What do you do when one of your best friends invites you to a debaucherous birthday weekend at an off the grid artist commune deep in the California desert near the Salton Sea? Attend whole-heartedly and experience EVERYTHING you can, of course!
East Jesus is a non-profit, off the grid intentional community founded by the late Charlie Russell in the ass-crack outskirts of Slab City. If you’ve never heard of Slab City, well, it’s known as “the last free place,” and is basically a makeshift town made up of people in RVs and trailers who are, essentially squatting on government land about 4 miles outside of Niland, CA (85 miles southeast of Palm Springs). There’s no water, no power, and no resources, just a bunch of abandoned concrete slabs left over from a WWII base, Camp Dunlap. Oh yeah, and it’s 110 degrees during the daytime in the middle of October.
In spite of the fact that the sun was actively trying to kill me and nearly every other living thing out there that weekend, I had a freaking awesome time. First off, I got to stay in the best hobo accommodations that money can’t buy – a hand-painted Totoro trailer with tentacles for a doorknob. I got a hand-picked tour of the sculpture garden when I first arrived (this is the only part of East Jesus accessible to tourists unless you’re visiting a resident), which features a hodge podge of assemblage pieces and art cars, broken glass and duck decoys, and a non-functioning Mercedes that has been lit on fire so many times that it is lovingly referred to as the “Car-B-Que.”
To be honest, the daylight hours at East Jesus are brutal. I mostly lay around eating Otter Pops, talking about art and trying not to get bitten by horseflies in between dunks in the cool pool that seriously saved my Scandinavian booty! But, at night… wow! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am not a desert person. But, something about the camaraderie of a group meal, the intense flickering of flames from a rusted out Mercedes, and the deep black of the night sky as the stars make their nightly, nomadic journey was truly magical. I giggled my ass off with new friends and ran, half naked, sprinting full force into the interminable blackness of the desert in search of Slab City’s famed hot springs. I soaked my tired bones and stayed up to see the sunrise.
Now, East Jesus does concern me a bit in the way that many intentional communities concern me, and that is this: I think that, too often, great ideas and experiments in off the grid living are executed in a way that is too far-out, too anarchic, and too poorly packaged for anyone of consequence to take note. The rebellion and chaos themselves seem to take center stage, which can serve to highlight the cracks and weaknesses of these spaces, rather than shifting focus onto some of the truly innovative strategies for clean living that they are implementing. Maybe it’s too much to ask, but I would sincerely love it if a solar-powered, leave-no-trace community sprung up within 30 miles of Los Angeles so that the impact of these ideals could be more easily shared with the population at large, since finding a wide reach and making the project feel accessible are the fastest ways to shift culture.
But perhaps their inaccessibility is precisely what makes these spaces special. Certainly, Burning Man is a bit more pure because of the massive amount of foresight a pilgrimage to Black Rock City takes. Maybe they are meant to serve as beacons for the brave as they journey across the long night, burning like “fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding,” as Kerouac so aptly put it. There is definitely a large amount of magic hidden in East Jesus; don’t let Wikipedia fool you into thinking it’s a roadside attraction. Have an adventure and see it for yourself.