Salton Sea, California Road Trip Part 2: Slab City, East Jesus, & Niland Mud Pots
Odometer (Legend): 542,248
Odometer (ILX): 158,038
Trip Distance: 266 Miles
“Uhh, guys. We have a problem,” said Jason with a look of despair as we were just getting ready to hop in the cars and continue our Southern California tour last Saturday. I couldn’t think of what could possibly be the problem. My eyes immediately went to the tires of his car thinking he might have a flat. “I locked my keys in the trunk,” he told us. My mind started rushing with the complexity of the situation. Here we were, 4 miles down a dirt road in a teeny town with only 1,000 people, standing in a field next to some geothermal mud pots.
If it had been 30 years ago, we might have had to go into town and summon help the old fashioned way. But the solution was pretty clear and pretty flawless: James hit the OnStar button on the overhead console of his 2016 Chevy Malibu and summoned help. The representative was able to patch us through to an available locksmith about 30 miles away in Brawley. Meanwhile, we had about an hour to kill, so I sat in the backseat of the Malibu and took advantage of its WiFi hotspot and air conditioning vents since it was 90 degrees outside. Technology has really made even an emergency situation feel pretty dang convenient. Help came to the rescue:
We pick up today’s story after our visit to Salvation Mountain near Niland and take it even deeper into the “weird category.” Imagine a place where you can take a vehicle, tent, trailer, or even corrugated tin and pop up a dwelling and just stay there as long as you want. It’s the “last free place in America,” say some.
Slab City, USA. If you want to live in the middle of the desert, the land is yours for the taking. Jason, James, and I headed eastward on a dirt road from Salvation Mountain and entered a wide expanse of land that was littered – literally – with peoples’ belongings and makeshift residences. A man playing guitar atop an entrance sign looked like he might have been a permanent resident.
I’d seen a hand-painted sign promoting a library of some sort, so I decided to head that direction and see what we could find. The washboard road was dusty and I lost sight of James in my rearview mirror as I left his white Malibu in a cloud. But soon I saw a big painted arrow which pointed me in the direction of the library’s parking lot. “24 hour Library,” it said.
Here we met some locals. While browsing the books in this open-air shack, I saw a couch and a couple of chairs set up around a chess set. An old man in a cowboy hat came up and greeted us, cigarette in hand. “John,” his name we later learned, proceeded to give us a warm welcome to Slab City and provide the run-down on everything we possibly wanted to know. “You guys skateboard?” he asked. “You guys want to float the canal?” His stories were endless. The library, as it turns out was operated by a one-legged woman and her boyfriend named Caveman, who weren’t there that day. (“But don’t ask about her leg,” he said. “She lost it train-track hopping and that’s about all she wants to say.”)
For being set up in a shack, this library was remarkably well organized by topic or theme. A “Google Tree” contained the encyclopedia / reference section. John, and another guy who surfaced who was also named John, extended an invitation to the upcoming Prom Night in Slab City where they’ll have live music and other entertainment along with a “formal” (tongue in cheek) dance. There was a table spray painted “Free” with all sorts of garbage up for grabs. I asked John & John if it ever rained in Slab City (wondering how all the books are so well-preserved). They said it only happens a couple of times a year. They both heartily recommended we take the time to visit a place called East Jesus, down the road, so we headed that direction after getting our fill of the library.
“EJ” the sign led us, so I stirred up another clout of dust in my ILX and my fellow road-trippers and I entered the next quirky phase of our day’s journey. There was a literal fork in the road. I hit the brakes so quickly out of excitement that I activated the ABS system and skidded to a stop on the dirt road.
In East Jesus, it’s art for days. People have taken garbage and made things out of it. An old Honda Civic sedan at the entrance was covered in circuit boards and bullet shells. There was a wall of television sets with messages painted on them.
This was perhaps the most oddball collection of “stuff” I think I’ve ever seen. I’ll let the pictures and video tell the story here.
Jason, James, and I had lunch back in Niland at the Buckshot Deli & Diner. The hamburger meat is homemade and delicious, and I chugged two huge glasses of their lemonade. A sign on the wall read: Food choices: 1) Take it. 2) Leave it.
The last place on my “to-see” list was something I’d read about online called the mud pots. Just 6 miles from where we had lunch, but about 4 of those miles were on a dirt road. That had never stopped us before, so we decided to check them out. Mud bubbles up from the ground and sometimes shoots into the air. Over time, it has formed little mounds of dirt. It reminded me a lot of the geothermal activity at Yellowstone National Park.
I got a little too close to a fresh mud stream and ended up ankle-deep in it. My shoe was so heavy afterward. The other guys had a good laugh about it. The good news was that I had a pair of flip-flops in my trunk ready for just such an emergency.
Mud pot video:
It was around this time when we were just getting ready to part ways and Jason had his keys-in-the-trunk incident. A nice man in a pickup truck gave us bottled waters while we waited. I was surprised it took the roadside assistance guy no more than 5 minutes to get access to Jason’s car and get us back on our way after he’d arrived. James and I headed east on Highway 78 while Jason made his way to Interstate 8 and we split up the threesome. Our route took us through the Imperial Sand Dunes – also called Algodones Dunes – which span 45 miles in length by 6 miles in width.
There were lots of people out in off-road vehicles enjoying them. The highway itself was a bit of a roller-coaster with lots of dips posted 55 miles per hour but a lot of fun when taken at about 10 mph over that.
We dined in Blythe, California – reunited with Interstate 10 and our favorite diner, the Courtesy Coffee Shop. The grilled cheese was just what I needed to fuel me sufficiently for the final 2 hours of the drive back into Arizona and home to Scottsdale.
Here are the rest of my pics from our adventurous day!
Inside the library at Slab City
Lounge area inside the libary
Bathroom break in the middle of nowhere along the dirt road
Not even sure what this thing is
More from East Jesus
Nice dashboard on this 1980s Toyota Tercel. Clutch felt good!
This is called the “Car-B-Que” at East Jesus. They light bonfires inside an old Mercedes sedan.
Menu at Buckshot Restaurant in Niland, Calif
Looking down into a mud pot
Sand dunes along Highway 78 between Brawley and Blythe, California
Oh, and HAPPY 5 YEAR ANNIVERSARY! It was 5 years ago today (March 21, 2011) that I made my first post on Drive to Five. Since then, the blog has been viewed 418,313 times. My biggest day ever, with 1,800 views, was the day after I posted about getting my new 2013 ILX back in June 2012.
Thanks for being a part of the adventure, and here’s to many more good times.