Slab City Journal: A Big Man in Alternative Journalism Now Living Off the Grid

Woodrow Tom Thompson was once a big player in the LA news scene . He began
in Yuma, Arizona at KBLU, doing sports radio and TV. After a stint at CBS station KOOL in Phoenix, he reinvented himself with a career in print journalism as news editor for the LA Free Press, one of the nation’s original alternative weeklies.

Penny Grenoble was editor and Charles Bukowski wrote dirty stories. Ron Cobb did cartoons. Tom was a very big man then. He weighed almost four hundred pounds and he covered some very big stories. Not the way the LA Times did. He often got inside info from the people who knew what was going on. Phil Ochs would show up. So would the FBI.

He was a great teacher. All news editors should be like Tom Thompson . He knew how to make a story jump off the front page like a snake. “Who is, or was, Ms. Moon Solstice?” “How did the LAPD Operate its Secret Red Squad?” Tom pushed stories–essential LA Stories the LA Times would never touch. He went behind the news to chase a story. How come the LA County Art Museum bought only certain painters and did not buy others? Could board members be on the take? The Pasadena Chandlers didn’t want to handle stories like that.

As news editor Tom Thompson, a former football player for Temple U., and for one season on a semi-pro league, the Festerville Falcons, weighed in with two smashing fists. Even the publishers of the Freep, as it was known to readers, disliked his pushing the LAPD around. And the IRS.

When the Freep’s owners sold out, and the new publisher changed the format to Star Wars and porn stories, Thompson split and called together a group of former Freep writers and proposed the idea of a collectively run successor alternative paper. Thus was the LA Vanguard born. The new paper, with Tom as ME, Dave Lindorff and Ron Ridenour as editor/reporters, and myself as arts editor, published a manifesto from the Weather Underground. Tom encouraged us to take on the entire US Government by publishing pieces on the phony Warren Commission investigation and cover-up of the JFK hit.

All along the way, at both the Freep and the Vanguard, Tom encouraged reporters to go beyond the WHO, WHAT,WHERE and WHEN and HOW into the essential WHY. And to ask WHO are the real bad guys?
Woody Thompson and Ben PleasantsWoody Thompson, Luke and the author

For that affrontery, he and the rest of the Vanguard staff became LAPD and FBI targets. The LAPD secretly assigned a young Red Squad cop to join the paper’s staff and ferret out its sources. Eventually, it turned out the LAPD’s Red Squad had been spying on 200 civic and political groups. A class action lawsuit was filed, and the police and city of LA eventually settled for nearly $2 million. The plaintiffs agreed to donate $1 million of the settlement to a police watchdog organization, and then allocated the rest to victims of the spying based on how theyt preceived the damages. Tom got an $8,000 piece of that money, which, having already split up with his wife, he used to take his then girlfriend on a trip to the Greek Islands. While there, he sent a postcard to LAPD Chief Darrell Gates, who had headed up the Red Squad during the spying operation, thanking him for the vacation! Tom was also targeted by the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, along with a group of anti-nuclear activists who were protesting the building of a nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon. He had been producing a film on their opposition campaign and was arrested along with many of the protesters. When the Supreme Court of California learned the SBSO had inserted several undercover officers in the group, including one who had sat in and reported on the defendants’ meetings with their ACLU attorneys, they threw out the whole case.

Thompson was always ahead of his time, tackling subjects like Solar Energy and education reforms. But his biggest successes came not in print, but at PBS affiliate KCET, where he joined Clete Roberts and Susan Friedman (and for a time, TCBH’s Dave Lindorff) on a local news program called “28-Tonight.” Roberts, one of the early television news pioneers, was an old Hemingway type without the eye patch. He did good standup, but Thompson’s real interests and his greatest skills came from his knowledge of how to do documentary films. It’s something he’d picked up in Arizona. Stay with a story like Robert J. Flaherty in “Nanook of the North.” Let the subjects tell the story. Let them talk for themselves, even if it takes a year!

Starting with five-minute slots called videologs, which were set like polished stones in a bracelet between the often 22-odd-minute feature slots, he hired on and launched the careers of Teya Ryan (now president of PBS in Georgia) , Jeffery Kaye on “The News Hour,” Hewell Howser, who went on to produce his big seller “California Gold,” and Nancy Salter, who won a UNESCO Prize for her six- month study of junior high school in the LA Unified School District. Tom went on to oversee the production of documentaries like the “LA History Project” series, which dealt with Hollywood labor disputes, how Chinatown was moved to create Union Station, the vitality of Black LA on Central Avenue, and a host of other pieces that won the station an astonishing total of 15 EMMY’s in the early /80s. Tom collected these for the station with amusement and dedication.

His work put KCET on the map. It was an exciting time for him. He was on top of the world.

“A great height from which to fall,” as Tom Wolfe wrote in Bonfire of the Vanities. And fall he did. Producing real programming of consequence was an expensive feat. KCET, though, preferred to create twelve vice presidents who spent their richly endowed time arguing about why they couldn’t do expensive documentaries that took time and effort and imagination to create.

When the job of News Director was moved back to just supervising talking heads, Thompson walked away. He lost his job, lost his wife Debby, lost his house and took up poker.

When I mentioned the adventures KCET has been through lately, with only 10 hours of produced programming in all of 2010, Thompson wasn’t surprised. He wasn’t bitter either. He’s moved on. He doesn’t really need a house or a wife or a job these days – just a motor home, a dog and nice woman to cuddle. He doesn’t miss the three M’s of marriage, mortgage and midnight deadlines. He does love having a dog–a black Lab named Luke.

Now Thompson winters not in Boca Raton, but in Slab City, California with his friends at the Oasis Club, his girl friend Peaches and Luke. He doesn’t miss the bullshit around the water cooler at KCET. Or the radical politics at the Freep or Vanguard. He doesn’t miss Hewell Howser or Gail Christian or any of the people who rode the gravy train to Rarotonga! As he puts it, “My dog doesn’t wear a leash and I’ve discarded mine.” Now a much gaunter Tom Thompson is Woody (for Woodrow), sitting in the sun along the stinky Salton Sea down the road sixty miles from Indio. The home he has he drives, and he almost lost it in 2010. But we’ll get to that.

Where anarchy reigns and there are no copsWhere anarchy reigns and there are no cops

Slab City sits just across the tracks from the town of Niland in Imperial County. The slabs are a reference to the concrete structures left behind by the US Government after it took apart Camp Dunlop, a World War II Marine base used for training artillery outfits. Just across the desert are the Chocolate Mountains–and they do look like chocolate. They have one of the highest gold ore contents of any mountain range in the US, but since they are currently used for bomb tests, not much gold is mined from them, at least by day and legally.

While the Chocolate Mountains are off limits to civilians, what’s left of Camp Dunlop has become an anarchist paradise for RV-ers and bikers fleeing regimentation and the winter cold of Alaska, Canada, Michigan, and points along the frozen shores of the Great Lakes. Slab City residents–the ones who don’t live there year round, and there are only about a hundred of those–swell to a population of more than three thousand by mid-winter.

It’s not a perfect location. There’s no running water and no electric power, but on the other hand, spots in the dry sand are FREE for the taking. The winters are warm, not hot; almost always sunny, and if you have a porta-potty, a solar panel for power, and if you rent a hundred-gallon tank for water, the place is like no other location in North America. There are no cops, there’s no stop signs or traffic lights, and the only rules are these two: One, there is no law, and two, refer all problems to rule number one. It’s been going on this way since 1946.

True, there have been some robberies. Most Rv-ers keep guns nearby, and last year there was a real murder: a love triangle. Those things happen. The police came from a nearby town and took the wife and lover away alive and the husband away dead.

But there’s also a lot of good will in Slab City. The place does look a bit like the Purgatorio of Dante and there are even a few lost souls wandering around, but mostly there’s humor and wit and music and some free food and a rock concert every month or so. There’s lots of intelligent conversation. There are painters and photographers and historians and mechanics and engineers and lots of bikers
And military brats now grown up. Each one knows what he or she knows and likes to listen to what others know.

Woody Thompson has been showing up here for more than a decade. He usually pops in about Halloween, when the desert finally cools down. This year, after cracking up his RV, he showed up in mid-October, when the temps were still in the low hundreds. It wasn’t that bad. You can soak yourself in the irrigation canal and drive around the man-made Salton Sea to visit the many memorials to Sonny Bono . Cher’s late husband and sidekick’s name is everywhere out there in the desert. There’s the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Complex right off the Sonny Bono Highway. And there are no trees like the one Sonny ran into when he was out of bounds off the ski trail in the Sierra. Maybe there’ll be a Bono Mountain too. Thompson doesn’t care much about Sonny Bono, but he does like poker and he does like casinos.

There are lots of casinos out there in the desert. Lots. You need something a little different from the town of Niland now and then. Or even Calpatria. Niland is a small town with a tweeker problem. Homeland Security is right up the 111 Highway pulling over everyone, looking for drug dealers and narco nuts and dark-skinned people without papers. Right next door to Arizona. I guess it’s catching. But all that doesn’t much effect the people of Slab City. They have built their own semi-permanent society away from government. And it works.

Your home doesn't move, even if it has wheelsYour home doesn't move, even if it has wheels

Woody Thompson took me around for the tour. He pointed out the Canadian section, but we didn’t go there. I didn’t see a Canadian flag, but there might have been one. He said the Canadians mostly stayed to themselves. They were a little exclusive. He said there were three clubs. One was the Low Club. Not to confuse them with the Low-Frequency Club which has a low-frequency station that broadcasts every day from Slab City. The LOWS are the Loners on Wheels (LOW). They are older, more upscale RV-ers and mostly are NOT bikers. “Don’t confuse the two. They get along fine, but they’re not the same,” Tom advised.

Tom pointed out that bikers were a great treat in the desert. They have their own mechanics and historians and song books. They’ve been everywhere cars don’t go. They were often veterans who had traveled the world, lived on Molo’kai or in Costa Rica. Had ridden as far as Sarah Palin’s Russia. Thompson had gotten to like the bikers. He sat and listened to their stories when he could, but he is not a LOW or a biker himself.

After the Canadians and the LOWS, there was the Oasis Club. Tom belongs to that one. It’s mostly card players and unreformed alcoholics. Tom is the former. That’s what Pool Boy told me. You can drink and walk around without a problem. He doesn’t carry his beer in a paper sack. The clubs keep changing as the years go by. The Oasis Club has two new members who are in their early twenties. More and more young people are showing up since Slab City played a starring role in Sean Penn’s film “Into the Wild.” It was filmed partly on location at Slab City.

 See rule number one.Rule number one: There are no laws. Rule number two: See rule number one.

To say they are showing up isn’t exactly correct. Many have been riding the freight trains from Florida and Louisiana on their way to LA, but Homeland Security has been snagging them outside of Niland. They have these X-ray devices that pick up anything that breathes, including fish. (See the expose in ThisCantBeHappening! about these machines.) When the kids are taken off the trains, if they don’t have a record, rather than drop them off in the desert, Homeland Security turns them over to the local cops, who deposit them at Slab City. It’s not a bad deal. The cops are happy they don’t end up in Niland, a small town caught up in the narco wars. They don’t need more kids without money in their streets at night looking for food.

Slab City, on the other hand, gives young people a place to stay where there are no laws at all, a place where you can really learn things.

That’s kind of interesting for an anarchist like me.

If they come in starving, there’s the Karma Kitchen, which hands out free food to the hungry. And there’s clothes and bedding to be had too. Women in Slab City are constantly mending things, not throwing them away. And for young kids, there’s a skateboard park made out of an abandoned swimming pool.

There’s also a concert grounds set out on a huge concrete foundation. For those desiring religion, there’s Salvation Mountain, a folk art palace that coexists just fine with the Slab City residents. And if you need a church, a real church that’s not exactly what you were used to back home, there’s a Bikers for Jesus Church.

So, you get the idea: Canadians, Low Riders, Oasis. Some old, some young. Not too much in-between. The population is mostly white. Some Hispanic, almost no Indians (they run the casinos nearby), a few Blacks and no Asians at all that I could see. Anyone is welcome if they obey the single rule: no law. Slab City dwellers don’t want lawyers and judges and politicians telling them anything.

The way it works for the residents is easy. You have two vehicles. One is your RV, where you sleep, eat, cook, poop and wash up. The other is either a car or a motorcycle. That way your home stays put. Little communities grow up around it. People look after each other’s stuff. It’s pretty informal.

Driving around is a big thing. By that I mean around the Salton Sea. It’s quite a place. There’s fishing, but I wouldn’t eat the fish. There’s swimming, but it might make your skin glow in the dark. The water’s pretty polluted. There’s boating. The water looks good from a distance.

There are some amazing birds here, like the Caspian Terns and the Marble Godwits. There are also Roadrunners and Wood Storks and the Great Blue Heron. The list of birds is very long. It’s a birder’s paradise. There are also desert sidewinders and fringe-toed lizards. At night you can sometimes hear wolves and foxes and coyotes. I recommend you drive down the western side of the Salton Sea first, where all the casinos are. Route 86. Stop off at Indio for an overnight if you’re driving from LA. I tried the Super 8 in town. $70/night with tax and breakfast.

Route 86 on the west side of the sea has Salton City, a tiny little town that’s less of a shock than Niland. As you drive south, the Salton Sea will recede from view behind a lot of agriculture. When you reach the southern end, you’re 25 miles from Mexicali, Mexico, where Slabers go to get their teeth fixed at one-fifth the LA prices . Or if you’re old enough, they’ll pull out what you have left and fit you for a fine set of false teeth for less than five hundred dollars. Takes a week. Everyone in Slab City goes to Mexicali to have their teeth fixed except for the Canadians. Dental care is free in Canada. They get it all done before they head south for the winter!

At the southern end of the sea (it’s more of a salty lake) take Bannister Avenue through the packing district. By that I mean the miles and miles of cattle being fed for slaughter, who occupy the smelly southeast end of the Salton Sea. It’s pretty sad. McDonald land. Definitely not for Buddhists. Drive to Sinclair Road south of Niland, and you’ll find Sonny Bono and his Wildlife Refuge. It’s really pretty mild compared to Sonny, who once told Cher he was a direct descendant of Napoleon BONOpart, but the name was shortened!

Besides Mexicali, which does have its problems these days, including earthquakes, you can also drive south to Yuma, Arizona, west to Anzo Borrego State Park , east to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area , and north to Joshua Tree National Monument, where you can continue on to Palm Springs and hang out with Tom’s old pal Hewell.

But let’s get back to Slab City. There’s a lot going on there from the end of October until the middle of April.

This year, a group from the Rainbow Tribe showed up to open their Freedom Café. I should mention how all this activity gets started. People come in buses that can barely run and when they don’t run anymore, they leave them behind. Some buses have become libraries. There are three of these in Slab City. Some also become places for quilting bees. Some become club houses. There are plenty of mechanics that can take apart a bus and put it back together in a new way, so it becomes a lunch counter. Or a sunny patio without a roof. Or a place to grow cactus.

There is outside help, too.

Many of the people of Slab City are on food stamps. If they are on Medicare, they can use the medical clinics in Niland, Brawley or El Centro. The snowbirds bring plenty of expertise with them when it comes to receiving services you might need.

A word about the weather. From May to September, Slab City is hell. It’s Dante’s Inferno. Only the few and the very few can stand it then. In winter the temperature during the day is in the low seventies, though. It’s lovely. The sun is out all the time. The rest is up to you. It’s what you bring that counts. Most RV rigs have propane stoves and solar panels for electricity. They can watch TV and get on the internet. Poop remains a big problem. Most people dig holes in the ground to deposit what they have accumulated in their toilets. They add chemicals to make it livable, but poop is poop.

“It’s probably one of the reasons American Indians moved around so much,” says Thompson. Makes sense.

There’s always someone around in the winter who can answer your questions about anything, including snake bites. And there is a health station, so marked, on the premises in case of injury. It happens.

Mike the repair guy is working on rebuilding Thompson’s fiberglass RV. After an accident in which it was deemed totaled by his insurance company, Woody limped the damaged vehicle back to Slab City and little by little it’s been completely repaired. So much for insurance companies and the standard way of doing things in America: If it doesn’t work, don’t fix it; throw it away. Thompson will probably put his rig in storage during the hot months this year and set off in his van heading north to see his grandkids and maybe east to link up with some ghosts of summers past.

He points out what’s available on a daily basis at the Slabs. There’s shared internet for those with no electric power. Just sign up. There’s movie night. There’s mail that arrives daily to each club from the town of Niland. Someone goes every day to pick it up. And then there’s THE RANGE where Slab City has its music and shows and other forms of entertainment.

Today Tom is heading out to buy some Riddex for his poop hole. He points out the water tanks which are delivered and filled by a water truck. 100 gallons each. He says trash is burned and there are fires at night when the temperature goes down to 40 degrees. There are no public showers. Hot showers are available in Niland for a few dollars. Some rigs have nice hot showers. You might trade a hot shower for a fish. Didn’t Reagan say that before he lost his mind?

And there are occasional fights. Long lines of trains sometimes keep the train gates down for hours, even though the train doesn’t cross the tracks at Slab City. You have to drive around the gate. Ask before you do it, though.

I enjoyed my short trip to Slab City. I pointed out to Woody that Nathaniel West died somewhere in Imperial County in 1940. He was speeding away from El Centro. Can’t blame him for that!


For Woody Thompson Slab City in the winter months has been as nice a place as Leisure World would be for some retired dentists from Beverly Hills. And much less pressure. You can wear what you want, think what you want and there’s NO GOLF. (Don’t retired people ever think about other things, like fucking?)

Says Woody Thompson: “In Slab City there are plenty of old people, plenty of young people. Not too many in-betweeners, but with all the foreclosures out there, we are seeing more of them too. Things are always in flux in Slab City. At The Oasis Club one of our members was in a movie with Kevin Bacon. He died in the first eight minutes of the film with a knife spackled to his neck. Hollywood. He talks about it a lot, but he doesn’t really miss it. Hollywood is not real. Slab City is the real thing with real people. “

To that thought, I added this: “Hollywood seems very far away out here . Of course they might just discover the Salton Sea and make it into the next Ten Commandments, starring Tom Cruise as Moses, but somehow I doubt it.”

Tom says he will be in Slab City till mid April. He has a suggestion if I drive back again before he leaves: “Next time stay in Calpatria. It’s real close and it’s a nice little town. But remember Rule Number One: There are no laws out here. What you do is up to you, not up to the government!”

Yup. I got that. It seems to work in Slab City. People helping people. It’s not the American way since we first stole the country from the American Indians (my ancestors helped!). I’ve heard there’s another Slab City in Wisconsin where people from the hot climates in the south go to cool off.

I might just try that too. No Canadians.

BEN PLEASANTS, an occasional contributor to ThisCantBeHappening!, is an anarchist poet, playwrite, essayist and novelist who lives with his wife Paula in California.