Desert Autonomous Zone

Survivalism meets the counterculture in a riveting new documentary.


Somewhere in the northern New Mexico desert, a grizzled gardener called Robbie is praising the prickliness of his home. "The cops don't like to come out here," he says proudly, "and this place is built on being left alone by the authorities. People say to the government, 'Fuck you. Chinga tu madre. We don't want your government, and you can get out of here.'"

Robbie is a folksinger, a self-described "middle-aged hippie," and one of the rich cast of characters who populate Off the Grid, a film now playing the festival circuit that will make its New York debut at Lincoln Center on August 16. Jeremy and Randy Stulberg, a brother and sister team, originally set out to make a documentary about U.S. citizens living abroad. Then they discovered a tribe of expatriates here at home, fleeing the American mainstream in a way that only deepened their American identity. The Stulbergs filmed them instead, with riveting results.

In 15 square miles of abandoned land, about 400 misfits—aging hippies, disillusioned veterans, teenage runaways—have built a community where no one cares if you smoke pot, fire your rifle all day, let your kids drive your car, or walk around naked in the desert heat. It's a landscape of beat-up old trailers, shacks jerry-rigged from recycled materials, solar panels, little farms, greenhouses, and at least one tipi. "Where I live is the last remaining land of America that is left," says Dreadie Jeff, another Mesa resident. "You can do what you fucking want there."

The local culture defies easy stereotypes. "Going into this community with this traditional mainstream liberal ideology," Jeremy says, "we realized all our preconceived notions were bullshit. These people were extremely into their Second Amendment rights, and they were also into marijuana legalization. They don't fit into these molds." There's a touch of madness to the place as well. Mama Phyllis, a Mesa woman who used to be a psychiatric nurse ("I couldn't do that anymore," she says, and leaves it at that), calls it "the largest outdoor insane asylum." The governing philosophy is a mix of anarchism, patriotism, New Age stoner wisdom, and a militia-style distrust of the state. Early in the film Dreadie Jeff, a veteran of the first Gulf War, exclaims that his military oath was not "to defend this land, it's not to defend the people, it's not to defend the motherfucking asshole president of the United States. My military oath goes, 'I solemnly swear to defend the Constitution of the United States of America from all enemies, foreign and domestic.'" The Constitution's "biggest enemy," he adds, is "this fucking government that is in place right now."

The government in question mostly keeps out of his way. Hardly anyone seems to want the Mesa people's land—the Stulbergs heard several mutually exclusive explanations for who, if anyone, technically owns it—and the citizens of the closest town, 25 miles away, seem willing to stay out of the Mesa's hair if the desert folk will stay out of theirs. But the authorities do fly helicopters over the area, scouting for marijuana growers, and if they think they spot some pot they'll send in the cops. According to Dreadie Jeff, they don't always bring warrants.

A more intimate enemy soon emerged as well. Shortly before the filmmakers arrived, a cultish group of runaways called the Nowhere Kids settled in. "They were extremists," remembers Randy. "They were stockpiling weapons. They had X's tattooed across their face." The new kids' brand of anarchy didn't sit well with the other desert dropouts. "They act like a bunch of revolutionists," snarls one, a pig farmer who frequently takes in teen runaways. "They cuss the system, and yet they've got their hand out…for everything they can get."

Before long, the Nowhere Kids were stealing food from their neighbors. "We don't want to call the cops," Robbie tells the Stulbergs. "But we've got to do something about this. Some people already got their guns." The film cuts to Moonbow, a man who sees no contradiction in talking like a vigilante while wearing a tie-dye. "If you're not a good neighbor," he says, "then we'll band together and chase you out of here."

The rhetoric escalates. The Nowhere Kids declare that they have a right to take anything they please as long as no one is using it at the moment. They also refuse to be filmed, telling the Stulbergs they'll "put bullets" in their heads if they don't keep their cameras off. The other Mesa residents start counting their bullets as well. An informal group of local leaders meets to plan a response to the thefts. At this point, a cynic might accuse the Mesa anarchists of forming a regime of their own.

But a funny thing happens: The standoff ends with no shootout, no bloodshed, and no new government. The desert residents may approve of vigilantism in principle—"we don't dial 911," says one, "we dial .357″—but they prefered to address the conflict by sending a delegation of unarmed women to reason with the runaways. The Nowhere Kids backed down, and so far the peace has held.

The Mesa, says Randy, represents "everything about America we loved and feared." The love, in her brother's words, is for "that pure sense of American democracy. Even though they were disillusioned with the government, they still loved the concept of America." The fear reflected the constant potential for violence, which at one point led the filmmakers themselves to think about getting armed. (In the end, Jeremy says, they decided their "camera was enough of a weapon.") It's telling, though, that the movie's big confrontation is resolved nonviolently. For all their fearsome rhetoric, the Mesa men aren't nearly as violent as, say, the visitors from the drug squad.

Even as it melds different subcultures—"it's the crossroads," Jeremy says, "between utopian idealism and a post-apocalyptic world"—the Mesa also represents a subculture of its own. At the end of the picture there's a hint of a larger network hidden somewhere in the folds of the map: One of the film's characters, we learn, has moved to a similar community in Hawaii. "There's a circuit," says Randy. "There's a whole off-grid underground." The members of that world range from relatively wealthy environmentalists trying to make a statement about sustainability to poorer people in places like the Mesa, people whose central interest isn't going off the grid so much as it's getting off the radar. (Some of them really aren't off the grid. There's a group of Mesa residents who regularly drive to town, get produce from local food banks, and distribute the goods to neighbors who aren't able to fend for themselves.)

But whether it's liberty or ecology that drives them, all those little villages have something in common, something they share with brotherhoods ranging from monasteries to biker gangs to suburban subdivisions. They are what John Stuart Mill called "experiments of living," what Robert Nozick called "a wide and diverse range of communities which people can enter if they are admitted, leave if they wish to, shape according to their wishes." The Mesa merely stands at the far end of a spectrum, rejecting almost any attempt to impose an order on it.

It isn't the only American place that eschews formal rules. The watermen of Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, for example, have lived for three centuries with no cops, jails, or local taxes. But the Mesa is not a close-knit community bound by history, custom, and religious faith. It stands at the extreme end of the American voluntary tradition: a transient society of misfits and madmen, united only by their desire to be left alone. In the desert, Dreadie Jeff tells us, "I feel like I'm really in America. There's a real sense of freedom out there."

Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.

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