In Phoenix, we received a message from our friend, Tim Langenberg. We had been trying to find a way to travel together for part of our trip. He proposed traveling with us from Arizona to Los Angeles. After a few minutes of planning, Annie and I made it work and called him to arrange further details. Within the next hour he bought a ticket to Arizona and we started making plans for an adventure through the desert to the coast. The trip would culminate with meeting a bunch of friends from Michigan in L.A. so we were even more excited.
The first thing Tim told us he wanted to do was visit Slab City. We weren’t sure where that was, but it turned out to be in an extremely remote location north of Yuma and South of Palm Springs. Annie had wanted to visit that and the painted canyon which was nearby. It seemed to all fall into place just right.
We ventured forth with little knowledge of what it would be like. The only thing we really knew about Slab City a group of people had been living in the desert since the 60’s. The hippie squatter stereotypes of the place did make us a little uneasy but nonetheless we headed out seeking adventure and a free place to park.
As we drew close, we picked up some kids who were hitchhiking. We had a few extra seats and they seemed to be harmless kids walking from the adjacent city of Niland. It was our first experience with hitchhikers. They were just kids looking for a fun weekend in the Slabs as they called it. Tim chatted it up with them to learn a little about the area.
As soon as we arrived we were warmly welcomed by locals at every stop. Our first stop was Salvation Mountain, an incredible art installation. We walked around trying to understand this massive painting of a mountain. A local resident made sure we felt at home and encouraged us to check out the hot spring and stay for a talent show later that evening.
Every Saturday they have an open stage called ‘The Range’ where visitors and locals jam together. The hot spring in the area was formed from an old Army base that used to occupy the site. They drilled into an aquifer that created a hot spring on the surface after they left. At 105 degrees and filled with brown slimy mud, we were a little sketched out, but we eventually took a dip. It turned out to be harmless and surprisingly wonderful. A few locals showed up and we made some more friends that were visiting just like us.
The friends that we met in the hot spring were from San Diego. They told us that they were heading home after their dip but we encouraged them to stay for the talent night. We parted ways and set up camp near The Range hoping to see them again after the sun went down. We made Pecan Artichoke Fettuccine for dinner and watched the sunset with some Margaritas. We were certainly enjoying our time at the Slabs thus far.
Once the sun went down the stage came alive and people started with some simple John Denver tunes. We walked over from our slab of concrete to check it out. From the dusty old couches, wooden school chairs, 5gal bucket lights, to the ZZ Top guitarist on stage it was clear we were only beginning our Slabs experience. The first few songs were performed by the guy that ran the place then a poet took the stage. She started alone and calm but slowly gathered a band of volunteers. Then the poet’s energy intensified and our friend from the hot spring showed up and started to play the drums. She was amazing! Probably one of the best drummers we have ever seen live. We were glad we had convinced her to stay!
One guy told us “bad news gets kicked out of this place quick”.
This experience felt truly real, unfolding without a script right in front of us. People kept arriving from all corners while some slipped out without a trace. Time did not seem to be a concept. Young and old, hipster and punk, hippies and travelers, stoned and sober, all gathered to enjoy some live music. The ambiance was like nothing else. It was certainly ragged, but truly authentic. From the preschool kids running around in front of the stage to the elderly couple who kept lighting up joints to the davy crocket topped guy curled up on the sagging couch with his dog, everyone seemed to be truly themselves. Dancing began as the music picked up. A guy that seemed to us to look like Abraham took the stage. Then came along Johnny Dep and a President Lincoln looking character. One of our favorite acts was the Irish folk singer that used a Bodhrán drum. People continued to dance free as birds throughout the night.
While we were sitting and soaking up this experience a few people came up and introduced themselves. We bumped into the hitchhiking kids again and met a hip lady from Chicago who had been living in the Slabs for a while. Everyone seemed so interested in our story and we in theirs. Nowhere on our trip so far have we experienced this kind of hospitality and openness from complete strangers.
We were invited to join everyone for breakfast the next morning at the Oasis Cafe, a sort of coffee shop with a lending library and an internet connection. The community gathers here after the talent show every week. We could not resist so we headed over in the morning to check it out. Before that Tim woke up early and went over the the stage to play the bongos. There were a few dogs hanging around but nobody in sight until an old man emerged from under the dusty couch cushions. He proclaimed, “play on my brother, play on” and disappeared again.
At the Oasis Cafe we payed the $5 donation for breakfast, had some Folgers coffee and sat at an empty table. The guy who had invited us thanked us for coming and was overjoyed at our attendance. He said most people head home after a quick tour. Another person joined our table and started telling stories about his time in Nam and how money was the most powerful thing in the world. He was a bit wacky, but he sure had plenty of interesting stories to tell.
On our way out we noticed all the makeshift businesses that were scattered around. Someone told us about an art gallery that we needed to visit before we left and we found a solar panel business, and an RV mechanic. This was an incredible place and we’d highly recommend visiting this unique community. It was certainly one of our favorite parts of the trip so far!