An off-grid California desert community offers refuge for the overlooked, misunderstood, and disenfranchised. But with deadly heat more frequent, residents face increasing danger.
Veering southeast from opulent Palm Springs, Highway 111 skims the Salton Sea: a vast man-made lake ethereal in appearance but notorious for its toxic algae blooms. This land stretching south to the U.S.–Mexico border comprises the Imperial Valley, largely known for its agriculture. And in the open desert beyond these farms and small towns live those who seek the edge of the world.
“Summertime in Slab City. It’s 120 and there’s no shade,” Builder Bill crooned as he strummed bluesy notes on a warm night this past March at The Range, the squatter community’s open-air live music venue. Slab City is an unincorporated territory located within Imperial County, one of the hottest regions in California. Here, the temperature exceeds 100 degrees on an average of 122 days per year. But the impending summer heat was of little concern tonight. Tonight was special — it was prom night.
Slabbers, as residents call themselves, established their annual prom about 20 years ago, originally as a consolation for those who never got to attend their high school prom. Slabbers of all ages gathered, dressed in prom dresses and eclectic costumes, to dance, mingle, and partake in every substance imaginable.
Toward the end of the night, an announcer crowned prom royalty and offered words of appreciation for the lucky few appointees. Almost everyone from the Slabs, as the settlement is colloquially known, was there. Almost everyone knew one another. “You’re not gonna get any shit like that out in Babylon,” said Beryl, a veteran Slabber who runs the Oasis Coffee Club. Babylon is what Slabbers call the outside world.
Before moving to Slab City, Builder Bill — this nickname alludes to his mechanical work — was homeless in San Diego for 10 years. “There was constant harassment even to the level of persecution,” he recalled. Now, having been in the Slabs for over two decades, Builder Bill is considered an “elder” and is one of The Range’s lead musicians.
Many Slabbers journeyed to this desert outpost in search of a new life and a sense of belonging. Some wanted to live off the grid (though these days most Slabbers have Facebook) or were tired of being judged for their lifestyle or socioeconomic status. Others had reached a breaking point with drug addiction or crumbling relationships before moving here.
While the Slabs offer a second chance to those who have been spit out by society, life here comes with its risks. Builder Bill has known a few people who have died or become ill in the heat. But this hasn’t deterred him from remaining in the Slabs — he’s made this place his home for 24 years.
This desert region has always been brutally hot, but it’s getting hotter as the climate warms. Average annual temperatures statewide have risen nearly three degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th century. Heat waves are longer, more frequent, and more intense — responsible for more deaths than any other weather event. An analysis by Climate Impact Lab puts Imperial County in the top 2% of U.S. counties for projected increases in heat deaths.
This presents Slabbers with a choice: Stay and adapt as an extreme climate becomes even more inhospitable, or leave the only place many of them have ever truly called home.
Slab City is named for the giant concrete slabs it rests upon — remnants of Camp Dunlap, the U.S. Marine Corps base that occupied the area until the 1940s. When troops abandoned the base, squatters moved in almost immediately. To many Slabbers, however, it wasn’t until the arrival of Leonard Knight that Slab City truly became what it is today: a beacon of acceptance for the overlooked and misunderstood.
Knight arrived in the Slabs in the early 1980s. When artistic inspiration struck, Knight created Salvation Mountain, a 50-foot tall clay sculpture mountain adorned with biblical references and colorful paint. Towering at the entrance to the Slabs, Salvation Mountain welcomes visitors.
Knight embraced wanderers. One such person is Beryl. Back in Chicago in 2008, Beryl’s health was failing, along with her relationship with her mother. She decided there was nothing left for her there, so she packed up her things and headed west. Beryl was camping at the Salton Sea when she met a couple who invited her to visit the Slabs. Knight was there to greet her and give her a tour of Salvation Mountain. Beryl felt like she finally had found a refuge, alongside many others. Even after Knight’s death in 2014, the Slabs have retained the spirit he fostered.
Past Salvation Mountain, Slab City sprouts up in clusters of trailers and colorfully decorated shacks along a relatively short network of deteriorating roads. There is a library, a solar-powered charging station, a skate park, and a number of other community-run amenities. Slab City lacks running water, electricity, and sanitation services. Those who can afford to install generators or solar panels. People get by on very little here — most are on government assistance and subsist on a sort of barter system.
The Slabs have earned the title, “The Last Free Place,” though Slabbers will be sure to clarify that it’s not 100% free. “We’re not lawless, dumbass motherfuckers,” Beryl told me when I visited. County laws are still enforced here, and the police roll through on occasion. But Slabbers are free in a number of ways they weren’t in their previous lives: free from paying rent, free from their past jobs and relationships, and free from the denigrating eye of societal norms. “You can exist here without it being a crime to anybody,” Builder Bill said.
It was summer of 2018, and Eohka Beaivi had just moved to Slab City. He was living under a tree as one of the region’s deadliest heat waves in recent years bore down. Temperatures climbed to 120 degrees as Beaivi struggled to sleep in his hammock.
Twenty-five people died in Imperial County that year of heat-related causes. “I was kind of scared ‘cause I thought I might be one of them,” Beaivi told me. But neighbors looked out for him. Some checked to ensure he was drinking enough water, another directed him to the nearest canal where Beaivi could cool off.
Nine of Imperial County’s ten hottest three-day periods on record since 1962 have occurred since 2016. As extreme heat has increased in frequency and severity, residents of this valley have suffered the effects. “There’s a breaking point and I think we’ve reached it,” said Luis Olmedo, Executive Director at Comite Civico del Valle, an environmental justice organization in Imperial County. “Sadly, deaths have already happened as a result of heat exhaustion.” The county has recorded 74 heat-related deaths and nearly 1,400 heat-related illnesses since 2015 (due to the pandemic, the data was not collected for 2020). That’s out of a population of only 180,000, which has remained roughly the same over those years.
“Residents in Imperial County may be at risk if they do not have access to proper air conditioning or are not staying hydrated,” said Maria Peinado, Public Health Information Officer at the Imperial County Public Health Department. “There is also a concern for individuals that work outdoors during the day, as well as the elderly or those with chronic illnesses.” While Slabbers who have generators or solar panels are lucky enough to cool off with AC, those who live without electricity in their trailers, tents, or shacks can only stay in the shade, hydrate, and hope for the best.
Heat deaths in this area are avoidable for the well-adapted, said Richard, a 20-year veteran of nearby Bombay Beach, a small town that cropped up among the abandoned ruins of a ritzy 20th-century resort. In this seaside community, occupied trailers and small homes are interspersed with deserted, decaying ones. Richard tries to be proactive during heat waves — staying inside his trailer, turning on the AC, and playing video games to pass the time. “We’ve had a couple people die from heat exhaustion, but their air condition was broke and they didn’t wanna do nothing about it,” Richard said. (Richard later admitted that his own AC had been broken for the past year and he had yet to fix it — he just shelters at a neighbor’s place.) According to Richard, there are three temperatures in these parts. “We got hot, very hot, and fucking hot,” he remarked.
Slabbers echo this sentiment. There is a sense of pride in knowing how to tame the heat. The more diligent community members chalk up their neighbors’ heat-related deaths to carelessness, or perhaps a death wish. “Some people come here deliberately to die because they can do it on their own terms,” said Ayla Moon, a Slabber and docent at Salvation Mountain. “I’ve seen people who purposely have set themselves up that they would die in the hot springs on a summer afternoon because they’re terminal and they don’t wanna be a burden on their family,” Beryl added. Sometimes people will take a soak in the hot springs on a hot day, have a few drinks, fall asleep, and never wake up, Moon said.
The most at-risk community members are those with preexisting conditions, the elderly, and people who use drugs and alcohol heavily. When it gets extremely hot, the risk is on the mind of Slabbers, regardless of whether they fear the worsening effects of climate change. Many community members will check on the elderly and vulnerable in their midst during heat waves. “Every time I knock on the door I’m worried if I’m gonna get an answer or not,” Beryl said. And if she catches someone neglecting heat-safe practices, like staying out of the sun, drinking plenty of water, and limiting alcohol consumption, she says, “Listen motherfucker, I don’t wanna stand there knocking on the door and have to find you dead.” So far, Beryl has always gotten an answer to that knock.
Snowbirds bring the Slabs’ population to about 1,200 in the winter months, but when summer arrives, the number drops to a mere 350. For the most part, the people who are willing to stick it out during the Slabs’ already brutal summers are unfazed by the prospect of worsening heat. Their views on climate change’s role in this vary, but a tone of resignation undergirds it all.
“A risk only becomes a risk when it affects something that you value,” said Tara Quinn, environmental social scientist at England’s University of Exeter. If Slabbers value their home more than safety from heat-related threats, increasing heat might not seem like a significant enough risk to make them want to leave. According to Quinn, when someone is very attached to a place, they might also begin managing risk through ontological security, or the belief that everything will continue to be the way it has always been.
Some, like Ron, the caretaker of Salvation Mountain, recognize climate change’s role in the worsening heat but accept the consequences. “By the time things get worse, I’ll be old and senile,” Ron said. He shares the escapist sentiment of many Slabbers. Unfortunately, they can’t avoid the consequences of climate change even when they’ve had little part in creating it. “We’re off-grid and don’t have a lot of carbon footprint,” he said. “I’m doing my part. Batter up, next generation.” To Ron and like-minded Slabbers, being responsible for their own actions is all they feel they can do.
Beaivi shared that when a heat wave is in the forecast, Slabbers voice concerns about worsening conditions in the future. But these conversations quickly die out as the heat wave passes and people move on with their lives.
Others either do not seem to notice the changes happening, or if they do, they don’t think they’re much cause for concern. Builder Bill, for one, thinks the temperatures have actually been getting cooler in recent years, contrary to the data from regional weather stations. “It’s been a thing forever,” Builder Bill said.
Even for Slabbers who have noticed that there are more extremely hot days than there were decades ago, hot is hot. “Whether it’s 130 or 120 you still have to do the same things for it,” Beaivi said. They do what they can to stay cool, and if climate change makes matters worse, it’s another one of society’s woes that they try their best to put out of mind.
Just as Slabbers expect severe heat, they are not caught off guard by its deadly effects. John, who prefers not to use his last name, has been a snowbird in the Slabs for 20 years. “Every spring when we say goodbye to our friends, we don’t know if we’re going to see them again,” he said. But John went on to explain that this isn’t necessarily as unsettling to Slabbers as it may sound. “If you live here long enough, the relationship between life and death becomes fluid,” he said. Death is a fact of life here, and many Slabbers liken their friends’ passing to departing on a long trip. Others describe still feeling the deceased’s presence with them. While they try to avoid it, death isn’t so great a deterrent to those set on living in the Slabs. “I already survived breast cancer. I don’t fucking care. It’s better than being out there — in Babylon,” Beryl said, gesturing toward the horizon.
For many Slabbers, being lonely, misunderstood, or restricted by societal norms and inequalities is far more frightening than death. The home they find in Slab City is worth the risks. “I know if I die out here, I won’t die alone,” Beryl said.
Rodney Wild, who prefers to go by the name Spyder, is a tall, wiry man with spider tattoos crawling up his arms and a thin beard dyed bright blue. Spyder had hit rock bottom before moving to the Slabs. He was living in his truck with his two sons, struggling with a drug addiction. After going through rehab, Spyder moved his family out to the Slabs, looking for a fresh start.
Now, Spyder runs the California Ponderosa, a neighborhood in Slab City composed of trailers and shacks that he rents out on Airbnb. The main attraction in this area is Spyder’s bar, a large wooden structure. A hodgepodge of trinkets plaster the walls, dogs roam around hunting for mice, and spiral-carved coke cans dangle from the ceiling. Enjoying the shade, sipping on liquor, and passing around a smoke, travelers expressed gratitude to their host. “This place here is not just for me or for my family,” Spyder said. “It’s for guys who don’t have anything.” Spyder leaned on the counter he had proudly decorated with bottle caps, and stressed, “Even if the heat gets hotter, I’ll still be here. We can’t leave this place — it’s our home.”
“After spending years and years of not getting accepted whether it be from your family or society, to have that level of acceptance for who you are is empowering,” Moon said. “I wouldn’t give this place up for anything.”
For some, staying in Slab City isn’t just a matter of preference. “I can’t survive out in Babylon on some food stamps. I can’t survive like I do out here,” Beryl said. To possess little in the Slabs can be far more livable to some than to it would be on the streets of a major city. Describing the support people find in the Slabs, Moon explained, “This is the only place in America I’ve been where no one goes hungry.”
While Slabbers accept the risks of extreme heat, they are constantly finding ways to adapt. Slabbers build and modify their landscape to beat the heat. Spyder is always concocting new plans to make summer in the Slabs more comfortable. He is currently painting his roofs white to reflect the heat and collecting marble scraps to build a floor that will stay cool. He also is slowly connecting the buildings of California Ponderosa to each other with roofs. “I’m blocking out the sun,” he said.
Moon has her own plan to bring moringa seeds into the Slabs, hoping the fast-growing, drought-resistant trees will provide some shade in the largely barren area.
“The radiant heat is a fucker,” Beryl said, referring to the heat that reflects off the ground, making it hotter in people’s trailers. To alleviate this, Beryl and other Slabbers who live on concrete slabs, cover the ground around their trailer with a tarp.
While Slabbers are adapting to stay in Slab City, they can only do so much to avoid the dangers of worsening heat. “With climate change we are already at a time in certain locations where there aren’t really many more options for adaptation,” Quinn said.
According to Quinn, we need to look at adaptation holistically. We need to understand “how it impacts people’s lives on a day to day basis, how it affects their wellbeing, because it’s only really by doing that that adaptations become more sustainable.”
As summer approaches, Slab City and other communities similarly vulnerable to extreme heat will again need to grapple with serious risks. Change is here, and distance from the rest of society has not spared Slabbers. But this community isn’t interested in migrating to less harsh climates. In this hostile desert that Slabbers have made their home, the will to live life on one’s own terms does not so easily wither.