This post is about the first leg of my year in the wilderness. I’m traveling to all the national parks in the contiguous 48 states. I’m also stopping at several other interesting spots along the way, and making sure to sample the local fare. Public health officials across the country argue that this is one of the safest things to be doing right now.
As someone who lives with essential first responders, this is much safer than staying at home. We had just finished house quarantine after our third covid scare from a room mate’s workplace — the day before I left — so I was feeling very ready to get going and put some distance between me and other people.
Next Up: Arizona
On my way to my first national park, I’m stopping off in two places; Salton and Slab City. I am spending about a week in Slab City before continuing on to Arizona.
I’m starting my trip on New Year’s Day after a last night together with my quarantine pod discussing our resolutions and plans for the new year. They are hoping to join me on my trip in a few months.
Because California has arbitrarily decided to close camping at all the national parks (one of the safest possible activities during covid according to the consensus of experts across the country) I am moving most of my California plans to the end of the trip and starting out at Slab City.
It’s a twelve hour drive from Sacramento to Slab City. So I will be stopping overnight along the way at the Love’s in Barstow which is a safe spot with restrooms where you can camp out for the night for free.
This is an inland sea which exists as the result of an industrial accident. It has been the subject of documentaries, development attempts, disasters, and a seemingly endless string of misfortunes.
I’m very excited to check it out. This will probably just be a quick stop to look at the desolate landscape and take some pictures before heading on to Slab City.
Slab City, California
For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with places like Slab City, Burning Man, Arcosanti, and other weird nomadic experimental communities. This is particularly germane to the topic of my current field of academic research and my efforts to identify what steps we can take to make sure our communities survive and thrive in the ongoing collapse of the biosphere. This will be my first time visiting Slab City, and I’m very excited to finally see it and take copious notes and pictures.
There are A LOT of things I want to see here, so I’m planning to stay for two weeks. I will also take this opportunity to dial in my moving cabin setup and do my first real long-term testing of the power systems.
One of the really great things about Slab City is that it’s all outdoor art installations in wide open spaces, so it will be trivially easy to follow the guidance of staying clear of other people while enjoying the art.
I really want to see the Oasis Club.
I definitely want to see East Jesus and West Satan.
Hopefully, I can see a live show at The Range.
Salvation Mountain is on the way to the Hot Springs, and perhaps one of the most striking and recognizable vistas.
I also want to make sure to visit the Hot Springs if I can find a time when they are empty.
And then I’m heading to Quartzsite.
I am budgeting about a hundred dollars for gas.
I am dispersed camping in my diy trailer the entire time so there will be no cost in hotels or lodging.
I’m budgeting $100 a week for food during this trip including groceries, eating out, and alcohol.
How It Went
A lot of the exciting things about Slab City were closed for covid, like the Range and East Jesus. This doesn’t make a lot of sense since these are outdoors and lend themselves to safe social distancing, but I get it.
First step, don the PPE. I”m wearing a P100 respirator which is much more effective than an N95 mask, plus a ballistic face shield.
I took the advice of AdventureVanMan on youtube and set up camp at the end of Edith just south of Slab LoWs. It was a great spot with lots of room between campers and an amazing view of the sunset…
I biked around the city quite a bit. I took a lot of pictures and notes about the interesting art and public offerings, but the biggest thing I was interested to see was the improvised infrastructure. I will be doing another post about this topic since it’s close to my heart and a big part of the reason I’m doing this trip.
Check out the full photo album here. There are a lot of panoramas and photospheres which do not embed into the blog.
Water Storage Infrastructure
I thought it was very interesting to see the way people were improvising water infrastructure. There were hundreds of IBC Totes scattered around the city with signs on them advertising free water for everyone (with suggested limits).
These water tanks were often elevated on platforms like a water tower and then connected to RVs or other structures. I took lots of pictures of these setups so check the album if you want to see examples. In the past, I’ve written about this same process of elevating IBC totes being shown in improvised communities on the Expanse. I wonder where they got their inspiration!
Water Distribution Infrastructure
I also saw people coming through every day with improvised water trucks to fill people’s tanks. Shown below is the same camp as above, but a truck has approached with an IBC Tote in its bed and it’s filling the water tower.
I wanted to ask about how this works and what people are paying but I didn’t want to approach others because of covid so this will be something to investigate in the future when it’s safer. There seem to be a lot of cash businesses that have popped up in Slab City to fill the unmet food, water, and infrastructure needs of the community.
There were a lot of people using wind turbines, solar panels, and gasoline generators for power. The photo album contains examples of all of these.
It was interesting to see the way people were rigging their photovoltaic arrays. Shown below is one array that has 48 100w solar panels. This is a really incredible amount of power. I wonder what they are doing with all of that. I only have six of these panels and it’s more than enough for my heat and ac.
One of the most expensive and challenges to using solar photovoltaic in improvised communities is how to store the power during the day so that you can access it at night. I numerous examples where people had solar panels laying in apparent disuse next to a generator that was running 24 hours a day. This put me in mind to do further research on picohydro pumped storage and similar technology which serves as a potential alternative to expensive, short-lived, and deeply unethical lithium batteries.
There are companies developing technology to use abandoned shafts from old mines and wells to lift and lower large weights in order to store and later use that potential energy as electric power. Other companies are doing similar projects where cranes stack up blocks and then lower them in order to store and then extract the same potential energy. There are many interesting potential options for ways to store the power of photovoltaic systems while avoiding the ecological catastrophe of the lithium product life cycle, and the dependency on the global mineral industry for frequent replacement batteries.
This also led me to explore the existing online ecosystem for reusing marginal photovoltaics and lithium cells. Solar panels and lithium batteries gradually lose capacity over time. As capital assets, corporations have to write these off and dispose of them within a set timeframe. This means lots of used and partially functional batteries and solar panels hit the market. If you have a lot of land in the desert, then who cares if your solar panels are only working at 80% of their original capacity, particularly if you can get them cheaply or for free. Groups have sprung up on Facebook to discuss this topic and help find and distribute these second-hand products.
Also interesting was the way people in Slab City were getting their internet. There were sort of two strategies. I did some wardriving (scanning for wifi around different areas) and found lots of wifi hotspots from mobile phone companies. This seems to be the most popular way for individual-scale community internet infrastructure. People also formed camps with their travel-mates and shared wifi hotspots together.
Groups Vs Solo
There were a number of large camps set up and fenced off where lots of people were living together under quarantine. Most of them refused entry to anyone from the outside. These all had public offerings under normal conditions and some were still doing that. For example, Camp Ponderosa offers free breakfast to everyone who wants it. Camp SK8 (A skate park) offers free dinner to everyone who wants it. Oasis Club offers paid meals and free coffee and wifi to anyone who wants it.
I brought my own food and coffee and did not venture into these camps during this trip, but I would be fascinated to return and visit them again when it’s safe to do so.
There are lots of camps that do grow their own food on the land here. I would not recommend that since this is an extremely polluted former military weapons testing site, but if it’s possible to grow food here then it’s possible to do it anywhere. Here is a cool example from the backstage area of the church of enlightenment where they have large gardens producing fresh vegetables and doubling as a shade structure.
There was even a movie theater! This is actually something I brought with me as well, though I have not yet used it on this trip. I’d love to watch Blade Runner or something by Cronenberg here :]
The other interesting infrastructure I saw was radio masts (pictured below). There were lots of camps that had large radio masts. Some of them advertised pirate radio, others seemed to be listening only. As a licensed amateur radio tech, I am very interested in this kind of infrastructure and I posted lots of pics in the album linked above.
Since I was staying far away from other people, I did not inquire as to how others were taking care of their sewage needs. This will be another interesting topic to return and inquire about in the future.
Personally I really liked the setup of using the instant tent as a bathroom with the portable toilet inside. It was very clean and convenient.
It was also cool to see so many examples of people putting shade structures over their living spaces. I saw one example (shown below) where they built a deck with stairs, chairs, and guard rails that doubles as a shade structure for the dwelling underneath. This mirrors the findings of my big research project on how to effectively cool spaces in direct sunlight.
When it was cold and dark out, I found myself playing Cyberpunk 2077 inside my solar powered DIY camper at Slab City and I thought to myself, wow this is probably the most cyberpunk moment of my life.
The politics of Slab City were very interesting. It is high-key anarchy. There are no rules, no police, no public utilities, and no one to call if something goes wrong. On the one hand, this means that if someone’s wild dogs are chasing you or if your neighbor is pacing back and forth screaming all day with a gun in his hand and talk radio blasting on the speakers, you just sort of have to sort of try and avoid these things and you really don’t have any recourse to prevent them from happening.
It seems that Slab City offers a prototype of the apocalyptic/ nomad community. One of the really cool things about this community is the fact that people have been iterating for decades on the problems facing cities. This means there are lots of examples of solutions that have been tested under the toughest conditions by people who are living with the solutions daily. We can learn about sustainability and resilient urban design from the way people in situations like this solve the problems that everyone faces; power, water, sewage, food, internet, etc.
As someone who intends to found some kind of intentional subsistence community later this year, these lessons are core to the work I intend to undertake.
There is also another important lesson to take away from Slab City. Radical Independence is hard by yourself. It’s much easier, much safer, much cheaper, more resilient, and more sustainable to be independent together with a small group or tribe of people who can pool their labor and resources to solve these problems together.
A Unifying Political and Socioeconomic Theory
Here’s a photo I took at Camp SK8 of a vandweller flying the flag of anarchosyndicalism. This is basically the same argument I just outlined, that people should work together to solve shared problems without needing a state or corporation to make them do it. This is a very slab city idea, a very burning man idea, and a very good idea for anyone who wants to go about building a resilient and sustainable community during the ongoing collapse of the biosphere.
Should You Visit?
People have asked me if they should visit Slab City. I think my answer is “probably not.” This is not a fun happy place. This is a sad terrifying place. And the whole world is going to be more like this place soon. Read my Desolation Manifesto to learn more about the ongoing collapse of the biosphere and the steps we can start taking now to put ourselves and our communities in a position of surviving and even thriving through what’s coming.