Seeking a little patch of land under big skies
July 29, 2014 4:58 PM   Subscribe

tl;dr: If you were looking for a place in the U.S. where you could own some land, in beautiful, lonesome country (utilities entirely optional) -- ideally in the mountains or the high desert -- on which to live intermittently throughout the year, where would you look?

I live and work in New York City. I will never ever be able to afford to buy my own place here, and I have a job which I can't really do anywhere else and which is intermittent -- months on, months off. My finances are solid enough to begin budgeting and planning this property idea as a multi-year project.

I love the city but I'd really like to get away sometimes. I had an unusual childhood and adolescence which included periods living with family in extremely rural environments, without electricity or running water, and they were very happy times for me. (This also means I have a pretty solid grasp on the various indignities and difficulties involved in living this way -- storing food, outhouse maintenance, and so on. The kind of house this might involve will depend on vehicle access, climate, etc, of course.) I miss the quiet, the concentration, the solitude/camaraderie, stargazing and so on. I have a very soft spot for the mountains and the high desert and places with a lot of sky. There's large parts of the U.S. I don't know well at all. So, if you were giving this some thought, where would you go looking around? Where have you traveled through and thought "I could live a way out over there"?
posted by deathmarch to epistemic closure to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
How accessible would you need to be to New York? Could you abandon this house during certain seasons?

If you could be in NY for most of the summer, I'd choose the desert in New Mexico during the spring and fall. Particularly something near the natural hot spring in Truth or Consequences around the Elephant Butte reservoir. It's probably the most beautiful natural place I have ever been in my opinion.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:03 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

How far away are you looking to go?

I'm from there so this is just my point of reference, but Montana is kinda made for this. Bigger cities that you can live outside of on huge plots of land. Lots of areas with cabins, etc. I mean, it's even called "Big Sky Country." Lots of celebrities keep cabins and ranches in Montana. Along those lines are Wyoming, North and South Dakota, etc.
posted by Crystalinne at 5:05 PM on July 29, 2014

Western edge of Nevada, close to California.
posted by jon1270 at 5:08 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

My uncle grew up like you did in a house in Appalachia. It still has no electricity, hand pump well water, and an outhouse. That's the area I would look in. Here's a literal cabin in the woods in the middle of a national park for $49,000.

Areas of Montana are also both unpopulated and un-trendy and quite. Here's 20 acres, also for $49K.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:12 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I thought of "Big Sky Country" out west, too. But lately I've also been nostalgic for Vermont's lonely Northeast Kingdom. A camp on the east shore of Willoughby or on the other side, way the hell up Long Pond Road. Probably not as remote as you want. Beautiful, though.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:15 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

New Mexico! Grew up in southern NM myself. Plennnty of wide open space, sky, and small towns in the middle of nowhere with likely very cheap property.

I'd personally choose Utah, near Moab - I find the landscape more beautiful and varied up there. Maybe you should do a big road trip through the entire four corners area and see for yourself.
posted by pravit at 5:27 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

There is a whole lot of not very much in NE California. If Dorris is too populated, you could head further east to Davis Creek.

It's a weirdly beautiful and lonely part of the state - scrub desert, lava beds, forests, and the Klamath River Basin.
posted by rtha at 5:39 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

A third vote for northern New Mexico.

You will also need and want some kind of community. It's the essence of rural life, and a necessity under rugged conditions. You might do well to consider how well you click with local culture even in the most remote places, unless you really do want to live as a hermit. But the memories you describe are social.

And many rural communities are quite closed off to outsiders, as you probably know. You might work on developing local relationships somewhere before you sink money into property there.
posted by spitbull at 5:42 PM on July 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Burns, Oregon. High desert. A million miles from nowhere, wild horses running the range. I think William Hurt once owned a getaway place there, for what that's worth.
posted by mmiddle at 5:42 PM on July 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

In the vicinity of Grand Junction, Colorado. Beautiful area, but dry. High altitude and the night sky has to be seen to be believed. (It's the only time in my life I ever really saw the Milky Way, and I gasped when I saw it.)

And Black Canyon (on the Gunnison river) is mind boggling.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:44 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote for northern New Mexico. If you bought in a ski town like Red River you could rent it out during ski season to offset some of the cost.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 6:22 PM on July 29, 2014

West Virginia is gorgeous, relatively accessible in terms of driving distance (you're in the middle of nowhere a two-hour drive from DC), and cheap. It's where I would have a farm, if know, farmed.

Kansas is also beautiful (not high desert, but open prairie -- frankly, my favorite place in the US in terms of the empty, lonely look of the place, especially with the winds and the ). Access to small towns for amenities is easy, but it definitely doesn't feel crowded. The local food is tasty and people are friendly -- the small towns are worth exploring. It's also beyond cheap in terms of buying land -- there are many places in Kansas where there are huge billboards giving away land for free if you're willing to live on it.

Personally, I would be wary of getting a very isolated place in an isolated area of SoCal/Arizona/Utah/New Mexico or even Colorado desert. It gets extremely hot out there and it's so dry that the sun and heat quickly becomes dangerous. Those are wonderful places to explore and I love the Southwest, but it's very high stakes in terms of survival because the climate/terrain is so harsh and a lot of the region is still very empty (in terms of population). I would recommend vacationing there and maybe eventually getting a place there, but I wouldn't recommend jumping into holing yourself up in an isolated cabin out there for fun or on a whim. Also, it's actually relatively expensive in terms of land prices and cost of living (though, relative to similarly rural regions, not relative to NYC!), just FYI. Probably because water is so scarce and transportation can be difficult, but I honestly don't know why for sure.
posted by rue72 at 6:23 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Friends did this in eastern Washington. Relatively cheap.
posted by emkelley at 6:50 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

My eye is often drawn to Whitlash, MT when I look at maps of the big empty.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:41 PM on July 29, 2014

My experience having a cabin is that it needs to be easy and reasonably cheap to get to or you won't use it.
posted by fshgrl at 7:47 PM on July 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ruidoso or Cloudcroft, New Mexico. They are in the mountains *and* in the high desert! And the road that connects the two runs through the Mescalaro Apache Indian reservation - it is some gorgeous country!
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:11 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kingman, Maine. You are not that far off of the highway, but it's the prettiest country ever. Off the Mattawamkeag River. Yet.. not that far from Mt. Katahdin. My Dad was born in Macwahoc, near Kingman.

Or... my Uncle used to have a camp up near Jackman. That's on the old Canadian Highway, aka Route 201. We went up there the other day and hiked the Moxie Falls. Wicked good views of the Western Mountains, Kennebec and all that, but touristy in terms of white water rafters. You'd find more privacy inland or up from there.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:26 PM on July 29, 2014

Agreeing with Montana. Only driven through it, haven't spent tons of time there, but by God is it fucking gorgeous there. Everything about it. So beautiful.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:52 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

West Virginia.
posted by macinchik at 10:37 PM on July 29, 2014

You should think about what's going to happen when you're not there. In many areas if you leave a patch of rural land unoccupied for months at a time it will become a trash dump / party spot / shooting range.

Consider a camper van or RV, kept in storage near the Reno airport. US 395 is full of wonders.
posted by nixt at 12:01 AM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Desert out near Joshua Tree NP. It's so gorgeous there.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:33 AM on July 30, 2014

Oh, by the way, JetBlue flies a daily nonstop to Albuquerque out of JFK, 4 hours and change. I've taken it a lot. It makes New Mexico a lot more feasible if you like to spend time there, as I do. About $400-450 at the moment. Beats the living shit out of stopping over in Dallas or Denver first.

You describe my own ideal, OP. My solution has been to develop a career where I get to spend time on the clock, so to speak, in places that appeal to me. Based on the time I've spent in deep rural communities I would re-emphasize the importance of not seeing this as getting *away* from something (as much as that may be a factor) without equally seeing it as going toward a different something that necessarily won't conform to childhood memories because these places are in the present and full of people even when they don't look it.

Rural life provides opportunity for solitude, but it also fosters much more interdependent and sticky community structures than in more transient urban worlds, generally speaking. There are reasons for that, some of them highly adaptive. Your neighbor is coming to help with the fire before any significant fire department presence arrives (and it's just your neighbors from over the ridge). Or your neighbor doesn't give a fuck that you don't like his marijuana stand crossing 2 feet over your property line, and he's armed. And raises Pit Bulls. And ever since Fallujah, he's been a little quick-tempered.

Community matters, in other words. Get to know your neighbors even if they live 20 miles away.

Deep rural places where you can still have, say, electricity and reasonable proximity to a city for provisions and medical treatment, etc. will all be dense enough with current residents (nothing is undiscovered, the market just discounts for diverse factors) that there will be definite differences in how newcomers are treated and viewed, whether you'd be seen as part of a wave of gentrification, whether you'd feel politically isolated and uncomfortable, whether your property would be safe when you were away for long stretches, and so forth. How you fit with such structures (e.g., do you speak Spanish? In Northern New Mexico this could make all the difference, and is something you could work on in the early stages of your plan) will be a crucial factor in whether your experience matches your nostalgia.

Many people figure something like this out -- from rich bicoastals with a rural retreat to snowbird retirees living in RVs. Once you figure out the kind of place you want, it becomes much more about people than particulars of landscape. Or you fall in love with a place because, in part, the people connected you to the landscape. I say travel first, as much as possible, with the idea of building local relationships and returning on a regular basis once you find a few likely regions or locations.
posted by spitbull at 6:42 AM on July 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

You should examine the corner of Oregon, Idaho and Washington states. It has it all: mountains, rivers, plains, rolling hills. Eastern Washington, as pointed out above, is REALLY pretty miraculous. (And you're six hours to Seattle, which is nice.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:42 AM on July 30, 2014

Wyoming has you covered for high desert, and cheap high desert at that. Hard to get to though, and awful lonely.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:42 AM on July 30, 2014

Once you get out of southern Maine, real estate gets very affordable, even near lakes, stream, rivers. Remote areas of Vermont, too. Any remote area will require some driving from an airport, but New England is drivable, and you'd be able to use it more.
posted by theora55 at 7:50 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Anywhere in between Northern New Mexico and Southwestern Wyoming.
posted by cwarmy at 10:30 AM on July 30, 2014

Of the places I've been, I'd vote for the Sierra Foothills or out near Moab, UT. The foothills are probably more expensive, but you're much closer to civilization. The desert Southwest is amazing landscape and prettier than the foothills, but is much more remote in terms of being close to things like a full grocery store or major airport.
posted by cnc at 2:20 PM on July 30, 2014

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