Saturday, January 23, 2010


Survivalism meets the counterculture

Life on the mesa

 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 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.