East Jesus in Slab City: Finding Community in the Desert

East Jesus

“The only way to find out about East Jesus is if someone else tells you about it. We want to keep it that way.”

– Frank, East Jesus resident cook

National Geographic was turned down the opportunity to document the commune that thrives at East Jesus. So have countless  other media. These guests and residents live simply, humbly, and off the grid. They snub publicity and large media corporations.

When we drove up to the gates of East Jesus, Frank came out to greet us.

“How did you find out about East Jesus?” he demanded.
“Mike told us.” Shacky replied. Mike has lived in Slab City for more than 20 years, and installed our solar panels for less than half the price we were quoted at any other solar company. He did an amazing job with high-quality panels.
“Mike’s a good guy,” Frank smiled, and welcomed us in immediately. He gave us a full tour and invited us to stay for a couple of days.

East Jesus was first described to me as a remote spot in the desert where artists gather to create beautiful things out of the garbage that they find lying around Slab City. “People come (to Slab City)  and see that there’s garbage everywhere. What they don’t realize is that it’s not our garbage–it was already here. We’re just trying to create something beautiful with it.”

All of the artwork at East Jesus can be touched, sat on, climbed into, and fully experienced. They have a Mercedes that has been set on fire. A towering elephant made out of discarded rubber. A “babies in barbed wire” display. They have a VW bus that has been intricately decorated and has visited Burning Man twice. And these are only small examples of the fascinating creations at East Jesus.

After the art tour, Frank took us behind the PRIVATE PROPERTY signs into the gathering places of their commune. We explored their kitchen, outdoor living room, functioning bathroom, power room, library, and music room. They provide wifi and three meals a day. They have a BBQ, a smoker, and a fire pit.

“The first 48 hours here are free,” Frank explains. “We know what it’s like to be a traveler. Sometimes you just need a place to stand still for a couple of days.” East Jesus will take you in, feed you, and give you a safe place to sleep.

“After that, we require one hour of work per day, five days a week, ” Frank explains. For “work” you can do anything you want. You can work in the kitchen, you can clean, or “if you want to blow shit up, we have shit to blow up.” The concept of “work” is to do something you enjoy and are good at.

This little commune is established on the belief that people, if left alone with no rules to restrict them, can and will live up to their full potential. I am reminded of my own years of office work and its limitations on my creativity, ideas, and passions.

For $150 per month here, you can live in their community. The “rent” includes free wifi, all meals, working bathrooms, a music room, a library, and the freedom to use any of their resources to create art.

As Pat Sweeney said after our tour, “It makes me happy that this place exists.”


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Marshall Ulrich Talks About Nutrition, Hallucinations, and What Makes Death Valley Special

Marshall Ulrich has run more than 100 foot races, averaging 125 miles each. As his latest feat, he has just completed the first-ever circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park—a 425-mile trek through the desert. I had the privilege of interviewing Ulrich last week, and here’s what he had to say:

What is it about Death Valley that fascinates you?

Death Valley is pristine and has such a vast diversity of geographical features, such as volcanic craters, slot canyons, sand dunes, salt valleys, as well as plants such as mesquite, yucca and huge Joshua tree forests. Within the National Park, you can experience altitude differences of more than 12,000 feet and massive mountain ranges. Those features and the fact that the Badwater Ultramarathon is like a big reunion for those of us who have returned for up to two decades! It’s the people, too.

 Is there anything you wish you would have done differently on your circumnavigation?

Put soap in the caches ;-) , something we forgot. I would have liked to be able to take more time and do more exploring within the interior of the park. We were limited on time, and it would have taken such a huge effort to be able to visit other areas, which we would have liked to have explored. Death Valley National Park is so large (the largest in the lower 48 states) that it would take months or even years to scratch the surface.

What did you eat and drink on a typical day in the desert?

At night it was Expedition Foods freeze-dried meals and also MREs for the most part, plus canned Progresso beef stew and chicken noodle soup. During the daytime, we ate snack food, such as corn nuts (my favorite), chips, Cheetos, trail mix, crackers and occasionally an energy bar (our least favorite). We used essentially no  engineered foods as they weren’t appetizing or we felt didn’t do much to keep us fueled. Just REAL food PLEASE is what we would say.

What are three things you learned on this adventure?

How little we really need to exist.

How distracted we are in real life and how much stuff interferes with our basic needs as humans.

That a person can accomplish so very much — all it takes is good planning and a little luck (we had a lot of luck, maybe call it good karma)?

What were your most important items of gear going through Death Valley?

Hoka shoes with the great cushioning, Deuter backpacks with the air suspension (kept our backs cool), and maps and a GPS so we could see where we were going and gauge water intake based upon topography and temperature.

Do you have a particular mental attitude or “stance” that you use to accommodate to extreme heat?

Yes: no matter what we were facing, we learned to just accept whatever was dealt us without feeling sorry for ourselves. Same with water: even though it was 110 to 120 degrees at times, it didn’t matter — water is water and when you are thirsty, temperature is the least of worries.

Describe your strangest hallucination.

None during the Circumnavigation, but during my solo across Death Valley years ago; a rollerblading babe clad in a silver bikini skating just out of my reach. Dreams during the circumnavigation were bizarre: running out of water, struggling to get up a hill, coming upon caches that were compromised and more.

Who is your biggest cheerleader and strongest supporter?

Always my wife, Heather but my neighbor Roger Kaufhold was there helping with garbage sweep and during the rare times we saw them, well, it was JUST THE BEST!

The best thing about Heather is that she supports me, but questions WHY I’m doing what I’m doing and makes me take a close look at my motives for every extreme adventure.

What is your next challenge or goal?

To keep doing the Badwater race (and maybe other things in Death Valley) and other things I’ve yet to decide. And to motivate people as best I can through speaking, running camps, etc. (We have a running camp coming up early in October where I’ll be working with Ray Zahab and Lisa Smith-Batchen to train all levels of runners. You can see more at http://www.marshallulrich.com/trainer.htm )

Where do you see yourself going with your running?

Slow down, walk don’t run (more), and train when I feel like it and it makes sense (no overtraining, which is what I used to do). Oh, and did I mention take time to look around and smell the roses? Running will just have to take a back seat at times.

What, if any, are the challenges or running and aging?

I’m slower, and I take more time to accomplish my goals. This is hard to accept mentally as it indicates that I can’t do what I used to. And I don’t recover as quickly, but, hey, I’m still vertical and healthy.

Anything else to add?

Three thoughts:

  • You can do more than you think you can.
  • Diversify and try something new.
  • Never stop!

Learn more about Marshall Ulrich at www.marshallulrich.com.


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The Baddest of Badwater and Mogollon Monster 100 Winner

If you’re an ultra nerd like me, you’ve been glued to the Badwater updates and Twitter page for the last few days tracking some badass, super-human runners through an epic race.

In a sport that normal people call crazy, these are the people WE call crazy. We watch and admire them as they surpass all our expectations and blow us away with their bravery and perseverance.

But just when you thought Badwater was over, here is another epic adventure that begins in three short days. In an email from Marshall Ulrich’s team:

Because Marshall Ulrich has crossed Death Valley on foot more times than anyone else, was the first to do it unaided and unassisted — also the first to go four times in a row — and has won this ultramarathon more times than anyone else (four), the veterans crowned him “The King of Badwater.”

Now, “the king” is expanding his realm: on July 21, just three days after he’s set to finish this year’s Badwater Ultramarathon, he’ll head out to conquer the first-ever circumnavigation of the entire Death Valley National Park, nearly 500 miles through some of the most extreme conditions in the world.

Here is a video preview:

Direct YouTube Link HERE

Here is the press release:

First Time Ever: This July, Two Men Attempt Circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park on Foot

Marshall Ulrich (61) and Dave Heckman (38) will set out to do what no one else has done before: complete a circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park on foot, trodding close to 500 miles through tough terrain and climbing over several mountain ranges up to 5,000 feet.

In July, temperatures in Death Valley can exceed 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s the second hottest place on earth, so most people aren’t familiar with its alien landscape or the strange creatures making their homes there. Never mind the realities of the harsh conditions Ulrich and Heckman will face, including the scorching temps with the threat of dehydration and heat stroke, along with rattlesnakes, scorpions, coyotes, and unforgiving terrain.

Most people assume the area got its name because nothing can survive out there, and it’s true: Death Valley can be a dangerous place.

Yet it boasts a history of boom and bust mining towns and small communities since the 1800s. In fact, people have been in Death Valley even much longer than that.

More than a thousand years before the first white man lumbered into the desert, the Timbisha Shoshone made their homes there. Descendents of that ancient tribe still live in the heart of the desert, keeping their customs and traditions alive.

As Ulrich and Heckman make their way around the exterior of the park, they will carry 3-D cameras to capture on film what they love most about this area: starkly beautiful sand dunes, jagged rock formations, eery and expansive salt flats, carved slot canyons, isolated oases, and massive Joshua tree forests.

This one-of-a-kind footage, along with additional cinematography, will document their progress and, they are hopeful, their completion of this adventure by the end of August.

Beyond their goal of achieving a first together, both men wish to draw attention to this unique National Park, to honor its past and raise important questions about its future.

Ulrich is a Colorado native, an extreme endurance athlete (ultrarunner-mountaineer-adventure racer), author (“Running on Empty,” 2011), speaker, trainer and guide. Heckman is an endurance runner and cycler, avid camper, and firefighter/medic in Northern California.

Best of luck to both men!


Big congrats to JUSHUA BRYANT who was randomly chosen to win a free entry to the inaugural Mongollon Monster 100 this fall! Joshua, send me an email at vanessaruns@gmail.com so I can get you hooked up with your entry.

To all who didn’t win, strongly consider registering for this amazing race. Shacky and I hope to see you there! You can register here and visit the race website here.

Sea to Sea Run Report

For many, the holidays are a time to feel pressured to spend time with family, overeat, and worry about weight gain. But not Jeff. Last year he used his Thanksgiving holiday to run from the Salton Sea to the Pacific Ocean. It took him three days. This year, he wanted to repeat that run and we planned to join him.

Shacky and I wanted to use the trip to practice fastpacking. We would run with our backpacks, carry our own food and gear, and try some minimalist camping. The preparations for this trip could be a blog post in itself. We weighed our food, counted the calories, and packed everything away as tightly as possible.

Instead of looking for healthy, low-calorie foods, we wanted to maximize calories so that we would have to carry less food, but still get the calories we needed. Essentially, high-calorie foods like sugary pop tarts and salty crackers. You truly learn the value of your food when you have to carry the weight of it on your back.

Packing was such a learning experience. I managed to get all the clothes I needed for three days into two large zip-lock bags. It’s amazing how small things get when you take the air out of them.

We started at the Salton Sea with Jeff and a handful of other friends. Then we started to run.

Running with trekking poles was a little strange and hard to get used to, especially since the first stretch was flat and we didn’t really need them. And the weight of the packs themselves was a challenge. My pack weighed 25lbs. It contained all the clothes, food, and gear that I would need for three days of running and camping in the desert.

Although I was proud of how little I had packed, 25lbs is still a significant weight to run with, and I felt it. The pack was a great fit and very comfortable. But I felt as though I had gained a lot of weight and I wasn’t used to carrying it.

Running was tough, but not impossible. Still, Shacky and I fell behind and started to walk when his calves tightened. Whenever we tried to run again, his calves got worse. After about 4 miles, it hurt him to even walk. Something was obviously wrong.

At this point, we were in the middle of the desert and the rest of the group was far ahead. We could see them as specks in the distance. I made Shacky stop and sit down. He wasn’t moving anymore and we had no idea where we were.

I threw off my pack and started to sprint. I had to reach the group to tell them what had happened. We needed a pickup, but I had no contact information for the vans. I was able to wave down Matt and explain the situation. Matt went ahead to tell the others.

It turned out that we had to walk about two miles back to a gas station for a pick up. So we hobbled along. Shacky was limping, and as soon as we hit the road he had to sit down.

We sat in front a house and before long, a dog came out and started barking viciously. When we tried to get back up, we found that Shacky could no longer move without intense pain.

I started taking off my pack to run to the gas station by myself and bring back help, when the lady of the house came out to see what her dog was barking at. We apologized and explained our situation. She kindly offered to drive us to the gas station.

Terry rescued us at the gas station and before long we had Shacky sitting down with his leg elevated and some ice on him. Our adventure was over.

I wasn’t too disappointed since:

a) I had already learned a lot in preparation for this.

b) We could still hang out and help crew the group.

c) We drowned our sorrows with Mexican food.

At the end of the day, we decided to drive home instead of camp. We spent Saturday recuperating, then by Sunday Shacky could walk again.

We met Jeff who was running his final leg, and I ran it in with him. It was so inspiring to be a part of this and I’m very much looking forward to it next year.

Here is a video I made of the experience:

And here’s what I put together for Active.com: http://www.active.com/running/articles/run-from-sea-to-sea.htm

Great job, Jeff!


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