• This is what living off the grid looks like in Winter. (SBS)Source: SBS
In episode 4, our USA road-trippers head to New Mexico to visit Two Peaks Mesa, known as America’s “biggest open-air mental asylum”. What they find in the ramshackle expanse of rustic caravans and shanties are a colourful collection of fiercely independent residents, many afflicted with mental illness, who’ve moved there to escape traditional society and live self sustainably in exile.
Jim Mitchell

11 Feb 2016 - 2:05 PM  UPDATED 11 Feb 2016 - 2:07 PM

Living off the grid is about freedom

Two Peaks’ residents are made up of so-called “social misfits”- war veterans with PTSD; those with varying levels and varieties of mental illness; those on the lam from the law – and for some, it’s a self-imposed exile from modern life. Out in this desert expanse is a freedom of isolation with no government red tape and little law enforcement. For some, Two Peaks has been a circuit breaker. Formerly homeless, weathered resident Dean struggled with drug addiction for 15 years until he was spiritually called here. He now lives a clean life energised by solitude and the landscape. Compared to the city’s mean streets, “out here you have more of a chance,” he says.


Life is cheap

The Mesa is not a place for capitalists. As a self-sustainable community, any money that is needed is generated from odd jobs, disability payments and “occasional illegal activity.” For Gulf War veteran Eugene, his biggest bill is $40 per year for land tax. “If I can’t afford it, I don’t have it,” he says of his no-frills living philosophy. “If I don’t have it, I probably don’t need it.”


In exile you need to be able to protect yourself

Some residents say the city is more dangerous but it’s clear the Mesa can be a volatile place with its potentially explosive mix of mental illness and drug use. Almost everyone has guns or knives for protection or at least a pack of dogs to warn of potential danger. Just don’t mess with Two Peaks’ elder Stan, who has lived there for 20 years. Now in his 80’s, Stan has broken a few wrists and cracked some skulls in his time. “You’re your own keeper. You’re your own protector,” he says. “You don’t show fear to nobody.”


Law enforcement as we know it doesn’t exist here

It seems law enforcement has put Two Peaks Mesa in the too-hard basket with a ‘hear no evil see no evil’ policy of avoidance. That means the community is governed ‘Mesa style’, that is, the majority rules. As Mesa pastor Dave explains, if you’re voted out of the community you’d best leave rather than winding up as “coyote food”. When asked if altercations can end in death he declines to answer except to say, “There are drywalls around here that are not necessarily unoccupied.” Jeepers.


Being a social outcast doesn’t mean you’re unhappy

In fact it appears the residents of Two Peaks have found a contentment they’ve not been able to find anywhere else. For Eugene it’s a stress-free life and for Dean a new start. For Stan, the community, which has also become an asylum of sorts (in the traditional sense) for troubled young runaways, has meant he’s been able to continue a life of helping others by looking after and guiding them. “It makes you feel like you’re put here for a purpose,” he says choking back tears.


Watch Unplanned America series 3 on Tuesdays at 9.20pm on SBS 2. And watch episodes after they air on SBS On Demand.