In the California desert, about 150 miles northeast of San Diego on the grounds of a decommissioned military base, is Slab City — a drifter's utopia that exists off the grid of contemporary living. The people who choose to live in Slab City bring with them their own personal reasons for leaving civilization behind, but all are united in their rejection of economics, technology, and societal norms.
Photographer Bob Zahn is not only a documentarian in the midst of chronicling the lives of those living in Slab City, but also a resident himself. His series Slab City: The Last Free Place In America is a collection of pictures and words that could only have been gathered by someone who is truly a member of the community.
Here, BuzzFeed News speaks with Bob Zahn about Slab City and the lives of those willing to give up everything they own in pursuit of true freedom.
What is Slab City to you?
Bob Zahn: The opposite of the world I came from in New York City, with its fast lanes and skyscrapers, billionaire elite, haute couture, and most of all, its materialism. Nothing wrong with that if you can afford it, but for me, it was time for a change.
During the financial crash of 2007, the bubble burst and I lost everything — my business, wife and family, home, fortune, my very sanity. But I'm still here. I was so disillusioned that I needed a major change in my lifestyle. So I picked up the pieces of my life and dedicated myself to becoming an artist, burning to breathe free, and I moved 2,150 miles with a one-way airline ticket across the continent to California.
Who is the type of person that chooses to live in Slab City?
BZ: Well, obviously the "Slabbers" who live there 12 months a year are economically challenged. As Builder Bill said, and he's been living in the Slabs for a long time, "this is the last knot in the rope. You can't get any lower than Slab City." But it's still a place you can come, set up a camp, fence it off with wires or used tires, and that's your spot to live on without paying any rent.
What do the residents of Slab City do for their livelihood? Don't you need some form of income to survive?
BZ: Some are industrious, like Solar Mike, who sells and installs solar panels, or Gary the Water Guy, who makes water deliveries to your camp, and others who are available to be your handyman. Lots of artists reside there who sell their crafts — like jewelry, medicine bags, and hand-blown glass pipes. But mostly, I guess, folks are living off public assistance, VA benefits and the like. This is the least expensive place to exist in America; there's no rent, so the community represents the 1%, or .1%, on the economic scale.
So what does a day in the life of a Slab City resident look like?
BZ: Long Island Mike, a "seasonal Slabber," puts it this way: "For me, it is a place to dance like no one is watching."
But the reality is, life in the Slabs is about subsisting, getting by, one day at a time — which can be pretty scary during the unforgiving summer months when the temperature can reach 120 degrees. That's why there are only about 150 Slabbers who live there 12 months a year. There's no AC, electricity [solar panels supply the minimum of power to get by], no running water [it all has to be trucked in] and for sewage treatment, think outhouses.
Are there laws or ways of acting in Slab City?
BZ: That's what makes the place so unique. In Slab City you can "just be," as Builder Bill says, "feel free to be who you are." There's no judgment and there are no laws, except don't interfere with your neighbor's space or possessions. And clean up after yourself! Anyways, Slab City is still a part of America, so any government, state, or county laws are always enforceable.
What do you think the rest of America can learn from the people of Slab City?
BZ: That's for every person to decide. The experience will be uniquely personal. Pyxie says, "If the economy keeps going like it is, there are going to be more people living in Slab City." But I honestly believe that won't happen, because it takes a certain type of person, at or near the bottom of their rope. Or a rugged individualist who follows the beat of their own heart and is willing to live off the grid.
What I've learned is that if you can forgo materialism, there's the opportunity to meet real, honest people, willing to lend a hand when others. Life is survivable, even good, if you're not asking for too much.
The following is a selection of quotes and pictures from Bob Zahn's series Slab City:
"Society is always trying to put us into a box. Sometimes you have to step out of that box." —Frodo
"Glad to share the magic." —Chocolate Jesus
"You don't know peace until you've had suffering." —Jinx
"It's not a city, it's a home." —Jazzy
"I've literally been walking in my father's shoes." —Da Handyman's quote
"I was called to Slab City by God." —Preacher Dave
"This place is freedom." —Apache
"Anywhere you plan to be, be prepared to leave." —Rabbit, accompanied by Jack "Two-Horses"
"S(lab), L(onliness), A(tonement), B(eauty), C(ops), I(nsanity), T(equila), Y(outhfulness)" —Zeigh