Charlie Hailey


On his book Slab City: Dispatches from the Last Free Place

Cover Interview of July 10, 2019

A close-up

When you pick up Slab City, you might open it to Donovan’s photograph of an A-frame shelter made of pallets and cardboard. Late one afternoon in June, its builder gave us a tour of its three levels that included a lounge, two bedrooms, a workshop where he hacked the proprietary systems of rechargeable power tools, and a loft where you could see the Algodones Dunes and the U.S. Mexico border beyond. To the east, we saw plumes of smoke from exploded ordnance in the still-active military range just across the canal. For us, this structure held the personal aspirations of its builder as it also reflected the core of Slab City as a collective laboratory to test freedom in its many built forms.

rorotoko.comShelter in Slab City. Photo by Donovan Wylie.

The A-frame also indexes the resourcefulness and resilience in its materials—the pallets came from the local Target in El Centro but had previously crossed borders and supported goods along the 21st century’s global supply lines, and the cardboard had packaged a recent delivery of photovoltaic panels for one of the massive solar farms nearby. To deflect the harsh desert sun, the cardboard was coated with white paint that came from Salvation Mountain.

In Donovan’s photograph, the flags above the A-frame have slackened in the dry heat of afternoon, and it is as if the builder has taken a break from painting and stepped back to admire his work. When I returned last year, this structure was gone. Across the road, a new pallet shelter had been built with a steeper A-frame, inclined like hands clasped in a kind of prayer.