CULTURE & ARTS
11/05/2015 08:44 am ET

Inside The California Desert Community Where Societal Rules Do Not Apply

Welcome to Slab City.
Teri Havens

Slab City is an unregulated squatter settlement in the dusty Sonoran Desert, located about 140 miles east of San Diego. In a former life, it was a Marine training base, but over the past 60 years, it's become a community for hippies, rebels and misfits of all kinds. Living in campsites made from old trailers and campers, the 150 or so residents live free of the responsibilities and burdens of contemporary life. No bills, no jobs, no tweets, no likes, no electricity, no water, no taxes and no rules. That's why the off-the-grid commune has been dubbed the "last free place in America."

In 2004, Colorado-based photographer Teri Havens stumbled across an article by Charlie LeDuff, describing the desert playground and its unusual inhabitants. Havens quickly knew she had to go there for herself. "When I arrived, I immediately felt at home," the artist wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "It was open and friendly -- not at all what I had expected. And the landscape was inspiring. The raw beauty of the open desert made me feel like anything was possible."

Teri Havens

In Slab City, Havens lived in a small camp trailer for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. She originally tried photographing with a digital camera, but the newfangled technology felt out of sync with an environment that didn't have running water. So she went for black-and-white film, returning occasionally to Colorado to spend time in the darkroom and fill up on film. "I wanted to get to know the people I photographed, so I worked very slowly, building relationships over time," she said. "Over time, my motivations changed as I became more a member of the community and less of an observer."

Havens' subjects didn't have jobs; they mostly got by using social security checks and occasionally cashing in scrap metal they gathered from the nearby Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range. "It was as if Slab City was living off the dregs of the American Dream," she explained. "Yet there was this real sense of freedom that the residents celebrated, which, in part, came from having a place where they could feel some semblance of permanence, where they were free from the stress of imminent eviction. Besides the freedom from being kicked around, they were also free from the shackles of social convention. You could hunker down in your trailer and drink all day, or collect rattlesnakes, or whatever. And, as long as you weren’t bothering your neighbors too much, it was all perfectly acceptable."

As 66-year-old Slab citizen Morgan Wolf told The New York Times just this year, "I’ll live here for the rest of my life if I can. It filters out the world."

Teri Havens

In bonding with her subjects, Havens was also struck by the way the Slab City lifestyle eliminated the superficial elements we attach to our egos and identities. "Having no wealth and few possessions with which to construct a persona, the identity of the residents was truly their own. I met some incredibly original, intelligent, individuals there, and I made some good friends. People really looked out for each other. It was a very generous community."

And yet, Havens stressed that the environment wasn't a utopia. There were conflicts and disagreements, and the summer heat was brutal. However, the ups and the downs were equally important in the grand experiment of creating a lawless community in the desolate desert. "Sometimes Slab City felt experimental, a condensed form of society playing itself out in an open-air laboratory. It was dysfunctional and anarchic, but, in a strange way, it worked. I learned a lot out there."

  • Jerry with Turtles, 2006
    Teri Havens
    Jerry with Turtles, 2006
  • Bird, 2008 
    Teri Havens
    Bird, 2008 
  • Frankie, 2006
    Teri Havens
    Frankie, 2006
  • Paul, 2008
    Teri Havens
    Paul, 2008
  • Leonard, 2006
    Teri Havens
    Leonard, 2006
  • Tommy, 2006
    Teri Havens
    Tommy, 2006
  • Richard’s Camp, 2006
    Teri Havens
    Richard’s Camp, 2006

Also on HuffPost:

PHOTO GALLERY
Life in the Tibetan Village That Just Got On The Grid
CONVERSATIONS