March 23, 2004

Desert TAZ?

Posted at March 23, 2004 10:14 AM in Society .

Full Story

Snowbirds go where angels fear to tread

Out in the Mojave desert, American fugitives from family or the law have
camped out for 40 years in Mad Max-style Slab City. But as DOUG SAUNDERS
discovers, they've been joined by some unlikely neighbours -- sun-seeking
Canadians, who have brought along a little peace, order and good . . . well,
not government

The Globe and Mail
Saturday, Mar. 20, 2004

NILAND, CALIFORNIA -- The last sort of person you'd expect to meet in this
sun-blasted expanse of rusting heaps, leather-skinned loners, Mad Max solar
contraptions and endless dust storms would be Valerie Molenkamp, a polite
and witty grandmother from Vancouver Island in tennis shoes and pressed
white blouse.

But here she is, sharing jokes with a circle of bedraggled mountain men
whose dirt-soiled T-shirts and free-range facial hair testify to their
determined refuge from human civilization, or at least from the obligations
of family life. Ms. Molenkamp, poking her head under the awning that covers
the assemblage of derelict buses known as the Oasis Club, exchanges gossip
in the sort of refined diction that would not be out of place on CBC Radio
2.

"It doesn't look like much, the Oasis Club, but they do at least provide
some hot meals," she says. "And most of these men are very much in need of
them."

Unlike many others, she has not come here out of downward mobility or a need
to lie low until the heat blows over. In a few weeks, she will head up to a
tony Palm Springs park costing $600 a month. But she has come here for four
years seeking the things a 60-plus widow lacks -- companionship, adventure,
men. Strolling across the patch of gravel and dust outside, she laughs at
her preposterous situation.

"My sister is very disapproving of my visits to the Slabs. She says, 'I
can't see what you see in this place.' I tell her it's the people. It's like
a big family. There is a surprising sense of camaraderie."

Like hundreds of other comparatively well-heeled older Canadians, Ms.
Molenkamp has run away and joined Slab City, one of North America's most
well-established communities of utter lawlessness.

The Canadians play a peculiar role here: At first blush, they could be
mistaken for garden-variety snowbirds, itinerant seniors with a taste for
bingo games in RV parks. But beneath the silver locks, they are a
particularly strange and exotic breed of snowbird, and that blend of surface
conventionality and deeper anarchy has been the secret that has kept Slab
City functioning, without visible means of support, for more than four
decades.

Ms. Molenkamp is a perfect example: Despite her sister's admonitions and the
fearful warnings of other relatives, she is not simply slumming here. Amid
this expanse of human and mechanical wreckage, she has found love, and
death, and love again.

Sixty years ago, Slab City was known to the world as the Camp Dunlap Marine
Training Facility, a suitably remote place in the middle of the Mojave
desert for General Patton's tank crews to learn the ropes of desert warfare.
In 1946, the military moved out, and the nearby town of Niland reclaimed the
barracks' wood and metal, leaving only the hundreds of concrete slabs that
formed their foundations.

Sometime around 1961, people began to notice that this 640-acre parcel of
land fell under the jurisdiction of nobody in particular, mostly because
nobody wanted it. Unlike other such desert netherlands, this one was fairly
close to a road and a poky little town, and its concrete slabs were handy
for parking old buses, campers and jalopies. Within a few years, its winter
population had expanded to 5,000, though only a couple hundred truly
desperate individuals stick around through the 40-degree summer.

Slab City lacks most of the necessities of life, including running water,
sewage, electricity, mail service, telephone lines, grocery stores or
hospitals -- the latter a fairly serious problem since almost the entire
population is over 55 years old, with a good number over 80.

But it also lacks other things -- rules, supervisors, curfews, family
values, schedules, neighbours, taxes, rents, fees, police, bailiffs, nagging
spouses. This holds great appeal to a number of people who have slaved their
whole lives under boring jobs and stultifying families, their sanity
maintained only by dreams of wide-open spaces and complete freedom. We may
see barren emptiness, but they see clear air free of responsibility.

A great many of these people are men.

"A lot of people here are running away from something," Ms. Molenkamp says
with a wry smile. "Like child support, usually."

If the Slabs were 30 years younger, they might call their community an
anarchist collective, or an intentional community, or a temporary autonomous
zone, or a squat. Indeed, some Californians have tried to liken it to
Burning Man, the annual gathering of young artists and stoners in another
part of the desert. But those people are trying to create something. The
Slabs are trying to get away from something.

And yet they've created something all the same. They have managed to forge a
remarkably resilient, if messy and crisis-ridden social structure -- one
that seems to endure endless mental and physical health problems, a high
mortality rate and almost no birth rate, and the disappearance of most of
the population every summer --through co-operation and necessity and good
old truck-and-barter.

There are people with tanker trucks selling water, "honey wagons"
draining sewage tanks, people hawking propane and a Mexican guy who comes by
once a week touting fresh fruit. There is quite a good library, set up by a
long-term resident who died last year and stocked with hundreds of donated
books. There is a barbershop and two churches, at least three nightclubs and
a hugely successful company that does solar-power conversions for as little
as $700. There is daily news, delivered on CB radio, as well as regular
parades and ballroom dances under the purple night sky, and there is an Avon
lady.

In the place of a class system, Slab City is geographically divided, into
perhaps a dozen neighbourhoods, by degrees of disengagement from broader
society.

Of course, money has something to do with this: Housing facilities range
from $300,000 mobile homes, with video cameras in place of rear-view
mirrors, to heaps of trash and wreckage that would not be out of place in
Calcutta.

On one extreme is the Badlands, a distant neighbourhood in which a couple of
hundred frightening people live year-round in collapsing trailers surrounded
by barbed wire, piles of rotting garbage, smashed up automotive wreckage and
spray-painted warning signs. This is a destitute place of addiction, petty
crime, mental breakdown and terrible poverty.
The few children here are truly depressing cases, though they are bused to
the nearest school.

Its residents are often legendary: The Snake Man raises rattlesnakes, fires
rifles at will and relishes his role as one of the city's more unhinged
individuals. (There are a number of pretenders to this title.) In one corner
of the Badlands you'll find something calling itself Skin City RV, with a
spray-painted sign announcing "Private Nude Camping,"
though the jagged scrap-metal surroundings and the prospect of severe
sunburn seem to have deterred any visitors.

The Canadians occupy a unique place in this structure. Several hundred of
them spend their winters in a relatively well-kept neighbourhood over by the
canal that has recently come to be known as Loonie Hill, although there is
nothing resembling a hill here.

I dropped by Loonie Hill one morning and found a group of Canadians sitting
on lawn chairs playing cards and gabbing -- a sight that would be familiar
in any RV park, were it not for the vacant expanse of the bombing range
stretching to the horizon behind them. Their trailers, equipped with
satellite TV dishes and generators and solar panels and maple-leaf flags,
were parked in a circle around a sage shrub, and little wrens pecked for
crumbs in the dust as they described the strange draw of Slab City.

"We come here because we like the sun and open spaces," says Jill Lang from
Rondel, Alta. Her husband Tom added: "We like that we don't have to follow
all those rules and have people on all sides of us. And we feel safe here.
There's hardly any crime, because people watch out for each other. We
haven't met any nasty people yet."

Lynn Mulder, from Red Deer, Alta., says that the apparent lack of recreation
is deceptive: "There's good walking. The fighter jets are exciting. And the
sunsets are great."

She looks around. "But, really, I don't know what people would do here for
six months." Like many of the Canadians, she drops by for a few weeks every
winter, until the bracing sense of freedom is overtaken by the dank air of
boredom.

Most of these folks could pass for the retired Canadians you'd find in the
RV parks of Florida or Texas every winter. But if you grab a seat and talk
for a while -- which would be hard to avoid -- you'll realize that there is
something slightly different about them.

Wayne Tilley was born in 100 Mile House, B.C., spent a tough childhood on
Toronto's Parliament Street, served in the Armed Forces and now summers in
Barrie, Ont. with his wife Lillian. He spends the whole winter here. You get
the sense, hanging out with Wayne and his congenial circle of tough-guy
friends, that they have wanted to be outlaws all their lives.

"Freedom, that's what it is. You go to an RV park, and they tell you what to
eat and where to park. It's like being in the Forces again. Here we can move
around, we can set up how we like, we can pick up the spaces we want. When
you get an RV, you think you're going to have a life of freedom on the road,
but you learn quick. You think there are a lot of places like this? Well,
there aren't. This is it."

Valerie Molenkamp does not choose to set her wheels down in Loonie Hill.
As a woman travelling alone, she prefers the well-kept neighbourhoods near
the centre of the old tank base, where the single RVers gather in huge
packs.

The meaning of the word "single" has several meanings here, few of which
would be familiar in the bars of Vancouver or Toronto. One expansive
neighbourhood is run by the Slab Lows, a branch of the Loners on Wheels
organization. The Lows organize a busy schedule of social events, but they
are decidedly not a dating organization -- their credo prevents most forms
of hitching up, on the principle that the single life is a virtue in itself.

Slab Singles is an even larger neighbourhood of long, straight streets and
creosote bushes. These people, mostly men of a decidedly weather-beaten
cast, are here to find companionship -- though they usually just find each
other, over a beer and a bowl of chili at the Oasis Club. These guys are
very much in search of women, though their desires are less sexual than
practical -- most of them are over 65, and few have lived on their own.

Ms. Molenkamp fell into the middle of this scene four years ago. She and her
husband had travelled North America in their RV for years before he died a
decade ago. After a period of depression, she pulled herself together and
fired up the RV on her own.

On her travels through the deserts and beaches and outlet-mall towns of the
U.S., she began to hear about the Slabs. Out of curiosity she came, and she
fell in love.

"I came here to find some peace, and meet some interesting people," she
says, and chuckles. "What happened was I met a man, and I married him."

He was an engineer, who had made quite a lot of money rather quickly and
then squandered it away even more quickly, by gambling and making unwise
purchases. He had alienated his family and moved off to join the Slabs.
He was looking for someone like Valerie. She knew how to handle guys like
him. They planned to travel.

She shrugs and shakes her head. "Unfortunately, he died three months later."

He had been ill, and quickly deteriorated. She is stoic -- there are a lot
of people here who are worse off. Perhaps a dozen Slabs die here every year.
The city's bulletin board, out by the CB-radio station and the solar-power
shop, is covered in notices testifying to this
isolation: "Would Mr. Deck please phone his nephew, George, who lives in
Florida, immediately."

There is a sense, among the veteran Slabs, that success has ruined this
place. Its reputation has made it a magnet for the lonely, including many
whose loneliness stems from problems far deeper than mere eccentricity or
bullheadedness.

"This used to be a nice town, where people took care of each other,"
says Mike Gohl, known throughout Slab City as Solar Mike. He came here in
1986, looking for ways to live closer to nature, and set up shop in what was
then the novel business of solar electricity.

Now, thanks to tax rebates offered by the California government and the
distinct lack of any overhead costs, he is able to provide solar-power
installations on RVs for prices much lower than anywhere else. A lot of
people come to Slab City just for his work.

But he believes the city's glory days are over. A couple years ago, the
state began trying to get Slab City shut down (the land is owned by the
California teachers' pension fund, though there is no chance it will ever be
developed, given its remote and hostile location).

Its reputation as a refuge for outlaws and deadbeats began to overtake its
role as an oasis for free-spirited snowbirds.

"Because people only heard the bad things, and heard about a few really
rotten characters, this place started to attract a lot more bad people,"
he says. "Every year, we get fewer people."

The Canadians keep coming, though. In Solar Mike's view, it is their sense
of peace, order and good parking, rather than the sheet-metal flamboyance of
the more colourful and publicity-grabbing Slabs, that has kept the
government of California from shutting this place down and sending everyone
down the road. The crazies get their pass because of quieter dreamers like
Valerie Molenkamp, who see a chance to make a second beginning, or a third
or fourth or fifth, out here in the desert.

She laughs. "My niece said to me the other day, 'Do you think if I send my
mom there, you can find her a man?' "

She probably could. After checking up on the deep-browned guys at the Oasis
Club and chatting with me, she strolls out to the old tank road and gets in
a car driven by another hardy old Slab, her new boyfriend.
She waves, and disappears in the distance behind a cloud of dust.

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