Leaving America without Leaving: How to Go Off-grid

Hello again. This is going to be a more personal post. But if you are interested in going off-grid, I hope you find these tips useful.

Yep, where I’m off-grid, we do have haboobs—Arabic for ‘blowing furiously’. AKA dust storms.

But most of the time, it’s breathable.

My cabin on a calm winter day. Nice, isn’t it? I’ve enjoyed keeping one foot in America .

Step 1. Find land.

I recommend auctions, specifically the property tax auction in San Bernardino County in California, which at 20 thousand square miles, is the largest county in the U.S.

NB: counties all over have these auctions, but western desert counties have the least expensive properties. I think.

In case you’re interested why they’re cheap, in 1938, the Bureau of Land Management’s Small Tract Act made 5-acre plots available for $10 an acre—as long as you “improved” the property with a house. But life proved too challenging for most people. So we’ve got thousands of abandoned shacks out here in southern California. (The act was rescinded in 1976.)

But every April, you can browse these properties on the county’s online auction. BTW, that link is for an August auction. If you come back next spring, you’ll see the long list. Also: if the property is listed with an address, it’ll have a house or cabin on it.

The ‘before’ shot. You buy ‘as is.’

I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting the above. But on the day it came up for bidding, someone else showed up online—and gave up after $6000. Yip! Five acres and a house was mine.

I thought people had been using the property as a dump. But a few months ago, a two-mile distant neighbor drove up and after introducing himself, said that families had been squatting at my place for decades. He recalled one particular family. “Three kids, towheads. Cute as bedbugs. Each one a head shorter than the other, like stairs. Then they started walking over to my place, saying they were hungry. But I couldn’t feed them every day.”

Where to start with that story? I’ll just say that I met lots of kind people. Like my neighbor, an old-time country blues musician.

Step 2. Get temporary living quarters.

A tent, a lean-to—anything to house yourself while you’re building. I asked around for a used camper, and was directed to Mooch. A fit, good-looking, dark-haired man in his forties, he said his mother always called him that. (I recalled that Mooch was a character on the old Our Gang, Little Rascals TV show, and he verified that, but I couldn’t find the name Mooch online. So who knows… )

Anyway, we walked over to his yard of old trucks—and he showed me a Dodge Motorhome, circa 1968.

Vintage detail.

“The motor doesn’t work though,” he said.

I didn’t think that’d be a problem but while I was thinking about it, I asked Mooch how long he’d been here. “Well, I used to drive a semi,” he said. “Had the same route for twenty years, from ’68 to ’98. From P.A. down to D.C. And at the same rate. Twenty cents a mile.

“So I quit.”

He knocked a hand on the side of the home. “Tell you what. I’ll give this to you and haul it out to your property for two hundred bucks. That’ll get me back to P.A. for my daughter’s high school graduation.”

I imagined she’d be glad to see him.

Mooch parked what I call my utility pod here. “So you can hang your Christmas lights on that bush.”
How I fixed up the pod. There’s a shower stall in here too.

Mooch also had an old gas-powered generator, which I needed to power saws and drills. He threw that in for another $30. (Tip: Try to find a used generator. New ones are really expensive.)

The generator with a friend who brought me lunch.

Step 2. Start building.

Clean-up done, here’s the Home Depot order.

And here’s the new walls and roof. All the windows and doors came discounted, from contractors who had extra materials lying around.

BTW, if you rehab an existing structure, that’ll save you thousands of dollars on permitting fees. Also you don’t have to pay fees for movable housing, like trailers and campers. (Not on the Mojave, anyway.)

Speaking of which, I was running out of money, so I did a couple volunteer gigs. I know. Life took over. Meanwhile I was trying to sell the house I lived in, always meant to be a flipper. But it was 2007. Nothing was moving.

The porch I built for my flipper house.

So I went to Russia to earn my cash. And after a year or so, I was ready for the next step.

Step 3. Put in your utilities.

Winters do get cold, so I rented a propane tank for a wall heater in the cabin. (You can see the heater vent on the pic below.)

Also, I rigged up this rolling solar panel unit, so I could move it inside when I was gone.

The bin opens . . .

. . . revealing what’s inside. A regulator (to control the electricity coming from the panel), batteries (to store the juice), and a little AC converter down in the lower right corner. (Electricity from solar is direct current. I needed AC to recharge laptops and phone.)

My source of hot water. Works, too. I had to keep cold water inside to mix with the hot stuff.

And I got around to doing the siding. BTW, the big windows face east for sunrise and west for sunset.

Step 5. Enjoy.

A view of the interior. No more painting. Wood walls, that’s my new thing.

A pic of a 5 AM sunrise.

So that was it in terms of investment. I hadn’t even been here for three years. Still, I wanted my foothold to come back to.

Then this summer, people kept saying, “The hipsters from L.A. are coming. They’re buying up everything!” So I listed the property—and it sold in three days. There was even a little bidding war for it.

It was hard to lock up for the last time and drive away, looking back as much as I could.

Really hard.

But something helps.

All I know about my buyers is that, yes, they’re from L.A. Also what my agent said. That they have a little girl and wanted a place where she could play outdoors.


I hope she likes the caterpillars.

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