We all know that looks can be deceiving, but when you’re a full-time RVer that realization can happen with amazing frequency, and it can even enhance your life. I was reminded of that last winter when I finally met my camping neighbors of the last seven years, Bob Unden, 88, and his wife, Nancy, 85, two longtime winter snowbirds of Slab City, California.
If you were to meet Bob and Nancy in their hometown near San Diego, you’d never dream that they preferred to spend winters at the Slabs. They are respectable looking people and not the stereotypical “Slabbers” portrayed by mainstream media. Over the last several years, reporters have done a great job painting an ominous picture of the Unden’s winter home, located on an abandoned military base on the eastern side of California’s Salton Sea. Everyone from the New York Times to NBC News has portrayed this state-owned, free boondocking land as a lawless haven filled with shiftless drifters, criminals and transients squatting in a post-Apocalyptic refuge from society. But stick around awhile and you’ll learn that the media has it wrong. The Undens and many other Slab City residents like them don’t fit that description at all.
I’ll admit there’s a little truth to what the media says. Some Slabs encampments are places you want to stay away from, but the majority of campers are law-abiding people like Bob, Nancy, my husband and myself. With plentiful free camping, weekly air shows by Navy fighter planes at the adjacent bombing range, and a Saturday talent show by traveling musicians, there’s enough fun to keep snowbirds like us coming back.
When you arrive you’ll see that the Slabs have good areas with nice folks, and shady neighborhoods that spell trouble. It’s definitely not your usual RV park. Oftentimes it’s hard to distinguish between the “good” and “bad” sides of the community, and that’s when you need to loosen up if you want to experience the best of this quirky experience. When I’m there I do my best to practice what I preach, but it’s not easy. For example, in the general area where we like to camp, there’s always been a compound with several RVs that have seen better days. It looks abandoned and we could never see who lived there, so we always assumed that some lunatics claimed that space and steered clear of it.
Taking Time to Know the Real Story
One place we frequently visit at the Slabs is one of the signature attractions: an 18-hole desert golf course nicknamed “Gopher Flats,” located in the shadow of the adjacent Navy bombing range. The course is showing signs of aging, but it’s a fun, surreal experience to play golf while military aircraft zoom overhead. Walk the course and you’ll see that whoever designed it had a great sense of humor, the kind of person you’d want to invite over for happy hour. Jim and I often wondered about the crazy character that designed the course, continually donated golf clubs for public use, and kept it maintained. Little did we know that all this time the ingenious architect of Gopher Flats was living right next to us in the circle of funky old RVs!
An unexpected introduction to the Undens by a mutual friend was another lesson that no matter where you go, there’s always a great story to enjoy if you stick around a bit. Once I put aside my crazy ideas about the intimidating looking encampment near us, I would quickly learn that Bob and Nancy embody a spirit of adventure that I hope to emulate for my entire life. My neighbor’s story is just one of the many unexpected, happy surprises that occur when you shake up your routine and go full-time RVing.
Long before the media and RVers like me found out about the Slabs, the Undens were already having the time of their lives at the former military base known as “Fort Dunlap.” Twenty-eight years ago this pair of desert-loving RVers saw the Slabs featured in an article about free camping in Southern California and knew they had to check it out. Nancy said, “We came out and our friends didn’t care for it, but we did.” Winters for this World War II veteran and his retired schoolteacher wife haven’t been the same since.
During their married life the couple traveled throughout the West with their four boys and band of desert rat friends, but they kept returning to the Slabs. As avid off-roaders, they always loved exploring the surrounding desert in their “Blue Monster” dune buggy. Bob and Nancy have passed along their love of the area to their sons, 11 grandkids and 18 great-grandkids who often visit on weekends and stay in their vintage RVs—the same ones I had all these crazy notions about!
Neighbors Build Good Fences and Golf Courses, Too!After meeting them I couldn’t believe my entire impression of our mysterious neighbors was turned on its head. I thought we were living next to unfriendly recluses seeking shelter among dusty RVs and makeshift automotive lawn furniture, but all along they were just a fun-loving, close-knit family with three generations of adventurous “Slabbers” having fun in the wintertime.
And fun they are! The Undens are all about a good time as shown by the Gopher Flats Golf Course that Bob and his Canadian friends designed in 1992. It’s one of three hand-built courses in the Southern California desert badlands, but it’s the best and funniest that you’ll find.
Gopher Flats is one of Slab City’s signature attractions, but Bob doesn’t make it out there as much as he used to. His healthy 88-year-old body is stronger than most, but each year it’s a little more challenging for him and Nancy to get around, especially after she lost her vision to macular degeneration. Most people made of lesser stuff would have packed up their campsite for good, but these two don’t let anything stop them from doing what they love the most. They simply find a way to get around the physical challenges of aging and continue enjoying life every winter at the Slabs.
Learning about great neighbors like Bob and Nancy can happen anywhere, but how many of us actually make the time to do it when we’re chasing after careers, money and a future filled with “someday”? I know I never had the time to reach out, but now that I’m a full-timer, opportunities to meet people like the Undens occur more than ever. All it takes is a willingness to extend beyond my comfort zone and put aside any preconceived notions about the world. It’s definitely a long process, but making the leap to full-time RVing is a great way to start the journey.
Rene Agredano and her husband, Jim Nelson, recently celebrated their eighth year on the open road as location-independent entrepreneurs. Their adventures are chronicled at LiveWorkDream.com. Rene also writes “The Full Timing Nomad” blog at rvlife.com.