Anyone who’s ever seen the movie “Into the Wild” with Vince Vaughn and Emile Hirsch remembers images of a hippy-commune area nestled in the acrid desert of Southern California. A little bit outside of Niland, California, also known as Slab City, California is a place where some go to camp and get as “off the grid” as they can get. Used in the 1940s as a military training ground, the area later became a campground for modern-day hippies.
From some of the literature on the place I read online, I saw that the online communities of people who visit Slab City are dedicated to leaving the place better than the condition in which they found it. They work to promote sustainable living in the campsites there, protect the hot springs and wildlife surrounding them, and to promote an overall community of escape from city life for visitors. More information about the community and their mission can be found here. An interesting Time article discusses the “characters” living in the camp, located in one of the poorer socioeconomic areas of California. I’m not ignorant to the possibility and reality that a tougher crowd of criminals and druggies probably also seek refuge there.
One of the things I noticed most about what we found there was the message behind it all. You won’t find graffiti from gangs or the destruction of the sculptures of “found art” there. Instead you’ll find a crazy mountain sculpted with adobe clay and covered in colors like something out of a game of Candy Land, messages of love and peace, and incredible structures made of discarded junk. Overall, worth a two hour drive or so from San Diego- and probably one of the most interesting places I’ve ever photographed in the US.
The few people my boyfriend and I encountered there on our trip were very friendly- one man told us where some of the hot springs were located and about where all the good hidden sculpture art was located. All and all, it was a positive experience, and it seemed from the place that the community is welcoming and open to sharing their home with outsiders.
Am I comfortable with returning and camping out there overnight? Not really. But it was quite the adventure to photograph and explore during the day and well worth the trip down the 8 East.