Milton Miller gazed fondly at his steel-gray windcharger, his solar panels and his wine bottle "garden," convinced of the wisdom of his decision to abandon Indianapolis when it became "no longer fit for human habitation."
Near Miller's Chevy van and tent trailer, smiling couples bicycled on sandy paths, a turkey was being roasted among the sagebrush, soft music played and a Chinese kite flew overhead, all of this in the middle of an area so desolate it might have been the flat bottom of some crater on the moon.
On this forbidding stretch of gray-brown desert near the edge of California's Salton Sea, Miller and a growing band of other adventurers have found the ultimate answer for Americans sick of bureaucracy: a community where there is no government at all.
Slab City appears on none of the usual maps. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management calls it "unclassified public land," and leaves Slab City alone. Its citizens have no telephone, electrical, water or sewer service, but they also escape rent, government inspections, bill collections and police.
On the concrete ruins of a military training base where only a few squatters once lived, a town of 5,000 now grows like a hardy desert cactus.
"The thing that attracts me is the fact that there is actually no government out here, but everybody treats each other as they would want to be treated," said Miller, a 68-year-old former lithographer and minister.
"It's beautiful every day and it don't cost them much," said James Osborne, otherwise known as "Good Sam," who keeps the city's history and maintains its one crude citizens-band communications system. "A lot of them," he said, "they got the pioneer blood in them."
For more than two decades, squatters have wintered on this stretch of flat desert scattered with concrete slabs and bunkers 100 feet below sea level. But in the last five years, the rising cost of living, the increasing crowding and annoyance of urban life, and the growing numbers of Americans and Canadians taking their retirements on the road have quadrupled the population of Slab City. Some hardy individuals, like Miller and Osborne, now even live here through the summer, despite temperatures that climb to 120 degrees in the shade.
The Winnebagos, Airstreams, Pace Arrows, vans, huts and tents are strewn about this square mile of desert and sagebrush like children's toys left on the living room rug. Roger Zortman, the BLM's manager in nearby El Centro, said other unclaimed desert areas, such as Pilot Knob near Yuma, have become popular gathering points for squatters. Most are called just "free campsites," but many have the potential of becoming, like Slab City, much more.
Zortman admits, with a chuckle, that "there is a tendency" on the part of large bureaucracies like the BLM to abhor such a vacuum as 5,000 people living without regulations. But Slab City is spared anything more than an occasional drive-through by one of his staff, Zortman said, because "it is not considered one of our priority areas for land management."
Once this was called Camp Dunlap, said to have been used in World War II to train Gen. George Patton's troops for fighting in North Africa. The Quonset huts that housed hospitals, washrooms and latrines are gone. Only the foundations remain, hence the name Slab City. But military jets from surrounding bases still provide a principal source of local entertainment.
The Chocolate Mountains 10 miles to the northeast are a favorite bombing range. "VAROOM! They let off something, they rock you," said Dorothy Hoefflinger.
"You'll see 15 or 20 flares up there, lighting up the target area," said Osborne, a devotee of the nighttime show.
Although a school bus served Slab City last fall, this is largely a community of people older than 50. Osborne guards against mishaps with a CB check-in system. He calls the several hundred names on his list ("Sneaky Pete and Rambling Rose," "Mert and Gert," "Eightwheeler and Sightseer") each night to make sure they are all right.
A flamboyant man with flowing beard and hair, often dressed in a dirty yellow sweater, gray polo shirt, brown slacks and boots, Osborne oversees a permanent encampment consisting of a green school bus, a camper and several screened sheds. He has 34 cats, three dogs and several rabbits and entertains neighbors with occasional open-air breakfasts under his waving California bear flag.
Newcomers are urged to register at the Campers Christian Center, a long, green mobile home run by Dorothy Hoefflinger and her husband, Ralph, once a television repairman in Pennsylvania. True to the spirit of the place, many do not bother to register, but the Hoefflingers estimate the population this winter at about 2,500 vehicles, with an average two persons per vehicle.
Residents pick up mail, via general delivery, and buy food and water at Niland, a little desert town three miles to the west. An Imperial County sheriff's deputy from Brawley, 20 miles to the south, occasionally drives up with emergency messages.
Osborne, 70, a retired heavy-equipment operator from Oklahoma, arrived seven years ago on his way to tend a nearby ranch for the winter. "But they had a big flood and I couldn't get over there, so I stayed here," he said. In those days, "200 vehicles over the winter would be a whole lot." But then the city began to grow, and fears of a government close-down increased.
"In the first place, who is the government?" Osborne asked. "The people, right? Who bought this place? The taxpayers. Shouldn't they have the right to use it when the government isn't using it?" The local district attorney said only two things could close down Slab City--crime or bad sanitation. The residents learned to dig septic tanks in the porous soil, or dump their waste at a campsite facility miles away. As for crime, the city's isolation and its wish to survive seemed to keep all quiet.
"We like it out here. I don't have to be obligated to nobody," Osborne said. He said his Social Security and veteran's benefits yield only $400 a month, "and you can move into town and spend $200 of that on rent."
He cooks with butane. Batteries power his television set and CB radio. In the summer he stays in the shade. "I stand it better than Good Sam," said his wife, Marsha, 40, "because my blood pressure is low. You just hope the good Lord sends a little breeze."
In Miller's tent camper, a 100-gallon water tank feeds a hose with a spray nozzle that showers him and his 4-year-old poodle El Cie and also washes the dishes. In summer, he said, "I lie on a wet sheet, under a fan." The fan is powered by batteries and his windcharger, a small windmill that generates electricity when the desert breeze reaches seven miles per hour. He has a small water spray bottle to wet down El Cie in summer when she asks for it.
Miller retired in 1979 and spent a couple of winters here before deciding to leave Indianapolis for good. He was divorced, and, he says, "a couple of kids hopped up on marijuana" had accidentally burned his house down.
One of his neighbors, Blanche Chadwick, 78, a former San Francisco state office clerk with flyaway white hair, bright pink blouse and green shorts, moved here with her 31-foot Excella Airstream trailer four years ago after her husband died. "It would be wicked to turn a lot of these people out," she said, showing off the imitation wood-panel interior of her trailer with color TV and upholstered furniture. "It's a nice, relaxed way of living, and with the price of gas, they can't travel around as much as they used to."
Miller is a minister of the Spiritualist faith--"life is a constant process, there is no death." But Slab City may offer a suitably tidy heaven on earth, complete with the embedded wine bottles ("I emptied some of them") that encircle his small scrub bushes and warn newcomers walking in the dark.
"There is a peacefulness, a serenity," he said, scratching El Cie and looking off toward the Chocolate Mountains. "You live a long time out here, because there is no stress."