Putting down a stake in Niland.
"Hello Friends, what brings you here?" A head full of dreadlocks showed up above the sign we were photographing.
Fixed to a wire fencing his desert garden, the sign read, "If I had my way I'd shoot them all."
20 minutes later, the very tanned and very fit Marines veteran of Puerto Rico origin showed me around his bedroom in Slab City, California.
Considering it was built from junk, the place was surprisingly inviting. A tall bed, neatly made in royal purple, towered in the middle of a big room. Soft floor of stamped desert sand underfoot. Gentle breezes flowed through palm leaves intricately arranged around openings in the natural walls.
"The master bath is over there," my host waived his hand toward an adjacent open-air space, revealing a clawfoot tub by a medicinal Chaparral bush, scenting the atmosphere.
"Cool," said Tom.
Despite the hostile curb appeal, Karibe, our new friend, turned out very friendly. A winding path below flowering Palo Verde trees led us around his artsy digs as we inquired about the lay of the land.
We had arrived the Slabs to experiment what it may be like to - instead of bringing a structure - build a Mars habitat from local resources.
"The last free city in US" seemed the perfect choice. Plenty of red sand, zero red tape, halfway between Baja and the Sierras.
Only the rent is free
Roughly 200 people call Slab City home year-round. Most come to escape modern society. A few are fugitives or drug addicts, many are kids carrying guitars and repeating the 60s. They are squatters on state-owned land, but don't be fooled, only the rent is free in this windblown desert at the foot of Salvation Mountain.
There is no water and temperatures can reach 120 degrees in the summer.
Sparkling on the horizon, Salton Sea is the only nearby recreation spot. A smelly, salty lake polluted by pesticides and arsenic, bodies of dead birds and fish scattering its beaches.
Here, everything you need you'll have to build - and protect - with your own hands.
Watching people transform such unforgiving grounds into unlikely havens is a perfect lesson for settlement on unknown planets.
We kept our mission somewhat quiet around our new neighbors while Karibe explained the unspoken rules. Few and simple, like you'd expect from pioneers organizing a new world.
1. If you leave your place your belonging may still be there when you return. Or they may not. Bottom line: Make sure you can carry what you can't lose.
2. If you play rough with your neighbors local officers will probably not do not much else than bring you in for questioning. Coming home though you may find it burned to the ground. True and recent story, Karibe said.
The bar is open Thursdays ("although he's not from here and charges you") and there's live music on Saturdays, weather allowing.
With this advice and a firm handshake, we left to find our spot.
Time travel in the library
We passed the library. Weathered junkyard armchairs spaced out below gnarly trees offered shaded reading opportunities. Plentiful bookshelves spoke volumes about Slabs visitors over the years.
Survival books. Plants and minerals. Technology and early programming. There a Tom Clancy novel in French, below a German book about juggling. On top of a pile of magazines: An unreal National Geographic from the early 80s, with a big feature about Silicon Valley. In one of the pictures: 27-years old Steve Jobs riding a motorcycle.
We stopped at a camper advertising solar panels. Mentioning our Mars habitat plans to Mike, the Slab's solar guy, he didn't bat an eye.
"Hope you got the UV-safe bags?" he said. Brief silence and then I flashed a big smile. "Probably not."
Turned out Mike didn't think of it either when trying to build his own structure. He learned the hard way, the relentless desert sun disintegrated the plastic material and left him with a wall of sand.
Getting to work
Our short visit culminated that evening in one of the outskirts of the legendary hobo town. Cutting a long story short: One bag took ten heaped shovels, and around 1.5 minutes to fill, tie, and move into place.
End result: A small shelter fitting 2 people (sitting) in a little under 2 hours.
1. 50-100 sandbags make for very strong emergency shelter around double walled inner tent within 2 hours.
2. Scaled 4x to a diameter of around 4 meters (13 ft), a strong base camp structure would take 1-2 days.
3. Lightweight carbon fiber scaffolding to hold up a double walled tent. Igloo technique is too complicated and waste of space.
4. A transparent tent allows for window openings.
5. A structure to hold up the bags saves time; the hardest wasn't the actual digging but to get the sand into the bag.
6. Dig a hole when filling the bags, and pile around it. Placing against a wall cuts considerable time as well.
7. The job is back breaking but doable. Definitely a remedy for the brittle bones facing space travelers.
Final thought: Between the brilliant mechanics we had witnessed at Baja Race the previous week, and Slab city's ingenious survivors, we probably had all the hands-on know-how we needed to take us to Mars and back.
As for his unfriendly welcome-sign, Karibe explained. "Of course I don't mean that. It's just sort of from Pink Floyd's 'The Wall'."
If you're a kid, Go listen.
The last free city in US" Slab seemed the perfect choice. Plenty of red sand, zero red tape, halfway between Baja and the Sierras.
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