The day started off well enough at Slab City or "The Slabs", an off-grid community located on the land of a former Marine base in southern California: no utilities, no rent. It’s named for the concrete slabs left when the base was dismantled. Residents largely fall into one of two categories; those who live here year round and the visiting RVers. It’s a little like any city: people are attracted to their own so that the usual array of RV rigs cluster together while the makeshift homes of the residents, off in other areas, look much more permanent, often built around an old bus, van or RV within a staked out area, a few fenced to enforce their claim. There is an amazing density and variety of apparently discarded items around some of these camps giving them something of a post-apocalyptic look but I suspect nothing is discarded in case of future need or use. While this may give an initial unkempt appearance to the place there is little evidence of litter or waste in these areas. This is not true of the whole city and certainly there are other patches that have clearly been abused and left covered in rubbish, unfit for use without extensive clean-up.
The entrance to the city is dominated by a massive, brightly painted art installation, primarily the work of one man, Leonard Knight, who created Salvation Mountain as a testament to his christian faith. Built of adobe and gallons of paint, sections are vaguely Gaudiesque while others resemble the scenery of a surreal art deco film. While Leonard has retired the project moves forward in the hands of various caretakers: it’s a living piece with constant repairs and repainting. Whatever your views of religion or faith this is a truly magnificent piece of work. It may not have the simplicity and understated beauty of the Mesquite in Cordoba or the magnificence and solemnity of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it may even be crude in some regards but in its originality, vision and execution it has to be admired.
Our route from the city takes us south along the Salton Sea heading for Imperial Sand Dunes, formed by wind borne grains from the ancient natural lake that intermittently occupied the Salton Sink Basin. As we arrive, it’s clear that this is a place dedicated to OHVs and being the weekend it’s clearly hotting up. We hesitate before deciding to stay but with reassurances about it being a slow weekend, there being very few campers out in the south-eastern area and hardly any trains on the lines bordering the dune field we set off. As things develop the truth of these statements is of little concern to us over the next eighteen hours or so.
All goes well as we drive the gravel road along the edge of the dune field before turning westwards across the sand. There are other RVs out along this stretch and we blithely drive across what initially feels like terra firma until the inevitable happens and we grind to a halt. A quick inspection reveals that we are deeper in the sand than we’d like to be. Sterling takes over at the wheel and putting us in four low manages to reverse about fifteen feet before we’re stuck again. This time we’re in deeper. The light is fading as we desperately dig out behind the wheels and put our levelling blocks down for extra traction. We get another ten feet. More digging, more use of the blocks, a further three feet and now we’re well and truly stuck, the rear differential is partially buried, the axels an inch at most above the sand and the bottom ten inches of the tyres beneath it. By this time, I’m feeling decidedly daunted and somewhat pessimistic about our prospects but Sterling remains confident and reassuring: we’ll stay where we are overnight and try again in the morning.
During the course of the evening Sterling researches possibilities on the internet becoming more and more downhearted about the chances of getting ourselves out of this fine mess. Fortunately, he’s never one to stay defeated for long and reading about sand ladders inspires him to devise a plan to build our own. Our levelling blocks fit loosely together and with the aid of wire ties he plans to make a double layer strapped onto rods from an old luggage rack for additional rigidity. With the brains of the operation engaged, I’m under the truck first thing in the morning in my capacity as the brawn, digging out the rear differential followed by the wheels while the engineer constructs the ladders. They go behind the inner rear duals, blocks of firewood behind the front wheels and what had seemed like a desperate situation ends in laughter and whoops of triumph as he backs the camper onto an area of hard packed sand. Our luck has changed and in confirmation here comes the off-road ice cream van, complete with its tinny chimes and a range of delightful goodies.
Apart from the ice cream, I take all this as a sure sign we should stay off sand. With the advent of the ladders, Sterling takes it as a sign that we could go right across the dunes, no trouble!