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PALM LATITUDES

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March 01, 1992|Mark Ehrman | EDITED BY MARY McNAMARA

If the Joads had owned an RV, they probably would've landed in Slab City. Here in the hills above the Salton Sea, miles away from the nearest phone, stands a city of free spirits. A Marine Corps training camp during World War II, the 640 acres in Imperial County were turned over to the California State Lands Commission in 1961. All that was left were huge slabs of concrete where buildings once stood--perfect parking surfaces for RVs and trailers. Utilities and plumbing are nonexistent, but so is rent. The 5,000 or so snowbirds who light there run appliances off solar batteries and haul water and propane from nearby Niland. Although the occasional criminal on the lam stops by, prompting a visit from the local constabulary, by and large the Slab City citizenry governs itself. "It's a good deal," says Whiskey One (a.k.a. Rusty Jones), a 66-year-old retired Civil Air Patrol pilot who's been coming here from Colorado with his wife for the past 12 winters. (Only 100 or so slabbers brave the summer's onslaught of unrelenting triple-digit heat).

Last year, however, the state decided it wanted to sell. "We've been contemplating kicking people off for a long time," says Bill Morrison, legislative liaison for the State Lands Commission. Imperial County wants to save the slabs by taking them off the state's hands. "We recognize what a benefit it is to Imperial County," says County Supervisor Abe Seabolt. "People come in here and spend a lot of money." Seabolt's plan is to install a waste station and other minimal services, close Slab City in the summer and charge a nominal fee. For the slabbers, the county's plan seems sound. "We want the county to take it over," Whiskey One says. "As long as they keep it primitive. If someone with big bucks came out and put power out here and all that kind of malarkey, I'd be the first son of a gun to back this thing up and get out."

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