Last Free Place
Photography and Text by Chris Rusanowsky
In the Salton Sea of the past, the roads would be backed up with visitors from the suburbs of Riverside, California, and Los Angeles, a popular place to spend the summer. At one time, a military base stood near the Salton Sea, Fort Dunlap, now known as Slab City. A community that has risen from the foundation slabs the military left behind when the base closed.
This property, owned by no one, is occupied by Nomads, Vagabonds, and people who want to live “off the grid.” Next door to the slabs is the famous Salvation Mountain created by the late Leonard Knight, an artist who strived to continue his work to spread the Name of Jesus with art. This United States monument has attracted tourists from all over the world. And with that, this outcast community faces a new era of the Slabs, a capitalism period. The land which adapted the nickname “Last Free Place” is now in a war of ownership.
For some Americans, a traditional way of life does not feel appealing; some look for a way out of the “rat race” we call society. Slab City, also known as The Last Free Place, has served as a place to live off the grid and do what you want or do nothing. A place that neighbors a vacation spot in the past on the Salton Sea. Slab City is well known for its presence in the Film; Into The Wild, featuring who played a role of a young man named Chris McCandless, who left his life to live on the road and adventure to Alaska. The community is also famous for the art project created by Leonard Knight that has become a national monument.
But what most attracts visitors to Slab City is this community and trade economy that has sprung up in the Sonoran Desert. Walking around that community, you see almost everything an ordinary town would have; a church, library, radio station, museum, and even a stickers shop that sells; I visited Slab City. What breaks away this D.I.Y. town of vagabonds and hobos? What makes this place unique? The answer can only be revealed by living in Slab City.
Walking around the grounds of Slab City, you see that the area is split up with different people’s tribs. One part of the neighborhood is called East Jesus, known for its artistic creations that look like a scrapyard but with statues and random materials innovations. The other community is of Slab City Community, one in the shadow of Salvation Mountain, the two-decade art piece that has brought thousands of tourists and their donations. These two communities have similar characters but different views of what they want the future of Slab City to be.
The land of Slab City is on the property that was once owned by the United States Military, an artillery anit-aircraft training camp once stood there named Camp Dunlap. Once the military closed down the base, they removed everything but the foundation slabs, that where Slab City got its name. In 1961 the base was no longer needed, and legislation required the land to go to The California State Teachers’ Retirement System. From there, the land has been taken over by squatters. The state of California awaits to decide whether or not to lease or sell the land. If the property is sold, the art installations and community will have to go.
So why is this place important? Exploring the property and people living in this squatter’s town, I find it a place of freedom, a place that offers a break from regular life, sales tax, and connections from the outside world. I see a community that has found happiness and belonging—a people who may be characterized as; drunks and drug addicts, but trauma of the past has lead many to this place and lifestyle. For example, the creator of Slab City Radio was once a real estate broker in Orange County, California; he goes by is Slab name Jack Two Horse. After the housing market collapsed in 2008, Jack Two Horse lost everything and looked for a new life away from his old life. After googling how to live for free and off the grid, he discovered Slab City.
This town has a dark side just as many towns and cities in America do, but there is beauty with the dark side of life. I find places like this necessaries for our society because it gives people a choice to have freedom from modern-day society, just as national parks provide a way out of the urban jungle and nature experience. Slab City may not be for everyone or maybe a place to visit, but those who live on the slabs its home, its an escape.
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