Anderson Valley AdvertiserDecember 3, 2003

Book Review

Dirt Cheap

AVA News Service

A quirky acerbic how-to book set in California's baked and barren Smoke Tree Valley near the Colorado River. After getting fired from two jobs in a row, an itinerant newspaper reporter tries homesteading ten acres of worthless desert that he'd bought earlier at a land auction for $325. He builds a comfortable house of sandbags and salvaged junk. He also examines the ingenious Mad Max ways of fellow homesteaders who have jumped the tracks, and pitched the mortgage, the boss, and the utility bill.

While working for the Orange County Register, veteran newspaper reporter Phil Garlington was assigned to cover a tax-default land auction in rural Imperial County. One of the parcels on the block was ten desert acres with a starting bid of $100. What the heck, over. After some desultory bidding, Garlington nabbed the property, sight unseen, for $325. "You'll never find this," said the county clerk when she turned over the deed. The clerk apparently didn't know about GPS, and Garlington soon stood on his baronial estate in the desolate Smoke Tree Valley, 45 miles south of Blithe, California, 17 miles off the paved highway, and so close to the Chocolate Mountain Naval Gunnery Range that the concussions from morning bombing runs rattled the coffee cups.

For several years the Rancho served as a weekend retreat for Garlington and some of the reporters and photographers at the Register who sought a remote venue for discharging firearms. The gunmen built a rifle and pistol range, a skeet shooting pit, a few shade shacks. They popped caps during the winter. During the summer inferno, the land healed, hundreds of spent brass cartridges winking in the sun.

Then Garlington suffered a series of personal reverses. The Register dismissed him in a newsroom-wide layoff of one. His overseers cited attitude (the bad kind). He took another post, as editor of the Blythe newspaper, the Palo Verde Valley Times, but within a mere nine months he got canned there too. Insubordination. A trend seemed to be emerging, or perhaps some kind of masochistic self-sabotage. At any rate, it was right about then that Garlington asked himself. "Could I live at the Rancho?" Instead of going through the demeaning hassle of finding another job and of then taking the program from another set of junior widgets, could he instead live cheap and rent-free on his title deed in the sun-basted desert?

By this time he'd found out that some people could. At first Garlington thought he had the Valley to himself, because he never saw anybody out there during shooting weekends. But in Blythe he'd come across the Hobo, who turned out to be another land baron of 10 acres in the Smoke Tree. The Hobo already had built a solar powered Mother Earth News kind of homestead that included a buried trailer equipped with a periscope. He introduced Garlington to half a dozen other year-round homesteaders who manage to thrive in a harsh and waterless climate. The ingenious Tuke family, with their fleet of Mad Max sand rails; the irascible J.R; the truculent Big Huey; the elusive Mystery Lady; Alba, the Dog Woman (and her 30 cats); and the ranting Demented Vet. They all had laagers of trailers with ingenious devices that helped them estivate through the sweltering summers.

Garlington began his homesteading venture pretty much broke. He had a construction budget of $300 and the tail end of a credit card. He had a 1993 Geo Metro, and a few basic hand tools. Unlike the other homesteaders in the valley, he had no pioneer abilities. But fuck it. He was through crawling on his belly through the corridors of Human Resources with his battered resume. Garlington bought $100 worth of salvaged lumber from Wood Charlie, across the river in Ehrenberg. He picked up four used 100-gallon water tanks ($10 each) from the Oasis Water Company. He loaded a bunch of scrap pallets from behind Ace Hardware. And in a couple of weeks, all by himself, he built a cute-enough and comfortable Hogan, mostly out of sandbags. During quality control testing, the sand walls stopped a fusillade of .303s from an Enfield.

"I'm no Bolshevik," Garlington says, "I've always seen the need for hierarchy and obedience in the workplace. It's my demeanor: a kind of cocky, supercilious hubris, or cheeky querulous insolence, or wordy, repetitious, show-off pretentiousness, which somehow irks employers."

Garlington said at first the homesteading rift seemed madness. "I don't have any practical mechanical or survival talent. Sure, the other homesteaders are misanthropic and anti-social too, but they're also handy and self-reliant. I'm more of a conceptualizer."

Because of his limited skills Garlington designed and built a dwelling decidedly low-tech. "It's butt simple, based on simple ideas than any mope can handle without ever having to resort to luck or skill." Nor did it require inordinate grunt labor. "The most labor-intensive effort was filling sandbags, which pretty much any idiot can do," Garlington said. "And the real beauty: it was dirt cheap, with the ingredients either salvaged or taken from the site. No mortgage. No permit fees." And Garlington says he's pretty sure it's all legal.

It's unlikely that many readers will follow Garlington's example of buying worthless land at an auction and then building a sandbag house. But the book may well appeal to those city-bound dreamers who itch to shuck their boring jobs and the asshole boss, escape the madding crowd and nightmare commute, and live a simpler, more bucolic life.

According to Garlington, practical skills and a big bank account weren't needed. "The reason most people give for not wanting to try something like this is the hardship," Garlington said. "I haven't had any hardship so far. What really gets you out here is one, the boxcar wind; and two, boredom. When I get bored I take a long vacation, using all the money I save by not paying rent or mortgage."

In the book, Garlington touches on most of the practical aspects of desert homesteading. The first issue of course is water. "A well is out of the question. Too expensive and the water's salt when you hit it. Drinking water, at least, must be hauled from town, 45 miles away. That's what the homesteaders do, hundreds of gallons at a time, on the back of a truck. Out in the Smoke Tree, one of the homesteaders will deliver some highly mineralized well water from his secret source. "But this water is only suitable for gardening and for running the settler's homemade evaporative coolers, provided the filters are cleaned every week."

Electricity? "The (valley) is off the grid. No power poles. So I have formed my own private utility. I have a couple of deep cycle marine batteries on the floorboard of my Geo. I charge the batteries 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, and even fountains."

Violence and vandals? Because the valley is so isolated, it draws both meth cookers and yahoo vandals on quads, Garlington says. For this reason, when he takes one of his frequent vacations, he puts anything of interest in storage. "There's nothing I leave out there that couldn't be replaced at a garage sale." He says that everybody in the valley is paranoid and heavily armed, but as for actual violence, it falls easily under two heads: domestic beef, and deputy vs. citizen. "Pretty much the same deal everywhere."

Garlington explains how he gets by without refrigeration or ice, and how he showers with a water-filled weed sprayer while standing in a small plastic wading pool. His evaporative cooler keeps beer "at pub temperature," and a solar Thrombe wall warms the bedroom interior in winter. In one chapter he even takes on the ticklish subject of sex. "It's like water. You either bring your own or go to town for it."

In all this offbeat and often amusing book will be a pleasant reverie for wannabe escapists from the rat race, particularly for the aging spendthrift Boomers contemplating the alternatives for eking out a pinched retirement.

Phil Garlington has worked as a staff writer for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Diego Evening Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Times, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Orange County Register, the National Enquirer, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the Redding Record-Searchlight, the Clearlake Observer, and the Calistoga Weekly.

Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead, by Phil Garlington. Photos by Phil's son Michael Garlington. Loompanics Press,, or toll free at 800-380-2230. Fax-360-385-7785.

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