Our solo road trip continues. You might recall we were visiting the falling-apart yet artsy Bombay Beach, a possible up-and-coming boom town, due to large underground reserves of lithium, in high demand to build rechargeable car batteries. “We have what some have described as the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” said Governor Gavin Newsom, describing the Salton Sea at a January press conference.
Surprisingly, out here the middle of nowhere isn’t as nowhere as you might think. Internet can be found in places, making it easy-ish to hear that one of my Joshua Tree National Park compatriots would join me early in Slab City. But what did that mean? Where should we meet? There is no there there in Slab City.
Q: You plan to rendezvous with a friend in a small rural town neither of you have been to. Where’s the surest place to meet up?
A: The grocery store. Some small towns have gas stations at either end of town, but usually there is only one grocery store.
Slab City has neither however, so we picked the hot springs. I had no idea what to expect from the hot springs, but knew they were there after exchanging emails with the website. Mystery Man told me to camp anywhere – his writings were so enigmatic. Another nod to the area’s alluring secrecy.
“Keep driving, you can’t miss it.” I asked a number of people along the road and just kept heading east. Decided it was time to invoke solo traveler / marcher magic when I past this scene, thought twice, and made a U-turn.
Coming in at 107° (41C) that day (the temperature fluctuates), Slab City Hot Springs is a naturally fed pond resulting from the San Andreas Fault and a pipe crack below.
Natural hot springs are sacred places to me, but not everyone agrees. A gentleman drives up in a hippy bus with yoga music playing. He lays out crystals and brings hands together in prayer pose before submerging like an enlightened spirit into the hot water, dissolving to become one with. Juxtapose that with the group who speed up next in rusty dune buggy with sand flying everywhere. Yelling loudly, the posse jumps in fully clothed, strips, and squirts blue dish soap out of a plastic bottle all over their heads. The springs were their tub, and I guess I get it -there’s no water out there, and not a lot of money either, but still, it felt like the earth was being violated. First world problems I guess. They keep screaming until departure, leaving their disregarded clothes floating in the water like dead people. I swim over and fish them out. Sigh.
Artist friends told me about this area but I didn’t think to Wikipedia the place before leaving on the trip. Google it and find a lot of information and documentaries about Slab City’s quirky history, challenging daily life and off-the-grid residents that make for really interesting characters in the home movies.
Billed as the “Last Free Town in America,”
this lawless hamlet requires no rent or taxes. A 600-acre community of 2000-ish residents during high season (November to March) and 300-ish in summer when temperatures top 120° degrees (50-55° C). Wikipedia describes a mix of long-term residents who barter and live in community along with younger residents, “sometimes ill-equipped for self-sufficiency who turn to petty theft and drug use.” NPR describes Slab City as state property with California as an absentee landlord.
Just the wide-open desert out here, dotted with concrete slabs leftover from Camp Dunlap, a World War II Marine artillery training base. Perfect for parking RV’s - some spots are well put together; many others look like dumpsites. Think West Monroe, Louisiana meets Black Rock desert. An interesting blend of down-and-outers, free spirits, people looking to disappear, creatives and hippies who never wanted to leave the Burning Man. Edgy and exciting, there’s a skate park, church, bike repair shop,
and a really nice library. Only library in America with no cards or fees. Take anything you want and return it, or not.
Don’t miss the Slab City map on the library wall, highlighting the art exhibits and tourist destinations. Wait, art exhibits?
I finally met up with AR, and we took local advice for that night’s campsite; “Go to Mojo’s. They’ve got showers and it’s good for travelers, even though the cops come at night – they always do.”
Mojo’s is a desert oasis with fun community structures, colorfully painted showers and clean bathrooms (even laundry). About 20 people were staying when we arrived. Pitch a tent and use all the amenities including the outdoor kitchen and social areas ($25 per night).
- photo by AR
Owned by Mojo, a cool, 60-ish woman traveling solo herself, it’s a good landing for single travelers - safe, clean, and filled with interesting characters (i.e. lots of people to talk to when you want social). Mojo is a strong, weather-worn and tanned, sparkly-eyed lady whose been building the place up for six years. There’s a number of cool women who work there, a good sign for solo woman travelers looking for a place to overnight.
Windy as a desert can be when she wants to
- photo by AR
the outdoor kitchen had a wind-block curtain that folded down for nights just like this, We took advantage of the propane stove to cook my favorite dinner of the trip - Vegan Chorizo Sauté with Caramelized Peppers and Onions over Whole Grain and Lentil Couscous (recipe below).
At night, Slab City unexpectantly lit up with gathering places and “pirate bars” worth stumbling around in the dark to find. Bring a flashlight and follow the lights.
When we got back to camp, guess who was there? The cops! “There’s this crazy lady who lives next to camp,” we heard the following morning. “We call her the White Witch cuz she always dresses in flowing light dresses. She makes a lot of noise at night and the cops come to shut her up. They often do.”
Hmmm, I wonder where the cops come from?
“How long have you lived here?” I ask a guy at morning coffee.
“A couple months. I was out on the land before, but the guy next to me was a convicted murderer, or so he kept telling me, over and over, so I decided to relocate.”
For breakfast it’s hard-boiled eggs. HB eggs are good travel food. They store well in a cooler and are easier now to find in grocery stores and even 7-11.
Then we head out for the local art stroll to Salvation Mountain and East Jesus. That’s right - an art stroll. In the middle of nowhere. In this dusty trashy place. The area is filled with art. Slab City is falling apart and totally exciting, all at the same time. Surprisingly good place to travel solo for the adventurous spirit. It has all the elements to keep your attention, and a few more.
We’ll pick up our story here next time.
Vegan Chorizo Sauté with Caramelized Peppers and Onions
over Whole Grain and Lentil Couscous
Get your pasta kick in but enhance quick-cooking Israeli cous cous with a perfect balance of added whole grains and beans. They cook within the same time, so add more fiber, vitamins and plant-power to your meal. Serves 2-3
½ cup Israeli couscous
½ cup mixture of quinoa, millet, buckwheat groats and/or red lentils
1 ½ cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
Vegetable Chorizo Sauté
1 red pepper
1 package vegan chorizo
Left over wine to deglaze
Garnish options: lemon, capers
Combine cous cous with grains and lentils of choice. Toast in a dry skillet, preferably cast iron, 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the stock and tightly cover. If you are camping, it’s windy and your cover isn’t tight, cover first with aluminum foil, and then top with whatever cover or metal bowl you have. Reduce heat to low and cook about 12 – 15 minutes until the grains and beans are tender.
While the grain is cooking, add a tablespoon or so of oil to a second pan and sauté the onion a few minutes till light brown. Deglaze the pan with wine, stock or the beer you are drinking. Add the pepper and sauté again till caramelized. Deglaze and remove to a bowl. Add another tablespoon of oil and sauté the chorizo (some brands are crumbled, others are sliced) till browned. Add back the vegetable mix and season to taste.
When the grains are done, serve under the vegetable chorizo mix. Garnish with lemon and capers, two good additions to your camping pantry.
*A cast iron skillet is good for camping because it can regulate hard-to-control outdoor stoves. It also keeps food warm while you are eating.
CAMPERS NOTE: Find a right-sized cardboard box to store camping pantry items. Oils etc. tend to spill, but so what? Just recycle the box at trips end.
- photos by LSIC unless noted