Simple, frugal desert living at Rancho Costa Nada

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" Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead"

One of the top ten survivalist books, according to Amazon

You probably don't want to do this, but...

 This book tells how to live cheap in the desert waste. It tells how to ge by on almost nothing a year after quitting the job, the commute hassle, the mean boss, and all the nagging worries about rent and mortgage. It's about self-reliance, independence, poverty, freedom and leisure, blah blah.

Amazon says that "Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead," has become one of the top ten survivalist books.   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. 

I had a box of author's copies, and sold 'em off.  Rancho can be found in the aether, by googling Amazon, or Smashwords Garlington.  If you have an e-reader, you can get a copy for your Kindle, Nook, Sony, iPad or any of the other platforms. 

But Wait!  You can get 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:  ><

I've also posted some excerpts above.  Maybe that's all you need.  The book is amusing but the message butt simple:  You're probably not going to want to do this, buy worthless dirt for almost nothing and put up a shack or a trailer.  But you could.  It doesn't take a bank account or homesteader skills.  There's no hardship, except it's boring for most people to live alone in the desert.

The e-reader version doesn't have illustrations, but a lot of them are on this site in the photo sections.

Worthless acres

"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 barren 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. He was raw.  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 darn 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 on hot days. 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 fleets of 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. No problem, and he explains why. 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 J.R for the consideration of a tank of gas and a hamburger. Frankly, the trailer is much 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 down 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 ether. 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.

Then the Boat Option

A few years ago I bought a 20-foot sailboat for $300 at auction. I keep the boat at a low-cost berth in the Sacramento Delta. No motor, but happily the rivers in the Delta are tidal, so the boat moves (slowly) even if the wind isn't cooperating. This pocket cruiser is pretty much set up as a floating tent with an anchor.  Then, galvanized by the economic downturn, I got a second sailboat.  Had to!  People are giving them away.  This one is berthed at an older marina (for veterans only) on San Francisco Bay that offers a comfortable rental rate.  The second boat is 27 feet, has standing headroom, and is comfortable enough for longer voyages.

An Interlude


We detour from the Rancho for a minute to talk about Tenting Today, the story of two recent college grads who opt for living in a tent in a public campground.  This is not a  how-to, although there is practical advice for anyone contemplating a year-around tent home.  The dribble of interest already has produced a few communications, few enough that I can share them all.  The manuscript is on one of the buttons above.


Praise for Tenting Today:


Mild Collegial Boy


"I don't know how to categorize this.  The author, rather preciously, calls it "sedition lite." on the grounds that the recent graduate won't find a job and isn't willing to be of any use.  I'm not sure if there's an actionable case for Homeland Security here.  Will the State tremble to learn a self-described 'mild collegial boy' has dropped out of the market driven culture and is living anonymously and invisibly with a neurotic girlfriend in a public campground?  The 'values' of acquisition, ambition, fealty to authority, have been targets for the dudgeon of moralists and the lampooning of satirists since at least Biblical times.  Admittedly, the twenty something anti-hero may not appreciate that he isn't the first to recoil at the expectations society crowds on the young.  He makes more sense when he says (as he's angling for a remittance from the 'puzzled dad')  that as a tent nomad he won't be roiling the dust or making a smudge.  But to voluntarily absent oneself from the strife and resource depletion of commerce doesn't make one subversive."

 Emory Juke

Scottsdale, AZ

via e-mail   


Hark, Hark


"I thought Rachael was boring.  All that about her vaginal fluids, and not being able to go into Wal-Mart, and her tedious harping about veganism.  Typical princess on a lark.  Huge sense of entitlement based on nothing.  An elitist who turns up her nose at a poor neighborhood, but lives in a cheap tent."

Rod Cleaves

Bakersfield, CA

via e-mail


Cup Runneth Over


 "The graphic depiction of Rachael's wetness is way too much, although I get the point.  She drips everywhere during sex, including tears and nasal discharge.  Okay, okay.  She is ripe, she is juicy.  I get it.  That, and her appetite for sex, her preoccupation with food, and her voracious reading of empty calorie junk novels, all combine to explain her fate.  Even though she says she can't stand the smell of prey animals, she ultimately becomes one.  As her hip sister says, "Life wants everybody," and Rachel is too plump a morsel to escape the predators."

 Emily Foote

Berkeley, CA


Deadend Dad



 "A very intriguing close.  Why should anybody be afraid of this nobody?  At first I thought, just a dad worried about a son gone wrong.  But it's more likely that the dad's fears are for himself. Earlier he does the drunken riff about the word nigger, which I thought to be in very bad taste, in which he suggests the word be blanched of color and used as a punchy universal symbol of low and servile status regardless of race.  Factory nigger.  Office nigger.  But that would make him a nigger, along with everybody else in a degrading dead-end job.  He snaps his fingers behind the boss's back, but then does what he's told, just like every other working stiff.  His son has escaped, at a big price.  But he is too old and frightened to follow."

 Perry Evervold

via e-mail




 "This needs to be edited down by about a third."

 Todd Botts

Los Angeles, CA


On the Money


"Not a bad picture of a passive-aggressive.  His dad has it right on the diagnosis.  Slacker Boy may romanticize and rationalize, but his is a clinical case of resistance to authority by the weak.  One clue is the repetitious focus on his shibboleths, another is the tension between his obvious craving for recognition and his avoidance and sabotage of the authority figures who could provide it."

 Claudio Marraquin

Chicago, IL

via e-mail


No Mocking


"The hobo's campfire story about the fat cruise is too cruel to be funny.  The handicapped, the aged, the insane, and the clinically obese should be outside the pale of this kind of mean-spirited mockery."

 Name withheld 



Chuckwalla Wire

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.

"Chuckwalla Wire," the prequel to the Rancho book, comes out of the author's editorship of the tiny desert weekly, the Chuckwalla Reveille, "Voice of the Tri-Desert Empire," and the publication of record for the town of Chuckwalla, "Gateway" to the Sonoran, Mojave, and Colorado deserts.  In a word, the author takes the reins of the weekly after being frog-walked out of the editorial office of a major Los Angeles daily.  Too demoralized to do much himself, he fills the 16 broadsheet pages with an electic mix of columnists sharked up from among the locals.  Inadvertently, the story chronicles the rise of Henry Pipps, a teen thug and murderer, and the top-ranking Boy Scout in town, as he rises to power.  A regular feature is Poet's Corner, which often features local high school English teacher Orin Wimbly, before he was fired for shocking students with a homemade electric chair.

The MS is on the button labeled "Chuckwalla Wire."



Low Tide at the Rancho. "ChuckwallaWire" is on a button above, but if you want a free PDF, mail me at ><


 What about copies of Tenting Today? 

There's been a trickle of interest. I don't expect more.  The book is flip about core values.  The slacker protagonist won't work or bear his weight.  Not a parasite on the state, but  parasite on his long-suffering dad.  Slacker Boy isn't one with the Sapitariat, despite being a Samlander born and trained for service.  He won't accept a seat at the bench, salute the logo, boost the economy, or lend a hand to make a better world.  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 not paper and ink, 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 couple of bucks, but if that's too rich I'll send a free PDF copy to an e-mail address.  I don't need money.  I keep my income at a certain level.

I'll send a copy if you go to  The book's funny in parts.  But I admit the premise isn't promising.  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.  Nothing appeals about the cubicle, the last, or the seat by the oarlock.  

Chuckwalla Wire, the book.

Another slight thing, available on the same terms as above.  This is sort of the prequel to Rancho Costa Nada, the narrator's editorship of the Chuckwalla Reveille while subbing for the absentee publisher.  I've put it on one of the buttons above.  Little reaction so far, but I'll deal what there is.

 "It takes gall to make something so offensive."

Craig Whittens via e-mail


Only a handful of newspaper hacks are going to get this."

Jon DeLaps via e-mail


"Scurrilous, bigoted, inreverent, contemptuous, coarse.  Funny, sometimes."

Name withheld, via e-mail


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.

Going Pizza

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.

Duly Noted:

 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. 



Excerpt from the Chuckwalla Reveille's Poet's Corner

Something Must Be Done!

 About Ben Smedlap

by Orin Wimbley

"Leigh Hunt is dust; he doesn't care

And apologies from me are rare..."

Smedlap lives in Suburbia and has a nine-to-five in an office Downtown. 

He has the usual wife, who also works, and standard children in school. 

The combined Smedlap salaries suffice for an average American life.  


In their driveway at night sit two cars, a six cylinder and a four-cylinder. 

In the Smedlap kitchen and bathroom, the usual appliances. 

The house has cable and WiFi.  Smedlap pays all bills promptly. 

Everything is normal.


One night an angel whispers to Benjaman Smedlap in his sleep.

 "Smedlap.  Save the world!"


Upon arising, Smedlap tells his wife, "I'm riding my bicycle to work." 

"It's raining," says Mrs. Smedlap, "and you don't have a bicycle."

Putting on his raincoat, Smedlap trudges to the bus stop.

He arrives in time to watch the departure of the Downtown Express. 

He waits patiently in the rain with a dozen raucous teens for the next local, then spends 40 minutes standing amidst a press of juvenile hyperactivity while the bus crawls through morning traffic. 

His usual commute is fifteen minutes.


At the office Smedlap usually has a doughnut and coffee. 

From the logo on the lid of the pink box, Smedlap knows the doughnuts are produced by a corporation that replaces native forests in Indonesia with palm oil plantations. 

The coffee isn't sustainably grown.  The cart only has Styrofoam cups. 

Smedlap empties the pencils from his "World's Best Dad" cup and fills it with tap water. 

 His work is to calculate costs for the construction of a factory to be sited near the county watershed. 

Smedlap sits quietly at his desk with hands folded until lunchtime. 

A colleague stops at the door. 

"Hey Ben.  Wanna go down to the caf for a burger?" 

Smedlap shakes his head.  Beef production causes deforestation and methane buildup. 

Raising animal protein is water intensive and inefficient.


The walk home after work takes an hour, and crosses some bad neighborhoods, but he finds two bicycles at a yard sale. 

In his driveway, after rolling the bikes into his garage, he disables the ignition block on his wife's car.


His children rush to greet him at the door. 

"Daddy!  The TV isn't working, and we can't get on the Web." 

His wife says he better check the circuit breakers right away. The lights are off and the pilot is out. 

Smedlap explains that he made some calls earlier in the afternoon. 

He also reneges on his promise to reward good report cards with xBoxes and iPads. 

He says the family's cell phone contract won't be renewed.  

The long planned vacation to Hawaii is canceled. 


Later in the evening he gets a call from his father-in-law. 

"My daughter says you've gone nuts.

Do you want me to set up an appointment with somebody?"


On the ride to work next morning Smedlap gets his pant cuff caught in the chain, and his coat has a stripe of mud thrown up from the rear tire. 

At the office his supervisor calls him in.  "Anything wrong, Ben?" 

Smedlap says he can't take part in projects that increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

That afternoon Smedlap is called in again and fired.


 On the ride home a passing truck splashes him. 

A dog chases him for two blocks. 

On the kitchen table is a note from his wife saying she's taken the children to her parents, and that she hopes he gets the help he needs. 

The house is cold and dark.


That night he hears a soft voice in his sleep. 

"Ben Smedlap.  Your name leads all the rest.

 Triple canopy all season 100 square-foot tent house.

 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.  

Le Petit Canard

This is the name of the Cal-20 I got at the Boy Scout auction for $300.  It was built in 1973, has a full set of sails, but no motor.  It's berthed in the Sacramento Delta near Stockton.  Usually, I sail under the main alone, all I need in the frequently brisk winds.  In light airs, I raise a headsail that's self-tending, since working against the weather on the Delta rivers means a lot of short boards.  Both the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are tidal, of course, so a little patience and a willingness to move at night can place you in a current going your way.  Or, in my case, I generally just go whichever way the current happens to be flowing.  I usually use the boat during the Indian Summer months, perfect weather in the Delta.