I quit 9-5 to live in off-grid ‘Slab City’ – if you annoy the neighbours there's a savage rule but I have no regrets | The Sun

WITH burned-out vehicles, scrap-metal trailers and unbearable 50-degree heat, Slab City looks like a scene from the post-apocalyptic film Mad Max.

Yet here among the makeshift camps – made from old school buses, cars and branches – is where former construction worker 'DNA', 49, finally feels at home. 

Located on an abandoned military base, in California’s Sonoran Desert, Slab City is branded “the last free place” by its inhabitants and casts aside many of the norms and rules of wider society.

Yet the supposed ‘Utopia’ has a dark underbelly blighted by drugs, violent thieves and arsonists – and there is a brutal way neighbours 'burn out' locals they don't like.

The town's bohemian occupants, known as ‘Slabbers’, features in tonight’s episode of Ben Fogle: New Lives In The Wild, on Channel 5.

Self-monikered DNA, who moved here four years ago, explains: “When I first go here I was afraid someone might steal my stuff.

“I had the mindset of a new person coming into town, ‘What could potentially be here?’ because you hear all kinds of rumours. Some of them are true, very much so.

“[Now] I think they’d want to scout it out before pulling any pranks [on me] and I think they would find out my reputation and would leave me alone. 

“Not that I’ve gone and kicked anybody's ass, because I haven’t… I haven’t been really messed with at all, it seems like a lot of people respect me.

“I’m really appreciative of that but I don't know how it got that way just by being me… It’s nice actually, it makes you feel wanted, it makes you feel loved.”

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DNA with his sister Tomra before moving to Slab CityCredit: WB Productions
The city even has its own barsCredit: Channel 5
Throughout Slab City there are scrap heaps and burned-out vehiclesCredit: WB Productions

Noisy neighbours 'burned out'

DNA is one of an estimated 150 permanent residents in Slab City, yet that number can reportedly swell to 4,000 in certain months. 

Without running water, sewers or air-conditioning in temperatures that soar to 50C, life is not easy in the commune, which lies 270 miles south east of Los Angeles.

The area is practically untouched by police, which can make it dangerous too. In 2021, it was reported that 17 people died from heat stroke, drug overdoses or murder. 

When DNA arrived four years ago, after hearing about it fromhis sister, he was wary of its fierce reputation. 

With just a backpack, a box of clothes and a sleeping bag, he slept overnight on the sand and soon fell in love with the way of life there.

In the years that followed, DNA built his own makeshift home with tarpaulin, branches and scrap metal taken from abandoned vehicles and former campsites. 

He said: “I mean with this camp, you just basically find a piece [of land] that you like, ask some people around [and] if nobody cares, start cleaning the place up and it's yours."

Like anywhere, neighbours can be a problem and DNA claims the freedom-loving folk could “burn you out” – meaning to set fire to their campsite – if they “don’t like you”. 

He adds: “Yeah that happens… there are times they don't like somebody and they get rid of them… whoever is in the disliking category.”

'Scavengers everywhere'

It’s not the only threat. Fellow ‘Slabber’ Pete feared his camp would be looted when he spent three months away in hospital after a life-saving operation.

Thankfully for the retiree, who moved to the desert commune six years ago, his close pal DNA protected the site – which boasts eight large 270-watt solar panels. 

Praising his friend, Pete said: “It wouldn’t be here, it would've been overrun and completely dismantled because of the scavengers. 

“When they come, they are like a beetle infestation or like locusts, because of DNA I have a camp basically.”

Presenter Ben Fogle lived with DNA while filming the documentary and slept on a metal frame bed outside in the desert. 

He believed Slab City was “the last chance” for his subject after a turbulent life that included multiple arrests and homelessness.

'I lost everything in normal world'

DNA, who grew up in San Diego, worked various jobs, including as a high-rise window cleaning and in construction, but was said to have always “struggled with authority”.

In the late Nineties, he was jailed for taking his mother’s car without permission and was sent to jail for an undisclosed time – typical sentences can include a fine and/or one to three years' imprisonment. 

DNA was homeless after being released but was “determined to make it on his own” and rejected help from his family.

The Slab City dweller claimed police used to “harass me because I was on the street” and added: “Once you’re on the street it's hard to get out.” 

He claimed to have almost 30 arrests to his name and felt it was near-impossible to bounce back.

DNA added: “Unless you’ve got somebody out there, family or somebody, holding on to your stuff for you and paying your bills you lose it all."

Grand plans

DNA’s sister discovered Slab City online and suggested he visit in the hope that he may find contentment living off the grid.

He’s lived there for four years now and says he has finally found happiness living off-the-grid and finds enjoying helping others with construction and repair work.

DNA also has dreams of making a giant campsite of his own and plans to transform a 1940s water tank into a shelter with fish tanks, trampoline mattresses to "bounce around" on and a mini garden.

He's forced to rely on the scrap he salvages to build it and small funds made by selling art.

Ben explained: “It's still very tenuous because no one owns the lands, no taxes are paid, there’s no rental paid and boundaries change, rules change here if indeed there are rules. 

“I think he has found this amazing opportunity but it feels to me like there’s still a great vulnerability to living here.”

Ben believes Slab City has served as a “rehabilitation centre” for DNA and allowed him to let go of the “anger, frustration and disappointment” of his past.

“He messed up a few times but look at what it cost him. It cost him his dignity, his confidence, his livelihood, almost his life,” he said.

“[Now] he doesn’t have anyone telling him what to do, he has friends but can still be alone and be himself.

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"He’s celebrated, he’s respected. It feels to me he’s found the place where he belongs.”

Ben Fogle: New Lives In The Wild airs at 9pm tonight on Channel 5. 

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