would it really want to? Every year the conversation in Slab City fills with speculation and worry that this season might be the last, and every year the old-timers laugh it off. “Somebody’s always got a plan to clean up the Slabs,” one resident said in 1994. “I’m 87 now, and if I live to be 100, I’ll still be coming here.”


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into California. This volume brings you stories of the Golden State you've never heard before. You’ll meet child prodigies, spies, traitors, celebrities (and sidekicks), gossips, hermits, humanitarians, and zealots.  

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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