Book of the Week: Atlas of Improbable Places

26 Feb|Travis Elborough and Alan Horsfield

Author Travis Elborough and cartographer Alan Horsfield celebrate the obscure and the bizarre corners of the world in the Atlas of Improbable Places, a delightful compendium of maps and curiosities that is now available in paperback. In the extract below, Elborough visits the “last free place in America”, Slab City in California.

The slabs, of course, come as no real surprise, written as they are into this Californian city’s somewhat unprepossessing name. The eighteen-hole golf course, on the other hand, is one of the less expected facilities at Slab City, even if its greens are unlikely to give Shinnecock Hills or St Andrews much of a run for their money. Even to use the term ‘green’ would be overdoing it since the whole course is laid out on the stony scrabble of the Sonoran Desert and completely lacks the sort of foliage that could be trimmed and tamed into anything resembling a lawn. Gamely Slab City players pay no heed to the absence of conditions most golfers would consider normal, if not absolutely essential, for their sport. But if they wanted what passes for normality elsewhere, they wouldn’t be in Slab City in the first place – or so some would reason. Year round, there are about 200 residents, their numbers swelled in winter by an influx of migrants in RVs, the so-called snowbirds fleeing the colder climes of the north and Midwest. For them, the beauty of Slab City is that it’s not subject to so many of the rules that prevail elsewhere in the United States.

Affectionately known as ‘the last free place in America’, Slab City is a squatter community 140 miles east of San Diego and 50 miles north of the Mexican border. Occupying 640 acres of concrete and debris-littered government land at Camp Dunlop (an abandoned marine training base that is still fringed by a fully operational army ring range), its citizens live rent-free in makeshift homes ingeniously fashioned from scrap, old cars and vans and trailers (some equipped with solar panels), or just tents augmented with planks of wood, pieces of cardboard and blankets. The accent is post-apocalyptic, or as Time magazine once put it, very ‘Mad Max’. There is, however, a church, a library, community swap meetings for goods and services, and plenty of public art – including a sculpture park boasting a giant mammoth made out of used tyres, and an outdoor music venue, The Range, where concerts are staged each Saturday and a prom night held annually.

Run on a ‘live and let live’ basis, Slab City has for decades attracted, in equal measure, libertarians, the lost, the destitute, artists, the addled and addicted, hobos and eccentrics. In the fallout from the 2008 financial crash, though, families of ‘recession refugees’, relatively ordinary folk whose homes had been foreclosed or whose businesses failed, turned to Slab City as a last resort. Most stayed for a just a few weeks or months, using it as a stopgap to shore up their finances before plunging back into the ‘real world’ of jobs, running water, functioning sewers, refuse collection and electricity, but others valued living cheaply and without accruing further debts and have put down roots.

With temperatures reaching as high as 120°C in the summer, scorpions and rattlesnakes a constant presence on a ground strewn with military waste, and the nearest grocery store and post office in Niland, five miles away, it’s perhaps not everyone’s idea of paradise. And living law-lite and this far off-grid can have its less than savoury side. From meth labs to murders, Slab City sees its fair share of crime but perhaps no more proportionally than certain other American cities whose roads are paved and patrolled by armed officers. The state of California, however, may be on the cusp of intruding more formally on life in Slab City. Since the spring of 2015 it has been investigating the option of selling the land, and not for the first time. Up to this point, the additional costs of decontaminating the site have previously dissuaded potential purchasers. But with takers looking rather thicker on the ground this time round, the Slabbers have been forced to consider embarking on a community bid themselves. An outcome that will, according to some, inevitably spell the end for Slab City as a place open to all, free from rules and rents.

Click here to be the first to read our Book of the Week extracts. Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners is published by Aurum Press, £14.99. Order a copy online here.