Living off the land at 'Fort Awesome'


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    BROAD HORIZONS. Four recession-struck friends embark on a mission to build "Fort Awesome" on a $550 piece land in the Texas desert purchased on eBay

    - Sean Cole/Marketplace

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    Boston native Gene Atwood and friend Matt "Chopper" Gibeault sword fight on a five acres plot of land in the Chihuahuan Desert.

    - Sean Cole/Marketplace

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    Boston native Gene Atwood purchased five acres of the Chihuahuan Desert in far west Texas on eBay. In March of this year, he moved to it.

    - Sean Cole/Marketplace

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    Gene's friend Matt "Chopper" Gibeault moved to the land with him, along with their buddy Mariah Sharpe and Gene's girlfriend Haley Filamond.

    - Sean Cole/Marketplace

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    Mariah constructed a helmet out of an old cow skull he found on the land and declared himself Lord of the Cows.

    - Sean Cole/Marketplace

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    Haley found a primitive tool in the desert and used it to chop potatoes. Their goal was to live off the land as much as possible.

    - Sean Cole/Marketplace

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    They built a shade structure out of foraged lumber and tarps.

    - Sean Cole/Marketplace

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    The desert is teeming with life, some of it harmless, some not.

    - Sean Cole/Marketplace

Gene's friend Matt "Chopper" Gibeault moved to the land with him, along with their buddy Mariah Sharpe and Gene's girlfriend Haley Filamond.

Haley found a primitive tool in the desert and used it to chop potatoes. Their goal was to live off the land as much as possible.

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: Money changes everything. For better, or for worse, having it or lacking it affects every aspect of your daily life. This week we begin a series produced in conjunction with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It's called "Money Changes Everything."

Gene Atwood starts us off. He's a university research assistant in Boston who told his story to Sean Cole.


SEAN COLE: Hello sir!

GENE ATWOOD: Mr. Cole!

Sean: How are you?

Gene: I'm good.

Sean: Very good to meet you.

This past winter, I was asking around for people whose plans had changed, for better or worse, because of the recession. And I got a note from a guy named Gene Atwood in Boston that said this: "In defiance of the pressure I am constantly under to keep my job (as it would be foolish to do otherwise in this economy), I'm moving to a piece of land I bought when I was 19 for $550 eBay to finally start Fort Awesome."

Gene: Actually looking at the records, I was 21 and I'm 28 now. I had an emergency credit card from my parents. And I had just gotten over a two-year relationship. And I was pretty depressed, and I was living in my parents' basement and I wasn't in the best possible way that one could be.

Before he knew it, he had a deed to a five empty acres of the Chihuahuan Desert in far west Texas near the Mexican border. Gene was working at the time and he eventually paid his parents back but still...

Gene: They got mad. They took the credit card away for sure. That was a breach of trust. I'm not describing a responsible purchase here. I'm describing an extremely irresponsible purchase that has turned out to be the best purchase I think I've ever made.

And possibly the realization of a dream he'd had since he was 12 or 13.

Gene: I had this fantasy for Fort Awesome, which would just be exactly how it sounds. Fort Awesome. It would just be a fort. It would be awesome. In a lot of ways, that's still exactly what we're doing, except a little more clear-headed now.

TEXARRAKIS VIDEO: Good evening Internet. The date is Friday, March 5 and this is Texarrakis.com. There are approximately 23 days left until launch. That's right...

Atwood's new plan had an awesomer name than Fort Awesome: Texarrakis. Arrakis being the desert planet in the book Dune. He wasn't just going to move to the land. He was going to escape the trappings of modern civilization as much as possible. Paradoxically, he would also document this escape on his website, Texarrakis.com..

His friend Matt Gibeault, aka Chopper, was going with him.

CHOPPER ON VIDEO: Beginning on day one, launch day, you can expect to find a new Texarrakis video. Here. About every other day or so.

Along with two others: Their buddy Mariah Sharpe, who's a guy, and Gene's girlfriend Haley Filamond.

HALEY FILAMOND: Do you wanna bust out that hummus and stuff?

I spent a lot of time with them in the two months before they left. I went to one of their strategy meetings...

HALEY: My plan is to have my last day at work be about two weeks before we leave.

Haley worked at a coffee shop. Chopper was at a liquor store. Mariah did construction. And I know this is going to sound cheesy, but they reminded me of me when I was in my 20s in Boston, working a meaningless job just so I could stay nourished enough to make it to work the next day. They felt like gerbils. Or robots. Or robot gerbils. They set a goal of saving $8,000 between them. Figuring they'd need at least that much to start out. They'd move to the land for a year. Possibly forever.

HALEY: General concerns?

Gene: Land surveyor still hasn't gotten back to me.

HALEY: Oh, that's a whole different category.

Gene: Well, that's still a general concern.

Gene, Chopper and Mariah had visited the land before, two summers ago. It was hard to believe anyone owned it. It just blended into one big vast desert valley surrounded by mountains.

Gene: There's wind. There's constant wind. Sometimes, these huge gusts.

One of which was caught on tape, a dust devil.

Sound of people shouting and cursing on tape

It blew their tarp away. There are also scorpions in the desert. And rattlesnakes. And some type of vicious ant.

Gene: This could be the worst idea I've ever had. It could be. I don't know. I'm going to find out. That's my plan.

More specifically, the plan was to buy a bunch of dry and canned food to begin with. Grow what few crops you can grow in the desert, including spices, which they'd then sell on the website -- along with other Texarrakis paraphernalia -- to sustain themselves. For power, they bought a small windmill. Assembly required.

Gene: Oh check these out. The blades.

HALEY: I think this is one of those things for me that like, "Well, we better pull it off now, because we got a windmill and what else are we gonna do with it?"

Gene: I don't know I need to figure out what I'm actually capable of instead of just doing what I need to do to pay for rent, and coffee and sandwiches. I wanna do something really fun.

Sean: You were about to say something awesome.

Gene: I... yeah, I was. But I feel like I've said "awesome" too many times.

Sean: You can say "awesome."

Gene: OK. Yeah, I wanna do something really awesome.

SOUND OF LOADING TRUCK

CHOPPER: Whiskey in the jaaaaar. Yuaaaaow! All right.

By March 29, their last night in Boston, they had all quit their jobs and amassed more than $10,000. They stayed up until about three in the morning, stuffing Gene's giant pick-up truck and Haley's little SUV with clothes, power tools, a collapsible gazebo...

Gene: Whoa!

SOUND OF GAZEBO CRASHING

Gene: It's fine.

And then the next morning, they were ready to go.

Sean: Good luck you guys.

Gene: Thanks.

CHOPPER: Onward!

Sound of phone ringing

Gene: Sean!

Sean: Gene!

Four months later, I got a hold of Atwood in his new home: Chicago, Illinois.

Gene: Basically, we just did not monitor our finances well enough at all. And our financial point wasn't that we couldn't continue to exist there. But it was at a point where we wouldn't be able to leave.

A bunch of things happened. They spent a lot of money on the way down there and hadn't set up the web-store yet. Nor had they set up web access on the land, so Gene wasn't checking his bank account that much. They were living cheaply but not earning anything meant only lasting so long. And they one day they had a kind of "oh crap" conversation.

Gene: It was at the hottest part of the day when we were all kind of sitting together and I'm pretty sure I blurted out like "I don't have much money." And then, we all confessed to not having much money and it was sort of like awkward. Like none of us wanted to even admit it to ourselves, so we just sort of lived in a pretend world where money would always be there, if that makes any sense?

Sean: It does. I think a lot of people live in that pretend world, whether they're moving to an empty parcel of land in the Texas desert or not.

Gene: Yeah. We thought we were better than that, but old habits don't die quick, I guess.

But Atwood likes to think of the last few months as just a trial run. And he's determined to try again. Hopefully in a year or two. Meantime, a friend of Gene and Haley's in Chicago offered them cheap rent. Chopper and Mariah are back in Massachusetts. I really wanted them to succeed. I'd like to believe that you can live the way you want to live, even if you don't have an endless supply of money. But even if that isn't possible, it's good know it's at least attemptable.

I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.

Gene's friend Matt "Chopper" Gibeault moved to the land with him, along with their buddy Mariah Sharpe and Gene's girlfriend Haley Filamond.

Haley found a primitive tool in the desert and used it to chop potatoes. Their goal was to live off the land as much as possible.

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