Slab City Prom
We've told you about Slab City—California’s most desolate, isolated squatter community situated on an ex-military base in a harsh section of the desert—a few times over the years, reporting on the region’s ecological issues, and showing you exactly what it’s like to live there.
Photographer Peter Bohler first visited Slab City five years ago to shoot scrappers who went to the borders of a nearby bombing range after there’d been runs, collecting the brass bullet casings from the machine guns on the airplanes. At 50 cents a pop, a collection of the casings, along with scrap aluminum from dropped bombs, could amass a thousand dollars in one night, after a trip to the recycling center. Peter recently went back for a jollier trip: Slab City’s annual Prom. We wanted to know all about it.
VICE: How was your trip? Did you have fun?
Peter Bohler: Yeah! I got there the night before Prom—just after dark, and I was with a friend—and we were driving around and trying to figure out who we could say hello to. It was pitch black; there were no lights anywhere. We were driving past these ghostly shapes of camps in the darkness. A lot of them are based around RVs, but then people make other structures too, all kinds of buildings added on—sheds and parts up in the trees. It’s very disorienting to look at these places and be like, Can I even go knock on anyone’s door?
And dogs are barking everywhere. Eventually we saw some people juggling with these glowing balls and playing with those Burning Man fire things that you swing around—I’m sure there’s a name for them. I went up to these people and said hello and they were super nice, and that turned into a tour of their part of the Slabs. They took me to an eight-foot deep, six-feet in diameter hole that someone had been digging, and they told me, “Yeah, an asteroid had landed here, you can see the dirt is different, it’s like space dust.” Which didn’t seem very credible to me.
Ha, sounds like a grave.
It was in the middle of the night and they were like, “Hey, wanna see a hole?” I had no idea it would be that massive. That night was super warm. Prom night was 30 degrees colder, and windy. So people dressed up and made an appearance, but there wasn’t as much dancing as I’d expected.
I think I’d heard about it last time I was out there and I was coming back from a shoot recently and I stopped by. They post little pink flyers around town with events and Prom is one of them. I think that’s ultimately where I found the information and the date, although it’s always the last Saturday in March.
Yes, I wore a pair of kind of bell-bottom-y brown slacks and kind of shimmery purple shirt. Definitely a lot of people dressed up but it was pretty cold and windy that night. As the night wore on more and more big, heavy, wool coats got brought out and put on.
I think for a lot of the older people, the prom is a fun party marking the end of winter. A lot of people take off because it starts getting really hot, so they throw a big party to mark the end of another year out in the slabs. I got the impression that it was a chance for people to be a little bit elegant. There are ironic or tongue-in-cheek aspects to it, but at the same time they’re living outside and they don’t ever get the chance to dress up. So I think it’s also that people are excited to look nice for once.
Who’s the gentleman with the vampire fangs?
He wears that outfit every time he dresses up. He’s a refrigerator repairman. He’s alternately known as Refrigerator Wayne or Vampire Wayne.
They have refrigerators?
People who have money will have refrigerators in their RVs. One of the things that’s sort of funny out there is that even though everyone’s living off the grid out in the middle of nowhere, there’s definitely a huge disparity in the amount of money people have. You have these street kids who literally have no money at all. I talked to one kid who was trying to get into town, and he was like, “Well, I have to figure out how to get a dollar for the bus first.” You’ve got your retirees who have pensions or Social Security, or people who might be on Disability who actually do have a fixed income. It’s not a lot, but if you’re living out there with no expenses it goes a long way.
It looks like they had dresses available for Prom?
That’s a rack of old dresses they have out there that anyone can take from and dress up in.
That’s really nice.
I think that’s very much the spirit of the Slabs, where there’s a lot of stuff just kicking around that’s up for grabs. A lot of people do help each other out. There’s even a couple places that serve free meals to anyone who wants them. I had spaghetti at the Haven, which is a more Christian camp, but throughout the winter they have a huge community lunch every Saturday. And there’s another place called the Karma Kitchen that does a similar thing.
Who is this young couple?
That’s Lexxi and Justin, who’re engaged. They’d been living at the Slabs all winter. She was really into Prom because she said that she never had one. I think for a lot of the older people it was more like a slightly erotic, kind of crazy thing, but for her it was her Prom. Justin’s the one who actually dug that hole in front of their house, which is that blanket over the tree sort of hut. And that’s their van. I shot them in front of their camp. It was really cute how excited they were about it. They left the morning after Prom. A lot of people did.
Where do they go when they leave?
Lexxi and Justin and a lot of the kids packed up their van—probably six or eight of them in there—and they were all driving to San Francisco for 4/20. I think some of the older people with RVs have more of a plan, like they spend their summers up in Washington state, for instance. But I don’t think there’s any other place like the Slabs. I mean, there might be, but no one talks about it like they do about the Slabs.
I bet you had some good conversations that night.
I started talking to a guy who’d spent a season at the Slabs when he was younger. Something happened—and he was very vague about it—but he was left for dead in the Slabs 15, 20 years ago. It sounds like he was beaten and dumped in the outskirts. A family found him and left him food and water for a week and helped him regain his strength. And then he went off to have a whole career, he had a house and everything, but pretty much when the economy crashed in 2008 he lost it all. That’s when he says he decided, “The Slabs saved my life once, I figured why not again?” He was really passionate about it as a place. He was living out there with no money whatsoever and people were really helpful, and helping one another. He told me, “It’s the only place in the country where people are doing something different. People out here are making their decisions on love and not fear, because they have nothing left to lose.”
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