SLAB CITY, Calif. – Outside Rodney Spyder Wild’s desert camp, there’s a new addition to fit the times: a small sign that reminds visitors to wear a mask. Above the sign, a plastic skeleton rides a dirt bike on a raised platform.
Inside the encampment, it’s business as usual. A few maskless people were gathered around a table one 100-degree April morning, smoking and talking. Dogs big and small played and fought in the dirt. A furry tarantula watched from inside an elaborate glass case.
It’s here that Spyder rode out the pandemic, and the nine years before that. A tattoo of his namesake, with the words “True Slabber,” wraps around his right arm.
“I don’t want to go out to Babylon,” he said, referring to the world beyond Slab City’s bounds. “Out there you pay bills, you pay electric, you pay for land, you pay for everything. I don’t.”
Slab City, an isolated community in California's Sonoran Desert, has long been a landing place for those who want to live off the grid, operate outside the confines of modern society, flee cold climates or try to escape poverty. Some simply have nowhere else to go. Residents fondly call the remote patch of desert, about 80 miles from Palm Springs and double that from Los Angeles, the “last free place.”
But the pandemic found them.
As COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the state, many in Slab City either don’t want to be vaccinated or remain hesitant to get their shot. Only about 20 people in the community have gotten a dose as of last week, according to one resident’s informal count. Based on different estimates, approximately 1,200 people set up camp there this past winter. That number halves, then contracts even further, as triple-digit temperatures return to the area.
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In Niland, a town of 600-some people up the road from the Slabs, there have been 104 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Positive case data is not collected specifically for Slab City, a public health information officer for Imperial County said.
Countywide, about 17% of the population is fully vaccinated. Across California, that figure jumps to 29%.
For a handful of Slabbers, fear of coronavirus, or lack thereof, is commingled with anti-establishment or anti-authority views. Spyder is wary of getting infected by the virus – and the impact it could have on his lungs – but also of the vaccine.
“I can get the vaccine later. I’m gonna wait,” he said. “I might be the last one in line.”
Hopes for a Slab vaccine clinic
Considering the power vacuum that comes with living in a desert outpost – no mayor, no traditional city government – getting vaccines to the few who want them has been a patchwork process.
Andra Dakota, better known on Facebook as Andra Slaburbia, runs a dog rescue a couple dirt roads down from Spyder’s camp. Over the past few months, she’s stepped into the unofficial role of COVID-19 vaccination coordinator. Andra calls herself a “huge fan” of vaccines after seeing their effectiveness in preventing canine parvovirus, a contagious virus that can be fatal for dogs.
“I was sort of like, ‘Hey, let's take care of our parvo, the human parvo,’” she said. “Even though it's a different virus, of course.”
Andra started her outreach in early March, piggybacking off a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in neighboring Niland. Once she learned Slabbers 65 or older were eligible to attend, she and a few others spread the word, calling every person they could think of, collecting names and making sure they were on the clinic list.
“There's a little bit of a demographic shift in that the older people (in Slab City) tend to want to get the vaccine much more so than the younger people,” Andra said. “But we don't have that many elderly Slabbers anyhow because it's such a harsh life.”
Roughly a dozen past or present Slab residents got vaccinated that day in March. About 10 more have managed to get a dose on their own, Andra said.
Buoyed by the success of the first clinic, Andra set out to arrange a vaccination event in the Slabs, this time for ages 16 and up. If enough people were interested, a nonprofit in Brawley called Spread the Love Charity could partner with a local doctor’s office to administer the shots, she said.
Only 13 people signed up earlier this month.
At least for now, a Slab-specific clinic won’t be happening. Those who want a vaccine will have to drive, or find a ride, to a pharmacy in Brawley or a CVS in El Centro, almost an hour away, Andra said.
“Many just politely told me they are not interested,” she said. “And I respect that. I have not tried to do an education campaign, or a crusade of sorts, because it's too tiring. If somebody doesn't want the vaccine, I just say, ‘Okay.’”
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‘People that society forgot’
One of those people is a 53-year-old man (or, alternatively, a “700-year-old vampire,” depending on what mood he’s in) who introduces himself as Pink Gorilla.
Astride a hot pink bicycle, he says he will not be getting the coronavirus vaccine. The rest of his look matches the bike, from a tinted mohawk down to his shoes. One pinky nail is painted the color of cotton candy.
“The mask mandates have been ridiculous, the pressure for the vaccine is ridiculous,” he said. “I don't obviously know all the particulars of their plan, but I definitely do realize that it's not right.”
For a week or so in 2020, Gorilla actually felt concerned about the virus – “maybe this is it,” he remembers thinking. But then he started to see the “swiss cheese,” what he called the “holes in the story,” after watching certain videos on YouTube and going down rabbit holes on social media. He quickly came to the conclusion that the pandemic is a hoax.
The 53-year-old first found out about Slab City two years ago, on YouTube. The community functions like the island of misfit toys, he said.
“It's a place for if you don't fit in out there,” he said. “It’s people with whatever quirk or whatever belief they have. It's just people that society forgot.”
A sense of ‘oneness’ at The Range
In many ways, The Range, an outdoor event space formed by a plywood stage and a string of gallon buckets-turned-lights, was the nucleus of Slab City.
Slabbers filled the rows of wooden benches, and the odd tattered couch, on a weekly basis, listening to live music and the hum of distant generators. Now, The Range has been shuttered for the past year after complying with state COVID-19 mandates.
Carlos Gonzales lives in one of the trailers surrounding the open-air venue, which is run by his friend and neighbor Bill. Carlos has played music there for years, ever since he arrived in the Slabs a decade ago.
At the start of the pandemic, feeling slightly vulnerable at age 71 and missing the Range community, it was depressing, he said. His only social life involved shopping for essentials at a Walmart about 25 miles south. He wore the same clothes every day, until one pair of jeans physically fell apart.
“The virus changed the tone and the vibe of the whole thing,” he said. “It was very strange not to have people gathering around campfires and stuff like that.”
Carlos was one of the dozen Slabbers last month to get a first dose of the vaccine in Niland, followed by the second in early April. He’s thankful vaccinations are slowly bringing back some form of normalcy, although not everyone in Slab City wants one.
“A lot of people here are anti-government,” he said. “Even if they're not hardcore, they still hold it in their heart, and it comes out now and then when they're thinking about mask enforcement and mandates.”
With the state’s gradual reopening and the introduction of vaccines there’s hope on the horizon: The Range could potentially open back up in a few weeks, maybe a month, Carlos said.
Until then, the venue has gone underground. One or two musicians perform together in a nearby trailer, and videos of the sessions are posted on YouTube. In several of those clips, Carlos, with shoulder-length gray hair, hunches diligently over an electric guitar, playing blues and soul songs.
Andra said thinking about The Range, and a certain Slab “oneness,” was a major motivator in wanting to get vaccines out there.
“It's not only about the music. It's about seeing people once a week, catching up, and making announcements of important happenings,” she said. “I miss that very much.”
Follow reporter Amanda Ulrich on Twitter: @AmandaCUlrich
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This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Slab City, California: How COVID vaccines rollout in a desert society