In Slab City in the Desert, the Lost Find Home
By Fred Dickey
Jan. 6, 2014
You have to go to Slab City to meet a man named Quokka.
Slab City is a squatter’s settlement near the Salton Sea out in the Imperial Valley desert, about 150 miles east of San Diego. The “sea” is a fetid, dying lake attractive mainly to birds and lizards, neither of which seem to have a keen sense of smell. It is the Dead Sea West. Just a few miles of desert scrub away is Slab City.
If Cannes is a classy companion to the French Riviera, then Slab City is a community appropriate to Salton Sea. It’s said to be about 600 acres of scattered concrete slabs. “Said to be” because the boundaries are about as ghostly as many residents, and who knows where out in the desert the “city” limits end.
“The Slabs” was originally constructed during World War II as the Marine base Camp Dunlap. It was abandoned to the state in 1961, which promptly ignored it. In about 1965, the hippie heyday, squatters started to drift in, and many stayed. Who knows, some of the originals may still be there.
There are two distinct populations in Slab City: The 200 hundred or so year-round occupants are the most colorful; often people who have cut their anchor, lost it or never had one. If you choose to live in the summer desert without air conditioning, you are addicted to sweat or have nowhere else to feel at home.
However, in the winter, a few thousand retirees and seasonal snowbirds park RVs there to save money. They come and go and pretty much stay to themselves. Considering they’re in a bleak desert many miles from most everyone and everything, one would think their homes in snowy but stable Iowa would begin to look charming in hindsight.
There is little color in the landscape, but plenty in the people.
Setting on the edge of the road is an old psychedelic school bus with a painted coat of many colors, none of which match. It could have been driven here straight out of “Easy Rider.”
There is also, of course, the celebrated Salvation Mountain, one man’s worshipful painted-rock tabernacle on a hillside created by a zillion gallons of donated latex. It is Slab City’s Sistine Chapel.
“The Range” is an amphitheater cobbled together with old aluminum chairs, benches, a stage and a sound system. Each week it’s the setting for a community get-together featuring local talent, speeches and whatever else seems right at the moment. A nearby billboard advertises local AA meetings.
“East Jesus” is Slab City’s art colony, self-designated. It’s the Taos or Carmel in the middle-of-nowhere for artists and wannabes, with a blurred distinction between the two. However, if you call yourself an artist, you are.
Living in Slab City is free, and you get what you pay for — no running water, no sanitation, no trash pick-up and no street lights. Trash removal is an individual responsibility, and there are large piles of irresponsibility laying around.
Materially, how do the year-round people survive here? They just do. The leading industry among permanent residents is probably SSI checks. Some of the “homesteads” — mainly RVs, trailers and tents — are quite inventive with generators, solar setups and antennae of various kinds.
No doubt living in Slab City are those who read Thoreau, do yoga, write poetry and create art. All such gentle souls deserve respect and — as they might say — peace.
However, there is also the obvious presence of drugs. Sheriff’s Sgt. John Toledano says crystal meth is common in Slab City and accounts for much of the crime. You can see it in the dull eyes of the young woman who sits on a bench and stares buddha-like, and also in the fellow jumping around as frenetically as a roadrunner on the heels of a lizard.
We welcome to our story a slim, 30-year-old man originally from Dallas named Bob Arndt who weaves in and out of reality like a halfback avoiding linebackers. He asks to be called “Quokka,” and thus he shall be known. He chose the name for a reason, and we shall get into that. As Quokka admits, he’s been on a first-name basis with a meth dealer or two in the past.
Quokka can be found on the job at the Internet café in Slab City. It’s a hut-like place built of chicken wire and corrugated aluminum with a couple of computers for rent. Outside is a thingamajig that, I guess, gives a satellite connection. Something must, otherwise it wouldn’t have much to sell. Actually, friendly users give a free-will offering, much like a church.
The new owner is Bob Lane, a friendly chap from Oregon so taken with Slab City that he plans to invite his grown daughter and boyfriend to come here and live alongside.
Quokka’s job at the Internet café is to provide security, a position I suspect he promoted. His is not a task taken lightly. He says he guards the premises, but also has established a “50-yard perimeter” that he patrols. In our mid-day discussion, he wears a miner’s light on his forehead held in place by a headband. He never says exactly why, but we can assume it’s for nighttime patrols or the ambitious mining project he has begun. He says he has an arsenal of knives and guns nearby and at the ready.
He claims three marriages, three divorces and three children, whom he believes are all in Texas.
Quokka has been at Slab City for only a month or so, but he plans to put down roots here — actually, down where the roots are. He plans to excavate a subterranean home of his own under the internet café slab that he has already started to dig, and that might be a reason for the miner’s light. He shows a sketch of his planned home. It’ll have multiple rooms about 10 feet below the surface. The slab will be the ceiling.
The project is the inspiration for the name Quokka. Turns out, the quokka is the kangaroo rat, a small Australian marsupial that, even as we speak, is bopping around the Outback, unaware of being honored as an exemplar of the tunneler’s art.
Quokka is buying an RV for $200 from someone named Jonah, and will use that as his workshop and living quarters, replacing the tent he now uses. Quokka uses his foot to trace a line in the dirt to show where his tunnel will approach the slab under which his edifice will be dug.
What are the finished dimensions going to be?
“It’s going to be roughly 20 feet deep from the ceiling, from that point another 10 feet down, and then there’s maybe a second floor if I don’t hit a water table. I don’t know if I’m going to hit a water table yet until I start digging, for sure.”
Sorry, I’m confused.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ve actually just got approved by the Navy department of records for blueprints of this base as it was. I’m just waiting for them to mail them to me.
“I have a high security clearance available to this day. There’s lots of things I can access and show people that would rattle the foundation of their religion even. I’ve done projects with FEMA and even helped build a FEMA prison camp.”
He proudly walks a few paces away to show where excavation for his underground dwelling has already begun. He stops, turns, and points to a hole in the ground maybe four feet deep with a diameter of about five feet.
The Chunnel under the English Channel, we must remember, at one point was also only four feet deep.
Back to Quokka the man. He explains with considerable animation that he comes to Slab City following Marine tours in Iran and Afghanistan, then in “black ops” which is the name for experts in lethality who do James Bond things for the U.S. around the world.
What was the worst experience you had in black ops?
“(It was) when I had to infiltrate a hostage situation with a French politician, and I had to rescue his daughter from them. They were using her as collateral bait to kind of force the French government to do something against the Geneva Convention so they hired me through the United States government to rescue his daughter.”
Don’t they have black ops types in France?
“They got the Foreign Legion. It’s one of the best known as far as combat trained forces in the world. I trained with them for six months so I know what they’re capable of.”
He also tells about killing a Taliban who was trying to blow up the U.S. Bank in Los Angeles.
“This was actually about three or four months ago. Yep, I snapped his neck. The police at first (put me) in cuffs when they got there. I was about to go to jail, and I (said), ‘Oh no, no. Check that bag. I disarmed it. It’s now safe. I took care of the main threat, and this Taliban guy right here. He’s been taken care of.’ He was dead, of course.”
Quokka speaks freely of his addiction to crystal meth, and is asked to describe its effect.
“It gave me the energy to do everything I always wanted to do, (with) no sleep at all. At the point where I started losing many teeth”—at this point he removes his upper plate to prove it—“I was losing my family and my friends and burning all those bridges. I just woke up one day (and) said ‘I don’t need this s--- no more.’ I just stopped.
“People quit (meth) when they’re ready, even if it may be too late.”
If you have too much meth for too long, what does it do to your head?
“You can pretty much become legally insane….A lot of people develop schizophrenia, paranoid schizophrenia, because of it.”
From whence Quokka came and how he landed in Slab City will remain unknown to us. Of greater interest is what set him on this road. He acknowledges heavy use of crystal meth in the past, and certainly, some of his obvious symptoms could indicate that, from hallucinations to premature loss of teeth. But that’s only speculation.
What is clear is that, at least for now, Quokka has found a home in Slab City where he is either accepted or ignored as just another pilgrim. Here, normal is as normal is claimed to be. Slab City allows its citizenry to get away from those of us who are writing or reading this; away from those who would judge them.
For some, finding Slab City is a good way to remain lost.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes your thoughts and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2014 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.