Directions to purgatory are as follows: from Los Angeles drive east past Palm Springs into the bowels of the Mojave Desert. Turn south at the stench of the Salton Sea. Proceed down Highway 111 to the town of Niland, a broken-down place of limited possibilities.
Turn left on Main Street and head down the road to the railroad tracks where the law sometimes waits, as though the tracks were an international boundary.
“Where you going?” asked the deputy, Frank Lopez, on a recent night, even though the road leads to just one place. The Slabs.
Bored stiff, the deputy spun a ghost story about drugged-out crazies, a cult in a blue bus, a child molester, a man who sleeps with rattlesnakes, a mobster on the lam, and old people, flocks of old people who have traded in their picket fences for a mobile home and a life on the drift. …
Five miles down is the sign, “Welcome to Slab City,” marking the entrance of this former World War II military base. The only suggestion of life this night was the flickering of campfires. …
Pastor Hyatt, at 69, has inherited the burden of living. His wife, Audrey, died this year after suffering a stroke here in the desert wasteland. The memory of her scent is everywhere.
“Ah, he’s lonely, and it’s tough to see it,” said Rusty, 73, who sat at the pastor’s fire, warming himself. Rusty looked and smelled like a bum — the price paid, he said, for freedom. “Nobody particularly wants to die out here in the desert, but the living’s free.”
Slab City is not so sinister as it is a strange, forlorn quarter of America. It is a town that is not really a town, a former training grounds with nothing left but the concrete slabs where the barracks stood. Gen. George S. Patton trained troops here. Pilots of the Enola Gay practiced their atomic mission, dropping dummy bombs into the sea.
The land belongs to the state, but the state, like the law, does not bother, and so the Slabs have become a place to park free. More than 3,000 elderly people settle in for the winter, in a pattern that dates back at least 20 years. They are mostly single, divorced or widowed — a whole generation on the road, independent, alone. In this place, to be 55 years old is to be young.
There are no amenities; no potable water, no electricity, no sewerage. Groceries can be picked up in town at the grubby market whose managers do not seem to mind that hundreds of people fill their jugs from the water tap. Mail is routed to a post office box — Niland, CA 92257. Gasoline is bought in distant towns like Brawley; prescriptions and liquor are bought in Mexico. Sewage is held in storage tanks or holes in the ground.
The north side of Main Street is Poverty Flats. The south side, the suburbs, where the relatively well-to-do motorhomies have their dinner dances and clubhouse trailers.
Cole Robertson lives in the Flats with his wife, Mabel. Mr. Robertson, 72, is a retired construction worker from East Texas who cuts an intimidating figure, sitting shirtless, with one rheumy eye, a watermelon physique and a cotton fields vocabulary. An argument with a neighbor last year ended with one of the Robertsons’ trailers in flames. That is how law is dispensed in the Flats, vigilante style. One man was dragged to death a few years ago, another shot in the kneecap last year. Occasionally, the deputies do come around, usually in the day to exercise a warrant or to remove children who have not been seen in school for months. But normally, justice comes at the end of a matchstick in the Flats.
“There ain’t no rules,” Mr. Robertson said. He told of his neighbors, an aging man who lives with his voices in the rundown bus, a geriatric transvestite, a no-good who strapped his kid to a tree and left him in the sun.
A few years ago, a man tried making scrap metal from an unexploded aluminum shell he found at the bombing range in the nearby Chocolate Mountains. He succeeded but at the cost of his own life. His legs had to be picked from a tree.
It was in this anarchy, eight years ago, that Pastor Hyatt stumbled upon his life’s purpose. He discovered the Slabs quite by accident. He and Audrey had packed up their whole life, sold the house in Lebanon, Ore., left their jobs at the titanium plant where he was a shift foreman, said goodbye to their children and to their obligations and struck out on the road.
He was not always a good man, he admits that. He had a temper and hard fists. But he came across a band of rolling revivalists that first year on the road, and followed them to Minnesota. He was ordained by the World Wide Ministries without ever studying at seminary and seems a little embarrassed by this.
Stuck near Niland, the pastor inquired about a place to camp in an R.V. for the evening. A stranger told him about the Slabs, five miles down the road.
Upon seeing the privation and sadness and isolation, the preacher and his wife believed that the Creator had given them a second life. They built the Slab City Christian Center out of modular housing and began to preach and feed October through April, when the weather is clement and the Slabs come to life.
When people were found dead in their trailers, the pastor and his wife were there with a Psalm. They gave children rides to the hospital. The Hyatts paid for the work from their life savings. But Audrey was felled by a stroke in February and passed in May.
When she died, the pastor’s self-assurance faltered and he found that he had become one of the lost, emotionally stranded with one foot in hell and the other on an ice cube. …
Rusty, the doubter who cleans his shirt once a week in a bucket. Rusty, who tells about a prepubescent military career. Rusty, whose smell and language come from the stables. Rusty, who came in on a bus and says he ran a militia out of this camp for 12 years in case the Mexicans invaded from the south or the F.B.I. from the east.
“Everybody can’t fit in to the middle-class life,” said Rusty, who wore a military shirt and cap, military boots and long fingernails as thick as seashells. Suffice it to say, Rusty does not want people to know him and does not disclose his last name.
The evening was cold and dark, the air thick with the smells of burning salt oak as Slab City went to sleep. A Frank Sinatra record played somewhere across the salt flats. The thunder of bombs clapped on the far side of the Chocolate Mountains. Rusty smoked by himself in his broken-down camper with the flat wheels and camouflage netting. A lamp burned in the pastor’s trailer.
Rusty talked about a daughter who did not want anything to do with him; a wife he reckoned was working a truck stop somewhere between California and Texas. But Rusty is human. He dreams of a rich woman from the south side of the Slabs. They wear makeup, those girls over there in the R.V.’s. They use toilets instead of buckets. They have class. It’s never going to happen, he says. “I’d love to have company, but I can’t dance anymore,” he said. “I got old legs, but I’m a good conversationalist. But those women over there, they’re stuck up. Middle-class stuck up.”
The senior citizens on the south side of town travel in a sort of lonely-hearts club tailgate. They are alone, having suffered a late-life divorce or the death of a longtime partner. Their vehicles are big, expensive Coachmen and Fleetwoods and Ramblers and the like. They work as a sort of neighborhood watch, and the denizens of the Flats do not cross the imaginary line.
The majority of the society is women. They come to the Slabs because it is free and close to Mexico, where liquor and prescription medicine can be bought cheap. They are educated, savvy about life and competent mechanics.
Donna Lee Cole is a member of Loners on Wheels, a rolling singles club with chapters across the United States. Mrs. Cole says there are at least 10,000 people who belong to this subsociety of aged hobos, people who drive around in search of nothing except tomorrow. They tend to be women, she said, because women live longer than men. …
“We women aren’t looking for a man,” she explained. “The divorcees walked away from a bad situation and don’t want another one. The widows draw Blue Cross and their husband’s Social Security and would lose it if they married a new man. So you don’t bother. You’re just looking for some company.”
Besides, Mrs. Cole says, look at the quality of men, no offense. “They’re bald and paunchy and toothless. I’m old, but I’m not dead.” …
The lonely-hearts clubs have happy hour and social mixers, dances twice a week and trips to town for steak dinners. Still, the Elvis generation goes to bed early and goes to bed alone.
“I was married 46 years,” says Tina Faye at the afternoon mixer at the L.O.W. slab. At 80, Mrs. Faye strikes an exotic figure, lean, rouged, coiffed, with a voice as thick as apricot nectar.
“My man told me to go on if I was to outlive him. So I took to the road. But I feel him sitting there right next to me. I can’t let him go.”
The mood is a bit sad until Ruth Halford, a 74-year-old-widow with a silver permanent, pipes up. “I’m not sad about anything. I don’t owe nobody nothing. I scratch my plans in the dirt. I’m not looking for anybody. The only person I’m in love with is me. Right, girls?”
This is maddening to the eligible bachelor, like a dog chasing a pork chop on a string. A waste of a perfectly beautiful woman.
“Those girls, they get to being independent and they don’t need men,” said John Clairmont, 77, a retired truck driver. “You can never get them to come home with you.” …
The pastor talked about random things from his life with his wife. The snowstorms and eggs in a rooming house. The smell of her hair. Ceramic snowmen she collected. Her face lighted by the dashboard lights. Recipes the children do not ask for. Grandchildren who, chances are, will not remember her name. Death in the desert in some nameless place without longitude or shade.
“That’s the tragedy of old age,” the pastor said as his eyes welled once again. “I’m alone. I’m derelict without her.”
Rusty stared at his feet.