IN his quest to meet people who buck convention and live life in the wild, Ben Fogle has come across some colourful characters in the last ten years.
But his latest adventure, to the off-grid “Utopia” of Slab City, in the scorching Californian desert, is his most eye-opening yet.
In Ben Fogle and the Lost City, which airs on Channel 5 in the UK tomorrow, the presenter meets people who have dropped out of society to live alternative lives as rock stars, pirates, mermaids and circus ringleaders.
He also hears how a married couple fled to the desert to escape a murderous ex who stabbed them both several times, and are now living as a 'throuple' with another resident.
But beneath the bohemian surface of the community, there's an undeniably dark side, where heroin and meth addiction is rife.
Tragically, 17 people have died from heatstroke, overdoses or murder in the last year.
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“There's a part of Slab City that is this beautiful utopia where you can be whoever you want to be,” Ben tells The Sun. “But obviously there's no laws, there's no policing and there's no infrastructure.
“It's described as ‘the last free place’ so on one hand, it has utter freedom, but with that freedom comes a very dark side.
“There are all sorts of people you wouldn't want to live next to, including rapists and murderers, [and] there are a lot of guns there."
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Drugs and death
Slab City, 270 miles South East of Los Angeles, is a sea of dilapidated caravans, makeshift shacks and dwellings made from old pallets.
Junk piles are scattered around the site – which is split into communities with names like Pirate Camp, Ponderosa and East Jesus – and residents regularly upcycle the decaying rubbish into art or decor.
Estimates suggest 150 call Slab City home all year, with the population swelling up to a couple of thousand in certain seasons.
With no running water, sewers or air conditioning, and temperatures that reach over 50 degrees in summer, it’s not the easiest place to live and every year, ‘Slabbers’ die of heatstroke.
Ben says: “The main thing that dulls all of that is taking drugs.
"Everyone takes marijuana, which is legal in California, but obviously the meth and heroin is equally prolific and that probably helps them get through those long summer months.”
'You get to live your fantasy'
Ben’s first encounter in the camp was Peter Pasaloqua, a slim man in black eye make-up, a circus ringleader’s jacket, a black chiffon skirt and a top hat.
“I’m the ringleader of this circus,” he tells Ben. “This is what I always wanted to be when I was seven years old because of the Disney cartoon, Dumbo.
"In Slab City you get to live your fantasy.
“You move to Slab City and you get to be the person you always wanted to be before society messed you up.”
Former care worker Peter, who moved to the desert from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, cooks dinner for Ben on a propane cooker and demonstrates his pole dancing skills before showing him the king size bed under a ramshackle canopy, where he sleeps at night.
“I wake up in the morning, I smoke pot all day long,” he says. “I don’t have a clock, I don't know what day it is. I don’t have a TV, so I don’t know what’s going on in the world. It’s great.”
From empty nester mum… to mermaid
Ben also meets Dot, a middle-aged mum and former IT executive, who moved from the city after her kids left home.
She now lives in a ‘maze camp’, an art installation for tourists, and also runs the Big Bus Boutique – an old Greyhound bus stuffed with castaway clothes.
“I left everything behind or gave it away,” she says. “I was in a 3,000 sq ft house with a family, and then I was an empty nester.”
Slab City can be your dream come true, or your worst nightmare
Now, building a plunge pool out of straw and tarpaulin to cool down in the heat, she dresses in a mermaid tail and shell bikini top, before asking stunned Ben to carry her to the side of the pool
“You can do pretty much anything you want to in Slab City,” she tells him. “Nobody cares."
But she adds: "Slab City can be your dream come true, or your worst nightmare."
'They've taken lots of children from here'
At Pirate Camp, Ben meets leader Rob, who dresses in skull and crossbone trousers and a pirate hat, with long dreadlocks and a bushy beard.
The inside of the camp is decorated with painted tyre swings, cages, strings of lights and a bar, called Red Rum Room, where fellow ‘pirates’ down their tipples among pantomime cries of “aaargh”.
Apart from the basic amenities, one thing that’s markedly missing from the community is children – but single dad Rob is the exception to the rule, having raised his son in the camp.
He explains he might have to leave for a year to get his boy, now 18, into college.
“It’s hard for a single father to raise a kid out there anyway, especially when you’re as eccentric as I am, so this seemed like the perfect place,” says Rob. “I only had CPS (Child protective services) come out here once to check it out, and they let it go.
“They’ve taken lots of children from here so now my son is turning 18, I’m going to turn my house into a place where people can be safe and have children. I don’t want people’s children to be taken away. I started a mama camp.”
But dad-of-two Ben tells The Sun he is not convinced the desert community is the best place to raise children.
He says: “Technically it's against the law to keep children in a place with no air conditioning and I think that's the main reason there's no children there.
“Pirate Rob had a camper van with air conditioning and I was told there were children living on site.
“Marijuana is one thing but I think the harder drugs, which are prolific, are a much harder thing to stomach. I wouldn't condone people keeping children there.
Lawless commune's rough justice
Rob, who has lived in Slab City for eight years, explains that while police don’t often come to the community there are rules, and summary justice for anyone who breaks them.
“There was a girl here who had a guy fondle her while she was passed out,” he says.
“We got together and the next morning we went to his camp and pulled him out and we all p***ed on him and told him to get. The punishment fit the crime on that one. I voted for the ass-whipping but this was funnier.”
Other crimes and slights against the community are rewarded with burnouts – when the homes of the perpetrators are torched in the night.
“There were burnouts about twice a night while I was there,” says Ben.
“It's pretty brutal when you walk through the burning remains of the very limited possessions that people have spent a lifetime gathering, because effectively everyone is homeless.”
Throuple fleeing from murderous ex
The dark side of the camp was something the throuple – Jessie, Peter and Ryan – also discussed, with Jessie saying she was “absolutely terrified” when she first arrived.
The threesome live in a camp called Rabbitside, which they have transformed into a botanical paradise with numerous plants, water baths and animals, including geese.
Married couple Jessie and Peter met Ryan in Slab City after fleeing a violent attack from an ex-boyfriend who “wasn’t taking the break-up well.”
“I got stabbed in the neck and Jessie has a few chest wounds,” says Peter. “ It’s a miracle we both survived.”
Jessie says he continued to stalk her after his release from prison, sending her emails about venues for their ‘upcoming wedding.’
“When he was released from prison he made it clear to friends that he'd like to find us and finish the job. So we just dropped out,” she says.
But the couple – who later found out their attacker had taken his own life – say violent crime still worries them in Slab City.
“One person said we wouldn’t survive out here because we’re too normal,” says Peter, who manages a local supermarket.
“They said ‘You guys need to be careful out here. There are child rapists, dog racists, murderers.’”
Jessie adds: “Of course there are, they exist, They’ve got to go somewhere. When they get kicked out of society, they come here.
“As much magical creativity there is here, that’s the true heart of Slab City. Felons. People who just can’t make it anywhere else.”
Ben's off-grid dream
While Slab City may not be the “Mecca” Ben was looking for, he reveals he is planning to retire to his own 'off-grid' wilderness one day.
But while wife Marina may be up for the challenge, he’s waiting for kids Ludovic, 12, and Iona, 11, to get older before he makes the move from their Oxfordshire home.
He adds: “I don't ever want to force anything on my children because they love their family and friends and their life here.
“The only thing I would miss is family but hopefully they would come to visit.”
Ben Fogle and the Lost City airs on Channel 5 on Thursday, at 9pm
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