Friday, December 11, 2009

East Jesus: Pop. 1, Elev. 75

{Salton Sea Aventure: Part Two}

In the years following WWII a Marine base in the middle of nowhere in the southern California desert was decommissioned and demolished, leaving behind hundreds of cement slabs where the foundations of buildings used to be. Snowbirds, tax-evaders, drifters, grifters and old hippies have been living in this wasteland kingdom ever since. They call it Slab City.

Three years ago bay-area computer whiz Charlie Russell claimed squatter's rights on one of those slabs, ordered a defunct shipping container, and moved in. This is Charlie's kingdom, or, as he corrected me, despotism. Welcome to East Jesus, population 1, elevation 75.

The name "East Jesus," he said, is a colloquial term for the middle of nowhere, but it's also, he winked, a little nod to his religious neighbor down the road.

Most people at Slab City are there because they don't have any other options. But Charlie's chosen this life. He could move back to the city and get any job he fancied. But this is his idea of personal freedom.  In a way he is embodying the very American spirit of frontierism; geographically, socially, and artistically he is, without a doubt, a pioneer.

And every pioneer needs a the well-appointed bar. Below, a solid collection of single malts.

Charlie was a *most* gracious host. He showed us around, offered us vittles for lunch, then plugged in his guitar and sang Leonard Cohen's Suzanne (one of my favorite songs). Clearly, anyone who forsakes running water but keeps a grand piano around is a dedicated musician. His voice was hauntingly beautiful and the sound quality was stellar, thanks to his comprehensive solar power setup.
It was through art cars that Bonnie met Charlie, and it was through art cars that Charlie got into the world of Burning Man, sustainable desert living, and assemblage art. His pride and joy, the Cinnabar Charm, is unlike anything I've ever laid eyes on.

Charlie thrives on solitude but relishes the visits he gets from friends, strangers, and, in one case, the mobile living experiment known as Transit Antenna, a troupe of experimental artists who toured the country in their vegetable oil-powered city transit bus-turned RV until the engine croaked in Slab City. So they donated it to Charlie. Now it's the guest house at East Jesus.

The main living quarters at East Jesus are a cluster of vintage trailers, camo netting and junk, and it's surprisingly, amazingly comfortable. I can't imagine how Charlie braves the soul-deadening summer heat of the desert, or how the structures fare when the Santa Annas come through, but despite the hardship, or perhaps because of it, Charlie seems like he is exactly where he is supposed to be.

His inventiveness and creativity are boundless. Above, a bottle wall to keep out tweakers. Below, one of his assemblage pieces outside the compound.

Finally it was time to go. We left Charlie with some fresh food (I spied a bomb-shelter's-worth of canned beans in his outdoor pantry), bought some amusing t-shirts he sells for gas money ("Danger: Armed and bitter libertarian drunkards live here. Tresspassers will be used as target practice.") and received rib-fracturing bear hugs.  He raised his beer and blew us kisses as we pulled out of the compound, like an absurd desert vision of a young Santa Clause in fleece pajamas and a Cossack hat.

As we drove home I contemplated old Leonard Knight and his monument to god. And the generation X corporate dropout computer genius who built himself a kingdom out of other people's junk. And the spectacular freakishness of the desert itself, which smoldered apricot as the day finished and we sped back to our warm houses, back to civilization.

That concludes the Salton Sea Adventures. Hope you all have a wonderful weekend. Thank you for all the wonderful comments this week; they bring me great joy. Tomorrow night is the opening party for my show at Spezzano Gallery in Long Beach, so I'll have some pictures to share on Monday. Cheers!


  1. Great Post Lily! We were there with you. I'm so jealous you had this little adventure. Thank goodness America still has room for "individdles". For better or for worse, hard times bring out more of the individdle in each of us. And then again some have just always been more individual than others! Bon weekend!

  2. These adventures were beautifully photographed and documented. Thank you so much for sharing them. It's a real pleasure to see these wonderful places through your blog.

  3. Loved this article and I pirated a quote and put it on my blog with a link back to your blog.

    I too am a lover of pianos and hope to meet Charlie one day when I make it to Slab City.

    Dear Miss Mermaid
    Author of
    Hurricanes & Hangovers

  4. Incredible post, i was not familiar with charlie but i did know about slap city, i found your piece drew me in and made me feel both melancholy and proud. i am not sure how to explain it, perhaps it is because i for crave such privacy and freedom but i do not having the guts to go for it and proud because we can and many do. Lily so wonderful that you were able to visit and drop some provisions. i want to visit, perhaps if you do it again i can come along!

  5. I am going to miss these posts... next time I am joining you!!! Hope you are having a wonderful weekend!! xo

  6. These road trips shots were amazing! Honestly, this is photojournalism at its best. I feel like I was there.


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