The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fear of the pandemic reaches California’s Slab City, an off-the-grid desert community

Slab City’s largest and most recognizable art installation, Salvation Mountain, has been closed during the pandemic. The installation, near Niland, Calif., was created over 30 years by artist Leonard Knight. (Scott Pasfield/For The Washington Post)

Living in Slab City under normal circumstances requires self-sufficiency and adaptability. The small squatter community in Southern California's Sonoran Desert has no running water, no electricity and no plumbing, and most summer days are 100 degrees or hotter.

Named for its concrete foundation, the remains of a World War II-era military base, Slab City has drawn retirees, artists, anarchists, outcasts, the impoverished and others since the 1950s. The population of the Slabs, a.k.a. the “Last Free Place in America,” blooms in winter to more than 4,000 residents by some estimates, then boils down to 150 or so in the summer. Anyone can add themselves to this constellation of tents, trailers, RVs and shacks, but not everybody has what it takes to call it home.

You might expect the residents of this insular, off-the-grid community to feel protected during the pandemic, compared with, say, the densely packed denizens of Manhattan. But that’s not the case. “If you’re thinking about coming out here, now is not the f---ing time,” resident Cornelius Vango, 31, said during an early April live stream powered by solar panels and a surprisingly strong cellphone signal. Typically, they make videos on “living outside of society,” backpacking or self-tattooing, but this one was all about the pandemic. “We’re surrounded by death and disease and unemployment and scarcity, and it’s just going to get worse,” Vango said. “So, hunker down.”

As of May 25, there were 1,274 cases of covid-19 in surrounding Imperial County, giving it the highest number of cases per capita in the state. But there’s been only one documented case in the 92257 Zip code, which includes the town of Niland as well as the 50 to 70 camps where Slab City’s year-rounders live. In early April, rumors popped up on a few Slab City Facebook groups about one or two residents possibly being infected, then faded without further mention.

All of the tourist magnets and gathering places in Slab City are shuttered: the art installation known as Salvation Mountain, the Range music venue and the Slab City Library, which Vango runs, is closed. The sprawling East Jesus compound and its acres of welded works of junk art are open to visitors but guided tours have been cancelled.

“My whole draw to this place is that I’m kind of a doomsday prepper,” Vango told me in April. Still, they weren’t expecting the death toll to rise or the economy to tank so quickly. “It’s very shocking,” they said. “I’m prepared to ride it out and see what happens, but nothing is certain.”

The Slab City Library opened in 1999 but suffered from neglect. Vango moved in and started rebuilding it in 2014. Under normal conditions the library welcomes locals and tourists who sit in the shade with a beer and something to read. The place is generally open from dawn to dusk, and it's pretty chill compared with most libraries. Said Vango, "I literally have it tattooed on my body: 'No due dates, no library cards.' "

Since the library closed in March, though, Vango said, “I still get the occasional tourist trying to drive up and come in and stuff ... and I have to tell them go away. I’m not taking visitors. I’m quarantining and you should be too.”

Should Vango somehow get the virus, their plan is to stay put to keep an eye on the library, the bus that they sleep in, and the dogs and cats they care for. “I have tons of supplies, so I can ride it out for months without straining too hard,” they said.

Elsewhere in Slab City, Shane Tennent, 51, was trying to work up the nerve to remove surgical staples from his belly. Early in April, Tennent had emergency hernia surgery at a local hospital, possibly caused by “pushing too hard in the outhouse,” he told me via Facebook chat in April, because his phone signal is too spotty for conversation.

“I was supposed to go back to get my staples removed yesterday,” he said, but he didn’t have money for a ride back to the hospital. “The surgeon gave me a staple remover and plenty of gauze and some other tools to remove them myself, but I don’t have the courage to do so at the moment.”

Tennent, originally from Rhode Island, moved to Slab City in 2018. Since the pandemic started, he has mostly left only to pick up supplies, like many but not all of his neighbors. “People are being bullied into taking it seriously,” he said. “It is important to remember that the vast majority of residents here are social outcasts. They don’t like being told they can’t do something.”

If the place were more organized, more like a community, he said, they could coordinate supply runs and minimize the risk of coronavirus reaching the Slabs. But that’s not how things are done in the Last Free Place. “I think that what makes the place special is a myth, an unobtainable goal,” said Tennent. He pointed to Slab City residents’ failure to deal with an outbreak of another virus, called parvo, which is deadly to young dogs. It has been a concern there for years, but people still let their puppies run around. “But that goes back to the social-outcast thing. If they took responsibility for their actions — myself included — we wouldn’t be here.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the East Jesus compound was closed. It is open to visitors, but guided tours have been cancelled. This version has been updated.

Patrick Rapa is a writer in Philadelphia.

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