Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Seven Near-Death Experiences of Zek J Evets: Parts 4 & 5

These two NDE's happened during a single long weekend trip to Slab City, near Southern California's Salton Sea, a scant couple dozen miles from the international border.

My friend G-Money and I were going to conduct anthropological research on the squatter's village in the Slabs for a future project. G-Money was the designated photographer, while I did interviews and took a massive amount of notes.

We expected an easy few days writing, talking, and photographing. What we got was a hellish, nearly suicidal not-quite-a-vacation.

Before I jump into the sequences of events that led to mine and my friend's near-deaths, let me tell you about the place we went.

Slab City is the remnant of Camp Dunlap, a marine artillery base originally constructed to train troops for fighting in North Africa during WWII. The conflict ended before the base could be put to much use, and was deemed unnecessary afterwards.

The base was scavenged over the years, until all that was left were giant concrete slabs. (Hence the name.) The land is decommissioned and uncontrolled, but a group of servicemen stayed after the base was closed, and it has been inhabited ever since -- though the number of permanent residents has declined in recent decades. However, during the winter, tourists flock to the location. These people are aptly termed, "snowbirds".

The attraction of Slab City is due to many factors: the lack of organized civilization, law enforcement, complete and total freedom, as well as the collection of so many strange personages.

The dangers of the Slabs are myriad too: lack of running water, lack of electricity, a plethora of dangerous pits from poorly dug septic tanks, criminal activity, poverty (which is why many residents move to the Slabs), and generally deficient social services.

Nonetheless, Slab City attracts thousands of people year after year, and they all come for various reasons, from personal freedom to extreme poverty to a sense of adventure, to a hope to make a new life.

G-Money and I came for the stories.

The Slabs are located southeast from California's Salton Sea, one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. And it's getting saltier every day. The salinity is so strong that most fish and other aquatic wildlife are unable to live in it, leaving heaps of dead fish along the shoreline. The rotting flesh can be smelled for miles. In addition, the desert climate is extremely hot during the summer, with temperatures reaching 120 degrees -- in the shade!

Guess when we went?? Yeah, during the summer...

Our arrival at nearby Niland was our first introduction to the adventure that was in store for us. The residents told us tales of people sneaking off to a nearby Air Force bombing range to steal duds for sale (except sometimes the bombs weren't duds... and killed the poor bastards). They told us of septic tank cesspools lying in wait to collapse as you drove over them, trapping your car in a foul stench. They told us of meth houses you could see miles away; sometimes they came into town for supplies, and sometimes to test their products. They told us about the filming for Into The Wild, how they worked with -- sometimes for -- the crew, assisting the production... and how Emile Hirsch was a douchebag. (But Kristen Stewart was apparently quite nice.) They even told us about Shooter Jennings.

They told us about a lot of things, wetting our appetite for the long weekend as we munched on deliciously cheap Mexican food.

Our research started off great. Most residents were eager to talk, share their stories. And they all had such wonderful nicknames -- Solar Mike, Tree Man, One Can, among others. We climbed Salvation Mountain, talking with Leonard Knight as he told us his amazing story of flying into the area on a weather balloon that crash landed! (He was trying to get somewhere for Jesus.) He worked as a handy-man, all the while devoting his time to collecting old paint that was lying around -- or donated -- for a monument he wanted to build for God, which eventually coalesced into the multi-colored Salvation Mountain. (Knight used lead-paint though, so he's often had trouble with environmental groups.)

But things went bad on our second day in, as we prepared to drive out past the Slabs to the Air Force bombing range, where undetonated bombs lay sticking out of the ground! At first the idea seemed simple enough: drive out there, photograph the bombs from a safe distance, take some notes, and drive back.

However... my poor little Toyota Camry -- named Gretched, bless her mechanical engine -- just couldn't handle the terrain. As the light faded faster than we expected, I misjudged the distance of the flats we were driving through and as a big one came up my front-end fell right in to it like SLAM!

I tried the gas, but my tires just spun uselessly. G-Money and I looked at each other with an "oh shit" face and got out of the car. Sure enough, my bumper was perched at just the right angle for my tires to get absolutely no traction. We tried digging, we tried pushing, pulling, lifting, and even yelling, but my car was still stuck.

Meanwhile, the sun was setting, and we did NOT want to be caught out there after dark. Not knowing what to do, I called 911.

I'm not sure if any of you have ever called 911 before, but it's certainly an interesting experience when you do. I spoke with a nice woman named Roseanne, who, while sympathetic to our plight, stated quite clearly that due to the distance from town we were, the need for a specifically 4X4 vehicle to tow us or pick us up, and the dangerous nature of the environment we were in, AND the fact that it was night time, that there was NO WAY anyone would come out to get us.

But she did say to call her "if anything happened."

WHEW! And to think I was getting scared before, haha! God bless 911 rescue personnel for all their hard work! [end sarcasm]

But seriously, she told us to stay where we were and wait till morning so someone could come get us. Did we have enough water? Did we have any food? Do you have enough power on your phone to call in case of an emergency?

Wait, but this IS an emergency! Don't leave me! I pay good tax dollars for situations just like this -- situations where you can save me from my own stupidity and justify your bloated salary...!

(Let this be a lesson to ya'll. I'm forever disillusioned with 911 after this. We were seriously in an emergency situation, and the rescue-service we pay good tax money for was completely useless. Honestly, if we'd died, I doubt they'd have noticed or cared. Depressing, huh?)

 As we sit in the car, the heat is intense. Even at night, it's still like 90 degrees! The moonlight shines down and casts the landscape in a strange picturesque way. G-Money tries to convince me that we abandon the car and walk back to the motel where we're staying.

"Abandon my car!?!? No fucking way son."

"Dude... We've gotta. I don't feel chill waiting out here all night. There are a bunch of bugs, and it's effing hot, and seriously what if we get attacked by wild animals or a serial killer?"

"Nah man. I'm not abandoning my car. End of story."

So we sat. And sat. And sat. For about thirty minutes. Then I said, "Okay, fuck this. Let's walk back."

We grabbed the six water bottles in the car and split them between us. Then we took off shirts (no homo -- to keep cool) and shouldered our packs and began following my tire tracks.

The walk was crazy! We passed meth labs in the distance. We passed hunks of wreckage half-buried in the sand. And all the while sweating our asses off.

Thank geebus for the full moon, or we never would have been able to see my tire-tracks and find our way back. But that isn't even the near-death part.

No, the scary, near-death part began as soon as we reached the Slabs again. (Only took about ten miles.) As we crossed the edge, the dogs people kept -- part security, part food, part companion -- started barking and snarling LIKE RABID BEASTS!

They followed us, slowly, then faster, and then faster, and as we got closer we tried angling around them, but the dogs just wouldn't give up. G-Money and I started fingering our representative defenses -- him his Filipino machete, and me my footlong mag-lite.

"Don't run dude. They'll just chase us."

"Dude, they're getting awfully close." And they were. Like mere yards away. I could see the snarl-juice running down their jaws.

Then all of a sudden one of them jumped a little too close.

I panicked.

And ran.

G-Money went, "what the fuck!?" And followed me as the pack of dogs lunged for us.

The growls turned into full blown barks and snarls, and padded paws with extended claws smacking on dry, cracked ground. Feeling the pressure from behind, I turned and, wielding my mag-lite with both hands I smashed into the nearest mutt with all the force my skinny arms could manage.

Lucky for me, that turned out to be quite a lot. The dog's head cracked and slammed into the ground. G-Money cleaved into another dog's skull with his machete, splitting the beast like a guava melon. After the initial rush, the loss of two of their own stalled the pack's advance and they fell back.

We took that opportunity to book it faster than an industrial strength printing press.

As we reached the main road leading to Niland, and our now much-beloved motel, the high-beams of a Border Patrol cop-car (complete with semi-automatic weapons and shotguns hanging from a rack in the back) pulled up beside us.

(By that time our somewhat bloodied weapons were safely stowed in our packs again.)

As the officer exited his vehicle and stepped on the side of the road, he asked us quite forcefully, "what are you boys doing out here?"

We told him the story of how my car got stuck, and we had to walk back to our motel, and why we were even in the Slabs to begin with. (Notably, I left off the part about trying to visit an off-limits Air force bombing range.) He asked us to drop our packs and kick them over to him, along with our IDs.

It was at this point that G-Money said the most brilliant, idiotic and hilarious thing ever.

It went something like this: "Officer. I have a machete."

We all stood stock still for like five seconds, digesting the absurdity of that statement. The cop was the first one to recover, and he immediately drew his Glock and told us to get down on the ground. Which we did, with the quickness. Then he had us toss him our IDs.

After a infinitely long amount of time checking our records, the officer told us to get off the ground and climb into the back. He was going to give us a ride back to our motel.

To say the next 15 minutes back were "uncomfortable" would be an understatement. But the dude was pretty cool, all things considered.

Back at the motel we thanked him for the ride, and he gave us the number to a good tow company that could help us fetch the car in the morning -- if it was still there, since people around here have a habit of salvaging anything left to the elements.

As we passed out, G-Money and I shared a particularly bromantic moment as we looked across the dark distance of our motel room towards each other and said... "g'night dude".

The next morning I paid some oldster 300 bucks to tow my car from the flat to the motel. It was more or less in one piece, minus a shit-ton of dirt, dust, and random pieces of tumbleweed.

That long walk of over 20 miles was perhaps the crazies trek I've ever taken, and not something I care to repeat. But it wouldn't be the only time during this expedition that G-Money and I would tread near the edge of the abyss and look into the face of Death.

On Saturday, the day after our first NDE, G-Money and I got the invite to go to the Slabbers open-mic/party-nite. We were pretty stoked since it'd be an amazing opportunity to interview the residents, collect some notes, take some pictures -- y'know, whatever.

And it was a pretty great time. We played some music, hung out with some people, basically just chilling. I rode around on some guy's beer-mobile-thing. G-Money took a bunch of pics, and I got to sit down with some of the more eccentric-slash-reclusive residents who I hadn't met yet. All in all, a very successful night.

After the festivities had pretty much died down, G-Money and I got in my car and drove back to the main road into town. I had my high-beams on due to the low-light, and cruising at about 30 miles per hour.

Not paying much attention to anything in particular, I was shocked to see a strange looking woman standing by the side of the road. Her body curved in the ugliest sense: skinny extremities and a fat, fat torso. Her glasses I especially remember, because they reflected the light from my high-beams. Instinctively I slowed the car down and turned towards her to see if she needed help.

What I didn't notice was G-Money in the passenger seat yelling at me, "DUDE WHAT THE FUCK!?" and then he suddenly grabbed the steering wheel, pulling us to the other side of road and attempting to get his foot on the accelerator.

As the car bounced past the woman -- almost tumbling over -- I suddenly noticed that in her hands she held a medium-sized sword, like the kind samurai use. (Turns out it was a wakizashi which is a "companion sword" to the traditional katana wielded by most samurai.) Finally getting the idea, I sped up right before her swing could cut a hole in my car, and we zoomed back to our room at the motel.

G-Money hid on the otherside of the bed, like a bitch, gripping his machete and shaking all over. I, meanwhile, took the opportunity to alert the police. A border patrol cop went out with his partner and grabbed the lady, right where I said we'd seen her.

The officer and I talked for a bit about the situation. Apparently the woman was pregnant, and as high as a kite with no strings from meth. She had no idea how she got there, why she had the sword or where she got it from. Even more interesting was that she lived 30 MILES AWAY! In some town called Calexico! The whole thing was honestly quite unbelievable, and yet there it was just the same.

Another day in the life of Zek J Evets. (Accompanied on this, and many other occasions, by G-Money.)

We were almost mauled by dogs, maybe almost shot by a Border Patrol cop, and almost karate-chopped by a crazy pregnant meth addict.

All in all, I'd say it was an interesting weekend.


3 footnotes:

Mira said...

Don't hate me for this, but the way you tell it, this story seems more hilarious than life-threatening!

I mean, I understand your difficulties and I sympathize, but you're such an excellent storyteller so you made it all seem so interesting and exciting.

PS- Emile Hirsch's a douchebag? Shit. And I liked the guy. :(

Zek J. Evets said...

@mira: haha, oh i know... i tell it with humor because now that my life is obviously not in jeopardy the whole thing is much more funny than at the time. (of course.)

thanks for your compliments to my story-telling! =)

p.s. never liked emile hirsch myself, but him being a d-bag didn't surprise me, since most actors tend to be.

Mira said...

Oh, and let's not forget about bromance! I forgot to comment on that part before.

PS - Acting does some weird shit to your brain, I think. It's not just the ego thing; I do think it messes with their brain.

I think Emile was good in Into The Wild. He might have some talent, but if he allowed himself to get carried away so early in his career... Not good.