This night could have been uneventful. I could have spent two days in Slab City, the experience being in all aspects similar to a stop at a somewhat wacky campground. Instead, I met Bob. Bob lives in a big, spotless trailer in what seems to be the 'Good part of town'. Up here, there is less trash, most of trailer actually have a truck attached. I found this area by following the stream of new, clean vehicles driving down the dusty tracks. Most of the people living up here look to be retired snowbirds from the Northern States and Canada.
Bob saw me dragging my bike by, called me over, and offered me a chair, a glass of milk, and a cherry fritter. His camp was behind the Traveling Pals building(All these clubs, nothing but drama and power struggles, he warned me), and a stones throw from the Oasis Club. He gave me grave warnings against visiting the hot springs, or eating at the Oasis club. A kid came on a motorcycle, ate there, and spent all night puking in the bushes. I ended up taking the now-empty camp of the puking motorcycle kid. it looked like it had at one point been someones garden in a ring of stones. Nice and cozy for a small tent, and the swarm of ants retreated as the evening cooled.
Thanks to Bob's grave warnings, I now knew that there would be a dinner at the Oasis club, and watched for a crowd to gather. People throw up for all sorts of reasons, after all - who is to say it was the food? I paid $4 for a heaping plate of shepherd's pie and a chunk of corn bread the size of my hand. It was delicious. After the meal, people started to gather at the fire pit behind the Oasis. First came Neal, a intense-looking young man in black coat, white bandanna, and his guitar. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Billy Mitchell(To Jeff, Ryan, and Michelle... yeah, that guy). The dude with the hand drum, I never learned his name, nor that of the fiddle player, who was crazy good.
More people came. Jimmy John with a twelve string guitar and a deep, gravelly voice; Jess with her flute. Two more men and a woman with more guitars, a man brushing a mailbox with metal brushes, a bamboo flute that was passed around along with several egg shakers. Fiddle man switched to a harmonica for a few songs. Jess set aside her flute and sang a ccapella, beautifully. Two dogs and a puppy wandered between the chairs. Several decent-sized tree limbs where tossed into the raging inferno in the fire pit. Someone produced a bottle of what might have been peppermint scnapps and passed it around. Spectators crowded around and gossiped over the music.
A big motherly woman named Karen made a balloon hat which ended up perched on Neal's head; her and I chatted with a clean-cut eagle scout of a young kid who turned out to be wanted(for what he never said) in Nevada. He's been hopping trains for years. Folks talked about three old fashioned hobos who came in on the train some years ago, did odd jobs for a while, then left the way they came. Apparently there is a group of gypsies around, but they're up in the mountains now. Not the firing-range mountains, one would hope. All the while, explosions could be heard from that direction.
As the night went on and the musicians became increasingly intoxicated, the circle of music got a bit silly. A dude with dreadlocks showed up during a lull and belted out the Mustache Song. Neal gave a rousing rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. A few bawdy lines of 'The whole world in his hands" and some broken strings later, the decision was made to head down to the hot springs. Yes, someone drowned there recently, but he only floated for a day(Bob told me three!), and it has a high water flow, besides.
I ran back to my camp, stashed my bike and camera, and bundled up for the cold away from the fire. Karen pick me up, along with a middle aged canadian fellow, in her brightly painted van. Neal, Jess, and her friend met us there. The hot spring turned out to be huge and only pleasantly warm. It was, pretty much, a bathtub warm pond. It's also not the sort of place where folks generally go in clothed. I've never de-robed with company before, I admit; I hesitated all of about 15 seconds before doffing my shirt. That is all the time it took for my new friends to throw off their clothes and run for the warmth of the hot springs in a funny little train of lily-white buttocks. To hell with it! Taking clothing -off- on a cold desert night was completely counterintuitive, but the hot water felt amazing once my feet stopped burning. The pool was deep enough to dive into - most of us did. The one warning from Bob that I actually heeded was "don't get water in your ears". An ear infection combined from that kind of water might be a valid worry, after all. I know, I'm no fun at all.
At night, the massive power plant between Niland and the Slabs looks like a brightly lit city. I don't know how much is from the plant, and how much is just bright moonlight, but it doesn't get very dark. The sand looks snow-like and reflective at night. After 20 minutes in the hot water, we started coming out to cool off. In the dry air and breeze, I dried off before my body temperature got anywhere near normal. Standing out bare-ass naked on a freezing desert night, feeling totally comfy. It was pretty cool.
Karen decided she was ready to go, and after warning those staying to be careful("Don't stay in the water too long, don't get dehydrated, and don't leave anyone here alone!"), took me and the Canadian dude back to our camps. On the way back, I felt a bit guilty. I came, I got my Slab City story to brag about, and now I'm leaving. My assessment? Yes, I'd come back, but probably not on a bike with a tent. Niland gives me the creeps, and the ride there from the Slabs is bone-jarring. Small concerns, maybe, if not for the fact I'd have to make the trip often for water. For food, it would be a long haul to Brawley through the Imperial Valley big-agriculture sprawl. Within Slab City, there isn't much for me to do on my own. There is a great community present, but I need space, time, and somewhere to go. I'd need more mobility than my bike can offer, and the clear border of walls around me. Would I spend a winter in the slabs with a van? You betcha.