Simple, frugal desert living at Rancho Costa Nada
" Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead"
One of the top ten survivalist books, sez Amazon
You probably don't want to do this, but...
Here's how to live on almost nothing after quitting the job, the commute hassle, the mean boss, the nagging worries about rent and mortgage. You buy worthless desert land and build a cheap shack on it.
Amazon says that "Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead," has become one of the top ten survivalist books. Okay. But the author isn't a survivalist or prepper. He was just looking to avoid a regular job and other normal responsibilities and accomplishments, and instead have a life of careless leisure, without enduring hardship or conflict with the authorities. Originally Rancho was published by the lamented Loompanics, a catalog publisher of quirky books that went bust and sold Rancho rights to Paladin Press, another alternative publisher.
Rancho can be found in the aether, by googling Amazon, or Smashwords Garlington. Or. You can have the book for free, right here, by clicking the button above labeled, "Rancho Full Monty." Or. I'll send you a PDF copy, no charge: >email@example.com<
I've also posted Rancho excerpts above. Maybe that's all you need. The book is amusing but the message simple: You're probably not going to want to do this, buy worthless dirt for almost nothing. But you could. It doesn't take a bank account or homesteader skills. There's no hardship, except it can get boring for some people to live alone in the desert.
The e-reader version doesn't have pix, but a lot of them are on this site in the photo sections.
"Rancho Costa Nada" tells how the author bought 10 worthless acres in the California desert for three hundred bucks. For another hundred, he built a comfortable little hogan out of scrap lumber and sand bags. Some ideas he figured out for himself, such as how to be his own utility district. Other schemes for frugal desert living came from half a dozen fellow homesteaders in the shimmering waste of the Smoke Tree Valley in Imperial County, California.
The author is no pioneer. Just an average mope without any particular survival skills or homesteader attributes such as carpentry or auto mechanics. But he found that by using a few simple expedients it's easy to live for almost nothing. No hardship. The cash he generates (and how hard is it to turn a few bucks in Samland?) becomes disposable income. So he travels during the summer inferno and uses the Rancho as home base in winter (unless he's housesitting or on the road).
What's in this peculiar book?
A description of building a tight little weather-proof hogan out of scrap lumber and sand bags. The hogan is surrounded by a wind break that forms a patio, covered by a shade ramada. Very plain, but strong enough (because of the sand bags) to withstand desert "box car winds" that can hit 80 mph. In later years, he hauled in a junk travel trailer, gutted the inside, and made it into a living room.
A personal utility district based on his car's alternator. You drive the car. Why not use it to pump up deep-cycle batteries strapped to the floorboards. A very simple method to generate enough electricity to operate lights, fans, radio, DVD, and water pump.
What about water? Drinking water has to be hauled from a public park in town, 45 miles away. Sixty gallons per week. The rest of the water comes from two sources. One of the other homesteaders, for a carton of cigarettes, will deliver up to 500 gallons of salty non-potable water from a secret well. Good enough for evap coolers, for gardening, and for a cool bath. The other source is from the wash. Homesteaders bury 55 gallon drums in the washes, which fill up during the brief flash floods.
I Get Around
Transportation. Some of homesteaders of the Smoke Tree are clever mechanics who have built Mad Max sand carts and dune buggies. Some of these vehicles are used to run the nearby gunnery range at night to salvage brass casings and aluminum tailfins. Trouble is, these vehicles, plus the big 4WD trucks the other homesteaders favor, slurp gas. The author has a small, gas-frugal car that he has equipped with winches and come-alongs that pop him out of the sand when he gets stuck in a wash.
Don't you need a refrigerator? The author gets along without one. Other homesteaders use propane fridges, but that's another expense. So is ice. He finds that he can get along for a week (the time between visits to the supermarket in town) without the expense of refrigeration. Let Albertsons pay for it. All the cooking is done on the two burners of a simple camp stove.
It's like the water. You go to town for it.
It Takes a Certain Type
The book also examines the lives of the half dozen other homesteaders in the Smoke Tree, mostly living in trailer compounds. Some are reclusive and don't wish society. Others are prickly, and easily riled, with packs of semi-feral dogs spotted round the laager on breakaway leashes. Others are frankly eccentric. But all of the inhabitants have figured out ingenious ways to cope with a harsh enviornment.
(Author's Note) Here's an update. In the last few years a few things have changed. Now there's the travel trailer at the rancho, a gift from my brother-in-law, hauled out to my property over the 17 miles of washboard by the Demented Vet for the consideration of a tank of gas and a hamburger. Frankly, the trailer is better than the hogan. It's off the ground, and easier to mouse-proof. The trailer has almost no amenities. The bilge pump I used for a home-made fountain got clogged with salt from the well water. All the cheapo 12-volt fans from SlaveMart crapped out, as did the ancient VCR. It's better this way. Now, the only electricity I use in the trailer powers the bedside reading lamp, the power source for which is one motorcycle battery and a small solar panel. The other illumination inside comes from a couple of beeswax candles (allegedly, less sooty). I have a flashlight for close work tracking stuff at night.
I do still have a computer from an earlier eon that I power off a marine battery in my car. The extra battery's charged off the alternator. I take the thumb drive from this computer to the library and fold it into my Yahoo account. I use the JC, the library, and the internet cafe for travel through the aether. I don't worry much about heat or cooling at the rancho, since when the weather gets too hot or cold I go someplace else. This last winter, I free-loaded with friends on the Big Island, and then went on a car camping safari down Baja, tenting on the beach. For a summer month, while the rancho is solarizing, I replenish the kitty by working the odd job.
I've put a few other items on this site. The one of possible interest to desert visitors is Chuckwalla Wire, the on-line version of the weekly newspaper, the Chuckwalla Reveille.
Chuckwalla Wire is the on-line publication of record for the town of Chuckwalla. The Wire features local columnists sharked up from among the Letters-to-the Editor regulars. Beet Baily, a campground hostess who lives year-around in a tent, writes about frugality. Diego Garcia covers the prepper perspective. Orin Wimbly, erstwhile high school English teacher (fired for shocking students with a homemade electric chair) often distinguishes the paper's Poet's Corner. Inadvertently, news snippets from the Wire have chronicled the rise of Chuckwalla's leading citizen, Henry Pipps, teen city councilman involved in several shootings that have attracted notice.
The book is on the button labeled "Chuckwalla Wire." You could also copy and paste the Amazon site for the book. This method would set your account back $.99.
Low Tide at the Rancho. "ChuckwallaWire" is on a button above, but if you want a free PDF, mail me at >firstname.lastname@example.org <
I'm no longer temporary editor of the Chuckwalla Reveille, since the newspaper's publisher, Dexter Dietz, has been released from witness protection and is back in town. But I'm moved to insert snippets, periodically, from the on-line version, Chuckwalla Wire. ((The Wire bound volumn under my editorship is on one of the buttons, or I'll send a free copy in response to an e-mail.)
Observatory, the Reveille's weekly saunter around town:
In a letter posted Tuesday, Chuckwalla Mayor Robert Crane has asked county officials to investigate a growing homeless encampment on private land contiguous to the city limits. According to Crane, the buildings on the property are not permitted and are being occupied despite a lack of plumbing and electricity. The land belongs to long-time zoning scofflaw, homeless advocate, and faith-based activist Wade Jennings, who lately has allowed the homeless to build tiny cabins on his extensive desert property on West Mercury Drive just beyond the Chuckwalla city line.
(Editor’s note: In 1999, the city extended the city limits for five miles to the west to include Ironwood State Prison, as a means to broaden the tax base. Jennings’ property lies next to the gerrymandered extension, five miles from downtown Chuckwalla).
The dozens of tiny shacks, known locally as “eight-bys,” or “bum boxes” are illegal residences, Crane says, because they lack basic utilities and sanitation. “The people living there are not city residents, and are adversely impacting city services,” Crane says, by using city garbage services, and by filling the community’s water tanker at the city parks.
Jennings has had previous run-ins with county enforcement officials regarding his willingness to allow what county officials describe as “homeless indigents and vagrants” to camp on his property. In 2013 he was cited by the county for violations involving uncollected refuse. “His place looked like a dump,” Crane said, “Trash everywhere.”
(Editor’s note: The Reveille assigned part-time intern reporter Cheryl Weiss, a senior at Chuckwalla High and a recent runner-up in the Riverside School District’s Tri-Desert chess tourney, to look into the eight-bys. Her report. )
“The Jennings property is located at the western dead end of Mercury Dr., just north of the state prison. A dirt road leads over a low hill to reveal a cluster of small shacks spread over approximately one acre. This settlement of some two dozen low income and no-income residents is called the “Eight-Bys” because of the dimensions of the tiny shacks, all of which are wooden cubes of plywood and scrap wood that are eight feet in width, length and height. The property owner, Wade Jennings, agreed to meet me on the property.
Jennings said he is motivated by his Christian faith to do something concrete about the plight of the homeless in Imperial County. Instead of putting up tents, or letting people bring trailers, as he has in the past, he has decided to build small individual shelters that give the residents, two-thirds of them female, a secure retreat out of the weather. “Each individual eight-by-eight has a bed, a chair, a shelf, and a bucket,” Jennings said. In a central patio are composting toilets as well as stalls where residents can wash using plastic jugs of sun-warmed water.
Also in the central area is a sprawling ramada covered by tarps where residents can prepare meals on picnic tables, or socialize in the shade on sultry afternoons.
Jennings admits that in the past some guests have abused his hospitality. “I was back East on church business (he is a director at the Hail Adoni Full Gospel Baptist Church), and things got out of hand out here. We had junk trailers, piles of garbage, arguments and fights, drinking and drugs. All that’s changed now.”
Jennings said he screens carefully to weed out trouble makers, and has ‘deputized” residents pledged to police the grounds, enforce the rules, and quell disputes. Alcohol, drugs, weapons, and col-habitation are prohibited. He doesn’t allow personal generators, but each resident is allowed a battery, which can be charged from a generator in the back of one of Jennings’ pickups. Water comes in a tanker truck, and residents fill gallon jugs for cooking and washing.
The cabins are single-walled, uninsulated, set on skids, and can be erected, Jennings says, in a couple of hours. Four-by-eight panels are assembled from salvaged wood glued together in layers inside forms. Irregularities can be smoothed out with a coat of plaster. Twelve panels make the eight-by-eight, and the resident can decide how he wishes to cut out a door and windows. “Usually, people opt for a small door with the threshold well off the ground to keep out snakes and rodents,” Jennings said. The windows usually are more like loopholes, and ventilation slats are covered with screening. The cubes, of course, are flat-roofed, although most of the residents have installed ridgepoles for tarps.
Mable Kleeson says she is “forty something,” homeless, unemployed, and has a history of arrests for public intoxication. She has been living in an eight-by for four months. “I am so glad for this. For me it’s about having a private place where I can keep my stuff.” Her eight-by has a metal frame twin bed with a “rescue mattress,” a plastic patio chair, half a dozen plastic bins, and pegs along the wall for clothes.
Her eight-by has no fans or heat, and light comes from a flashlight and a candle. She says she goes to bed at sundown and keeps warm with an overcoat and two sleeping bags. On hot days she sits in her plastic chair in the shade of a tarp, her body loosely covered by a wet sheet.
“I’m a very nervous person around people,” Kleeson says, “That’s why living on the street was so hard, that’s why I got into trouble with alcohol. I love it I can stay here without any hassles.” Jennings’s church provides free meals, cereal and coffee for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and stew for dinner, and while a copy of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount has been posted in the patio, the residents are not required to attend the Sunday prayer meeting.
“They leave you alone,” Kleeson said. “It’s such a relief.”
Jennings says he has not be contacted by the county about the eight-bys and doesn't expect any official effort at code enforcement. "We are helping people here who usually would be wards of the county," Jennings said.
Letter to editor
Good article from Beet Baily about alternative underwear, but I have one knit to pick. In her comparison of loin clothes to Commando I think she forgets that many of us prolies ride bikes every day. Commando can be an option if you wear seamless gym pants but not so much if you wear jeans. A third option for bike riders is an untucked loin cloth with belt holding up unzipped or unbuttoned pants. Suspenders are a big help for Commando. As others have mentioned previously, breechclouts are good option for long-distance public transit, since underwear can be changed in bus or train water closets without removing pants. Or, as she mentions, regular underpants can be stuffed with paper towels or Kleenex. But a helpful article overall. Brett Holiday
(Editor's Note: Gadfly Besos Amazin remains cagey about his possible insurgent long-shot congressional bid. Yet he's making noises as if poised for a hat-toss. Below,his latest electron shower.)
Ironwood State Prison without walls. The word "deadline" comes from the Confederate penal system for prisoners of war. Rather than walls or fences around their concentration camps, the Rebs simply drew a line in the dirt or dug a ditch to mark the prison boundaries. Sentries in guard towers shot any Bluebellies who crossed the "deadline." Ironwood is bursting. The state designed the prison for a thousand inmates, tops; the captive population now is double that. The Dept. of Corrections says the cost of incarceration has risen to a quarter million per capita annually. For low level drug peddlers, con artists, grifters, street hustlers, car boosters, petty thieves, housebreakers and other non-violent felons, how about an outdoor tent camp surrounded by a simple Cyclone fence and guarded by gun towers and roving perimeter patrols stiffened with vicious sentry dogs? We know dogs work. Look at Marvin Gardens. Since Valley Vigilance started using repurposed rescue dogs at night in the gated parking lots, crime has dropped to zero. The Gardens has two gun towers but not a shot fired since the perimeter got secured by East German shepherds. At the tent prison, volunteer gardening by inmates to defray kitchen costs. A component to train service animals. Work not mandatory but rewarded with coffee and crumb cake. Union rules: an eight-hour day with an hour for lunch and two fifteen minute coffee breaks. Work suspended when temps top 90. Humane conditions, with oversight by the International Red Cross and the ever-vigilant press. A healthy vegan menu for the inmates, much of it supplied by their own efforts. No attempt at corrections except literacy classes and library books. Money saved, and idle minds occupied with effort tangibly worthwhile. Besos Amazin.
What’s this about Besos for Congress?
(Editor’s note: Almost daily we get e-mails from gadfly provocateur Besos Amazn. In his latest he almost announces as an unaffiliated write-in candidate for the 25th Congressional District, with his campaign headquarters right here in Chuckwalla. We are not surprised but we do admit that the groundswell of support for this candidacy washed over us unnoticed. We do know that since this candidacy springs from our own circulation area, we had better cover it. Although we have a familiarity with Besos because of his blitz of electrons in our direction, we have never met him in person. We assigned the Reveille’s part-time intern and political editor Cheryl Weiss, a recipient of a Rotary Club scholarship, to track down Besos and prepare a report.)
What about copies of Tenting Today?
There's been a trickle of interest, although the book questions core values. The slacker protagonist won't work or take a strain. He's not a parasite on the state, but leeches on his long-suffering dad. Slacker Boy is not of the Sapitariat, despite being a Samlander born and trained to service. He won't accept a seat at the oarlock, salute the logo, boost the economy, or lend a hand to make a better world. He is not glad to be of use. He lets his blood wash in a campground with his haughty vegan girlfriend. I've put the whole thing on a button.
I've also been sending comp e-copies to the curious handful. It's just a puff of air. But my sister, the CPA, suggested that I put it up on the e-reader platforms. You can see it on Smashwords, or on Kindle, Nook, Sony, or any of those. I charge a buck, but if that's too rich I'll send a free PDF copy to an e-mail address. I don't need your money.
I'll send a copy if you go to email@example.com. The book's funny in parts. But I admit the premise sounds unpromising. Two recent college grads live in a tent in a public campground. They won't work because that would involve subordination and constraints on their leisure. The anonymous protagonist and his girlfriend have taken a vow of failure, by Samland standards.
The Sergeants are Revolting
Available on a button, as well as on Amazon, Smashwords and the e-reader platforms, Revolt of the Sergeants. Not your cup, probably. Misanthropic. Not much to like about the characters. The stance is nihilistic. The story comes from Dexter Dietz, owner and publisher of the Chuckwalla Reveille, who is now in a federal witness protection program. A handful of retired lifer Army noncoms annex a basketcase province of Sudan to test managment ideas for subduing chaotic societies. They are not mercenaries, because Darfur is a running sore of misery without trove or resource. Nor are they missionaries. The methods are harsh. Their strange enterprise can't succeed, but it works for awhile. Not for the squeamish.
After being fired by the corporate wights, I had to figure out revenue. I means tested myself, and flunked. One deal that kind of worked for awhile was the Hollywood option. I wrote some spec screenplays. Some got optioned, and while they never made the screen, I got a check. Going Pizza is one of the spec plays that didn't get optioned, but I think it has comedic merit. I've tacked it on to the About page until I get around to reworking it.
The long City Haul road.
City Haul is froth and spume that's been optioned twice, first by MGM, then by some mopes at ICM. It's been the money maker because of some obvious cinematic potential. The late Dick Shepherd, a producer at MGM, was ready to shoot, until the studio told him he had to choose between Haul and his other project, a David Bowie vampire vehicle. Alas for me, but at least the Bowie thing was a flop. Not that Shepherd's choice was any blow to culture. Haul has the depth of a dinner plate. Just amusing fizz. In a word, a feckless, womanizing politican, abandoned at election time by his moneybags father-in-law, robs the city hall payroll with the help of his teenage aide, to finance a campaign that otherwise is hopeless. I've put it on a button, and the e-reader platforms.
Oh, oh. No House
If you're in foreclosure and don't know what the heck to do, maybe visit Beet, at one of the tabs above.
My old pal Beatrice Baily, who lives in her tent the year through (shifting from Colorado to Arizona with the season) has a page of tips that might help the newly roof-less. Beet enjoys tent life (I like it too, and stay under canvas some of the summer) and her rent-free life might inspirit the perspective of trembling prey animal facing foreclosure. Maybe you really don't need a house. Beet doesn't. On this page, a picture of a Beet-like triple canopy all-season (if you live in California) tent home.
Tom Walker on Tents
After returning from New York, where I checked out the Peasants' Revolt and the Occupy tent encampment, I called Tom Walker, another year around tent dweller, to get his jaundiced view.
"Amateurs," he said. Walker and his wife Walks With Tom are among a handful of Humboldt County residents who live in tents full time. I thought he might have some tips for the occupiers.
It turned out his wife won't let him go to any of the Occupy venues in person. She says he's too excitable, and always thinks THIS is the protest that's going to crush the system and drive the exploiters to the wall. He shouts slogans all day, waves the black flag, marches for miles, argues with the police. Then he sits down in a public building, or breaks a few windows, and gets arrested. Afterwards in sinks into a deep funk for a month, and Walks With Tom has to manage his meds. She wouldn't let him go to Occupy, but he'd seen the tent encampment on tv.
"I should do a seminar," Walker said. "They're clueless."
I'll summarize the Walker method for spending four comfortable seasons in a fabric house. I use his idea myself, and can testify it works. First, he doesn't like the refugee camp tent provided by the UN for Somalia and Kosovo. It's made of single wall canvas and leaks. The tent housing for guests in Yosemite Valley is a little better (if you don't contract hantavirus), because of a second roof stretched across the top. Best, he says, is the triple canopy Chinese Box tent, a Walker innovation.
The trouble with tents in blustery wet weather is that no matter how careful one is about sealing the seams the tent will still leak in drenching rain. It won't hold heat very well. It's buffetted by the wind. And then there's the condensation inside. The answer is three tents of diminishing size, each inside the other. Walker's own compound in Humboldt (he grows, so I can't say where) is an elaborate interlocking Christo-like running fence of tarp ramadas and canvas windbreaks. But he started years ago with an austere Chinese box.
A sturdy ten-by-ten Sears tent is the main ingredient. Inside that is a freestanding three-person backpacking tent that serves at the bedroom. "It's an idea I got from the Inuit," he says. "They put an igloo inside an ice cave."
Over the Sears tent is one of those 12 by 12 canopies that are favorites at flea markets and street fairs. And pinned around the canopy are heavy tarps as windbreaks."The layers provide insulation and prevent condensaton," Walker says. In winter storms he uses a small catalytic heater, which means that the tents have to be well ventilated. But Walker claims that for most of the winter he and Walks With Tom are comfortable inside with candles and sweaters. He says that after a few years of full time tenting, the human thermostat resets and 55 becomes the new 70. "I can't stand being in an overheated house," Walker says.
Now, Walker says, they usually sleep on a king sized bed under a huge black tarp. It's rigged like a Bedouin tent with side panels that drop down for privacy or to block wind or sun. They only use the Chinese Box tent for storms or spells of frost. "It's California, for Christ's sake," Walker says. "Club Med."
In summer, the black awning casts a deep pool of shade, while the open sides let in the breeze. "It's all we need except when a cold front blows through." A p;icture of the Walker design is on this page somewhere.
Other Walker tips:
A good mattress. It's not sleeping in a tent that's so bad; it's the hard ground. A full length camp mattress on a cot is okay but better is a standard twin on a metal frame. "A regular bed inside a tent," Walker says, "like at the dude ranch."
Warm bedding. For those without allergies, that would be a goose down sleeping bag inside a Gore-Tex bivy. Wool socks and a hot water bottle for the feet. "Sometimes in the morning I use the heater to warm up the feet before I put on my boots," Walker says. "Cold feet are a bummer."
I could hear Walks With Tom in the background telling him to get off the phone
"And they should all wear loin clothes," Walker said quickly "Then they won't have to take off their pants when they change their underwear. Sorry, pal. I have to go."
The loin cloth idea isn't that crazy. It's useful for budget train travel, when one bathes in the public john.
Or I'll send you a free PDF. >firstname.lastname@example.org<
Here's the Introduction to the Rancho:
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 somebody else’s 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.”
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 most of the cute ideas I lifted from books pretty much flopped.
Because of my limited tool-wielding abilities, my finished homestead is primitive, 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 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.
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 degrees. 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. The cute solarium got shredded by the first boxcar wind. The insulation, the solarium, not needed. 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, the plywood and two-by-four sleeping cube ubiquitous in the desert. Now, since I spend summer and winter traveling or tent camping, I do fine with just an 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 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, take a closer look. (The rest of the book is on the "Rancho Full Monty" button.)
Chuckwalla, Imperial County, CA
Have you wondered about those trailer-laden desert burgs that you glimpse from the freeway as you flash by on the way to Vegas?
Chuckwalla Wire is the on-line edition of the Chuckwalla Reveille, the Voice of the Tri-Desert Empire. (Formerly the Jericho Clarion) Covering Chuckwalla, Blythe, Jericho, Sometimes Spring, Pele Verde, and all of Eastern Imperial County. Home of the Yellow Jackets. Go Jackets! Jacket Power! Headquarters of the Fifth Marines Desert Warfare Center. Gateway to the Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran Deserts. Sunshine 300 Days a Year.
The Wire features local columnists sharked up from among the Letters-to-the Editor regulars: Beet Baily, a campground hostess who lives year-around in a tent, writes about frugality. Diego Garcia covers the prepper perspective. Orin Wimbly, erstwhile high school English teacher (fired for shocking students with a homemade electric chair) often anchors the paper's Poet's Corner. Frequent news snippets from the Wire have had the effect of chronicling the rise of Chuckwalla's leading citizen, Henry Pipps, teen city councilman and CEO of Valley Vigilance. The teen Pipps, the town's scout master, has figured in several shootings that attracted wide notice.
The book is on the button labeled "Chuckwalla Wire." You could also copy and paste the Amazon site for the book. This method would set you back $.99.
Triple canopy all season 100 square-foot tent house. This is something like Beet Bailey's setup.
Inexpensive shelter, that's good enough for the four seasons in temperate California. It's a square 10x10 tent inside a quick shade awning like the ones at the flea market. The sides of the awning can be enclosed by tarps in times of wind and wet. For cold weather, a smaller free standing tent goes inside the bigger tent to make a bedroom, an idea borrowed from the Inuit Indians, who build igloos inside ice caves.
During the year I'm in Northern California during the summer and at the the Rancho, or Wiley Wells long-term campground near Blythe in Southern California, for the winter. Sometimes during the shoulder seasons, I housesit.. Lately, because of the downtick, vacant houses everywhere, with the owners worried about vandalism. I usually set up a tent, either inside the house, or this four-season version in the backyard. When house sitting I can use an electric heater if needed; otherwise, propane Mr. Heater.