Slab City: Last free place in US? 10News' Steve Atkinson visits with people living 'off the grid'

Isolated spot home to artists, nomads, outlaws

SAN DIEGO - It might seem hard to believe but there is still a place where people live without phones, power, or utilities and they don't have to pay a dime of rent. They call it "life off the grid."

It's an isolated spot in the middle of the California desert called "Slab City," and some refer to it as, "The last free place in America."

Affiliate 10News San Diego anchor Steve Atkinson visited Slab City, which is about two and a half hours from San Diego, just east of the Salton Sea. It’s the abandoned Camp Dunlap Marine Training Facility, which closed in 1946. When buildings were removed only the concrete slabs were left, leading to the nickname. The land was turned over to the state of California and left uncontrolled and free to use.

Now, Slab City is home to eclectic artists, nomads, some outlaws, and during the winter, snowbirds escaping the frigid cold in their RV's. But most of the people who live here year-round do so because they're escaping something else, such as a troubled past, financial fallout, or just to get away from social norms without being hassled by any authority.

"Everybody here has some reason why they can't live out there. And I'm no different," says the man who is known simply as "Builder Bill." He explains why the hundreds of people who live on "The Slabs" year-round are rarely bothered.

"You got to look around. Who's looking for this place?"  Bill lets out a hearty laugh and continues." Give me a break, I mean this place is so desolate, so useless, so unwanted, that they don't care if we're here."

10News searched for others who have chosen this lifestyle and that’s when Ben Morofsky appeared. He says he discovered Slab City 22 years ago and found life off the grid was the life for him.

"We're not plugged into the Internet and we don't have a regular wall phone. It's off the grid," explains Morofsky. "Where a lot of devastation that has struck this country from one end to the other, it would make a difference anywhere else, but not here. We're pretty much living at the lowest poverty level you can live."

Morofsky is proud of his slab and lives in a simple trailer with his wife. A mechanic by trade, he makes money or barters for a meal by working on cars or generators.

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Others live frugally on the little income they get from disability or social security.

Or, they live like another man who introduced himself to us only as "Frank." He asks only for donations to run his Internet cafe.

"How many years have you lived here?” Atkinson asked while Frank provided a tour of his makeshift home. In a somewhat depressed response, Frank answered, "Oh, about 12."

Frank said he used to repair appliances so he is able to cobble together scrap parts into working resources. He set up solar panels on his trailer and uses the energy to generate electricity to car batteries, which power his Internet connectivity.

"Smart guy, but yet, all of his resourcefulness couldn't protect him from Mother Nature," said Atkinson. "Frank was recently bitten by a rattlesnake while he slept outside on a bench with his dogs.  His arm still swollen the day we met, Frank is now ready to move on, after 12 long years in Slab City."

"It will wear on you, huh?” Atkinson asked Frank.

"Oh yeah, it's like you build your own jail," he replied. "Now I'm looking to get the hell out of here. Grab my backpack and my dogs, or get on my bike. I still have my bike I used to travel around the country with. One way or the other I’m out of here before the summer comes."

What brings most people to Slab City -- either just passing through or those who decide to stay -- is the spectacle of Salvation Mountain.

It started as one man's tribute to his faith, but it has now become a kind of a Mecca for fans of the cult independent film "Into the Wild."

Salvation Mountain founder, Leonard Knight, is featured in the film. He spent 28 years creating a piece of art three stories high out of a small hill covered entirely in adobe, paint and adorned with Bible verses.

"It’s art, right smack in the middle of the desert, with nothing else around for miles," said Atkinson. "That's dedication and you can see why people go out of their way to see it." 

Leonard, now 82, has since retired, but his project continues with volunteers such as Cookie Richardson, who sits on Salvation Mountain’s Preservation Board.

"I like the way that it speaks to everybody to a point where they are in their spiritual life," said Richardson, with a satisfied smile.

Salvation Mountain and Leonard's inspiration spoke most recently to Lucinda Ward, of Ohio.

After watching Into the Wild, Ward and her husband sold everything, packed a van, and headed west from Ohio to become site managers for Salvation Mountain. They live in a small trailer with solar panels that provide minimal electricity.

"You've only got so much power so you have to be really, really frugal on what you’re doing," said Ward, as she shows off the cramped quarters of her trailer.

Ward said she doesn't miss the small luxuries of life and has no regrets about the move.  

"Even if you come here and you don't believe the message that's printed on the side of the mountain, just knowing that somebody gave 28 years of their life and was so dedicated to get that message out there -- that was important. That was phenomenal," Ward said.

But perhaps the most famous and interesting resident of Slab City is Builder Bill.

It took him years, but Builder Bill used his slab to build "The Range."

It’s an outdoor venue for performance art. When the sun sets on Saturdays, The Range becomes a live stage for performance art with everything from poets to musical performances.

It’s not a bad life for an former construction worker who was living out of his van in San Diego a decade ago.

"I like the contrast myself. There I was a bum on the street. Here I'm a pillar of the community," said Bill, failing to hold back another one of his hearty laughs.  

Builder Bill describes the draw to Slab City best, "When you've got nowhere else to turn, there's always Slab City."

"The thing about Slab City is you can be here without prosecution or persecution. You can be here!" he said, emphasizing his lifestyle.  "Without paying for it or licensing, or any of that, you can be here. And that's where Slab City is the last free spot. Cause I don't think there's any place else where you can go."

Editors note:

Leonard Knight now lives in a retirement home in El Cajon. He recently celebrated his 82nd birthday with a trip back to Salvation Mountain where volunteers gathered for a restoration project on the mountain. Click for a link to Salvation Mountain’s Facebook page to see pictures from Leonard’s visit and to donate to the non-profit organization: http://on.fb.me/1eoqDb4.

Related Links:

Information on Slab City: http://bit.ly/HA06cr

Salvation Mountain Information: http://bit.ly/16J4vDo

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