Photo by Megan Sands
CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts

The oasis of the Salton Sea


Miles past the glamor of Palm Springs and the comfort of well-developed civilization, there is a place that remains off the grid. What used to be a marine training camp called “Camp Dunlap” is now the “Last Free Place,” Slab City.

The unruly, wild feeling that accompanies an off the grid spot such as this one is definitely heavy in the air, but there is nothing scary or unwelcoming about this place. Hundreds of people who have been turned out or felt they didn’t fit where they were before have migrated and congregated in this relatively small patch of abandoned desert.

Only a short drive from the dried up dazzle of the Salton Sea’s lakeside towns, the whole place has the air of a repurposed graveyard. I found myself up in this little spot multiple times because something about it called to me.

First, I came to see the abandoned structures that cling to the fishbone ground with all they’ve got left. I wanted to see the remains of something once vibrant and flourishing before they were swept away under the rug.

Hardly anyone remains around the Salton Sea anymore partially due to the smell. The water grew too hostile from pollution, killing off anything alive within it. The remains of once was a thriving lake washed up on its shore, and now what you assume are white sand beaches there at your leisure to stroll upon, are actually the slowly disintegrating corpses of all those unsuspecting fish.

The Salton Sea is a solid reminder of what human pollution and extortion of the Earth can result in; walking through it is humbling, to see what we have made come crumbling back down, and to feel how easy everything can fall apart.

Slab City sort of popped up surrounding the most unusual art installation smack dab in the middle of the desert, Salvation Mountain. Salvation Mountain is a massive painted hill that rises out of the horizon like some sort of God. And that’s what it’s a tribute to, God. I, myself am not religious in the slightest but this overpowering place, created by Leonard Knight decades ago, holds this spirituality that feels very universal.

Thousands come to see Salvation Mountain, and they don’t blink twice at the signs for Slab City, but maybe they should. If you drive past the populated parking lot for the mountain, past the tourists posing for their photo-op, you’ll find this beautifully odd community.

Slab City is like nothing I have ever seen, the way people are living their lives there is so unique to this specific spot. It gives me comfort to know there is still a community like this out there, a place that feels and appears so free, a sort of hiding-out spot for people who haven’t found any other place for themselves in this world just yet.

Slab City is a reminder of the good humanity can create; these people turned an empty patch of land nobody wanted into a safe place for those who may have felt unwanted. Walking through you can feel the hope and acceptance in the air. It is truly as the Salton Sea was once deemed, “A Miracle in the Desert.”