For 50 years, Arkansas native Nadine Anglin has been wintering in the California desert. Unlike the snowbirds who flock to Palm Springs, Anglin, 85, prefers an abandoned World War II naval base called Slab City, 170 miles southeast of Los Angeles. There's no electricity, no bathrooms, no formal law enforcement--and no rent. Anglin is part of a community of people who call themselves boondockers--people who park their RVs together in remote spots (the boondocks), thereby forming temporary settlements. "When I go back to Arkansas, it always seems so dull," she says.
Slab City, a 640-acre stretch of state-owned desert near the Salton Sea, is the most popular location in the country for boondockers to congregate. In the height of winter, the community is about 3,000 members strong. While official RV parks offer electrical hookups, cable TV feeds, and waste disposal facilities--for as much as $200 a week--the only amenities at Slab City are a weekly church service, a bulletin board on the main road with info on barbecues and other events, and a stage for open-mike nights. The closest working plumbing is in Niland, Calif. (pop. 1,200), a few miles west.
"You have to love the outdoors," says Anglin, who's fond of dune buggying through the desert, "and you have to be able to handle problems like your RV's battery going dead." She counts on three other things for survival: solar panels to cut down on the cost of gas-powered generators; a CB radio to communicate with neighbors (Anglin's CB name is Colorback); and a big tank for "black water," the name given to the RV occupants' waste.
You also have to love the nomadic life. Many boondockers spend the season moving from one settlement to another. "I get tired of sitting at a campground, looking at the same people day after day," says Bernard Schnieders, 73, who makes regular stops at Slab City. "I like the freedom."
The three main websites for boondockers are escapees.com, boondocking.org, and desertdutch.org. The latter is maintained by Slab City "resident" Dutch Schaafsma. When asked how he'd advise potential boondockers, he says to inspect your neighbors closely before you set up camp. "If you don't like 'em," he says, "you can always move to another spot." The main entrance to Slab City is off Highway 111, four miles east of Niland, slabcity.org.