Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead

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 Rancho Costa Nada

By Phil Garlington    

Introduction   

How desperation, joblessness, a flat wallet, and the sin of pride drove me into the desert like a pariah.  And how I built a modest house for almost nothing and lived more or less comfortably.           

I became a desert homesteader after I got fired from my last job.  Homesteading in the burning waste is a new deal for me, but I’ve been canned many times.  My deportment irks employers.  It’s a kind of hauteur.   A cocky, supercilious, cheeky insolence.  An overweening querulous hubris.  I repeat myself, too, and have a flashy vocabulary.           

This time after getting sacked I started turning the idea that instead of donning livery again maybe I’d try my luck as a stalwart, self-sufficient modern pioneer who doesn’t need a regular job.  I already owned some acres in a remote desert valley.  That’s because, a couple of years before, while working as a reporter for a Southern California newspaper, I’d done a story about the annual tax-default land auction in rural Imperial County.  One of the parcels on the block was ten acres, way out in the dunes, with an opening bid of $100.  I mean?  To make it short, I chimed in, and after some desultory bidding I wound up getting the ten acres for $325.           

A friend dubbed the property Rancho Costa Nada.  It didn’t really cost nada, but it certainly didn’t cost mucha.  The property lies in the middle of a monotonous baked-dry alkali basin that’s arid, scrub-covered, amenity-less and way the hell off the paved road.           

Folks do live out there in the valley.  True desert homesteaders, such as the Tewkes family, holed up in a laager of trailers in the hollow of a barren hillside, where the ingenious son and dad spend their days tinkering with an improvised fleet of Mad Max-style desert carts and buggies.  There’s the irascible, touchy J.R., who finances his set of cannibalized sand rails by illegally salvaging brass casings from the nearby Chocolate Mountain Naval Aerial Gunnery Range.           

Other settlers too, like the Hobo, and the Demented Vet.  Baby Huey, Mystery Woman, and Alba the Dog Lady.  Indian Phil used to live out there too but he’s in prison for shooting the finger off the deputy.            Admittedly, it seemed like madness for me to try homesteading.  Nobody encouraged me.  My sister said, “Is this some kind of religious deal?  Are you going to be hawking tracts at the bus station?  Because if that’s it, forget about coming to my house for Christmas.”

Not to the Manner Born

I’m a rugged survivalist only in theory.  I have none of the practical skills of the Tewkes or J.R, or the Hobo.  Some of the other inhabitants of the valley may be just as misanthropic, but they’re also handy and self-reliant.  I’m more of a conceptualizer. 

But I’m also a reader, and before I moseyed out to develop my scatter in the sun-basted beyond, I boned up on the desert pioneers, and visited all the websites catering to homesteaders, survivalists and back-to-the-land romantics.  So I took with me a lot of intellectual hardware.  In practice it turned out a lot of the cute ideas I lifted from books pretty much flopped.           

Because of my limited tool-wielding abilities, the homestead I wound up with is primitive, but based on simple ideas that any mope can figure out without much need for luck or skill.  Nor did my low-tech squat call for inordinate grunt labor. I’m too lazy.  And the real attraction: it was dirt cheap.  It had to be, because when I went out to the Smoke Tree Valley I was busted.  For building, I used salvaged materials or stuff picked up from garage sales.  No loans, no mortgage.  No permit fees, since I didn’t pull any permits, and (as far as I know) it’s all legal.           

Don't Do This

Not many people are going to follow my example, buying worthless land for almost nothing at an auction, and then building a hogan and compound for a few hundred bucks out of scrounged material.  My sister sees my “encampment” in the waterless Sahara as a nut deal suitable only for recluses and cranks that need a quiet place to make letter bombs.  She says that my experiment in simple living is no high-minded Thoreau-vian examination of core values but rather the stigmata of a serious character flaw.  That’s her.             

Most other people, in saying why they wouldn’t be interested, cite a reluctance to suffer hardship.  Rancho Costa Nada is innocent of alternating current, plumbing, tap water, and convenient shopping.  Seventeen miles to pavement, 45 to a Kmart.  I haven’t experienced any hardship.  Pain, when I hit my thumb with the hammer.  And often boredom.  That’s why I travel.  But nothing in the building or maintenance of the dirt-cheap homestead has been difficult.  Any common mope can do it, as I’ve shown.           

Understandably only a few adventurous freedom-seekers or surly malcontents actually will try this.  The following chapters may appeal mostly to the fantasy life of city-bound wage serfs who dream of shucking the mindless job and the asshole boss, ditching their teeming fellow widgets and the nightmare commute, in favor of what might seem like (and for me, sort of is) a placid life of leisure and self-sufficiency.           

These countless yoked minions of the world aren’t any handier than I am, and don’t have a big bank account either.  But, see, it says here that it’s really possible to get land for practically nothing (as long as it has no water and is basically worthless) and then live on it in a comfortable little hogan, with a few cute, inventive but simple amenities, again for almost nothing.  And no cretin taskmaster on your back harping about deadlines.  The stuff of cubicle daydreams.           

Let me run down some of the items I’ll be going over in the next pages.           

Land.  Mother Earth News likes to depict the woodsy homestead in the tall pines by a gurgling brook.  Fact is, even the rawest land these days is pricey if it comes with water and timber.  The only cheap land left in the States is worthless land.  That means desert land.  Bone-dry land.            So, what about water?  A well is out of the question.  It’s too expensive and the water’s usually salt when you hit it.  Drinking water, at least, must be hauled from town.  That’s what the homesteaders do, hundreds of gallons at a time.  Out in my valley, J.R. may be willing to deliver some highly mineralized well water from his secret source that’s suitable for limited washing, for gardening, and for running the settler’s homemade evaporative coolers (provided the filters are cleaned every week).           

Summer.  Ouch.  Typically, 110-120 degress.  When June rolls around I decamp like the wuss I am and go tenting in the mountains.  Or sailing on San Francisco Bay.  Most of the other homesteaders, hardier, and with more personal property to protect, ride it out.  The Hobo, in an effort to keep cool, has buried his trailer in a deep pit.  (He has a periscope he uses to watch the critters nosh at a feeding trough.)   Most everybody else in summer uses various versions of home-made 12-volt swamp coolers.  I tried one too, and also experimented with the heat chimney and the wind scoop.           

Housing.  A homesteader and auto mechanic named Cherokee (“an honest engine”) owns a sprawling junk ranch in the valley that other homesteaders pick over for building supplies.  Across the river in Ehrenberg, Arizona, a guy named Wood Charlie sells salvaged lumber cheap.  I built a simple cottage of sand bags and scrap lumber facing a courtyard patio covered with a shade-giving ramada.  A south-facing solarium heats the sleeping room on cool days.  I spent about $300, mostly for salvaged lumber and garage sale stuff, and for renting a truck to haul the stuff to the site.  I had to go bottom dollar because I was broke after getting broomed from my last job.  It took me a week or so of puttering to build the sleeping hogan, and then I tacked on the rest, at a leisurely pace, over the next month.  I did the work myself with ordinary hand tools.  Most of the measuring was by eye ball.  And I didn’t knock myself out. 

(In this, the homely second edition, I’ll add notes gleaned from experience.  I did too much at the Rancho.  I worried too much about insulation.  I never linger in the valley when it’s Siberia or the Sahara.  I don’t need a shelter for all weathers.  Wind-proof and shady.  That’s what’s wanted.  A junk trailer, gutted, refurbished and reinforced.  Or a simple desert bum box, that plywood and two-by-four sleeping cube ubiquitous in the desert.  Now, since I spend summer and winter traveling and tent camping anyway, I would do fine with just a tent or bum box, the ample shade ramada and the windbreak.)            

Utilities.  The Smoke Tree Valley, of course, is off the grid.  No power poles.  So I formed my own private utility.  I keep a couple of deep cycle marine batteries on the floorboard of my car which I charge off the alternator while I’m driving around.  At home I plug my car into the hogan, and have plenty of juice to run lights, TV, fans, fountains, air filter, computer.  I have a small solar panel too, to run the kitchen light, but the trouble with solar generally is that it’s too complicated and expensive.  It takes an electrical engineer to get it working right.  Windmills, ditto, and also too delicate and noisy.  I figure I’m gonna drive the car anyway.  Might as well use it to pump up a couple of extra batteries.           

Heat comes from a catalytic propane heater.  The brand name is “Mr. Heater,” and everybody out here uses ‘em.  The cost of utilities?  A lot less than my former utility bill.  The price of a couple of Kmart batteries and a tank of propane.  Refrigeration?  I let the supermarket handle it, although for awhile I had an evaporative cool box good enough to keep beer at pub temperature.  Shower?  A home-made deal. A big hand-pumped garden sprayer.  I also have a bathtub I got from a salvage yard, but it needs too much water to be practical.

(Note.   I’ve reduced the energy draw.   I shut down the bilge pump fountain.  More cute than practical.  The SlaveMart fans crapped out and I didn’t replace them.  I prefer print to video, and got an e-reader that has been a paradigm shift.  A library in a tablet.  LED lights now of course.  A cell phone and a laptop.  Everything binned in the Civic’s trunk, and powered from one deep cycle marine battery.) 

The Life.  Mostly one of leisure.  After breakfast, I usually stroll for a few hours in the cool of the ante meridian.  I’m an ambler, not a hiker.  I like the desert, and I like to poke around in the seldom-visited canyons in the mountains near my place.  Some regard the surroundings as kind of dun and sere, but I’ve come to enjoy the sweeping vista thing.  When I return after a morning’s exploration, I lie on a cot in the shade of the courtyard ramada and read novels for while.  After lunch, a siesta.  In the afternoon I take care of any chore, putter around, plink at beer bottles with a .22 pistol, read some more, or go visiting.  Maybe motor up the hill to listen to a jeremiad from the Demented Vet.  After dinner, a cocktail while the lurid, gaudy sunset flames in the Western sky.  I might watch one of the vintage DVDs I rent in town (five for five bucks).  I enjoy this kind of languid repose for a couple of weeks.  When I get restless I take a trip someplace, using all the dough I save by not paying rent.           

Well, now for a closer look.     

You idiot (says my sister), why would you want to go rusticate in the faraway and inconvenient Gobi Desert  in a primitive hut made out of sand bags?  Since you’re not a Navajo.  Is a job really so awful?  Are you allergic to a paycheck?  Isn’t this really just avoidance of responsibility?Hmm.  Well, in my own case, in the space of a year I got fired from two corporate jobs, both times for bad attitude and insubordination. 

It seemed like either some trend was shaping, or that, psychologically, I had taken a self-destructive stance.  Although this last time my measly insubordination hadn’t amounted  to much.  The jefes had put up a pegboard, and wanted us to show, by peg placement, whether we were in or out and when we’d be back.  I set my peg permanently at out and back at five.  Unless they saw me sitting at my desk, which meant I was in.  As for the rest, look at your watch.Anyway, I’d been fired from other jobs over the years, but never two in a row.  Usually my MO is to quit in a huff over some violated principle or perceived wrong, before they get around to firing me.  I’ll say this.  No matter how many times you get sacked it still kind of stings.  It’s hard not to take it personally.  The self-esteem takes a slam, never mind your righteous contempt for the suit delivering the pink slip.           

This latest time for some reason, I felt loathe to start looking for another job. Other times, after getting frog-walked out of an office, I’d eventually start fishing around.  But now I’m getting older, the bosses younger.   I really didn’t feel like taking orders from a recent high school graduate or some other junior widget.  If I had a modest competence I could retire to a studio apartment in a geezer ghetto.  But I haven’t been provident, never worked anyplace long enough to get vested in a pension.  And my 401(k) doesn’t have much kay in it.             

Anyway, like a lot of other profligate Boomers, I’m looking at the drear prospect of living on Social Security, if it turns out there is any.  Fine.  Not to be the beamish, but I think I could get along okay on the pittance.  That is, if, I don’t have to pungle up to the landlord or the coal-hearted banker.  I think I can get by on Social Security because I’m frugal.  I don’t need a lot of dough.  I like to travel, but it can be last class and on foot, and I don’t mind carrying a tent.  These days, it’s the rent that’s the ball buster.  It can blot up half the pay envelope. 

After I got canned, I started thinking, all I really need is some modest biding place to hang out when I’m not on the road.  Doesn’t have to be much.  It just has to be rent-free, and sans mortgage.  Now as it happened I already owned these ten worthless acres out in bumfuck…at the end of a washboard road in the dusty desert.So I’m thinking…could I live out there?  Could I build some kind of half-ass house out there?  That’d solve the rent question.  Maybe I could be a heroic Daniel Boone, desert division. Or a cranky hermit.  Or a loon polishing his political theories like Teddy the K.  Anyway, that kind of speculation was the genesis of the Dirt-Cheap Homestead.   

The author confesses the truth.  He is not of pioneer stuff.             

Trouble is, I know nothing.  I have no skills.  I’m not habilis.  I’ve never taken a shop class.  I’ve never been able to comprehend the exploded view in the auto shop manual.  I’m all thumbs. I have no natural penchant or predilection for tool-handling and construction.             

But I do yearn to breathe free (or at least be rent-free).  So, with reckless disregard, I didn’t let my ignorance hold me back.  I needed habitation, shelter.  Immediately.  Because I had no place to crash, and I certainly didn’t want another idiot job.  I had to rise above my limitations.             

In a doubtful case like this, I usually go to the library and browse the shelves.  It gives me the sense of doing something.  And maybe I’ll get an idea.  Now I’m looking at books about owner-built homes.  All kinds and styles of alternative construction.  Sheds, barns, post and beam, straw bale, adobe, underground, geodesic, rammed earth.  I’m flipping the pages, looking for ideas that might help me slap together something half-ass that’s habitable and cheap on my little square of sunny heath in the desert.  Mostly there’s no help for me.  The plans are too complicated and ambitious for a dunce; I don’t understand ‘em.  Or too expensive for a thin budget of maybe two or three Benjamins.  Or too labor intensive and time-consuming for one guy who doesn’t even have a truck and will have to do everything himself.  I want something simple and quick and cheap.  I look at a book about yurts and tipis.  But no, even these super tents are too tough to make.  And I’d have to cut and sew, which is out of the question.  My mind keeps reverting to sandbags.           

Nader Khalili

One time while working for a newspaper, I wrote a story about this Persian architect, Nader Khalili, of the Cal-Earth Institute in Hesperia, who builds houses out of sandbags.  As a young man, traveling around his native Iran on a motorcycle, Khalili noted the practicality of earth houses in desert climates.  Well insulated, rugged, blah blah.  And the material right under your nose, free for the taking.  The drawback was that sun-baked, un-reinforced mud brick didn’t hold up too well in that country’s frequent earthquakes.  Every few years a temblor in Iran sends mud walls tumbling, crushing to death thousands of villagers.  His central insight:  the buildings needed to be domes.  And instead of mud brick, sandbags, tied together with barbed wire. 

He bruited the idea around back in the States, and pretty soon had a couple of contracts:  one with NASA to develop a design for sandbag houses on the moon (that’ll be the day); but also a contract with a United Nations agency to come up with some plan for a simple hut that could be built by refugees.             

The UN result launched him on a career that brought him limelight as an innovator in alternative housing.  His design for the UN was a dome about 14-feet in diameter meant to be built in a few days by a famished woman and a couple of kids, using sandbags that came with instructions (in the form of drawings), the whole package air-dropped by relief agencies.  According to the plan, the refugees filled the bags using tin cans at the exact place where the bag belonged in the wall.  “If they have to lift the bag, they’re doing it wrong.” Khalili says.           

He picked Hesperia in the southern California desert as the site of his institute because of the extreme conditions.  Blistering in summer, Arctic in winter.  And lots of earthquakes.  On a patch of desert property outside of town, he set up his school, and started building sandbag houses.             

In a word, Khalili’s basic sand bag dome is made either from regular sandbags or from long plastic tubes that are gradually filled with damp earth and tamped down as the tube is coiled in circles.  Pretty much the way a kindergartner makes a clay pot.  Instead of mortar, strands of four-point barbed wire are laid between the courses.  The inside is plastered with a mix of earth, cement, and straw, then painted with milk and linseed oil.           

Sometimes the outside skin gets covered with what Khalili calls “rep-tile,” cement-stabilized mud balls.  Khalili says the mud ball tiles are good insulation and temper the destructive lash of the desert flash flood.  The domes can be built for about $250 using the tubular fiber bags that come in rolls. “Nature likes the conical form,” Khalili says, according to my newspaper report.  “It’s the result of gravity and friction.  You notice that mountains and hills aren’t shaped like boxes.”  The sandbag dome supposedly stands up to earthquake, flood and fire.  And it’s comparatively non-toxic, not having the noxious exhalations of plywood or Styrofoam insulation.           

Like the Queen

The city of Hesperia was not amused.  The building inspectors couldn’t find anything about sandbag houses in the Uniform Building Code.  And being un-reinforced with rebar, they certainly did not meet earthquake standards.  Khalili invited the city bureaucrats to participate in a little test.  He invited them to bring out a couple of city cement trucks, attach steel cables to the domes, and see if the trucks could pull them over.  Of course, as you guessed, the trucks failed.  The arch and the dome, as the ancient Romans figured out, are mighty.  If done right.              

Khalili also experimented with ceramic dome houses that are fired from the inside like a clay pot.  And then a sandbag tract house.  Eventually, the city bureaucrats came around, and wound up giving him the contract to build the city’s natural history museum, out of sandbags.           

While doing the story, I went to a couple of classes at the school.  The students came from different walks.  Some were middle-aged former flower children, still interested in hippie lifestyles.  Some were survivalists from Idaho mainly impressed with the ability of a sandbag house to sop up heavy rounds. I met a group of Aborigines from the bleak Pilbara region of Australia, who wanted to escape the suffocating metal prefabs provided by the government and return to some form of earth building as practiced by their ancestors.  Although the work involved a lot of dirt moving, I noticed the teams of students put up sandbag walls pretty fast.           

Still, when it came time to think about building my own hogan, I had to pass on the dome.  Maybe a famished refugee mom in Chad could put one of these babies together, but I didn’t think I could.  For a dome to work, measurements are needed, even if they come from a string on a pole.  The strength of a dome depends on the bags being wedged together by compression.  I didn’t trust myself to get it right.           

Sandbag Good

But I liked the sandbag idea.  Fill one (which pretty much anybody can do), and you have a building block.  (I also borrowed the idea of the wind scoop from Khalili’s model tract house.)   Finally, when I started the little sleeping hogan that was to be the anchor of my homestead, I used sandbags, but also improvised from the scrap and salvage I’d managed to assemble on the property, using a bunch of different inchoate ideas culled from books and from observing what other homesteaders had done.           

I also borrowed a couple of ideas I’d come across over the years that I figured wouldn’t be too hard to incorporate into the rancho.  Some of them worked, most of them didn’t.* Cardboard walls for the compound surrounding the hogan, as an alternative to the too-expensive plywood panel that I couldn’t afford.  Based on an idea suggested by Hippie Jim.  Unlike plywood, cardboard is ridiculously cheap.  At a building supply in the desert town of Blythe, California, 100-pound bales of recycled cardboard for three bits each.  I tried some experiments. 

Using the same jig I used to make crapboard (which I’ll explain later), I laid out squares of cardboard and pasted them up in layers.  Hippie Jim used flour glue.  I tried that, and it worked okay, and has the advantage of being butt simple.  But reference books at the library give recipes for other kinds of glues the homesteader can mix in a bucket.  In my case, I found some jugs of marked-down cheap white glue for a few bucks at a discount store.  Hippie Jim painted his cardboard wall with wax from melted candles he’d get at the thrift store.  I tried a panel as an experiment, and that worked pretty well.  My own idea at the Rancho:  I tried soaking the cardboard panels in a solution of soupy cement.  The paper disintegrated into mush.  One of those times I’m glad I work alone.             

* Something like a Trombe wall.  It’s the concept that counts, not the name (which is for some Frenchman), or the execution, which in my case has been kind of slap-dash.  This is a way of heating the interior of a dwelling in winter using sunshine.  Basically, the idea is to add a shallow solarium on the south-facing side of the building.  It could be glazed with salvaged window panes.  Or, if the builder isn’t thinking of the ages, he can use plastic sheeting that’ll probably last a couple of seasons, except maybe not in the desert if the wind gets to it.  Anyway, the sun warms up the air inside the glass and wafts the air into the house.  Or 12-volt fans could circulate the warm air.  Dozens of books detail versions of this simple principle, but all these designs are too complicated and expensive for the dirt-cheap homestead.  I concentrated on the principle.  A glazed greenhouse on the south size that heats air which then seeps into the house.  That’s what I built, glazed with plastic sheeting.  The first summer the wind tore the sheeting to ribbons, but now I’ve got a line on getting a bunch of salvaged windows for free from a Blythe planning commissioner.             

* Here’s another one I mulled for awhile.  An underground pipe to draw in cool air in summer.  The energetic builder digs a trench leading into the living quarters.  An eight-inch diameter plastic sewer pipe (too expensive to buy, so it has to be salvaged) goes into the trench and is covered with rocks and dirt.  The end that comes up outside is screened to keep out insects and rodents.  The end coming up inside the hogan has a small 12-volt fan attached to pull out the air.  The principle:  Outside air cools as it transits the pipe underground and emerges in the dwelling place.  The operative word, energetic.  I’m not.  Didn’t happen.           

* The solar chimney.  An old idea that the certified world traveler sees on mud houses in Medieval villes in basket case countries, but updated a little for Western use.  A tall chimney, painted black, sticks up from the roof of the house and is held securely in place by guy wires.  The sun heats the chimney and causes the air inside to rise, thus drawing the warm air out of the house.  In the western version, the black chimney is encased in glazing, to increase the effect.  Usually, the glazing is only on the south and east side, in the Northern Hemisphere.  Eventually I tried a solar chimney on my hogan and it kinda worked, I think.  But the same fierce windstorm that shredded the solarium also kayoed the heat chimney.  In the end, I decided it’s a lot easier just to go someplace else when the weather gets uncomfortable.           

As for tools, I decided I’d have to pretty much go with what I had, which was the usual assortment of basic stuff, hammer, saw and so on.  I also had a 20-year-old 200 watt Honda generator left over from my last building project, a cabin, the Amenity-Less Horror, up in Lassen County.  But I never used the generator.  Instead, I opted for a couple of battery-powered tools, a screwdriver and a small circular-saw.  Those were the two tools I wound up buying, for a total outlay of $60.  The saw because it’s too hard to saw plywood by hand.  The screwdriver because my arm got sore after awhile from pounding nails, even the little six-penny ones.  The Hobo already had told me it’s a lot easier to use a power screwdriver and wallboard screws.           

I had a few items left from stripping my sailboat before I sold it (following my departure from steady work).  My sister had given me a power drill for one of my birthdays but a full charge only gave me a couple of holes.  I recharged the tubular batteries for the screwdriver and circular saw using an inverter and the two marine batteries in my car.I left the library with a full noggin of schemes.  But now the time had come to put these notions into play, or I’d be sleeping on the sidewalk.  

             Wallet like a pancake.  Ditto bank account.  Pretty much down to bare metal Seeds and stems.  So with the help of the Hobo, I collect some salvage and scrap and haul a truckload of this stuff out to the desert scatter.           

 I had a starting construction budget of about $300 cash.  The only flex was in one still-limber credit card that hadn’t quite been maxed.  I wouldn’t be shopping for materials at the building supply.  Everything would have to be salvage or scrounged.

Mournful WhistleNowadays when I ride the Californian, the Amtrak train that runs between Bakersfield and Oakland through the Central Valley, I covet the junk I see from the window of the dining car.  The tracks, like train tracks everywhere, parallel countless unkempt backyards and lots littered with the detritus of untidy lives.  On the outskirts of burgs like Fresno and Stockton stretch miles of corporation yards, trackside, littered with lots of material I probably could use out on the Rancho.  Stacks of wooden pallets, rusting metal beams, gutted trailers, splintered, graying lumber, scraps of plywood, jumbles of broken concrete and rebar.  I could put that stuff to use out at the homestead.  Trouble is, of course, the Rancho lies in the remote lost-ness of the Colorado Desert, and this cornucopia of junk, much of which probably I could snag for a song, inconveniently reposes here, five hundred miles away.             

That’s the only drawback I can see to using salvage. Most of it is where the people are, and the cheap desert homestead is gonna be where people aren’t.  Thus the major cost of a salvage operation is in the transportation, in moving the pretty much worthless junk items from the urban venue to the faraway homestead.  Particularly in my case, since I don’t own a truck.  My only transport was a three-cylinder Geo Metro, which means that when I had to move heavy items, such as salvaged lumber, concrete, and pallets, I hired a lift.  My biggest single expense in building the dirt cheap homestead -- $139 -- covered the rental of a U-Haul truck.           

My homestead is about 45 miles from Blythe, California, a town located on the Colorado River across from Ehrenburg, Arizona.  Blythe’s population is 12,000 un-incarcerated (two state prisons lie within the Gerrymandered city limits), and happily that’s a large enough population to generate the waste and residue that the salvager needs to work with.  I learned all of this about salvaging from the Hobo.The Hobo is another settler out in the Smoke Tree Valley, residing on a homestead located six or seven miles north of mine.  I think it’s interesting that he spent about a year digging a big hole to bury his trailer.  Makes sense, I guess.  Estivation.  All the animals in the desert burrow below ground to escape the heat.  But the Hobo has put a periscope in his buried trailer so he can watch the animals that snoop around his compound at night.  He puts out kibble for the coyotes.  He’s sitting down there in his trailer like Captain Nemo.Anyway, the Hobo knows where to score the salvage. He agreed to help round up and load the junk I’d need for my homestead in exchange for a little space on the truck, for water tanks and dog food for the wildlife.           

Big adventure, huh?  Gathering up all the items necessary for building a desert hogan.  I hoped this would mean, finally, cutting the cord with the landlord and the utility company, shrugging off the constraints of the nine-to-fivee, blah blah, and taking command of my life again.  It’d be just another day in Samland for the other mopes, but for me, umbilical separation day, when I’ll grab the wheel away from the officious chauffeur and pull off onto an interesting side road.            

The Hobo had pulled off on a side road a long time ago.  In his mid-forties now, he’d had a footloose career of budget wandering all over the globe, before buying his ten acres out in the Smoke Tree Valley.  As a certified world traveler, bargain class, the Hobo had struck Blythe on one of his cross-country sojourns, and saw the potential right off the bat.  Blythe anchors down plenty of nothing.  Stark, scrubby, sun-smitten desert for a hundred miles in any direction.  Hemmed all around by waterless, worthless dirt.  I had stumbled into possession of my baronial estate by sheer chance, but the Hobo picked the Smoke Tree. I’d first spied the Hobo on a Blythe side street sitting on a curb next to his ancient Volks bug, which had a full-sized sofa strapped to a home-made carrying box carved into the backseat.   He called his car the Clampett-mobile, after the sorry hearse-colored vehicle in the Beverly Hillbillies.  I guess that car had a sofa attached.  In my position then as editor of the local astonisher, I was always on the lookout for filler.  At first glance the Hobo seemed the kind of eccentric feature a newspaper always can use.  He wore voluminous clown trousers with one suspender and a plaid shirt buttoned all the way to the top.  And ten-pound ankle weights (he once told me that Kmart offers the best ankle weights, and he’d shopped the world).  Chatting, we soon figured out we owned land in the same valley.  

A few months later, after I got canned and made my big decision to homestead, he showed me how to get started in the racket.  Our first stop was Wood Charlie’s, across the river in Ehrenburg.  Wood Charlie deals exclusively in salvaged lumber, working out of a dusty lot at the far end of the main drag, and using his billfold for his office.  His main stock is six-foot cedar boards, either 1” by 8” or 1” by 6” that come from shipping crates.  The boards are splintery and warped but strong as iron.  Anyway, for about a hundred bucks, I got all the lumber I needed, not only 60 cedar boards (which I wound up using in place of studs) but also a cord or so of plywood remnants, 8’ by 16” that Charlie wanted to get rid of.  Perfect stuff for sheathing.             

Back on the California side we headed for the Oasis Water Company to pick up used 100-gallon water tanks.  Ten bucks each, and we got seven, four for me, three for the Hobo.  Stopping at the city park, where travelers can draw water for free, we used a garden hose to fill six of the tanks.  This city park in Blythe, by the way, is the main source of potable water for the homesteaders, ever since the town-dwelling owner of the only more or less sweet well out in the Smoke Tree put a lock on the pump.  J.R, another of the settlers, does have the keys to another well, but the water is too salt to drink and too sulfurous to bath in, although it’s okay for washing dishes and for watering the cactus.             

Six hundred gallons of water flattened the springs on the U-Haul a bit, but we continued on to Ace Hardware to pick up pallets.  This is one of the great deals for the dirt cheap homesteader.  Because the pallets are free, gratis, help yourself.  These pallets have petty much had it, as far as drayage  is concerned, being torn up and broken.  But it’s free wood.  We piled pallets to the ceiling.  At Ace, we also picked up 100-pound bales of used, flattened out cardboard, at .75 cents a bail.  On the homestead, I soaked squares of cardboard in a cement and sand soup in one misbegotten experiment.  We also got a half a dozen or so 90-pound bags of cement and concrete.  The cement’s about $5 a bag, the post hole filling concrete $2.50.            

My  tab so far is a hundred for the wood, forty for the tanks, $20 for cement and concrete, and a couple of bucks for cardboard.  The truck, like I said, is gonna wind up costing $139 to rent plus $40 to refill the gas tank.  I have to admit another expense.  As I was leaving the U-Haul yard I accidentally rammed the Cyclone fence, not being used to the wide turns required by a big truck.  The fence wasn’t hurt too much, but apparently I also kayoed the night bell meant for the use of propane customers.  The owner says, “Gee, I’ll need an electrician to fix this.”  This was about 30 seconds after I had declined the insurance, which I always figure is a rip-off.  Anyway, I settled with the owner on the spot for cash.  So add another $100 to the tab (which meant I had to put Ace Hardware on the credit card).           

Still a little room left on the truck, so we stop by the back of the Palo Verde Valley Times, my former employer, to pick up a couple hundred bundles of old newspapers out of the dumpster.  I use the bundles of newspaper for wall and roof insulation, after wrapping the bales in plastic bags (Yeah, you’re right, that isn’t precisely up to code).  And then the last stop in town, Smart and Final, where the Hobo picks up two 100-pound sacks of dog food.  The Hobo doesn’t have a dog.  He uses the kibble strictly to attract coyotes and other critters, for his nightly viewing pleasure.           

The other main ingredient for the dirt cheap homestead I’ve already purchased.  Three hundred sandbags, bought over the internet from e-Sandbag.  Thirty bucks.  The original plan had been to stop by Cherokee’s Junk Ranch out in the valley to pick up 2” by 4”s and tin roofing.  But Cherokee, an octogenarian auto mechanic who dubs himself “The Honest Engine,” turned out to be on his latest honeymoon, having just married a woman he met in the tiny ville of Palo Verde, where he keeps a trailer.  His ranch, at the north end of the valley,  is a sprawling 40 acres of old cars, trailers, boats, and all manner of discarded flotsam that Cherokee feels still might have some worth in the eyes of  his homesteading neighbors.  And the ranch does have the unarguable attraction of offering a wide range of salvaged junk at comfortable prices in a convenient location.  When Cherokee resides at the ranch, he sleeps in the open air atop a pile of eight mattresses.  It’s not because he’s as sensitive as the famous princess.  It’s because he wants to stay out of the reach of the coon-tailed rattlers, which enjoy the shade and cover provided by the many low-lying deposits of old boards and tin shed roofing, and which come slithering out in the evening to search for rodents.  But Cherokee wasn’t home this time, so we rolled by his ranch without stopping.  The Hobo said you kinda have to know what you’re doing on the ranch, because Cherokee has salted some of the approaches to his valuable junk with tacks and barbed wire covered with a layer of dirt.           

The Geo Platelet

The couple of main well-traveled dirt roads out in the Smoke Tree are pretty good.  I go over them in my low-slung Geo Platelet, but I’ve got stuck.  My policy, I slow up to ten mph over the long stretches of washboard, and then bear down on the gas through the gravel washes.  The main dirt road, Milpitas Wash Road, is sort of maintained by the county, since it curls around toward the prisons and finally debouches near Interstate 10.  But I’ve been stuck in the washes a couple of times.  Most of the homesteaders get to their property over a private road that’s maintained by J.R., who owns a grader.  J.R. presents as gruff and prickly, and claims he grades the road strictly for his own benefit, but everybody else thinks he does it out of community spirit, other evidence being that he’s always willing to help out a traveler in a jam.            

The road out to the Rancho, however, is called Midway Road, and it’s maintained, sort of, part way, by the Marine Corps.  The road runs along the Chocolate Mountain Naval Gunnery Range, and military trucks use it to haul out shredded targets after they’ve been bombed and strafed for practice.  The road’s sandy and soft in the low areas and washes, and motorists who make the mistake (as I have) of pulling over a minute to take bearings might find it takes awhile to get moving again.  The road after it passes the turnoff into the military reservation becomes impassable to all but super-robust vehicles such as J.R.’s six-wheel-drive water tanker truck.  We were pretty confident the heavily loaded U-Haul could handle this road as far as the turnoff to the Rancho.  But Rancho Costa Nada sits about a half mile across open desert.  Some tire tracks lead out there now, but when my friends Gordon and Tule and I first turned up with the GPS looking for the coordinates, there was nothing, nothing, except, nearby, an old sand-choked path wandering out to a long-abandoned homestead from the Fifties.  The desert around the Rancho is covered with what’s called “varnish,” which is a shiny thick crust of sand and pebbles.  Under the varnish is powdery talc-like sand.            

Happily, I guess, we got the U-Haul all the way out to the Rancho proper before it became hopelessly stuck, the rear wheels buried to the hubs.  The Hobo said it was because I was trying to back up.  I’d wanted to back in behind a shade shack to unload the water tanks.  The Hobo says it’s never a good idea to back up on varnish; he said it’s smarter to keep going forward even if it means making large loops.  To me, that information seemed to arrive like a tardy scholar, but hey.  In any case...now that we were stuck, a very common occurrence in the valley, we had to lighten the load.  We put the empty water tank on the ground and began siphoning through a garden hose.  When a tank went dry we lifted it out of the truck and drained the next one into it.  With the truck empty, we began the usual drill:  dig out the wheels, line the holes with rock, push in boards and brush under the tires.  Hours went by.  No luck.  The futilely spinning wheels were in too deep, the sand too soft.  The truck (even empty) was too heavy, blah blah. 

Finally, the Hobo says, “We need to get J.R.”  J.R has that big six-wheel-drive tanker truck that could pull us out.For the first couple of years that I owned the Rancho I’d come out from time to time with people from the Orange County Register.  We didn’t really know people lived out there.  We’d see trucks on the road sometimes.   But it wasn’t until the Hobo introduced me around that I realized how many neighbors I had.  Five or six.J.R’s place is about four miles away.  The Hobo took a compass bearing on where he thought it was, and we started off on foot.  I took a gallon jug of water.  

In a little while the Hobo says, “We’re gonna pass right by Indian Phil’s old place.”   Felipe the Indian had got in trouble with the county because he was using his homestead as a depository for old tires.  People would pay him to make their old tires disappear from a corporation yard.  He figured it was the best and highest commercial use of his property.  The county called it a nuisance, and issued a warning.  Finally the county came out with an abatement order.            . 

In the ensuing gunfight, Phil shot the finger off the resident deputy, and then eluded a considerable manhunt that included helicopters.  Eventually, the law caught up with him in North Dakota, where he was living on a reservation.  The Hobo says that after the gunfight the enraged lawmen burned Phil’s trailer.  It’s true anyway that now there’s nothing left except a charred frame.           

The detour to look at Indian Phil’s had put us a little off course, and we were now on the backside of J.R.’s compound.  The Hobo said he thought we ought to keep our voices low and sort of work around to the front and come in on the road, whistling a tune.  J.R. and his wife have a menagerie of animals that includes a dozen or so not-that-friendly pooches spotted around the compound and tethered on break-away leashes.  J.R’d told me I was welcome to visit provided I came in on the road.           

But before we got to J.R.’s driveway, we came to a break in the scrub where a fairway opened up to the trailers.  The Hobo turned in.  I did not, and in another second the inevitable gunshot went singing over the Hobo’s head.  I knew it was just a warning shot, and not aimed at me, since I didn’t hear any crackling.  But I prudently hit the dirt anyway.  The Hobo was yelling appropriate words, and now JR appeared carrying an AK47, and after a few remarks about morons not following instructions, he invited us for coffee.  He said we looked like Mexicans, since I was carrying the gallon water jug, which is pretty much standard for the illegals who cross this patch making their way to I-10.  Nothing against ‘em, J.R. says, but they wander into the compound and set off the dogs.           

Now we were alright.  After berating us for awhile over coffee, J.R. started the rescue operation. With the help of his six-wheel-drive tanker truck and a hank of chain the U-Haul popped out of the sand in a wink, and not wanting to stop the truck on varnish again, we headed back to town to return the truck, without further misadventures.  When I went back to the Rancho alone I’d start on the hogan.                 

 A nutshell description of building the sleeping hogan in a week.           

First, as always, I start with a principle.  In this case, the principle is, the materials determine the house.  I’d build according to what I’d managed to scrounge.  So, because I had no 2’ by 4’s in the collection of scrap lumber I wound up with from Wood Charlie’s, I opted to put up a post-and-beam shell sheathed with scrap plywood, with sandbags and newspaper bales in the voids for solidity.  The posts, each made of four of the six-foot-long 1” by 8” cedar boards and glue-nailed with six pennies and some generic tube glue, were hollow in the center, of course, and petty easy for one person to lift.  To anchor them, I pounded a four-foot length of rebar (salvaged) into a shallow hole filled with rock and a concrete block.  I set the hollow post over the rebar and on the cement block, then poured a little concrete mix into the hollow interior.  When the mud had set, I filled in the rest of the post with dirt.  The first experiment seemed pretty darn solid, and I went ahead.             

So...for the homestead’s first unit, the 8’ by 8’ sandbag lined sleeping box, I set up eight dirt-filled posts, and got them more or less square by nailing up pieces of scrap lumber to tie the corners.  Then I put on the first course of three-eighths plywood (8’ by 16”) scrap sheathing around the foot, inside and out.  I started piling sandbags in the empty space between the sheathing.  I also used another of Khalili’s suggestions.  He prefers barbed wire between each course of sandbags to help hold them together.  But if you don’t have barbed wire, he said, you could use the broken glass from beer bottles.  Which is what I had, and what I used.           

Filling sandbags is kind of a drag.  My career total before starting the hogan was maybe five.  For the first phase, the sleeping unit, I needed two hundred or so.   I tried different ways to make it easier.  I sat in a beach chair and filled them with a coffee can.  I put the bag in a bucket to hold the neck open and tried it that way.  In the Army, one guy holds the bag and other shovels..

Blah, blah.  The book can be had on Kindle, Nook, or any of the e-reader platforms, or by Googling "Garlington Smashwords."