The road to political disengagement is quite poorly maintained. Any semblance of pavement ends some 30 miles west of Utah Lake, long after the cookie-cutter neighborhoods, divvied into perfectly paved grids, recede from view. Here, gravel traces the old Pony Express route, winding through canyons and over peaks, rugged enough to make your teeth chatter. Upkeep, it appears, ended with the horses. Dirt rises in holographic swirls. After two hours of skirting ruts and riding washboards, the car jerks to a stop and the engine stalls. Outside the window is a sagebrush-swept valley. Welcome to the end of institutions.

Anyone who winds up here, deep in the barren heart of Utah’s west desert, is either completely lost or deeply determined. This desert’s new residents prefer the latter. Philip Gleason, a 74-year-old former general contractor, is one of them. He arrives in a mud-caked pickup, sporting a cowboy hat and boots. He’s the mastermind behind this new community, prizing itself on a paradoxical mix of self-reliance and communal cooperation. The expectation is that residents will live off the land. The draw? They also live off the grid.

To some, like Gleason, that is part of the appeal. He shuns the typical labels — “we’re not preppers or doomsdayers,” he insists — but a certain degree of dystopian caution drove him to the desert. In a high-stakes election year, after years of a pandemic and global wars and economic uncertainty, the off-the-grid community has seen an uptick in interest.

Properties that are part of the Utah OSR Land Co-op at Riverbed Ranch in Juab County on Saturday, June 1, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Riverbed Ranch is Gleason’s brainchild. In 2019, he bought over 1,000 acres of sun-baked land on the border Juab and Toeele counties with visions of creating something that straddles the line between homestead and commune. The closest grocery store and hospital are sixty miles of gravel roads to the south.

In 2021, Gleason became the first resident. He and his wife drove out a camper from their home in Orem and took up residence. By the second summer, five other families had bought parcels and moved out; by the next, 35 had. Now, over 130 of the ranch’s two-acre plots are sold, about half of them occupied full-time.

The vision is as ideological as it is practical. Prospective shareholders purchase a plot and commit to live a self-sufficient lifestyle — growing your own crops, pumping your own water, building your own house. Each resident has his own reason for joining. Some, Gleason says, are drawn for health reasons — they want to grow their own clean food. Others seek safety, “away from the craziness.” Gleason reasons that most people are drawn by some combination of the two. “They just want a safe place to raise family and food,” he said.

The “craziness,” Gleason admits, was a major factor for his own move. “We seem to be undergoing a cultural revolution in the U.S.,” he said. “When we first came out here, we thought it might be too far away.” He shifted his truck into park, turning his face to meet my eyes. “Now, with everything that’s happening, we wonder if it’s far enough.”

On a recent Saturday morning, Gleason agreed to show off the experiment. We met at the Welcome Center, a modest structure at the north end of the ranch, and hopped into his pickup. The ranch stretches along three miles of dirt roads, divvied into two-acre lots. As we drove, Gleason pointed out the occupants: a chiropractor living out of a trailer; a small-engine mechanic trying his hand at passive solar. “This one, he’s never built anything in his life,” Gleason said, signaling toward a man leaning against a half-constructed cinderblock structure. “He’s learning from YouTube.”

Residents live off-grid, Gleason likes to say, because there isn’t a grid — no municipal power system, no sanitation utilities. There is no cell service, though most residents tap into satellite internet. (A decent number of residents work remotely.) The agreements shareholders make upon purchasing property are what Gleason deem as essential: build a house, build a barn, install a septic system, produce solar energy, construct a greenhouse, dig a well. To 19th-century Pony Express riders, this valley was a wasteland, a 40-mile desert between two springs. They didn’t know what Gleason knows: 60 feet below the surface, a freshwater aquifer flows fresh.

For Gleason, 74, this is less a retirement project and more a culmination of his life’s work. Even during his career as a contractor, his real passion was emergency preparedness. When a car wreck forced a change in career plans, he transitioned to custom furniture, creating solid-wood tables that doubled as food storage containers. But he was frustrated by the restraints of municipal life. He had little control over the water that came out of his faucet or the food carried at the local supermarket. When friends came by and would see his emergency spread, they’d joke, “I know where I’m coming when mud hits the fan.”

Gleason, recounting this to me, shook his head. “I thought, ‘I’m setting myself up for conflict. I’ve got to get out.’”

When the opportunity came to move off the grid and build a community, he jumped. Soon, his sister followed, buying a plot next door. “I was a stay-at-home mom,” said Sandy Bennion, Gleason’s sister. Bennion’s husband was an accountant. “Now, this is what we do,” she said motioning with her hand to her dust-covered jeans. They’d spent the morning in their yard, trying desperately to keep their small orchard alive. The first thing they noticed upon arriving from the Pacific Northwest was the lack of trees — there is not a single shade-producing tree in the whole community, and the Bennions hoped to change that. They brought along some 70 trees with them. A year later, only five are still alive.

That has caused them to get innovative with their agriculture. To grow potatoes, they place suds in dirt atop bales of rotting hay. They use wooden eggs to trick their chickens into staying in the coop. They’re living out of a trailer, but they plan to build a barndominium next to their greenhouse. “It’s kind of like being an artist on a blank pallet,” Bennion said.

Next door, Gleason walked me through his own spread. He’s meticulously planned each crevice of his two acres to produce as much food as possible. His greenhouse is full of vegetables and fruits. He’s organized rows of corn to avoid cross-pollination. He grows sunflowers to provide some shade. His 800-square-foot house has large, south-facing windows to maximize sunlight in the winter, but enough shade to avoid overheating in the summer.

Philip Gleason, founder of Utah OSR Land Co-op, checks on his plants in his greenhouse at Riverbed Ranch in Juab County on Saturday, June 1, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Everything has a specific purpose, and it’s often informed by Gleason’s extensive research into survivalism and cooperative farming. He’s picked up ideas from agricultural co-ops in Italy and Spain. He garnered the idea to plant sunflower seeds from a friend who lived in Germany after World War II, who told him the worst part of postwar rations was the lack of oil. “We’re not that far off here,” Gleason said. He fears any number of apocalyptic catastrophes that could hit the U.S. — a widespread power grid failure, an EMP disturbance, a cyberattack. “This is just history repeating itself. At the start of any cultural revolution, the people that control their food are the ones that come out on top.”

Americans are losing hope in our country and our communities. An increasing share of Americans feel distrustful or disengaged with the country’s political and social state. Most Americans say they feel exhausted or angry just thinking about politics. Two-thirds think the country’s political and economic systems are so corrupt they need to be torn down and rebuilt. Almost half think a Civil War is possible in their lifetime. A comparable share of respondents in another poll think it’s possible in the next five years.

As confidence in America’s institutions crumbles, Americans offer a collective shrug. When Gallup began polling on trust in key institutions — like the government, the courts, or the military — in 2006, the U.S. ranked atop G7 countries. In 2023, for the first time, the U.S. ranked last. “We Americans are living through a social crisis,” declared Yuval Levin, author of “A Time to Build.” “This is a straightforward fact and easy to see.”

In some ways, the institutions have done it to themselves, Levin posits. Politicians favor drama over dealmaking. Journalists prioritize entertainment over education. Educators, in turn, have flooded universities with moral activism instead of inquiry. Levin’s solution, though, is not to tear down the existing institutions, but to recommit to them. “Our challenge is less to calm the forces that are pelting our society than to reinforce the structures that hold us together,” he writes. Or, more succinctly, to install “a spirit of building and rebuilding.”

But Gleason seems to be offering a third option. Instead of either tearing down or reinforcing America’s institutions, the families flocking to Riverbed Ranch are replacing those institutions wholesale. They’ve created their own government and their own judiciary — they vote to fill a Board of Directors, and when conflicts inevitably arise between residents, they are sent to the Committee on Disputes, an extrajudicial body that maintains the peace. Around 80% of residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reflecting the local demographics, and they meet each Sunday in a trailer on the north end of the ranch. They trade in dollars, but also in livestock, produce, bread and dairy. The 70-plus school-aged children are homeschooled. A handful of parents have taken it upon themselves to provide arts instruction: A production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is scheduled for this weekend, performed by the ranch’s teenagers and directed by two adult volunteers.

Sandy Bennion collects eggs from her chickens on her lot at Riverbed Ranch in Juab County on Saturday, June 1, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Medical emergencies are handled by a mix of volunteerism and luck — one shareholder is a registered nurse and performs house calls throughout the community, and another, a midwife, has delivered three in-home babies. Gleason told me he’s suffered two heart attacks since moving out, and he credits his skilled neighbors for his survival. That self-reliance motif has its limits: several months ago, when a small child fell off a ladder and broke his femur, it took nearly half an hour for a life-flight helicopter to arrive.

The relationship between the ranch and the county government is complicated. At first, Gleason said, the county was skeptical of the community. “They didn’t think we’d last a year,” he said. “They thought we were a bunch of flakes — preppers, militants, doomsdayers, whatever.” Slowly, as the community has grown, they’ve found ways to cooperate. Riverbed residents say they pay property taxes to Juab County, and they have to get building permits for their homes. As a sign that the county has acknowledged their long-term presence, Gleason points to the newly-graveled county road that passes the community.

Beyond that, though, they avoid much contact. Some residents vote in local elections, though not all; Utah’s universal vote-by-mail system, a boon to many rural communities, meets its match with Riverbed, where the United States Postal Service does not yet deliver mail. The closest post office is nearly two hours to the south, in Delta, where many residents have established P.O. boxes. They can go into town to cast ballots, which many will, Gleason assured me.

But many moved to Riverbed to escape politics, and seem no more eager to reengage. One resident, who moved here from California, began homeschooling her children because the vice principal at the local elementary school “was gay and openly promoting it.” Another couple, who moved from Portland, expressed discomfort with the progressive left’s hold on their old city. “They’ve lost their minds,” the resident said. “We needed to get out.” The solution was not rebuilding or reforming the schools or civic institutions. They chose to start their own.

The urge to escape is not a 21st-century invention. As civilizations sophisticated and urban areas sprawled, a desire to return to primitivity animated art and literature. Annie Dillard found her solitude at Tinker Creek. Edward Abbey, in Zion. Both were inspired by Henry David Thoreau, who, for all his talk of living deliberately, was only a quasi-survivalist: his retreat, Walden Pond, was within two miles of the nearest town. Still, he constructed a life, by his own measure, stripped of “all superfluous luxuries.” It was as much a study of physical survivalism as it was social libertarianism.

Distrust quickly followed. Thoreau, in his attempts to front only the essential facts of life, became an immense critic of society’s institutions. Living closer to the dirt gave him a clearer view of the muck around him: Taxation became, to him, a form of servitude; news media was “more remarkable than important”; politics and government were simply social constructs. “To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things,” he wrote, “the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever.” Deriving truth from politics, he declared, was akin to “making sugar from linen rags.”


Thoreau eventually abandoned the pond. Shortly after returning to urban life, Thoreau published his chief political essay, “Civil Disobedience,” that marked him as a small-L libertarian, allergic to heavy-handed government and far preferable to self-reliance. What he was asking for was not the absence of government, he wrote, but “better government.” That did not require traditional civic engagement. The fate of the country, he reasoned, “does not depend on how you vote at the polls, … but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.” But even this required a concession: the man who wishes to improve society has to engage in it each day.

The residents of Riverbed Ranch intend to vote in this year’s elections, Gleason assured me. But there was an air of disinterest when I asked. Gleason’s project is not to amass political power, he said, but to break free of dependencies — on food chains, on power grids, on government. “We’re not tax protesters. We don’t have a militia,” he said. “We just want to live off the land.”

Quietly, as his eyes surveyed the blossoming community, Gleason showed a hint of triumph. “When we have this all built out,” he noted, “we might be the third or fourth largest community in the county.”

A SimplyBilt house and solar panels on a lot at Riverbed Ranch in Juab County on Saturday, June 1, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Sandy Bennion’s first name.

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