When I wrote my horror novel The Slab, it was after years of visiting the real-life area of California's Imperial Valley where the novel takes place. During those trips to one of America's most bizarre, sun-blasted landscapes, strange things happened--strange things that eventually made me sit down and write what became my first original novel (as opposed to the tie-in work I had done) for adults (as opposed to the teen horror quartet Witch Season [now Dark Vengeance] that Simon & Schuster had published).
More or less centrally located in the valley is the Salton Sea, a huge inland sea created accidentally (albeit in the location of an ancient seabed) when an under-financed, overly optimistic group of charlatans and boosters called the California Development Company tried to control the Colorado River through a series of inadequate barriers, in hopes of selling water rights (and therefore farming) to settlers in the valley. Floods through the winter and spring of 1905 resulted in the river breaking through all their gates and dykes and flowing at its full strength into the nearest low point, the Salton Sink. The CDC sold out to E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad, one of the most wealthy and powerful men in America, but all his money couldn't stop the river. Through 1905 and 1906, it poured into the Sink, creating a sea that remains today. A couple of rivers, the Alamo and the New, still feed the Salton Sea, but it has no outflow; as a result, toxins from Imperial Valley agribusiness constantly wash into it but not out. Later boosters tried to turn the shores of the Salton Sea into a Palm Springs-like resort, but people with money rarely flock to beaches where at any time, thousands of dead fish might be washed up on the beach.
The result is that there are a few towns scattered around the Sea, and many more town layouts--roads laid neatly in the desert, cul-de-sacs and stakes marking the lines of ownership, but no owners.
To the east of the Sea, outside the small town of Niland, is an even stranger community, Slab City. Slab City came about when during WWII, concrete slabs were laid between the Sea and the Chocolate Mountains to serve as a base for desert maneuvers--preparation for the war in northern Africa. After the war, those nice, level slabs were abandoned, and gradually people migrated to them in campers and tents and later, huge RVs and little VW buses and everything in between. There are no municipal services to speak of, though a school bus does show up to take kids to school. People live there because they are fiercely independent, or too impoverished to pay even the lowest rent, or too crazy to function in civilization. During the winter the population swells with snowbirds, but during the summer, when temperatures can easily soar above 110 for weeks at a time, only the hardcore remain.
One of the sources of entertainment for the Slab-dwellers is watching the "fireworks" in the Chocolate Mountains. Although the military abandoned the slabs, it kept the Chocolates, and uses them as a bombing range for the nearby Yuma Proving Ground, as well as a laser test area. People sit outside their campers and watch the explosions light up the night. Some of them mark the locations, then go in (violating all manner of federal laws) to see if the bombing left behind any scrap metal that they can sell to buy food for a while.
Once I was out in the Valley with naturalist and brilliant writer David Rains Wallace. He pointed out that since the Chocolate Mountains had been largely off-limits to people for the decades during which California's growth had been most pronounced, and its deserts largely overrun by civilization--and since the bombing tended to be confined to the central areas of the range, so as not to endanger civilians, it was likely that the most pristine desert land in the state was inside the range's fences. Anyplace that had not been actually hit by bombs, he speculated, was probably as close to pure, natural desert as one could find in California.
Naturally, I took that as a challenge. A few weeks later, a friend and I strolled along the military's tall chain-link fence until we found a place where it had been knocked down. A narrow dirt road led into the range. Since I don't know what the statute of limitations might be for trespassing on a US military installation, let's just say that if I had a dream about what happened next, it would have gone like this:
We wandered up the trail for a while, until we were well inside the range, out of sight of the fence. It appeared that Wallace had been right. The desert here was unspoiled, with none of the tire marks and garbage and erosion caused by humankind. It was beautiful country, rich and alive.
But after we had been exploring for a while, we heard the unmistakable sound of a truck heading our way, up the same dirt road we had followed. Busted! we thought. Just in case the military knew we were out there somewhere, but didn't have a precise fix on our locations, we ran away from the road, then took cover in a wash, screened by creosote bushes. We watched for the distinctive olive drab or desert camo that would mark a military vehicle.
Only, that's now what we saw. Instead, we saw a bright red, brand new full-sized American pick-up truck with an empty bed and a couple of guys inside.
Confused, we watched it go by, even deeper into the range than we had yet been, maybe another half-mile at the most, and we heard its engine cut off.
Then another noise broke the desert stillness--a helicopter. Surely this was the authorities, and surely they'd be more inclined to go after the truck than two poor hikers.
Only, again, that's not what it was. The chopper was also private, and it was racing up from the south. In which direction, about 25-30 miles as the 'copter flies, is Mexico.
The private helicopter dropped suddenly, about a half-mile from us--just about where the truck had stopped.
At which point, we knew beyond any doubt that being arrested for trespassing, awkward as that might be, would have been far less dangerous than being viewed as a witness by the guys in the truck or the guys in the chopper, as they transferred their merchandise from one to the other.
We kept to our hiding place, safely under the creosote, as first 'copter, then truck, made their getaways. Once we were sure the coast was clear, we hurried out of the range, and back to our own vehicle, glad not only not to be in federal custody, but glad to still be alive.
Because that's the kind of place this is--a place where humans are so few on the ground, and so determined not to let other people get into their business that they don't get into that of others, that drug cartels use it to make their connections for shipments heading north.
The Slab is available as an e-book for Kindle or for Nook and other readers for $2.99, or as a trade paperback with illustrations by Tommy Lee Edwards, from Mysterious Galaxy and other booksellers for $16.99.
Causes Jeffrey Mariotte Supports
Nuclear Information Resource Service, Natural Resources Defense Council, Move-On.org,