Sandi Wheaton's photographic journey from Chicago to LA with a Jeep, an Aliner trailer and a bunch of cameras

East Jesus, Pop.1 Elev.75


Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Let’s talk about Slab City.

the open-air living space at night - Chris, Cherie and Charlie in b/g

the East Jesus open-air living space at night - kitchen on right; Chris, Cherie & Charlie in center frame, near music room

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book “Into the Wild”, you should be familiar with Slab City.  This is one of the places Chris McCandless stayed before his ill-fated Alaskan journey.  If you are into RVing, you probably know about it, too.

Slab City is located on the site of the abandoned Camp Dunlap Naval Reservation, near the eastern edge of the Salton Sea.  If you don’t know where the Salton Sea is, it’s the largest lake in California, positioned in the middle of the Colorado Desert, about an hour SE of Palm Springs and two and a half hours NE of San Diego.  I could write an entire book about the Salton Sea, so I won’t go into that here.  Later!

Camp Dunlap consisted of approximately 30 buildings on over 630 acres of desert land between the Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range.  Over 185,000 troops received artillery training here before the Camp closed after the war, in 1956.  In 1961, the land was returned to the state of California and the buildings were dismantled, leaving behind a landscape of empty concrete slabs.  Transients looking for a sunny place to camp started squatting on the concrete slabs, and eventually a community of vagabonds, snow birds, wanderers and anyone who wanted to be off the grid was established.   “Slab City” was born.

western edge of Slab City, seen from atop Salvation Mountain

western edge of Slab City, seen from atop Salvation Mountain

Summer, 2008: I’d been photographing the Salton Sea for years and always wanted to explore Slab City, but as an outsider coming in to this unorthodox community of folks who are trying to get AWAY from people, I worried I might be less than welcome.  So July last year, during my artist residency in Joshua Tree, CA, I was thrilled when a local gallery owner connected me with an artist who lives in Slab City.  Charlie – or “chasterus” online, a name derived from the first three letters of his first, middle and last names – was more than willing to welcome me to “the Slabs” and give me the grand tour.

Charles Russell, aka chasterus

Charles Russell, aka chasterus

It was summer in the desert and the heat was unreal, even in Joshua Tree.  I knew there was no electricity in Slab City, so I made a point to turn off the AC in the car and drive with the windows down, so that I would be accustomed to the insane heat once I arrived at Charlie’s place.  Good thinking, right?  Well, when I arrived and exited the car to introduce myself, I did so with pants so soaked with sweat from sitting on that synthetic-fabric car rental seat in 120F heat, it looked like I had peed myself.  Fortunately not much ruffles Charlie’s feathers.

Actually, you can’t let much ruffle you if you want to live in the middle of the desert with no utilities, in a completely open and free community, featuring an assortment of people on the fringes of society.  For the most part, residents are pretty cool around there – but still, one needs to protect their home and keep nosy strangers away.  This explains the signs I was greeted with upon entering Charlie’s place: “PRIVATE PROPERTY: No Trespassing” and “DANGER: Armed and Bitter Libertarian Drunkards Live Here – Trespassers Will Be Used for Target Practice”.

"Cinnabar Charm" Charlie's art van

"Cinnabar Charm" Charlie's art van

This is Charlie’s home, East Jesus – a corner of Slab City that he has artfully crafted into an amazing compound of various trailers, art cars, sculpture gardens, recycled decor, private concert space, a container car that is the heart of his home and the source of his Slab nickname “Container Charlie”, and, of course, the home of the Slab City Gun Club.  The name “East Jesus” is both a nod to nearby Salvation Mountain, and a playful reference to the expression that indicates  somewhere ungodly far away (my Google search’s first entry indicated that the expression East Jesus meant “way the f*ck out there”).  Charlie’s website calls East Jesus “an experimental, habitable, extensible artwork in progress.  Pop 1, Elev 75.”  This place is a monument to the concept of reuse.  Rusted scrap metal fragments make a lovely geometric fence.  Stacks of discarded microwaves create a wall for the music room.  Empty metal lockers become storage cabinets for the kitchen.  And so on.  (This is all open-air, by the way.  It’s the desert.)  It’s hard to describe, really.  I’ve never been anywhere like it before or since.

Chris, Sean, Charlie and Cherie get acquainted

Chris, Sean, Charlie and Cherie get acquainted

This being the desert, water is naturally a big issue.  Charlie gets his 100-gallon water tanks filled from a water delivery truck.  For power, there’s always solar, and generators.  And thanks to the geothermal activity in the area, there are even hot springs nearby to bathe in.  Charlie has everything he needs, and he pays virtually no rent or taxes.  This life certainly comes with its inconveniences (dust storms, unbearable summer heat, explosions in the nearby gunnery range, rotating neighbors who may have undesirable or intrusive lifestyles, scorpions and the like…) – but overall it’s pretty freakin’ sweet.

On this trip, since Charlie had been so gracious on my last visit, and since I knew Cherie and Chris (Technomadia) and their pal Sean would totally groove to Slab City and East Jesus in particular, I figured a reunion was in order.  Charlie was indeed around when we came through the Salton Sea area, and he was absolutely up for a visit.  As I suspected, they all had much in common and lots to talk about, so I got to just sit back and bask in the warm satisfaction of introducing such fascinating like-minded folk to one another.

Transit Antenna's home Walter, buried at East Jesus

Transit Antenna's home Walter, buried at East Jesus

I think this is a common occurrence for Charlie, though.  He said he had been through a long string of visitors at East Jesus lately.  Thanks to the guy’s amazing hospitality and the laws of natural attraction, Charlie’s home is like flypaper for random artist types.  One of the latest developments at East Jesus was the addition of a half-buried bus (Cadillac Ranch style) named Walter, the ex-mobile home of a nomadic art collective named “Transit Antenna”.  They wanted East Jesus to be the final resting place for their bus-turned-waste-vegetable-oil-powered-
RV home.  You can read about all that here.

At the end of our afternoon visit, Charlie invited us to camp at East Jesus.  Returning to the site of the previous night’s light painting festivities to pick up our trailers, we arrived JUST in time to catch an amazing sunset over the Salton Sea.  We all sprung from the vehicle and scattered, cameras and tripods in hand, to various vantage points along the water.  This was one of my favorite shots from that sunset:

salty old dock at the Salton Sea

salt-encrusted empty dock at the beautiful Salton Sea

Darkness came and we headed back to Slab City.  Chris and Cherie parked the Oliver in front of East Jesus and I parked the Aliner in the back (“close to the facilities”, recommended Charlie, since I have none), and we spent time chilling, listening to Charlie play music, cooking meals together, catching up on emails, file management, etc.  Charlie had picked up the guitar again since I met him last year, and is playing regularly.

Cherie poi dancing while Charlie plays

Cherie poi dancing while Charlie plays

He’s quite good, and both nights there we were treated to an impromptu concert of songs by Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and the like, while Cherie spun poi in an accompanying tranquil, gyrating dance.   It was so relaxing – just what I needed after the intense weeks on the road and financial catastrophes that occurred the week before.  Charlie: I must THANK YOU so very much for sharing your home, food, music, and overall awesomeness with us.  The world needs more independent and creative beings like you.

It was a good thing I had that short recharge time, too: after just two days of quality time near the Salton Sea, I had to be back in Canada in a week.  That’s more of a rushed drive than you might think.  Canada may be a larger country than the USA, but when you’re driving across America in just a week’s time, you realize it’s a pretty darn big country too.

Charlie's car and his desert view

Charlie's car and his desert view

Speaking of back home in Canada, there was an article published yesterday in my hometown’s paper, the Moncton Times and Transcript (I was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick).  Thanks to Linda Hersey and the paper for featuring me in their “15 Minutes of Fame” column.

Here’s to a staying power of much longer than 15 minutes: *cheers*.

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