A note from Emma: I met Haley last year in Seattle, where we would spend days trying out different coffee shops and looking for vintage furniture. Since then she has become one of my closest friends and the one I text when in existential crises or can’t decide if I should buy shoes from Asos. I met Cole for the first time when I was with Haley, sipping elderflower cocktails and watching Cosmos in a small airbnb. He struck me as very himself- adorned in vintage rings & a leather jacket he had proudly embellished with various vintage pins. He is both so cool and a total weirdo- so you can’t get much better than that. Sofia was sunshine from the first day I saw her on a beach in Encinitas- whenever I picture her it’s always smiling and in a bright bikini. I love these three very dearly and when they shared their adventures to Slab City with me- I had to share it with you guys. Enjoy.
Words by Haley Madison
Photos by Cole Hutzler
+ adventures with Sofia Amburgey
Sofia’s name popped up on my screen- “I know this is last minute but Cole and I are headed to Salvation Mountain this weekend. Are you in?” I had been waiting for this text for weeks. Of course I was in. I was about to get a small taste of a way of life that I had always questioned and wondered about since I had read “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer. A life on the road, spent defying social norms, full of freedom and independence. So I gathered an adventurous group to carpool with and headed to the Sonoran desert.
We were on a straight path for over 100 miles when our GPS stopped us mid Elton John lyric and had us turn right on a street that was lined with 3 buildings- only one wasn’t vacant. Next was a left, a road lined with a few mobile homes, so barren that it sent chills up your spine. A single man roamed the center of the road, and I had to blink hard to make sure it wasn’t a scene straight out of The Walking Dead. We cruised down a final dirt path until we noticed specks of bright colors peaking over sand dunes and tumble weeds.
There it was, in all its mysterious glory, and an abandoned guard booth let us know we were entering the last free place in America. It was almost freaky the way each of us all said in unison, “What do you mean the last free place in America?”
For those of you that don’t know what Salvation Mountain is, it’s an art piece created by a former Slab City local, Leonard Knight, who passed away in 2012. The face and interior of the mountain, made out of natural materials and heaps of paint in every color of the rainbow, show murals depicting biblical scenes and verses. There’s a pathway that leads up the mountain for you to admire the view from above. Looking out over the desert wasteland, you wonder how and why all of these people ended up out here. Salvation Mountain is also the grand entrance to the infamous Slab City. Here in America, “the land of the free,” feels true for the first time when you are passing through watercolor mountains. You are free to set up camp, park your RV, or build yourself a little hut and stay as long as you please. The 640 acre stretch of sand is home to few permanent residents but squatters and nomads come and go.
Some friendly folks at the bottom of the mountain whispered “you want a hit of this?” to which we all responded “thanks but no thanks” and skipped our way up the mountain. Atop we met a musical duo playing for some spare change to refill their water jugs, Chance and Greg. Chance showed us his flute that he had made along with a stick he planned on turning into an arrow and told us a bit about himself.
He had found himself in Slab City 3 years ago and now traveled back and forth to wherever his life took him. We asked him why he kept coming back to Slab City and he said that there was just so much to do. When he spoke of his travels his eyes lit up brighter than any star I had ever seen, his way of life had him shining happiness and joy from his very core, as did many of the other traveling groups and locals we had met that day. He spoke of a group called the Midnight Riders (cue Midnight Riders by The Allman Brothers Band) who drove out to Slab City and held festivals for themselves that consisted of insane teeter totters on fire, yes teeter totters on fire, and other exploding objects. He said to picture people on this spinning contraption with a flame thrower. Whether or not this is actually true, in that moment I believed it was, vividly picturing twirling people twisted in flames. Then we were told to head to East Jesus, the art garden, so we spilt ways and thanked him for being so kind.
You have to drive through Slab City to get to East Jesus so we made our way in between the rows of RVs. Nestled beside the road is a free library in where you can trade objects for books and an outdoor stage for concerts and performances.
While the people we encountered were nothing but friendly, anywhere you go there is going to be a diverse set of people. Most here are just looking to get away from society or stretch out their retirement savings. They are prepared to live with no water or plumbing systems and get extremely crafty with their electricity system- we saw a room filled with batteries and lined with solar panels.
Thats where Meldop came in, or at least I heard his name was Meldop, Cole says his name was Meltar. We will just call him M. M, tour guide and toilet emptier (remember I said no plumbing?), showed us around East Jesus, from the cactus toilets to suitcases describing dolphins as evil, and the leading cause of global warming. He had come to Slab City to escape society, he was a counselor that no longer found enjoyment in his trade once he started getting paid for it. I wanted to raise a toast to him and to his mustache that was dyed red from his iced wine.
Under a dome they grew veggies, herbs, and other plants. There was a room filled with guitars and a make shift bar for nights of jamming and good vibes, a pit of mud for wrestling, and atop a tree house there were couches with a full TV system. That’s when I understood what Chance had said about there being so much to do. I sure don’t have a band room or a mud wrestling pit back in Los Angeles.
Throughout our tour several people came up to M to say goodbye and that they hoped to return soon. There in East Jesus they allow people that were passing through to stay in their extra bedrooms and broken down busses. After our little walk around, the sun was starting to set and we all had long drives home, so we said our goodbyes and donated our unopened water bottles and whatever small change we had to our lovely tour guide. I am thinking I am going to head back to the Sonoran Desert very soon to see what goes down in Slab City after sunset.
Haley is a is creative, independent woman living in a plant-filled apartment in Silver Lake. She puts clothes and ideas together for a living and dances to disco music. Currently making a shrine to David Bowie. Instagram // Website
Cole is a student in San Diego who expresses his artistic visions through music, fashion and photography. He is best known for his hilarious, often nude, snap chat stories. Last spotted at Habit Burger wearing ugly dad sunglasses. Instagram
Sofia is a bubbly blonde student in Long Beach that says yes to anything that comes her way. She values friendships, beach days, thai food, and thrift shops. She is launching her very own fashion based blog soon so keep an eye out. Instagram