Slab City, Niland, Socal, Garrett Leight

Slab City con Cuervo

Words + Photos: Molly Steele

I want to talk about Cuervo, but I’m feeling like maybe I don’t know enough words. I want to talk about how he lives in a hut he made of mud and hay and how he rides mules everywhere he goes. How he listens to music ALL DAY and eats foraged weeds and makes sourdough pancakes over the fire inside his hut. How he has an actual TV and uses Netflix to watch the news and documentaries on a regular basis. How he’s not just a desert cowboy, but a mystic warrior.

How do I begin? Woke at 5:30, packed car, picked up a coffee and a donut, left town. I listened to “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” audiobook as I sped out with the sunrise, which is just totally beautiful and depressing all at once. Later, “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League came up in my head and I couldn’t help but play it on the stereo and sing out loud. I must have listened to it ten times, singing and crying, crying and singing. After a couple of hours I followed my friend Kevin down toward Slab City and off on a side road up to a big tree with a van parked next to it. Out of the tree came the leathered old man I came to see. Cuervo.

I want to talk about Cuervo, but I’m feeling like maybe I don’t know enough words.

Cuervo must be about 6’5. Tall, slender, shirtless. He has two tufts of mule mane hanging on either side of his head, giving the illusion of long pigtails. Also, face tattoos. Under the desert cedar tree is a whole world. A large mud hut bigger than my house, an outdoor kitchen and several small solar panels and the making of a “garden” around the back. The ground is thick with dried desert mud. In plaid pajama pants and boots he digs holes in the ground in which to plant marijuana, but not for smoking, he says. Cuervo says weed has a high concentration of chlorophyll and he plans to put it in smoothies. I’m not sure he actually has a blender. Ella Fitzgerald’s “At Last” plays loud through a speaker rigged up with the solar power. Cuervo has wifi and electricity, even water pumped up from the canal, albeit murky.

We worked out in the parking lot of an empty building. We rode the mules through the desert to a hot spring where Cuervo stripped down and cannonballed in. We lunched on dandelion greens and burdock from the nearby okra field and washed it down with wine. Each time one of us brushed against the pods of okra seeds it sounded like a rattlesnake’s warning. We heard that a snake man lived in a trailer nearby with several rattlesnakes, getting bit constantly. My dad used to be known as the snake man.

At one point we rode to the corner store for a visit with the other inhabitants of the Slabs. I guess this is a daily thing…work out, do chores, hang on the corner. No one seems to like it, the Slabs, but no one seems to leave unless they die. Cuervo and what seems like most of the guys around town aren’t allowed in the market where we stopped for a few things, like his daily canned Clamato. We talked about what it’s like to be on the path of a mystic warrior. We talked about hunting DMT frogs and gender roles on the mystic path and about this woman named Susan. Cuervo talks about Susan a lot.

I had to leave because I wanted to get rained on somewhere alone, so I left. But Cuervo has an iPhone, you know. He sends me photos of himself working out on a regular basis, and asks about the possibility of us being together someday. I think about him from time to time, and I hope that right now in this moment he is riding his mule through the desert on the way home from the hot springs, or dancing by the fire in his kilt with a bottle of wine, talking about something.