The People of the Mesa

Amy Guida

The People of the Mesa


The Mesa is desert community in New Mexico, 25 miles away from civilization, where the people attempt to live freely by staying off the grid.  The residents are an odd collection of veterans, teenage runaways, divorcees, and single mothers. The bonding factor of the community is freedom.  They live a life mostly free of rules, excepting that you don’t steal from your neighbors.  When a conflict arises the people do not involve law enforcement, they take it into their own hands.  There is a loose hierarchy of elders and “mama energy.”  They are wayward because they live outside our societal norms.  The factors that draw people to the Mesa are a chance for true freedom and the glamorization of the liberation that comes with leaving society. Jeremy and Randy Stulberg document the lives of these people in their movie Off the Grid: Life of the Mesa.

“Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa,” Jeremy Stulberg and Randy Stulberg, 2007.
The Stulberg’s documentary of the Mesa shows the kind of a people that drawn to live on the Mesa.   The people of the Mesa live simple lives.  They have few rules and therefore they believe that everyone should abide by them.  They value the fact that living on the Mesa allows them the freedoms to not conform to the social norms of the masses.  The people of the Mesa believe in America. 


Nestled away in a remote desert region of New Mexico is the Mesa.  On the Mesa there is a collection of a people who decided to leave the “traditional American” lifestyle of nine-to-five jobs, white picket fences, and public schools to live an alternative life style off the grid.  The Mesa has an eclectic group of people ranging from divorcees to veterans to teenage runaways.  The entity that keeps this group together is a desire to forge its own society in what it believes is how America should be run.  The group of individuals on the Mesa built their own homes.  The people of the Mesa get energy from solar panels and firewood.  The Mesa has its own “law enforcement” and rules.  The society arguably functions mostly outside of America.

A working definition of wayward is “disposed to go counter to the wishes or advice of others, or what is reasonable; wrongheaded; intractable; self-willed; perverse” (Oxford English Dictionary).  The Mesa is counter to the advice of others because the members of the group fall outside the expectations of the “typical American.”  They are not working traditional jobs; in fact they often trade for goods rather than use traditional currency. They are a self-willed society.  On the Mesa, getting water is challenge; it takes self-motivation to build your own wells.  No one is going to go get water for you.  The people of the Mesa can be seen as “wrongheaded,” “intractable,” or “perverse” depending on one’s political and social beliefs.  Drug use in rampant on the Mesa.  The Mesa draws people that would traditionally be seen as outsiders.

This act of separating oneself from America is wayward in this the classic definition in that waywardness is living outside the mainstream society.  There are many reasons why people in engage in this wayward behavior of leaving society.  Two of the most prevalent reasons on the Mesa are the glamorization of leaving “the norm” and a desire for freedom.

Into the Wild is a movie based on the book by Jon Krakauer, which tells the story of Christopher McCandless.  McCandless decides to leave all his worldly possessions and move to Alaska after graduating from the prestigious Emory University.  At the end of the movie, McCandless passes away, a victim of the environment that he has chosen to live in.  Despite McCandless’s tragic end, his journey is still emulated by many.  During my freshman year of college, one assignment was to read an excerpt from Krakauer’s novel and write about whether we would entertain the idea of leaving society to find freedom.  Many students came to the conclusion that leaving school, work, and money would be liberating.  This idea of leaving the world behind is prevalent in popular culture.

“Abe Connally, Josie Moores Dicuss Life Off the Grid,” Huffington Post, 2012

Abe Connally and Josie Moores’ family is quite different from the people of the Mesa.  The family includes mother, a father, and two children.  The reason why they left the tradition American power grid lifestyle is dissatisfaction with having to rely on the government.  This is a similar to the reason why Christopher McCandless left his privileged lifestyle.  Some people just want to prove that they can make it on their own.

The group on the Mesa that I believe was most prompted to move, based on glamorization done by the media, is the “Nowhere Kids.”  The Nowhere Kids are a group of young adults runaways.  One of the glamorized facts of the Mesa is the “mama energy.” “You become an integral part of it Mama energy is a strong energy.  You can’t live out here and be meek. There is so much masculine energy that you need to counter balance it” (Mama Phyllis).  The mamas of the Mesa run the community.  A motherly figure is often what a young adult is looking for when they run away from home.  Another reason the Nowhere Kids are drawn to the Mesa is a man called Stan.  Stan is a pig farmer on the Mesa.  “Some kids need help, runaways… they don’t have a gallon jug to pack water in” (Stan the Pig Farmer).  Stan is known for taking in runaways.  Between knowing that they have a safety net in people like Stan, the “mama energy,” and the media like Into the Wild, a teenager can view escaping to the Mesa in a glamorous way.

America is a country built on freedom.  Our history books are littered with the word, freedom from Great Britain, freedom from slavery, freedom of speech.  The individual freedoms we as Americans pride ourselves on are getting smaller and smaller as time progresses.  There is very little unsettled land; there is no wild west.  Unless you are coming from a middle class (arguably upper class) background your housing options are limited.  “If you are toward the bottom of the pile, the options shrink and fade into significance, especially when the question is whether you should move in next to a crack house or live in your car” (Rosen, 209).   The Mesa allows people to build their own lives.

Freedom is the operative word on the Mesa.  Gun control is minimal; it’s how problems are solved.  Drug and alcohol abuse are rampant.  There is no police force on the Mesa.  The one rule they have is: don’t steal from your neighbor.  The people of Mesa define this as complete freedom.  The people of the Mesa pride themselves as being free.  The movie opens with Maine, a Korean War Veteran, saying, “Where I live is the last place in America that has almost true freedom.”   Veterans fought for this country because they believe in what America stands for.  Maine is proud of his time in the military but he does not like the way America is taking away his freedoms.  He lives in the Mesa because it’s the only place he can be free.

Image 1

“Soth: AS-2008_02zl0173,” Off the Grid, Anne Doran, 2008
This man shows the primitive lifestyle of living off the grid. There is symbolism in his American flag themed scarf.  The photographer Alec Soth takes careful precautions when photographing the people of the Mesa because they are just as weary of him as he is of them.  People that choose to live off of the grid choose to do so because they aren’t satisfied with something in society.  Often times (but not always) their physical appearance is as wayward as their decision to leave the grid.

There is a common image of what America should be.  This image shifts depending who is sharing it, whether it’s the American people or the world outside of America.  Whoever is evaluating this true America is creating the norm but they are also constructing the wayward.  The Mesa on paper in phrases: freedom, looking out for your neighbor, providing for your family.  The Mesa seems to be what people have come to view as the norm.  If you look at the images of this desert with unkempt people and houses built by the untrained, the Mesa becomes wayward. They live off the grid. They are free, but they live off the grid.  Waywardness is as complicated to define as normal. The Mesa is wayward because they chose to live outside of America law enforcement and the power grid.


Doran, Anne. “Off the Grid.” Art in America; 100.10 (2012): n. pag. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Leader, Jessica. “Abe Connally, Josie Moores Discuss Life Off The Grid.” The Huffington Post., 05 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa. Dir. Jeremy Stulberg and Randy Stulbeg. Indiepix, 2008. DVD.
Rosen, Nick. Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America. New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.
Rosenberg, David. “Taking the Table to the Farm: Portraits of Radical Off-the-Grid Living.” Behold. Slare, 10 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Valli, Eric. Off the Grid. N.d. Photograph. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.


This entry was posted by amyguida.

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