It was nine thirty on a Saturday night in Slab City, and Insane Wayne was onstage at the Range, leaning hard on the microphone stand. He looked like a biker who’d been forced to sell his Hog for drug money: salt-and-pepper hair spilling out from under a Harley-Davidson bandanna, down over a Harley-Davidson T-shirt caked with equal parts grease and dust. A low, rasping sound came from the old PA speakers, loud enough to cut through the noise of the diesel generators that powered them. Wayne was having a coughing fit. It went on for a long time and he held the microphone to his mouth throughout. When he recovered, there was scattered applause. The band—a couple of speed-freak kids on guitar and a drummer—lurched into a shambling cover of “How Much Tequila?” “How much tequila did I drink last night,” Wayne sang in a voice that sounded like a combination of Tom Waits and Merle Haggard. “It’s really anybody’s guess. I poured ’em so fast, I couldn’t keep ’em in the glass, but this morning I sure am a mess.”
There were about eighty people in the audience that night—retirees looking for someplace warm to spend the winter, a few younger people, and a large contingent of full-time residents, mostly men who, either because of economic necessity or choice, endured the 120-degree summers at the Slabs, as most residents call it. They didn’t have all that much in common except for the reason they were there. Slab City is one of America’s only anarchist trailer parks—not in an ideological sense (residents don’t devote themselves to reading Mikhail Bakunin) but in a practical one. The Slabs occupy an abandoned Army base in the California desert about an hour south of Palm Springs. When the soldiers left, they stripped the place bare until the only thing that remained was the grid of roads and the concrete foundation slabs that give the place its name. There is no water, no electricity, and certainly no cable. But it is, as one longtime resident told me, one of the last places in America “without some squirrel telling you how to live.”
The Range, a bar and elevated outdoor stage made of scavenged plywood, sits just off the main road. The stage is lit by makeshift spotlights mounted on towers of two-by-fours, with more lights strung across the top of a wooden backdrop. Everything, including the sound system, is powered by a combination of solar panels and gas-powered generators. It is a masterpiece of jerry-rigging, though not exactly robust, so the two gutted school buses parked nearby are filled with spare parts—mic stands, more PA speakers, wire, and batteries. There’s at least one show a week, and more if there are holidays or celebrations. The talent is mostly local, like Wayne and the band, although occasionally someone more professional has turned up to play. When I first visited Slab City, in the summer of 2003, the Range was the only stage around. In recent years, other people have built other performance spaces. But the Range still has the best setup, and on a good night almost everyone comes out for shows there.
Which doesn’t mean that everyone mixes easily. Early in the night, before Wayne and the band came on, people split up more or less along class lines. Slab City’s upper crust, mostly RVers who belonged to various social clubs—like the Oasis Club or Loners On Wheels—sat on one side of the stage in what passed for luxury seating: paired, velour-covered seats with recliner buttons built into the arms, or in a couple of rows of old movie-house chairs with springs poking out, their red, velvet upholstery sun-bleached to a pinkish gray. The permanent residents sat on the other end of the club, in vinyl-covered school-bus seats. Or else they stood, warming themselves at an oil-drum fire or drinking at the bar.
After a few verses, I went up to the stage and shoved a couple of bills into the unstrung guitar with a sign on it that read for the band. Then I went to the bar, which had another sign on it: beer one dollar/hooch two dollars. I thought about it for a second.
“I’ll have one hooch.”
“We’re out of hooch,” the bartender, a skinny man with a huge handlebar mustache, said. I got a can of Miller Genuine Draft instead.
For a long time, the audience just sat there. The part-timers looked shell-shocked or puzzled; the Slabbies shouted encouragement to Wayne and the band. A group of longhaired kids showed up, lost members of an immense hippie tribe called the Rainbow Family. They had apparently run out of money and been stranded at the Slabs on their way either to or from some Family event; nobody was very clear on this point. A contingent of people from nearby towns like Niland and Bombay Beach filtered in, too, most of them former Slabbies who’d made good and moved into bigger trailers in more settled situations.
Ragged as the rest of the band was, the drummer was actually pretty good. His beat was steady enough to herd the guitars and Wayne along with it and seemed to be enough to get people dancing, too. The hippies went first, doing their arm-noodle thing. The Slabbies who were young enough to shake whatever they had followed. The part-timers ventured out last, in couples, grooving in a kind of slow-motion swing dance. One of the Slabbies, a big guy with a mustache, came over and stood, swaying, in front of one of the women from a group called the Slab City Singles.
“May I have this dance, madame?” he asked.
The woman, a redhead named Jodi, looked a little frightened. She wasn’t sure she wanted to dance with this particular stranger, but she was also clearly nervous about the consequences of turning him down. Something about his demeanor suggested that violence was an option. She looked over at a male friend, who responded with a little shrug.
“Sure. Okay. Why not?” she said.
The Slabbie took her hand and led her out to the dance floor, and they launched into a stripped-down swing dance, a couple steps, some twirling. The scene was pure Slab City: hippies dancing with the Greatest Generation dancing with the formerly homeless, all or almost all of them drunk on MGD and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Slab City may not be the kind of egalitarian trailer utopia people fantasized about in the 1930s, when trailers were first mass produced, or the workers’ paradise John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath, but by the time the band was halfway through its set there was little difference between the guy who lived in a bus that hadn’t moved since it was dragged in from the dump seven years before and the guy who lived in a half-million-dollar RV. And by the time Wayne ran out of songs he knew and started singing them all over again, even Jodi and the Slabbie looked like they were having fun.
Stumbling back to my Winnebago a couple of hours later to get some sleep, I could still hear Wayne’s voice, booming across the desert: “How’d I get these cuts and bruises all over my body? I must have fallen down somehow. I think it had something to do with karate. Oh, yes, it’s all coming back to me now.”
The mythology about trailers and trailer parks has always been that they are housing in extremis, the natural habitat for carnies and criminals, people who are too strange or too desperate to live anywhere but on the fringe. Slab City looks like that kind of place, a wasteland between two other wastelands. To the east is the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, blasted more or less constantly by AV-8B Harriers, laser-guided missiles, and artillery (some live and some practice rounds filled with cement). To the west, along the route that leads to Palm Springs, is the dump for Niland, a town, like many others in this part of the desert, made up of single wides and boarded-up stores. The dump accounts for some of Slab City’s distinctive summertime odor, but the Salton Sea, a 500-square-mile inland body of haze-silvered saltwater just a few miles to the west, accounts for most of it. The shore is strewn with thousands upon thousands of fish skeletons and scales that collect in long drifts. During its heyday, the Salton Sea had yacht clubs; the Rat Pack used to bet on speedboat races that were held there. Now the area is better known for its odor, especially in the summer, when the temperature gets close to 130 degrees.
It would be easy to dismiss the Slabs as a trailer park at the end of the world, but that would miss the spirit of the place, the ambition of the people who live there. Most of the permanent residences are old travel trailers, Airstreams and fiberglass boxes, now permanently immobile. There are a few burned-out RVs and buses, the wreckage of former homes, now too ruined to use even for parts. But there are also sprawling assemblages made of broken trailers and junked buses, dug into the sand or in the shade of tamarisk trees. Some of them are obsessive, years-long projects, hovering somewhere between sculpture and home; others are part business, everything from internet cafés to skate parks, sculpture gardens and performance spaces. All of them are made out of whatever people could scavenge from the dump or drag in from elsewhere. For some, Slab City is not so much the end of the world as a place where it’s possible to build one.
Builder Bill’s compound is one of the most elaborate at the Slabs. Bill is a full-timer, the mastermind behind the Range; his place is marked by a large metal water tank mounted on top of a rickety wooden tower about fifteen feet high, which makes it one of the tallest structures for miles around. Bill keeps a substantial collection of auto parts: car seats, bus seats, whole engines, carburetors, radiators, distributors, tires, plus some wheel rims, an axle, and presumably dead batteries. When I visited, there were other things, too: gutted La-Z-Boys, irreparably bent lawn chairs, legless tabletops, water jugs and assorted appliances, plus fifty-gallon drums and bike frames and metal straps. Not to mention several kitchen sinks.
When we met, Bill was trying to hammer a sheet of plywood onto a two-by-four framework at the back of the stage. Bill is big, about six-two and barrel-chested. The wind was blowing hard and catching the plywood, flapping it around like a sail. I stood at the edge of his perimeter of junk and asked him if he needed help. He turned and looked at me for what seemed like a long time, then shrugged. “Sure.”
Builder Bill arrived at the Slabs in 1998. Before that, he’d been living in a van on the streets of San Diego, spending most of his time drinking. He read a newspaper article about Slab City, and it sounded great: no law, no hassles, away from the pressures of the city. He scraped together enough money for some gas and food, then, arriving in the van, picked his spot. He spent his first couple years here getting clean, slowly putting together his compound and the Range. “I just knew this was where I needed to be,” he told me. “Part of it was the people—it was like the Island of Misfit Toys. It didn’t matter if you didn’t fit in out in the world, because everybody here was broken and they’d managed to create their own thing out here. But a lot of it was just the place. There was nothing here, but after a while, that just felt like it was all possibility. There’s a lot to be said for big empty space you don’t have to pay rent on. It seemed like because no one wanted it and no one really ran it, then you could do something you couldn’t in the outside world.”
Bill led me past his piles of junk, toward the canals and the bombing range, to show me his home, a small beige-and-white trailer with a screened-in porch. Next to the porch, he had an outdoor kitchen with a Formica-covered counter space and a huge gas range hooked up to a propane tank. Behind the kitchen was the bathroom—sink with a mirror, a shelf for toiletries, a plywood shower. The shower was fed by a water heater made out of a beer keg inside an oil drum. You filled the keg with water, Bill explained, built a fire in the drum and, “Wallah! Instant hot shower. Sometimes I shave, even. We try and keep reasonably presentable.”
Bill’s setup was impressive, but it wasn’t nearly as remarkable as the Range. I asked him why he’d built it, since it couldn’t have been easy to put together, with only scavenged parts and practically no money.
At first, he gave me a jokey answer, saying that it was an attempt to deal with “the celibacy issue in Slab City—meaning I was celibate and didn’t want to be.” He made a few cracks about wanting to have a steady income, too. Finally, he told me that when he came to Slab City, he felt like he had a chance to belong to something, which sounded like other Slab City origin stories I’d heard. There’s a tradition at the Slabs of taking people who don’t fit in anywhere else and nurturing them. One couple, who’d come to the Slabs in the 1980s with a broken-down truck and not much else, started a business cleaning RVs for the retirees. They renamed themselves Wax (him) and Wash (her) and charged people by the linear foot. The business proved to be wildly popular. After a few seasons, they had a new truck and a used RV equipped with all the accouterments of home.
The Range, Bill said, was part of his transformation from a homeless drunk into Builder Bill—the impresario, as one of his friends put it. “For a while, I was almost scared to do it. I don’t own any of this. It’s all public land, I don’t have permission to be here anymore than anyone else, so the whole thing could go anytime. But I decided I had to do it anyway, and I put the place together little by little, by hand. And now the Range is a going concern. And I want to build on that. Not just for me, but to help make Slab City a place that’s known for artists and performers, for music festivals and a volunteer library, instead of drugs and alien smugglers.” He paused for a moment and then went on. “When I got here, I had nothing,” he said. “Now look at me. I’ve got a wife, I built the Range. I’m a pillar of the community.”
While we were talking, a car pulled up and a man with a Canadian accent got out. He was looking for a new set of steps for his 1992 RV.
“Oh yeah. Solar Mike told me you were looking for those.” Bill stood and surveyed his collection, running his hand through his hair until it stood straight up. “Hey, look,” he said to me, “I gotta go find those steps. So we’ll talk later, okay? This might take a while.”
He turned back to his customer. “I’m pretty sure I saw what you need in here somewhere, a couple days ago,” he said. “Back here with all this car stuff.” Then the two of them began to thread their way through the junk, deeper into the compound.
Slabbies will tell you that they are the last of a vanishing breed, trailer pioneers hanging on to American frontier virtues. “This is a completely different way of life,” they would tell me from the steps of their Winnebagoes and fifth wheels. “It’s family out here.” Or, “life out here doesn’t have a damn thing to do with money.” Instead, they say, it has everything to do with self-reliance, providing for yourself and your neighbor, living according to “common sense.” This Slab City is a place where dreams of freedom and self-sufficiency and community seemingly come true. Some of that self-sufficiency is a hassle, like the fact that there is no water except for what people carry in, and no toilets except for the illegal “gopher holes” some people dig. But there’s always somebody around to fix whatever you have that’s broken. There’s a free library and solar panels for cheap. There are church services and clubs where, for a small fee, you can get coffee for the season, semi-regular meals for about five dollars, and a party for most holidays. Cash is everywhere and always preferred—and required for some things, like the water truck that comes out once a week—but barter will often work just as well. A few odd jobs will be enough to get access to the Valentine’s Day get together, for instance.
At the same time, the Slabs, like all frontiers, are also a last resort. When the economy is bad, as it was in the late eighties and even more so recently, the Slabs fill up with people who have been driven to the place rather than drawn to it: Many of them have been homeless, like Bill, and some have drug and alcohol problems or mental-health issues. There are also families who, having lost jobs and homes, arrive with all possessions crammed in a car or van, or with nothing more than tents and sleeping bags. And while no one with kids would spend a summer in Slab City if there were any way to avoid it, in recent seasons there were more than a dozen kids living there—six children in one family alone—enough that the county sent buses out to take them to school. There are also more full-timers these days—a hundred or so as opposed to a few dozen in 2003. Consequently, there have been several new projects at the Slabs, but most people don’t have the skills or the drive Builder Bill has. And because so many people in need have come here over the years, Slab City has hosted various charity efforts to help them, some of which have generated publicity, which has, in turn, drawn more people. The last free place in America also attracts people who are looking to get something for nothing. Inevitably, this creates conflict.
When I went back to Slab City in 2011, a group of Bikers for Jesus put on a church service, followed by a barbecue lunch, at the compound of sky-blue single wides that had long been the center for religious services. The parking area was overflowing: Hogs and custom jobs leaned alongside giant Honda cruisers pulling little trailers, next to pickups and panel vans for the equipment the bikers brought with them. Little booths stocked Christian literature. You had to have a ticket, as well as a brief conversation with a Biker for Jesus about the possibility of accepting a more personal relationship with Christ, before you could get your burgers and cole slaw and go sit at the shaded picnic tables set up next to the Center. Free food is always popular at Slab City, even if you have to pretend to be interested in being born-again to get it. A lot of Slabbies talked with the Bikers about Jesus that morning.
On the porch behind the Center, a five-piece combo played the kind of blues-based, guitar-heavy chug loved by bar bands around the world. The songs were mostly based on Psalms, though, or were about dramatic conversion experiences or the delights of being saved versus the agonies of being damned. All of them were bombastic, and all of them were played at painfully high volume. I tried to talk to one of the Bikers, a heavily tattooed guy in a leather vest, but the only word I could make out over the music was “blessed,” repeated over an over again. Finally, I gave up and we just stood there, smiling awkwardly at each other for a few minutes until he clapped me on the back and walked away.
A few days later, Slab City held another charity event. Pastor Ernie arrived in a custom truck—one side opened up, transforming the cargo area into a stage from which he preached. Ernie was a middle-aged Chicano, with a quiet, almost diffident manner, easy to miss if he wasn’t standing on a stage in the middle of the desert. Mostly, he told stories about how people would be pushed close to their limit only to discover that they were blessed, that God loved them and helped in practical and fairly immediate ways. If someone lost everything, God would help him find a home or a job or a car, and occasionally all three. At the end of Ernie’s sermon, people lined up for their food. Ernie was more practical than the Bikers: He gave away cases of bottled water, soft drinks, canned beans, and other easy-to-prepare staples, along with the burgers and hot dogs. He gave out toilet paper, diapers, and paper towels, too, the kinds of necessities that seem like luxury items when you’re living on disability or government benefits, or when you have to find a way to travel the five miles to the grocery store in Niland to get them. The line snaked in front of the Range, more than 200 people waiting in the hot sun for their supplies.
While I was watching the line, I talked with a Slabbie named Chance. He dressed like a hippie Man With No Name—Mexican blanket poncho, battered jeans, and moccasins. He was thin, but not excessively so; he didn’t look like he’d been left to dry in the sun like so many of the other Slabbies. His blond hair stuck out in every direction, and he peered at the world through round silver-rimmed glasses held together with tape. He played guitar at every show at the Range while I was there, plus a couple at the new internet cafe. Chance was good, significantly better than anyone who’d been at the Range before. He could twang and thunder and threaten to blow out the speakers, but he could also play something soft and mournful, or something that made people get up and dance.
We talked about how he used to hide messages among the pixels of the logos he designed for people—“It’s called steganography,” he told me—before moving on to the benefits of C++ as a programming language. Finally, I asked him what had brought him to the Slabs.
“You remember that movie Enemy of the State? Where Gene Hackman said he needed to split and take his operations offline for a while? It’s like that for me. Only instead of a giant warehouse, I’m living under a bush in Slab City.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “But that’s working out pretty well for me. I’m glad to be here for a while.”
We stood in silence, looking at the crowd. There were guys in dreadlocks and crocheted headgear, guys in baseball caps with the names of auto-parts stores and Navy destroyers on them. A great many people were bare-chested. Others were dressed for weather far colder than we had in the Slabs that day. In the distance, I could see a tiny figure in a Soviet Army winter hat riding a mule toward the gathering.
“Pastor Ernie has this figured out,” Chance said. “When you look at the line today, you’ll recognize everyone in that line.” He was right. I’d seen almost everyone there at the Oasis Club or the Range. “It’s just Slabbies here. Of course, it would be.”
I looked blankly at him.
“Consider the date,” he said. “It’s the last Monday of the month. When the Bikers were here, they had all the druggies and people in for a handout. That’s because they scheduled their service for the week before everyone’s government check was due to come, and all their food stamps reset. So it was worth it for them to use the gas to drive in from wherever, because they hadn’t had anything in a while and they weren’t going to get more for a week. Pastor Ernie holds his thing the day before the checks come, which means that it’s not worth it for people to spend the gas to come in from Niland or Bombay Beach. Ernie’s ministry is tightly focused. There’s less potential for conflict.”
I met my next-door neighbor at Slab City because I ran down the battery in my Winnie Minnie while listening to the radio. Smiley, a compact and wiry man in his sixties with a deep, deep tan, lived in a compound about forty-five feet away, the only sign of life that I could see. He had a whole slab to himself, on which he kept a car stripped for parts, a circa-1950 pickup truck, a Chevy convertible, a bus that had been converted into living quarters, and an Airstream. There was also a table with a bunch of unidentifiable, broken items on it and a sign next to it that read free please take and then, tacked above it, another sign that read not table leave table.
Smiley came over one morning after I’d asked him for a jump. He showed me a panel on the back wall of the RV, with a switch and a series of dials and lights on it. When the switch was toggled, four lights lit up, turning green, yellow, or red depending on how close I was to any of four different crises. One of the lights was for propane level; another was for electric power. The other two indicated fluid levels. But the really important thing to remember, Smiley told me, was that the lights didn’t just measure fuel and water levels. They measured how long I could go without being hooked up to the outside world, how far I could live off the grid. The goal was to get as far off as possible, for as long as possible. There were practical reasons for wanting to do this. The Winnie had a forty-gallon water tank, which drained into two other holding tanks as it was used. When I flushed the toilet, that went into the black water tank. When I used water for anything else, it went into the gray water tank. And when either one was full, I’d have to go to an RV dump site and empty them out. This involved hooking one end of a hose up to a pipe sticking out from the underside of the rig, putting the other end in a hole in the ground, pulling a couple of handles, and standing back. The hose didn’t fit particularly well. It leaked a steady trickle of raw sewage. Once the tanks were empty, it was necessary to refill them with fresh water. Besides the weekly water truck, there were three places near the Slabs to do that. There was a spigot next to the bathrooms at the SoCo gas station, a spigot at the gas station in Calipatria, only a few feet away from the hole the sewage went into, and then another spigot located next to the diesel pumps at the same gas station.
But for Smiley, it was more than a matter of wanting to avoid the smell or to avoid drinking whatever came out of the tap next to the sewage pit. “When you’re boondocking like this, you have to conserve, you have to be aware of everything you use,” he told me. “There’s little things you can do. You don’t flush every time, you don’t run the water when you shave and brush, you’re careful when you do the dishes. And you’re running off batteries, so you don’t use more power than you have to. Don’t watch TV all the time. That’s bad all around.”
The next day, we were up early, sewing a rear window into his convertible’s ragtop before the day got too hot. This required using two pairs of needle-nose pliers to push, and then yank, a large needle through two layers of clear, rubberized canvas plus a layer of vinyl, several hundred times. When I wasn’t cursing or bleeding or both, we talked.
I asked why the Slabs seemed so empty—far fewer people than I’d expected to see, anyway.
“Well, it’s early in the season,” he reminded me. “It’s still too hot for a lot of ’em. But all those people are out there. Just spread a little thinner. In a couple of weeks, my wife goes up to Oregon, to go bird-watching. She stays in a Kmart parking lot, and there’s a few hundred people who do that along with her.”
I must have looked a little incredulous. “Well, they’re not all in the same parking lot.” Some people stayed at the Kmart, he explained, others preferred Walmart. More people stayed in the Walmart because the company, while theoretically opposed to overnight guests in their parking lots, actually encouraged the practice in all kinds of little ways. They provided extra-large parking spaces and no-charge RV dumping stations, for example, and cleaning stations with high-pressure hoses and vacuums.
“But the best thing,” he went on, “is that Walmart sells two different kinds of road atlas. One comes with all the Walmart stores in the US marked on it, plus directions on how to get from the interstate to the one closest to you at that particular moment in time. And they sell it for four dollars and ninety-nine cents. The other one does not have the Walmarts pre-marked on it, and it costs thirteen dollars and ninety-nine cents. I ask you.”
“What about you?”
Through the vinyl, I could see Smiley laughing. “Oh no. I’m going to the Arizona Rose Bowl. There’s a hydrogen fuel cell pilot project, a bus some Green Party people are bringing down from Canada, and I’m going to work on that. After that, it all depends on how the price of gas is doing. If it’s cheap, and I can put together enough money to gas up the bus, I’ll probably go to a few of the BLM Parks.”
The Bureau of Land Management maintained a string of parks across the west, Smiley told me. They had regular patrols by rangers and a list of rules that they gave you at the gate when you pulled in. For $180, you could stay in any of the parks for the seven-month-long season. The ones along the US–Mexico border were particularly popular in the winter months. People came for the weather, but also for cheap Mexican prescription drugs and cheap Mexican dental work.
“That’s where you should go next,” Smiley said. “They’re huge. Nobody knows how many people are in those. They didn’t have a category for full-time RVers when they did the census, so they just called them ‘affluent homeless’ and didn’t even bother to count. But that’s where your thousands of people are. Hundreds of thousands.”
The Kofa and Plomosa Mountains rise in a circle around Quartzsite, Arizona; according to a fighter pilot I spoke to in Alamogordo, the town looks like a bowl full of trailers from above. It’s big enough that it is visible even at near-supersonic speed and miles up. At ground level, the reason for this is quickly apparent. Inside the sandstone ring, there are more than seventy small-to-medium-sized commercial RV parks and one huge Bureau of Land Management park, which covers about a million acres and hosts about a quarter-million people every year. Almost all the other structures set up to provide the necessities for the people who live there—the airbrush-T-shirt shop, the satellite-antenna place, the video-rental place, the used-book store—can either be hooked to the back of a truck and hauled off, driven away under their own power, or broken down into poles and tarps and rolled up and then driven away. The town, in other words, is completely mobile.
Since the 1960s, Quartzsite’s main attraction has been a rock-and-mineral swap meet. Collectors from all over the country come to buy and sell their geodes and gypsum crystals, fossilized dinosaur teeth and meteorites. Now the RVers come because so many other RVers are there. In the summer, the total population is maybe 3,000, and everything shuts down. But in January and February, according to the mayor, the population rises to about a quarter million with the long-term visitors; then there are another million or so short-term visitors. The mayor may have reason to exaggerate these numbers, but everyone agrees that there is a staggering number of RVs and trailers in Quartzsite in January.
I began spotting RVs about five miles out of town, just a few tucked into hollows and under trees along the red-dirt roads that ran close to the highway. Gradually, little compounds appeared—typically a trailer or an RV plus a pickup or minivan—set closer and closer together, until they were almost a single, great mass, spreading out next to the road leading south toward Yuma. To the south, I could see downtown Quartzsite, which, from my vantage point, looked like a trailer park experiencing a particularly bad traffic jam. If the trailerite nation had a capital, it was here. The streets were lined with RV parks with names like Shady Lane and La Mirage. A few had entrances marked by arches and animal sculptures made of welded horseshoes, but mostly there were just big vinyl banners flapping in the breeze, emblazoned with overnight and weekly rates, or advertising the things you could buy inside: foot long polish hot dogs, navajo blankets, propane, and best price for fossils anywhere.
Movement was reduced to a crawl. I thought about stopping at Silly Al’s for pizza, but the parking lot was mobbed. Likewise with the Frontier Café and the General Store. Then, down the street, I saw the Reader’s Oasis. It was a slightly more permanent version of a tent, with a roof made up of a patchwork of tarps, and tables with books on them in front. There was a display next to the door, a wooden box full of brightly colored, silky nylon thongs, with a sign that read: quartzsite summer wear: $3.
Inside, the floor was carpeted in Astroturf, the walls crammed with bookshelves made from wire and plywood and weathered pine boards, and they held what must have been tens of thousands of books, with barely enough space to walk between them. All the things you’d expect to see were there—a vast assortment of mystery and romance novels, endless copies of Misery, Jurassic Park, and The Firm, plus a few trailer-specific titles such as the Woodall’s Guide. I found an out-of-print collection of Allen Ginsberg’s photos of the Beats, with captions in his cramped hand, and a book about Zen Buddhism’s influence on Jack Kerouac, also out of print. There was a moldering hardbound book about mining, a first edition, printed 1869, which may have arrived with the silver boom that had first brought settlers to the area. It was surprising to see copies of the original The Joy of Sex, with its drawings of hairy hippies demonstrating “gourmet” positions, but not nearly as surprising as discovering a book about the fetish commonly known as “watersports,” which featured its own helpful drawings. There were pulp novels from the thirties, forties, and fifties, including a first edition of Sin on Wheels: The Uncensored Confessions of a Trailer Camp Tramp.
I was looking through the latter when I heard a man ask, “Need help?” in a thick New England accent.
“No, no,” I said, “I’m just admiring your selection of pulp here.” Then I had to stop and stare at him. He had long, gray hair that streamed out from under a high-crowned, wide-brimmed cowboy hat. He was neither tall nor short, and incredibly lean, nothing but muscle, sinew, and bone. You could see this quite clearly because, apart from a pair of suede Cuban-heeled cowboy boots and a somewhat ostentatious turquoise necklace, he wore only the briefest possible thong. It was rainbow colored, with beads decorating the side strings and, as I learned when he turned away, the back.
For some reason—the rainbow maybe, or the hair—I expected him to be friendly. Instead, he was brusque, until he saw what I was buying: Beat books and pulp novels.
His name was Paul. He’d moved to Quartzsite fifteen years earlier with his wife and their five-year-old daughter. When they arrived, they owned a van, a ten-foot tent, two boxes of books, and not much else. He’d been making a living in a variety of ways, including but not limited to: poet, poetry teacher, greeting-card designer, cartoonist, journalist, piano player, and something he described as an “adult comedy act” in a burlesque show.
“It’s kind of a filter mechanism,” he said of the thong. “You know, people come in and when they see the outfit, they either deal with it or they don’t.” There had been a few occasions when potential customers called him about something at the store, drove in from California, “pulled up, got out of the car, took one look at me, turned around, got right back in the car and drove off. Three hours back.” For the most part, though, people in Quartzsite, visitors and full-time residents alike, are pretty tolerant of his choice of clothing. In fact, his style seemed to be good for business. When the New York Times came to Quartzsite, they talked to Paul; when Good Morning America broadcast from there, they made sure Paul got screen time—from the waist up, at least. There was talk of making a movie about his life. And now, after arriving with $35, he estimates that he has nearly 100,000 books and his compound has become a landmark.
We talked about shopping, and how people had to drive twenty minutes or so to Blythe to find a real grocery store. We talked about politics. The mayor and police didn’t interfere with the daily life of the RVers too much. When the season was on, the national singles clubs all had branches there, just as they did in Slab City, and organized and hosted dances and potluck suppers almost every night. So there was recreation. There were volunteer nurses and volunteer clinics, which took care of most medical needs. But people mostly took care of themselves. That, Paul said, was the way he and almost everybody else in town preferred it.
The more I listened to Paul, the more he reminded me of Bill and the other full-timers at the Slabs. It wasn’t simply because their compounds seemed to be of a piece, parts of the same mobile city. And it wasn’t just because their stories were so similar, a mix of wander-lust, restlessness, and eccentricity. It was because they’d all been drawn to their homes by the traditional virtues of trailer living: freedom and acceptance. Not to mention that both places, the former ghost town and the abandoned military base, sat on land that nobody else wanted. Just as it had for Depression-era trailerites, cheap land supported their ambitions and gave them room to grow.
The gatehouse at the entrance to the Bureau of Land Management park just outside of town was manned by two extremely pleasant middle-aged ladies. They were both blond, both from Minnesota, both volunteers. They gave me a couple of pamphlets about the park system, listing some of the local wildlife and all of the local rules. They told me that I was welcome to go in and look around, but that if I decided I wanted to stay I would have to come back and pay. I said thank you, got back in my car, and followed a red-dirt road that ran past RVs strung out in little clusters on both sides.
Inside the park, a boundary line of volcanic stone, the same color red as the road and shot through with holes, ran along the road. Long, curving pathways bounded by rocks led to clusters of vehicles: a trailer or an RV, an ATV or dirt bike or two, plus a pickup truck. Desert scrub grew outside the compounds, green-gray shoots of chamisa and massive saguaro cactus. But inside them, the ground had been scraped clean, the dirt raked, the rubble removed. Some of the camps put up signposts, with stacked signs that listed the distance to cities in Canada, Washington, Oregon. Others had family names on them, listing the people who, presumably, came and stayed in the same spot year after year. In Quartzsite, as in Slab City, people seemed to have a lot of empty time to fill.
The trailers and RVs looked like they went on forever, miles and miles of tidy little encampments, stretching out almost to the horizon on all sides. But I kept on driving, and gradually I saw fewer and fewer signposts, and the neatly delineated clusters of campers were farther and farther apart, until finally the road started to merge with the desert floor and there was almost no one around at all. I could see a storm rolling in over the mountains to the east. I stopped the car to watch it sweep across the plain toward me. It was a deluge, ragged torrents of rain and silver-gray light flickering through breaks in the clouds, moving fast toward Yuma.
When the storm passed, it left a fragment of rainbow hanging in the sky; I could almost see where it touched down, just behind a grove of trees. I sat for a while, looking. I started driving toward the spot where the end would be. The rainbow kept shifting, of course, sliding along. Finally, I had a clear line of sight to its end. I could see a silver Airstream all by itself, shimmering, blurred in a haze of refracted light. Minutes went by, the light changed. The clouds shifted and the rainbow evaporated. But the Airstream was still there.