Slab City: Living Off the Grid in California’s Badlands
By JASON MOTLAGH
February 3, 2012
“Chicago” Joe Angio and his wife Anna did everything by the book to secure their slice of the American Dream. They earned college degrees, started a small business, bought a house and pair of cars, paid their taxes and credit-card bills on time. But when the economy tanked, so did the dream. Between two jobs they could barely pay their mortgage, reaching a point where they had to choose which creditor to shortchange at the end of the month in order to keep the lights on. With foreclosure no longer a matter of if, but of when, the couple looked on the Internet for the ideal place to lay low, spend less and experiment with solar power to “get more for our buck out of our environment.” They bought a used RV and went off the grid. Way off.
Slab City, their home for the past three months, is a squatters’ camp deep in the badlands of California’s poorest county, where the road ends and the sun reigns, about 190 miles southeast of Los Angeles and hour’s drive from the Mexican border. The vast state-owned property gets its name from the concrete slabs spread out across the desert floor, the last remnants of a World War II–era military base. In the decades since it was decommissioned, dropouts and fugitives of all stripes have swelled its winter population to close to a thousand, though no one’s really counting. These days, their numbers are growing thanks to a modest influx of recession refugees like the Angios, attracted by do-it-yourself, rent-free living beyond the reach of electricity, running water and the law. And while the complexion of the Slabs, as the place is locally known, may be changing in some ways, the same old rule applies: respect your neighbor, or stay the hell away.
“It’s pretty much as close to the Old West as you’re gonna get. Most of us don’t own guns or none of that garbage, but if we have problems, we take care of [them],” says Ray, 56, a former drug addict turned born-again Christian who has traversed the country six times with a giant wooden cross on his back. Katie Ray, 30, a perennial visitor from Oakland, Calif., calls the place a “postapocalyptic vacation zone.”