From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

Desert Autonomous Zone
Survivalism meets the counterculture in a riveting new documentary.
BY Jesse Walker / June 1, 2007

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

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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