6 Reasons You're Picturing the Post-Apocalypse Wrong
Once upon a time, there was a military base named Camp Dunlap in the depths of California's confusingly named Colorado Desert. It shut down in the late 1950s and, within a decade, a trickle of people started moving in. It acquired the name "Slab City," and for 50 years, it has existed without laws, running water, or trash pickup. There are no police in Slab City and no electrical grid either. In short, it's as close to life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland as you'll find in this world.
In October, Cracked sent four of its
most expendable best reporters out to spend a weekend at Slab City. We came expecting Mad Max crossed with The Road. We wound up finding a life that was -- in many ways -- much more pleasant than the ones we'd left behind in Los Angeles. Here are the surprising facts we learned about life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland:
Don't Go Expecting Reavers and Bandits
When we first started out for Slab City, we expected to find a bunch of crazy aspiring cannibals, alien-worshipping cultists, and people who park their shopping carts across both sides of the aisle in supermarkets. In short: the dregs of society.
But sadly, we found only nice, normal folks. The first place we stopped was a singles club called LOW ("Loners on Wheels"). We accidentally broke into their library, thinking it was for public use, even though the words "Members Only" were written quite clearly on the inside of the door. We tried to pass our illiteracy off as simple rebelliousness, but nobody was buying it.
If only there was a building out there, filled with books, that could help us read better.
Still, rather than greeting us with a hail of buckshot, their emissary politely pointed out that we were technically breaking and entering. We then had a nice, long conversation about Slab City, and were informed we'd be welcome to camp there if we paid the $55 entry fee, had RVs, and (this was heavily hinted) didn't mind the sounds of old people having sex at night.
We drove around for a bit and stopped to get directions from a shirtless man driving a golf cart, and were eventually guided to East Jesus. The name is either an obscure idiom for way out in the middle of nowhere, or it refers to the fact that they're located due east from a huge mountain covered in Jesus paraphernalia.
When the Second Coming happens, this is probably the place you want to be.
East Jesus ("Not a religion, do not worship" is their slogan) functions as the proof-of-concept for a functional post-apocalyptic society. There was ample electricity from the solar panels, a full kitchen, fans, beds and permanent buildings, all made out of trash and all surrounded with desert art (also made out of trash). There were a few cars parked out front (covered in trash) and of course, plenty of trash.
Oscar the Grouch/part-time mechanic
Turns out there's a reason for that beyond "I was high and the trash can was really far away." The people in Slab City learned quickly that ...
When You're Freed From Societal Norms, You Can Make Some Incredible Things ...
People with dreadlocks and sandals and morals are constantly telling us that we throw away too much useful stuff and we should recycle more, and we're like, "Help us hide this busted computer monitor underneath the Styrofoam -- they get mad at you if they see it in the trash." It's just hard to make a compelling case, because what the hell does recycling net us? New bottles made out of old bottles? That's not sexy at all.
East Jesus makes recycling awesome and useful in a visually spectacular way. Almost everything is built from stuff someone else discarded -- including the electronics. East Jesus has a battery bank made up entirely of expired batteries from telecom companies, who throw away their batteries when they begin operating at less than 80 percent capacity.
"It's OK, little C+ students. We still love you."
And then there's the trash art gallery we mentioned earlier ...
It's the one gallery where you can scream "this art is garbage!" and a man in a tuxedo doesn't immediately ask you to leave.
You can see this strange, DIY-punk chic thing in the vehicles, too. As Mad Max taught us, the first thing people will do once society collapses is turn their cars from gridlock-suffering, butt-shuttles to iron steeds of murder:
Complete with trophy gams commemorating each kill, the monsters.
It turns out "mass vehicular murder" is somewhat less common than you'd expect. But people do respond to the lack of traffic cops and DMV regulations by making their cars a thousand times more awesome. Case in point: Our hosts captained a motorized pirate land-junk straight out of Burning Man. It didn't have seat belts, airbags, or most of the other stuff that makes a car, but we'd challenge you to find a more stylish way to sail the desert.
They get mad if you stand in the crow's nest and constantly scream "LAND HO!"
Living Off the Grid Doesn't Mean Living Without Civilization
Slab City -- a town with about 200 residents year-round, and maybe 2,000 residents at the peak of the winter rush -- has three libraries (two private, one public), a skate park, a couple of bars, a restaurant, two churches (one of which apparently sells meth), an open stage, and a shooting range. You can read until you get tired, hit up the meth church, ask forgiveness for doing so much meth, then take in a show, and end the night by emptying a machine gun into a target with your dad's face taped on it. See? Slab City may be small, but it has everything you need for a nice Friday night out on the town.
Along with plenty of room to run pantsless. As pantsless as you can dream.
The main comfort lacking there is central air conditioning, which can be a genuine health hazard in the summers when the temperature spikes at 120 degrees Fahrenheit (that's why the permanent population is only around 200 apparently-fireproof people), but they've got all the solar power, Internet access, and dad-targets you need.
We stopped in the town of Niland, California, to procure propane and toilet paper before making our final approach on Slab City. Everyone had to poop, but Evans (mad with his moderate amount of power) gave the order not to do so at the last convenient indoor toilet before Bartertown, USA. This was another test: we knew there was no running water in the Slabs, and that meant a perfect chance to explore pooping in the post-apocalypse. We did not have high hopes. We thought our best case scenario was some sort of porta-potty/plague Tardis. Our worst would be a series of holes in the desert filled with rattlesnakes and human feces. We wound up with neither.
We did get to drop bombs with the Unabomber, so there was that.
But we were wrong yet again: Not only did our hosts have hot showers, they had two indoor composting humanure toilets. The men's room had Playboys and pregnancy tests; the women's room had "a skeleton in a closet you can write your deepest, darkest secret on, and then read someone else's deepest, darkest secret." So one gender gets to read shameful material brought to them by the undead, and the other gets to play with a real skeleton!
Or they can play with Mr. President. He won't mind.
When You Remove the Law, People Don't Turn Immoral
Slab City is technically under the jurisdiction of the Niland Police Department, but they don't really "patrol" it, and they only tend to come out when the composted shit hits a solar-powered fan. So Swaim devised a brilliant plan to test the trustworthiness of this anarchic utopia: we'd set up a camp, lay out some blankets and gear and then leave to go explore. How much stuff remained when we returned would determine how well we could trust the locals.
This is why we don't let Swaim be in charge of things.
Except it didn't go down like we expected at all: one group of locals immediately invited us to live with them for the weekend. We dropped our stuff off in the half-buried bus/RV they let us sleep in, and it remained unmolested all weekend.
Nobody fucks with Walter.
The only real warning we got was not to let J.F. Sargent remain passed out on a couch at night with his shoes on. "There's a 6.5-foot tall giant who gets up at around 5 a.m. every morning and wanders the camp. He lives by frat rules, so if he sees you've passed out with your shoes on, he will draw dicks on you." Apparently, face dicks are an ill-represented nuisance of the post-apocalypse. Though we guess there will be some problems with malnutrition, since Slabbers consider "6.5-foot tall" to be "giant."
At one point, we noticed a sign spray-painted across the front of one of the houses on the entrance to the city: "[PERSON'S NAME] IS A THIEF."
Death by shopkeeper is the inevitable next step.
We asked for some clarification on what happened when some unwritten rule was broken, and we were informed that community "law enforcement" was mostly a combination of shunning, shit-talking, and shoving matches in front of The Range. On rare occasions, they'd run people out of town -- but "asking you to leave" is about the extent of their vigilante justice.
It's like Batman confronting the Joker with finger wags and a disappointed head nod.
Science backs it up: the more society crumbles around you, the more likely you are to want to help a brother out. A realistic version of Fallout 3 would be rife with Raiders running up to you all "Dude, are you all right? We saw you out there fighting scorpions and yelling about mutants. We're concerned you may have sunstroke. Please, come sit in our bombed-out hotel and recuperate with some nice lemonade."
Even Anarchists Need Rules
Each community has different rules in Slab City, but many of the residents try for true anarchy, opting to live on their own rather than adhere to fascist concepts like "neighborhoods." The people trying to make this lifestyle work in the long term, like our friends at East Jesus, balance their love of autonomy with an acceptance of the fact that shit doesn't get done if you leave it up to "whoever feels like it, man."
"Whoever's not here."
The Loners on Wheels operate by a democratic-capitalist system: they elect a new "president" each year, and collect annual $55 donations from every member to fund their activities and infrastructure. While East Jesus just assigns each resident to a particular department best suited to his or her individual skills, from construction to electrical to setting stuff on fire, everybody staying there full time is expected to work one hour a day towards keeping the place maintained. One entire hour of work a day -- why don't you just issue everybody tiny running shorts and set down some cheese, if we're all going to re-enter the rat race.
Real Estate Tycoons Are a Bigger Threat Than Super Mutants
Currently, Slab City enjoys a tolerable relationship with The Man: its next door neighbor is a military artillery range, and one popular pastime for many Slabbers is watching the Army test fire cannons across the desert. Some even go collect spent shells afterwards, if they're willing to play some cat-and-mouse with the Military Police and, of course, the same exploding shells of death they're out there trying to collect.
Those who don't make it get to be the new bathroom skeleton.
"The scrappers here straight don't give a fuck about driving into the middle of an active bombing range, grabbing what they can, and hauling ass with the goddamn U.S. military right behind them, all to make a quick buck."
But sadly, the biggest threat here isn't explosions, or marauders, or anything else suitably awesome and post-apocalyptic. The land that Slab City sits on is property of the state, and currently going up for sale. One source we talked to, who acted as a "treasurer" for several Slab neighborhoods, stated that originally "we could've bought the land for pocket change." But once they actually started making offers, other parties expressed interest, and the price rose substantially.
"We were going to bid early, but gluing a baby's head onto a duck's body took way longer than we thought it would."
It's hard to say what will happen -- another source mentioned the possibility of forming a trust to lease the land -- but the exact future of Slab City is unclear. If someone with more money comes along and buys up the land, the "last free place in America" might not exist for much longer. But while everybody there seemed plenty cordial and peaceful at the time, we pity the poor sucker that tries to evict a whole town full of folks who saw the ravaged wasteland settlements from Mad Max and said "that looks like a good place to start a life."
Robert Evans has a Twitter, and if you follow him he will love you for all eternity.
For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless and 5 Things You Learn From Camping (If You Hate the Outdoors).
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