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HIWAY AMERICA-BISHOP CASTLE SAN ISABEL NATIONAL FOREST,RY,COLORADO

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Bishop Castle, San Isabel National Forest, Rye, Colorado

Bishop Castle is undoubtedly one of the craziest castles in the world, created by the one-man castle builder Jim Bishop. It’s an incredible place to get married or just to visit for inspiration.

Jim Bishop’s Dream

 

To a great extent, the construction of Bishop Castle has been fueled by creator Jim Bishop’s inveterate hatred of authority and his contempt for anyone willing to submit to that authority. He has spent years battling zoning, health, noise, and sales tax regulations in his ongoing quest to single-handedly expand and modify “the largest one-man construction project in the country, quite possibly the world,” all the while arguing that the government has “pulled a fast one on the americanSHEEPLE” by chiseling away at our constitutional rights through a monolithic global conspiracy. Along the way, certain neighbors have accused Jim of being a satanic presence for allowing rave parties in the castle, and at one point several years ago, he and his son even had to overcome fifteen felony charges in court for dispersing a large group of unruly wedding party guests with a shotgun.

What many people don’t know about Jim is that he has spent much of his life being humble, generous, and affable to friends, family, and strangers alike. He believes that giving to charity is a moral obligation, and the Bishop family applies this principle to real-world scenarios. The castle has functioned as a tax-exempt, non-profit entity since 1984. This means that a visit there is always free and open to the public. Of greater significance, Jim and his wife Phoebe run the Bishop Castle Non-Profit Charitable Foundation for New-Born Heart Surgery, which helps local families with medical expenses for young children who aren’t covered by insurance. Hence, donations and purchases from a gift shop the Bishop family built on castle grounds have paid for construction of the castle and treatment for children in need. In short, Jim is as complex as his creation.

The drive to Bishop Castle is a steadily curving incline along Highway 165, a road just southwest of Pueblo, Colorado that leads through dense stands of Ponderosa pine, broad meadows, and sharp ledges that open below to sweeping vistas of uncultivated ranch land. After several miles of steep road surrounded by thickening forest, visitors finally reach their destination at 9,000 feet above sea level in the thin Colorado air. Dozens of cars line the road, and scores of people stroll toward a thick barricade of trees penetrated by a dirt trail that passes a moat and a bridge Jim has been working on for the last several years. When jokingly asked if he’s planning on filling the moat with alligators when it’s finished, Jim says, “No, I think I’d fill it with lawyers, politicians, and bureaucrats, but that might backfire on me because they would probably promulgate in the sewage.”

moat 2

dragonJust a few hundred feet farther up the trail sits Bishop Castle. Jutting above the trees, a dragon’s head of charred silver cranes over the castle’s face, imaginary flames rolling from its forked tongue and flared nostrils. The castle itself, a throwback to the Middle Ages and a testament to human endurance, sprawls in unapologetic splendor across a wide expanse of gradually sloping open ground. Every stone and every inch of mortar seem to have been hurled into a conflation of ordered chaos on a massive scale by a man who has never once used a blueprint or floor plan, only his sheer force of will and self-described “God-given genius.” Close by, a chipmunk scurries from one empty food wrapper to another. Although engrossed in its reconnaissance, the animal seems a study in cautious indifference as it continually dodges tourists who are themselves preoccupied with finding the right camera angle from which to shoot a picture of the dragon.

Flying buttresses on every side of the structure anchor three floors, lending the castle an appearance of stability and Old World elegance. On the southeast corner, a column of 42 outer steps dropping from the third floor to the ground juts out at 60 degrees, so steep and with such short footing that a tow-headed 6-year-old girl brave enough to have dared a solo descent on her own has stalled midway. Sitting on a step and trembling uncontrollably, she shrieks over and over, “Daddy, I’m afraid!” The father climbs the steps cautiously, grabs her in one arm, and carries her down slowly, intently, all the while clutching the wrought-iron balustrade, and although his emotions are far more guarded, clearly, he’s scared, too. This is a moment both father and daughter will never forget. They will be forever bonded by an event inspired by an unforeseen challenge, and one must wonder how their memories will filter and reinterpret this experience over the passage of time.

Thirty feet from the base of the castle, Jim stands in the bed of an old pickup truck. His spine is curved from years of hauling an endless supply of boulders that have built his fame. He wears a faded black t-shirt that sports a logo of the castle. Over his heart, a blue inscription reads, “Jim, the Creator.” This man is a far cry from the sickly little 3rd grade boy he once was, the one with the big ears, big nose, and devastating kidney infection who never seemed to fit in anywhere and suffered perhaps the ultimate adolescent indignity—the indifference of others. Now, he’s the grand designer of his own destiny, the center of attention and the one who chooses sides in an adult schoolyard of his own making, and he sees his castle as a protective barrier that shields him from his most resilient opponent, a hostile government that thrives on assaulting individual liberties.

A screwdriver in his hand, Jim quietly examines the motor of a pulley system rigged firmly into the bed of the truck. At various intervals, small groups wander up to the vehicle as if by accident. Most visitors have heard stories that recount Jim’s eccentric behavior, and indeed, moments like this often inspire Jim to burst into explosive, unorthodox dialectic with anyone willing to endure his incendiary world view. Suddenly, he spins on the crowd with a fierce stare and strikes up a debate with a nervous tourist. He points his screwdriver directly at the man and poses a provocative and unexpected question:

Jim: Do you own your car? Do you actually think that you own your car?

Tourist: Yes.

Jim: No you don’t. You have a certificate of ownership, that’s all. The bank owns your car. Some bank up in Denver holds the title to your car.

Tourist: How do you mean?

Jim: Do you think I own this winch? I bought it with greenbacks. I don’t own it. It’s their money and their winch. They can come and take it any time they want to.

Tourist: So who does own the winch?

Jim: The World Bank owns everything. The Federal Reserve. They own everything. Roosevelt gave it to them in the 1930s. I don’t own that winch. I bought it with certificate of money; they own it. You know, nobody owns anything. They own every individual.

Tourist: But who exactly is “they”?

Jim: The Rothschilds, the rich people in England and Europe. The World Bank. The seven rich families of the world. And a lot of them are Jews. But Hitler handled them the wrong way. He didn’t need to murder them. Take advantage of them. They’re the money-mongers. They’re the money people. Use them. Put them to work.

Jim plunges his hands down toward the crowd. They’re thick with calluses and covered in grease. He shouts,

Shouldn’t our elected officials be competent, patriotic, responsible role models? None of them are. They’re all legal criminals! They’re legal but unlawful. That’s why I call them “legal criminals.” Dictators! But do they have hands like these? Do they? Guess what? This is my kingdom! That road down there’s my highway because of this castle. Isn’t it refreshing to have a dictator of policy by merit of hard work and the help of God? Not warfare, not politicking, not brown-nosing? Isn’t it nice to see a dictator with hands like these? HA HA HA HA HA!

bishop castle low angle

At this point, most of the people standing around the truck begin to disperse and head toward the castle. Jim goes back to work on the winch he claims he doesn’t own because he bought it with greenbacks. Still, legal tender plays a significant role in everyone’s life no matter how we perceive its symbolic import. It certainly helped shape Jim’s destiny. In 1959, when Jim was 15 years old and had just dropped out of high school, he gave his parents $450 he had earned from working odd jobs and convinced them to buy a two-and-a-half acre parcel of land in San Isabel National Forest, which is where the castle now sits. Hence, Jim’s youthful drive and instinctive desire for autonomy evolved into a life-long project that even he did not consider at the time of the purchase. His $450 investment, which probably seemed like a significant sum of money back then, has paid itself forward to every person who has visited the castle since.

stairwellTo explore this monumental construction project in thorough detail, visitors must choose between two available means of access. On the one hand, they can enter the bowels of the castle through a network of circular stairwells that spring from the bedrock of the ground floor. On the other hand, they can scale the outdoor steps. Most decide to first enter through the castle’s interior, probably because of the natural desire to be drawn into and through a labyrinth of shadowy mazes and spiraling ascents that promises danger and uncertainty. The indoor stairwells lead upward through two tall towers thrusting to the sky, one of which juts 160 feet into the air, above even the tallest of the surrounding trees. The higher one climbs in the castle, the fewer people he or she will encounter on the way up. In fact, many visitors refuse to travel beyond the spacious, comparatively safe, and well-lit third floor. The castle becomes a character test for every person who enters inside its walls, and it briefly divides certain families and friends in the process.

The third floor has been the site of more than 160 weddings over the years, and it truly is something to behold. Scores of variously shaped but mostly arched windows dot the length of each wall, their stained glass artwork sometimes dark and foreboding, sometimes brighter and a bit more thought-provoking, like the image of a mysterious sorcerer holding a staff with a crystal ball mounted on the end, or the one of an eagle sailing over a Native American on a horse, with a header above the scene that reads, “I will live once as they once did, wild and free.”

bishop-castle-chapelA terrace surrounds the third floor. The walkways themselves are constructed of expanded metal while both the railings and supports are fashioned from Jim’s signature ornamental ironwork. The same floor has also been the nerve center for a host of all-night raves over the years, which has led to neighbors accusing Jim of harboring satanic forces. Ironically, when asked if he thinks letting ravers party in his castle all night is safe, Jim says, “The reason it’s fairly safe is because people can sense the danger. There’s no deception. Evil and the Devil only have power through deception. If people could see how evil the Devil is, they’d avoid the Devil, and they’d avoid deceivers.” All the same, some neighbors who especially hate the raves got a judge to issue a permanent injunction against them. Jim circumvented this problem by changing the name of the events to “private parties” since private parties aren’t illegal for someone with a 501(c)3 non-profit charter from the IRS.

sorcerer 3

walkwayHigher up, above the third floor, is where the real tests of courage take place, in remote corners of the castle designed to puzzle the will. Those who travel this far add compelling new chapters to their anthologies of fear. Most people traverse the walkways cautiously, muttering under their breath. Whether they venture only as far as the relative safety of the third floor or dare to scale a tower’s peak, they’re all afraid to one degree or another, but increased altitude breeds intense anxiety. They clutch the curled iron rails, hoping no one senses their distress, and they can’t help but wonder how something so immense and anomalous could have possibly been built in such a seemingly benign corner of the Colorado wilderness. They know they’re on their own up on these heights, and the uncertainty of the next moment keeps them vigilant. One particular section of the castle best defines this high strangeness. Jutting out into the sunlight, a lone walkway sways uncertainly from powerful wind gusts, and then it dead ends abruptly in midair.

bridge end

This forlorn passage to nowhere is probably as representative of Jim’s cynicism as any other location in America, if not more so. Outliers perceive conventional views differently because they don’t live in a conventional world. From an outlier’s vantage point, ritual and tradition appear as meaningless and dangerous distractions, as things to be scorned and avoided at all costs. They are byproducts of mind viruses that have been implanted in the American psyche by people in power who wish to shape and direct group behavior. In an environment like this, self-preservation requires a colder eye. The worst thing one can do is let manipulative control structures define cultural identity based on unwarranted consumer-driven obsessions tethered to the global economy.

Consequently, Jim doesn’t see much hope anymore in the American Dream, and beyond individual acts of decency and ambition, our destiny as a visionary nation of high ideals seems to have run its course. He believes we are being subsumed by a corporate police state that answers to global, not national, interests, and the citizenry is oblivious or indifferent to this sobering reality. He says,

There’s nothing united about the United States. We’re an offshore bankrupt corporation. Geographically, we’re a country. Politically and economically, we’re not. Our soldiers fight for a corporation, not a country. Our leaders are the warmongers. And what’s the big thing now? Football! Basketball! The World Series! Them are just games.

Of course everything’s just a game. This is just a game. But you ask yourself, who benefits? The people who benefit are the people forcing this one-world government. The World Bank. They got these bailouts, where they all got paid because they collect again because you signed the contract. All the mortgages were paid. If they’d have given us the money, we could have paid off our bad sub-prime houses and stuff and had money left over to stimulate the economy.

You ask yourself, who benefits? They got the Patriot Act. There’s nothing patriotic about the Patriot Act. Congress didn’t even read it, let alone write it. Cheney and the banksters wrote it. They got the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act. They got the NSA, empowered that even more, where they can surveille everybody. They got multi-jurisdictional cops everywhere now. Any cop can pull you over for any reason. Everybody’s a terrorist because you used to be innocent until proven guilty. Now we’re all guilty until proven innocent because it makes money. See what’s going on?

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Looking down from the castle’s apex is a defining moment for the more ambitious guests. Perhaps only from here, from this sovereign perch, does Jim’s vision come into focus, and this view must have surprised him, too, at times, must have made him rethink who he was, penetrated deep into his wrought-iron and granite world of will and idea and somehow twisted the perception of his own monument into something even more bewildering and transcendent, beyond illness, pain, sorrow, and confusion, something timeless to the touch, sacred to the eye, an offering to the lonely hand of humanity that’s always reaching out for something it can never have, and now, here in the high and windy forest, the arches and walkways and stairways and towers and dragon and unsettled tourists converge in one man who, day and night, year after year, harvested boulders from the hills, carried or hoisted them into place with paternal care and Stone Age aggression, and grouted them tight with cement until he realized that he could never stop — one man built those towers, wrote his own legacy, and nurtured an inner rage that will likely follow him to his grave, pleased as he is with the redemptive art of construction, with the wonder of useful dreams made whole, the ones that should never die.

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A FEDERAL AGENT WHO BUSTED BIG DRUG RINGS TURNS TO LUCRATIVE MARIJUANA INVESTMENTS

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Patrick Moen built an impressive reputation as a federal agent, busting big drug rings that peddled everything from meth to ecstasy on the streets of Oregon.

Moen’s decade-long career with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ended last month when he took a job with Privateer Holdings, a Seattle-based private equity firm that invests in the fledgling, but lucrative marijuana industry.

Instead of listening to wiretaps and tracking illegal drug money, Moen now vets potential marijuana-related ventures as investment opportunities for the Yale-educated backers of enterprises like Leafly.com, a website offering reviews of marijuana strains.

It’s a radical departure for a 36-year-old lawyer who once toyed with the idea of becoming a federal prosecutor.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Moen, who is in the process of relocating from Portland to Seattle. “It’s not one I took lightly. I talked with friends, family and coworkers. I sought out opinions. When it comes down to it, this is an incredible opportunity for me professionally and personally.”

The switch from law-and-order agent to marijuana industry booster raised eyebrows among Moen’s colleagues. Police generally take a dim view of marijuana; the DEA’s own “threat assessment” calls it “the most widely available and commonly abused illicit drug in the United States.”  In Oregon, federal authorities have aggressively pursued large-scale marijuana producers and traffickers.

patrickmoen.JPGView full sizePatrick MoenKeith Brofsky

John Deits, an assistant U.S. attorney who oversaw federal drug prosecutions in Oregon until his recent retirement, said Moen was a sharp-eyed agent who “understood the mission” of federal law enforcement when it came to illegal drugs. Though marijuana is legal for recreational use in Washington and Colorado and medical marijuana is allowed in 20 states and Washington, D.C, it’s illegal under federal law.

“I think it was surprising to me that Pat would want to do what he is doing,” Deits said. “I think it was surprising to a lot of people within his own agency.

“But obviously they are the ones that know a lot about the laws and a lot about marijuana,” Deits said.

Moen is the second DEA agent with Oregon ties to make the move to the marijuana industry. Paul Schmidt, who until 2010 served as the highest-ranking DEA agent in Oregon, now works as a medical marijuana business consultant.

Hiring government regulators and enforcement officials is a common strategy among American corporations, said Pete Tashman, an assistant professor of management at Portland State University’s School of Business Administration.  The pharmaceutical industry, for example, is famous for hiring former government regulators, he said.

“It’s a revolving-door strategy,” Tashman said.

Former government officials offer businesses an insider’s view of how to navigate regulations and shape future ones, he said.

“Folks that have experience on the legal end of it will help their employers lobby for the right kinds of policies that might emerge in the future,” Tashman said.

***

Schmidt, 54, acknowledged that some former colleagues consider advising the medical marijuana industry a move to the “dark side.”

“A lot of people say, ‘How could you be so against it Monday and then on Tuesday you are all for it?” said Schmidt, who worked in law enforcement for more than three decades and lives in Canby.

Schmidt has long been interested in the drug’s botanical background and its medicinal potential, he said. And though as a federal drug agent, he testified in marijuana cases in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Wyoming, he said he viewed the drug as less harmful than heroin, meth and cocaine.

“It was the least of the evils,” he said.

Many officers, particularly younger ones, agree with him, he said.

“If you go to the newer law enforcement – somewhere 45 years and younger – and you talk to them about cannabis, they are just like, ‘Man, why isn’t it legal? I have got other things to do.'”

After Schmidt retired from the DEA, he worked for the Colorado Department of Revenue, the agency charged with ensuring medical marijuana dispensaries comply with state regulations. He returned to Oregon and this year sat on the panel that drafted rules for the state’s medical marijuana retail industry.

Next month Schmidt will hold a series of seminars around the state advising prospective medical marijuana retailers about Oregon’s new dispensary law. The $95 per-person seminars will include “fresh perspectives on the developing cannabis market,” according to the flier.

Steve Fox, a Washington, D.C.-based marijuana lobbyist who helped coordinate Colorado’s successful cannabis legalization campaign, said bringing DEA agents into the industry is “politically savvy” and likely intended to put investors and political officials at ease. Hiring a former drug cop also may help foster a company’s reputation as mainstream, he said.

But Fox doesn’t see the move as a necessarily positive one in general.

“This industry now is about producing and marketing a product and the people who work for the DEA have experience in a different industry, which is arresting and prosecuting people for marijuana,” he said.

***

Moen, who started his career as a beat cop in upstate New York, where he grew up, joined the DEA in 2003 and spent eight years in the gritty city of Bridgeport, Conn. He earned a degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law.

About two years ago, Moen, who developed an expertise in wiretaps, was promoted and posted to the agency’s Portland district office, where he had a hand in the region’s biggest drug investigations as a task force supervisor. Those cases uncovered major meth, oxycodone and ecstasy rings and marijuana, too.

Moen said marijuana ranked “pretty low” among the DEA’s priorities. And while marijuana cases weren’t routine, his work gave him a close-up view of how drug traffickers exploit Oregon’s medical marijuana law, which he said “needs a complete overhaul.”

“The system is just widely abused,” he said. “It’s set up in theory as a nonprofit situation, but there are tons of people making a living off the system and enforcement of compliance is left up to law enforcement.”

Moen, whose salary as an agent was about $130,000, said he recently began considering job options beyond the DEA. Budget woes and congressional gridlock took a toll on the agency, resulting in “a bit of a brain drain,” he said.

“Really, really talented people were leaving,” Moen said.

Over the summer he heard Privateer Holdings CEO Brendan Kennedy talking on NPR about the company’s mission: investing in the nascent marijuana industry. Impressed, the veteran cop gave Kennedy a call and the pair met at a Portland area Starbucks in late summer.

The agent slid an envelope across the table.

“I am not ashamed to say I was a bit nervous at that point,” Kennedy said. “I wasn’t sure what was going to be in the envelope. Ultimately, it was his resume.”

Kennedy, who has a background in venture capital, said Moen helps the company manage risk associated with the cannabis industry.

“Patrick’s role is to help us navigate a very complicated environment, to help us be in compliance with all of the local, state and federal regulations,” said Kennedy, whose company gets about five pitches daily for marijuana-related businesses.

Marijuana’s legal ambiguity isn’t clouding its business potential. One recent estimate puts the value for the legal marijuana market nationwide at $1.44 billion. The State of Legal Marijuana Markets, a publication produced by Arcview Market Research, estimates that market will grow 64 percent by 2014.

Moen said the challenges of getting the marijuana industry off the ground and helping create mainstream brands appealed to him, but he wasn’t sure how the news would go over with his DEA colleagues.

“Nobody hung up on me,” he said. “That was good.”

It’s been about a month since he quit the DEA. Moen said he’s been surprised to learn how many people he knows consume marijuana.

“Now that people can open up,” he said, “I realize this is a product that someone’s parents use, someone’s friend uses. People that are professional and that have families and that they all view it as an acceptable, better than acceptable, as a better alternative than other options: That was an eye opener.”

— Noelle Crombie

Hiway America – Bishop’s Castle Pueblo Colorado

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1. BISHOP’S CASTLE – PUEBLO, COLORADO

Bishop\'s Castle

They say that no one man can build a house on his own, but that’s exactly what Jim Bishop did when he built his castle. The 130-foot tower has taken over 30 years to build and it still isn’t finished, but it’s considered the largest single-man construction project in the country!

Keep your eyes peeled, no matter where you go. Strange, odd, and just plain wacky landmarks are littered across the entire country. You might be surprised at what you find!

 

HIGH INCIDENCE OF DOGS EATING MARIJUANA

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    •  NEWS FROM THE FIELD

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2013

High Incidence of Dogs Eating Marijuana

Legalization brings unforeseen consequences

dogs high study america colorado marijuana poisioning dog ate hash brownies weed what to do emergency vet

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    Photo: Amy/Flickr

America’s dogs are getting high. Dangerously so. Owners are coming home to find their pooches nearly comatose, their eyes glazed over and their bodies twitching after ingesting large quantities of marijuana.

Evidently, cases of marijuana poisoning in dogs have been on the uptick as more states decriminalize the substance or at least pass bills permitting its full use for medical purposes. Many users consumer their weed in the form of baked goods and it’s not uncommon for a dog to steal a brownie or two and end up with more than they bargained for. 

In a post for the Los Angeles Times, Teresa Watanabe described coming home to find her own dog, Monte, nearly dead from an overdose.

“He tried to walk, but dragged his hind legs. He couldn’t sit up on his own,” she wrote. “I was terrified that he’d had a stroke and was paralyzed. Or was dying.” Monte recovered but had to spend the night in the hospital with an IV drip. The whole ordeal ended up costing Watanabe over $700.

Watanabe also spoke to Bruce Castillo, an emergency veterinarian technician at an Eagle Rock clinic who says he usually treats two or three stoned dogs a night. He says that while most recover from an overdose, it can still be lethal for some dogs. Castillo cited the case of a Jack Russell terrier that died after ingesting “a huge amount of pot.” Two dogs listed in the Colorado study also died from eating marijuana-laced butter.

five-year study on the subject found that incidents of marijuana poisoning in dogs quadrupled in Colorado after the state voted to legalize medical weed in 2000.

HUNTER S. THOMPSON- AN AMERICAN OUTLAW

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HUNTER S. THOMPSON

Was born in Louisville Ky in 1937.He was an outlaw and literary figure. He loved guns and books. He was arrested at a young age for stealing a wallet with two other people.
He was part of a street gang of pranksters. He came from a poor family.

He was best know for writing “Fear and loathing in Las Vegas.” and creating Gonzo Journalism.” This is when a reporter gets so involved in the story he writes himself in the story. He was an alcoholic and drug user and always looking for a controversial story.
He became very interested in the counter culture of the 60’s.

He was married to Sandy Conklin in 1963 and they had one son, Juan. They were divorced in 1980.

His first book “Hells Angels A Strange And Terrible Saga” was published in 1967. He also wrote for “Rolling Stone” about the presidential campaign of 1972.

He was notorious for his outrageousness and being an anti authoritarian. He constantly terrorized his neighbors in Colorado.

Thompson was ill for several years and in 2005committed suicide by shooting himself. His ashes were shot from a cannon to “Mr. Tamborine Man” by Bob Dylan.

READ AN EXTRAORDINARY PLACE TO LIVE -SLAB CITY COLORADO DESERT CA.

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Portraits From Slab City: ‘The Last Free Place On Earth’

by JORDAN G. TEICHER

October 03, 201210:21 AM

People come to Slab City, a squatter campsite in the Colorado Desert in southeastern California, for many reasons. But one sentiment seems to unite many of them: They want to avoid people like photojournalist Jessica Lum. That is: City people. Taxpayers. Media types.

Which is a tough situation, if you happen to be Lum and you hope to document the people of this community.

  • Neil Mallick. A musician.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Atreyu. A young traveler.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Ryan. Makes moccasins and leather goods.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Cookie. Snowbird landed.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Jordan. In pursuit of an idea.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Bobbie and Sara. Came to Slab City to start a life together.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Wille Lane. With his dog Jack Russell.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Allie Neill. The big sister who takes care of five younger siblings.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Leonard Knight. An artist. Seen at his 80th birthday celebration.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Salvation Mountain, located near the main road to Slab City, was built by Leonard Knight out of adobe clay. At the center, Knight sculpted the words "God Is Love" — what he says is a simple message he wanted to share with the world.
     
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum

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“People feel they can determine their level of isolation or engagement,” Lum says.

Since its establishment in the 1950s on the grounds of an abandoned World War II Marine barracks, Slab City has become known as a haven for snowbirds looking to live an independent lifestyle. It’s often called “The Last Free Place on Earth.”

Lately, it has also become a destination for journalists and film crews looking for a good story. And though the residents of Slab City don’t have trash collection or a sewage system, they have Internet access, and they follow the news about their home closely.

“A lot of people felt there were misrepresentations floating around. A lot of past articles focused more on people who were fleeing the recession or dealing with drug or alcohol abuse,” says Lum. “There are people who struggle with that, but they felt the coverage was taking on a minority and representing them as majority. “

So when Lum, a 25-year-old graduate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a blogger for PetaPixel, started going to Slab City last year for her ongoing multimedia thesis project, Slab City Stories, she met a population that was seeking privacy but whose privacy was being consistently breached.

During a visit last August, she was taking photos with friends when she heard shouting down the road.

“We just kind of jumped in our car and left,” she says. “Maybe they were just saying hello. I don’t know.”

Guilt about her flight accounted partly for Lum’s return in October. She was also driven, as a journalist, by a desire to understand why anyone would want to live in a place like Slab City.

Cuervo. Travels by mule.

Courtesy of Jessica Lum

Then, this December, she found out for herself. She rented an RV and parked it in Slab City for three weeks. That’s when she started to build trust with her subjects, including a retired social worker turned balloon artist, the owner of a solar-powered Internet cafe, and a former carnival worker who built his own skate park.

“I think once I became a recognizable face, it sort of gave me a bit of legitimacy,” she says.

Residents let her photograph them bathing nude in the hot springs, and let her enter the social club whose sign proclaimed “No Media.” They liked that she wasn’t from a major news organization and that she’s young; they even gave her a nickname – “Berkeley.”

Unlike journalists under pressure to make deadlines and find news hooks, Lum could take her time, searching for stories on the fringe of the fringe.

“Most journalists, especially local ones, spend a couple days there, so they don’t really penetrate the community all that much,” Lum says. “They get the same characters, the same types of quotes. There was one family that was living right in front of what’s called Low Road, and that family basically got in almost every news article that I’ve read about Slab City.”

Index card by Cuervo. The text reads: “Cuervo and my Mules Houseless on Muleback for 15 years Settling down maybe here in winter ….”

Courtesy of Jessica Lum

Talking with residents about media coverage informed her journalistic process. Lum didn’t narrate her documentary videos, instead allowing the subjects to narrate their own stories. She even gave them index cards so they could describe themselves, photos of which she published alongside her portraits online.

So what’s to like about Slab City? It’s not the safest or most comfortable — it gets cold in the winter and pitch dark at night. But Lum says she didn’t mind her time living there.

“There are people who might want to rob or steal some stuff. But I never felt threatened.