This California Desert Community Is Straight Out Of Mad Max – And You Can Spend The Night There

A car covered in baby doll heads. Sheet metal, plywood and driftwood piled together to build a covered structure. Dilapidated sofas in a circle. License plates tacked to trees. Everything you see is reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic world you saw in the action movie Mad Max. But you’re not watching a movie – this is a real-life location.

The place in question is called Slab City, and it’s a step into another world for those who visit from the outside. You see, it once stood as a training site for the U.S. Marines, but they abandoned it after World War II. And squatters saw an opportunity to move onto the concrete slabs that the soldiers had left behind.

They didn’t use the concrete as foundation for their own homes – at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, they built their own structures from driftwood and scraps, a strange site against the dusty desert backdrop. So for those who have seen the movie Mad Max, the comparisons are many.

And the community living at Slab City runs much like the one you’ve seen in the on-screen action film, too. Perhaps that’s because of the “anarchic” feel of the place, and the perception that it’s lawless. However, that’s not strictly true as local police officers do sometimes visit the secluded spot. Still, website Atlas Obscura claims there have been examples of RVs set alight and shootouts where disagreements have boiled over.

If that sounds scary to you, then you probably won’t want to visit Slab City. But for many, it’s an intriguing offer to step inside the post-apocalyptic world they’ve only seen in movies. And, nowadays, you can – and it’s all thanks to the vacation rental app, Airbnb.

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A few nights in a Slab City rental – a three-person RV in the community’s California Ponderosa neighborhood – will transport you to another universe. It’s more than just a Mad Max-adjacent experience in the middle of the desert, though. It’s the chance to see how a completely unique community lives.

Now, the first Mad Max film hit theaters in 1979 and introduced audiences to the flick’s titular protagonist played by Mel Gibson. It spawned a 1981 sequel, Max Max 2: The Road Warrior and 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, as well as a long-awaited fourth installment, Mad Max: Fury Road which came out in 2015.

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One of the most striking features of the Mad Max series is the stark sets on which creator George Miller set his action film. In a 2016 interview with BBC America, he admitted that he made that creative decision because of the film’s budgetary constraints – otherwise, it would have taken place in the present day.

Miller said, “The truth was, in the first Mad Max movie we couldn’t afford to shoot in a modern-day street. You needed extras, buildings, and all these vehicles, so we shot it in deserted backstreets and decrepit buildings that cost us nothing.” To explain the strange-looking set, he came up with a brilliant, series-defining opening for the movie.

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As Miller put it, “To explain this disintegrating world, I just put in a caption, ‘A few years from now…’” And, according to BBC America’s Seb Patrick, “That one simple caption would ultimately come to define the entire series of movies.” The dusty, stark, crumbling backdrop would, as well.

But Mad Max viewers don’t have to turn on any one of the four flicks in the series to see Miller’s version of a post-apocalyptic world. Instead, they can travel to California, where a community called Slab City lives amid a landscape that’s eerily similar to the one in the iconic action films.

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The Slab City community draws its name from the many concrete slabs upon which residents have built their town in the middle of nowhere. But their massive stone tablets didn’t just appear in the middle of the swathe of land, which sits 50 miles away from the border of the United States and Mexico.

No, instead the U.S. Marine Corps once had a base there called Camp Dunlap. And there, testing experts poured the concrete to see just how durable it’d be in the middle of the desert. But their work on this 640-acre plot of land ended with the conclusion of World War II, at which time squatters saw an opportunity and moved in.

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Yes, the first round of Slab City residents moved onto the site’s namesake concrete pads. And because the Marines had bulldozed the rest of their structures on site, the land’s new residents had to get creative. So they used scraps to transform the stark stone tablets into places they could live for free.

And this same spirit pervades in Slab City today, in spite of the fact that it has garnered a reputation for itself. Thousands of campers descend on the concrete-dotted site in winter, when the desert temperatures remain at a pleasantly warm average. This portion of the community is known as the “snow birds.”

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Now, most snowbirds arrive in Slab City in their RVs, but some make do with the materials on site. Much like the characters in Mad Max, they make homes out of abandoned structures built of driftwood, branches and sometimes adorned with creepy accessories, such as broken baby dolls. Some even spend the winter camping out in broken-down buses.

But those who live in Slab City all year-round really draw the closest comparisons to the on-screen heroes – and villains. The so-called “slabbers” live in the stark Sonoran Desert, which means they survive through summers when temperatures soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. And their reasons for doing so may surprise you.

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You see, some slabbers end up in their eclectic community because they are impoverished, and Slab City’s off-the-grid lifestyle is cheap. But others appreciate the fact that there’s no local government to micromanage their lives. Much like the fictional world in Mad Max, the slabbers handle their own business.

So such a unique setup certainly draws a crowd of permanent residents to match. One called “Stix…” – who implored the Independent to include the ellipsis as part of their name, said in 2017 that some might not see the beauty of the community. They might refer to it as “the Third Reich” or “Hell’s Kitchen,” the Slab City resident said.

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However, for Stix… it’s a much different feeling to live in Slab City. The place encompasses its own entertainment venue called The Range, and live tunes emanate through the community regularly. The resident said, “There’s music everyday. Soothes my soul.”

Indeed, in different parts of Slab City, you find smaller groups of like-minded people. One resident called Pyro Iskaki explained the cement-laden community’s neighborhoods to Roadtrippers magazine in 2020. Yes, he led a tour – with his pitbull’s leash in one hand – through the area called East Jesus, the city’s artsy corner.

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East Jesus differs slightly from the rest of Slab City because it was made private in 2016 when a non-profit purchased the land. And the stretch does have some boast-worthy gems that the rest of the community doesn’t possess. The main one is an outdoor art museum, a collection of strange pieces, such as a car completely covered in the heads of baby dolls.

However, some have pushed back against the privatization of East Jesus because it became more regimented than other parts of Slab City. The art community does have more comforts than its neighbors, including a generator, water heater, hand-washing area, recycling center, library, charging station and pantry. And Iskaki hoped to bring such benefits to other zones on the slabs.

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Iskaki told Roadtrippers, “We’re hoping to get it to something more livable. Because there are a lot of people out here who have become accustomed to the filth because they don’t have a choice. There are some people that believe we’re gentrifying the Slabs. But we’re not trying to create structure for the Slabs. We’re trying to offer a resource to the community to be able to improve itself and take some responsibility.”

With or without this type of infrastructure, though, the people of Slab City have proven that they’re resilient in their desert homes. One local named Spyder told the magazine that life in this unique community has helped him expand his knowledge. He explained, “Every year I learned something new because [living] out here is really rough.”

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But Spyder wasn’t just any resident of Slab City – he was the leader of his neighborhood, California Ponderosa. At its heart, a structure pieced together with pallets, tarps, sheet metal and plywood serves as the community’s bar, kitchen and center of outdoor living.

And Spyder explained that he had a dream “to serve food, make people happy, make a relaxing atmosphere” for the residents of Slab City. Of course, he can do that from his California Ponderosa bar. But he does the same for outsiders who rent out his Airbnb spaces – perhaps a few who want to live out their Mad Max dreams.

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At the center of the camp, visitors will find a circle of couches and other second-hand furniture aligned in a circle to create an outdoor living space. Around the perimeter, a handful of RVs act as makeshift walls, some of which even have artwork painted onto them.

Interestingly, the locals have built a fire pit with a similar setup: chairs positioned in a circle but, this time, they sit around a stone-lined pit. The photo’s description on the Airbnb site promises “plenty of firewood for chilly nights,” which would create a much cozier scene than you’d find in your favorite installment of Max Max.

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And Spyder’s Airbnb guests get to stay inside an RV, rather than roughing it in a tent or other improvised structure on the slabs. Inside there’s room for three guests to sleep across a queen-sized bed and a twin. But most of the action’s outside, where they can catch concerts, take in the desert landscape and even a dip in the local canal.

You see, Spyder has long welcomed guests to his corner of California Ponderosa. In January 2020, he told Roadtrippers that he had space for a dozen outsiders to stay in his camp, as well as room for his wife and their three children. The guests had to pay $125 monthly, but that got them daily breakfast and dinner, as well as shower and outhouse access.

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As of August 2020, Airbnb guests could pay $30 a night to experience all that California Ponderosa – and Slab City – have to offer. There are more places to rent than just the RV, too, and from different owners. There’s a so-called honeymoon suite, as well as a cabin, all of which have attracted guests from all corners of the globe.

One of California Ponderosa’s hosts, George Sisson, said that the community’s stark façade did little to deter people from coming – or sticking around. He recalled to the Independent in a 2017 interview, “I only had two people show up, see the place, and turn right back around and drive out again.”

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Furthermore, Ruth Fowler, who wrote the 2017 Independent piece, had first-hand experience of a stay in Slab City. She recalled the first visit, during which she stayed with Sisson. In fact, she claimed that “a young kid” had attempted to sell her meth at one point.

With that in mind, Fowler noted that Slab City did have its problems with addiction, but most of the community members did their part to self-regulate, rather than involving the authorities. She added that “police occasionally cruise through to check everything’s okay.” That aside, Sisson said he’s been delighted to host the guests who’ve visited California Ponderosa over the years.

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In fact, Sisson told Fowler that he loves to host newbies through his Airbnb offerings. The Slab City locals didn’t love the idea initially, but the wave of visitors wasn’t what they thought it would be. Instead, the host said, “These are sophisticated people.” So no one had to worry about, for example, kids coming for a weekend’s worth of destruction.

And, as of 2017, the locals became reliant on tourists to come and visit their strange community. Although many of Slab City’s year-round residents did receive government benefits, their local shops, outside of Slab itself, would hike up prices in anticipation of this. So, visitors’ money has helped them get by.

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Perhaps more importantly, visitors help to fund the noteworthy community that stands on concrete slabs in the middle of the California desert. Still, many have wondered why people are drawn to live in this unforgiving environment, whether they do so for winter or the rest of their lives.

Photographer Donovan Wylie – who visited to snap photos for a book on the community – believed that the isolation factor was key. He theorized, “There’s something about not being reached. There are clearly people there who don’t want to be found, so there’s something about disappearing, and the desert offers that kind of opportunity.”

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But for Spyder, it had everything to do with the Max Max-style setup of a community without rules. He told Roadtrippers, “In a big city I could never own anything like this. They have too many laws about what to do, what not to do. Out here nobody tells me what to do.”

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