Don’t call them ‘preppers’: Meet the people building an off-grid community in Utah’s West Desert

“It’s not a doomsday effort, it’s a lifestyle,” says Riverbed Ranch founder Philip Gleason.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Philip Gleason, founder of Riverbed Ranch gives a tour of the off-grid property on Saturday, February. 17, 2024. Gleason likes to reference an early family experience of losing power in a winter storm when he had three young daughters as the reason to starting a self sustaining community.

About 30 miles down the old Pony Express trail in Utah’s West Desert, there’s a turn off on Riverbed Ranch Road and a small wooden, salmon-pink, sign with the initials “OSR” scratched into it.

The sky meets the horizon at this crossroads and the Onaqui wild horse herd wanders the wide-open terrain, along with the occasional OHV enthusiast.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Table Mountain rises near the turnoff to the OSR land cooperative, a remote self reliant community near the Pony Express National Historical Trail in the remote western Utah desert, Saturday, February. 17, 2024.

Drive along the turnoff and soon you’ll find a sprawling development of homes in a small valley wedged between the Keg and Simpson mountains. A fence with tumbleweed encircles the property and a sign reads: “Utah OSR, Land Cooperative, Self Reliance in Action.”

This is Riverbed Ranch, a 1,245-acre agricultural cooperative. The people here are working toward total self-reliance. They want to produce their own power through solar panels, grow their own food and build their own small community.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Riverbed Ranch Co-op in the remote western Utah desert is building a self reliant community, untethered to any utility grids, on 1,245 acres of land.

One bright Saturday in February, Philip Gleason, a spry 74-year-old, and founder of Riverbed Ranch, greeted two prospective residents, Krista and Sam Elmore, at the cooperative’s welcome center.

“I’ve been eyeing this kind of lifestyle for a while,” Krista said.

An old Star Trek-themed pinball machine sat in one corner of the visitor’s center. A few shelves served as a makeshift post office — people on the cooperative take turns picking up the mail in Nephi.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Riverbed Ranch, a remote self reliant land cooperative of 2 acre lots in the remote Utah desert, untouched by utility grids, looks to add people of “integrity,” on a piece of land spanning 1,245 acres, pictured Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

Gleason, dressed in a worn leather hat, cowboy boots and a black NorthFace jacket, sat down at a long table filled with books about gardening and explained what it would take to eke out a life in the remote homestead.

“It’s not a commune, it’s not a religious statement,” Gleason said. “It’s not a doomsday effort,” he continued, “it’s a lifestyle.”

It may not be a doomsday effort, but Gleason does recommend residents store seven years’ worth of cooking fuel, just in case.

Riverbed Ranch

Safety and self-reliance

The families building homesteads on Riverbed Ranch are not tax protesters or militants. There are a lot of “Second Amendment-loving” people living there.

“These are not preppers, “Gleason said, “in fact, some of them even take offense if you call them preppers. It’s a lifestyle, it’s an agricultural land cooperatives.”

Gleason’s desire to build an off-the-grid community goes back decades, to 1975 when he was a young father in his late twenties.

Gleason and his wife and three children were living in a 29-foot travel trailer in Mountain Home, Idaho, following construction work. After returning home from a Christmas visit to Preston the temperature in Mountain Home plummeted to zero. It was late at night and they ran out of propane. Then the power in the trailer park went out. The electric blanket they’d been using to keep the children warm was useless.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Philip Gleason overlooks individual projects on 2 acre lots at Riverbed Ranch, a remote self-reliant community he founded two hours outside of Salt Lake City, Saturday, February. 17, 2024.

The family survived the night, but Gleason was rattled. He learned about growing his own food and started dreaming of a self-sufficient life.

In the home he’s building at Riverbed Ranch, passive solar (a type of building that maximizes the sun’s warmth) will ensure that even when it’s below 0 degrees outside, the temperature in his home will remain warm enough to sustain human life. He keeps propane on hand, has an electric heating and cooling system installed, and a rocket stove that efficiently burns wood.

Gleason plans to grow enough food on his own 2-acre plot of land to feed 50 people. He already has a few dozen rabbits and chickens. A small orchard is growing and the greenhouse is completed.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbits multiply as one of the many food sources being developed by Phillip Gleason, founder of Riverbed Ranch, a remote off-grid community of families and individuals in the desert of western Utah, pictured Saturday, February. 17, 2024.

In February, he showcased his home as one model that families could follow. But each house on the cooperative is unique — from Earthships to yurts to barndominiums — as each family’s motivations for moving to the West Desert.

Jonathan Olson, a contractor by trade, and his family moved to Riverbed Ranch about a year and a half ago. “It was a prompting from the spirit,” Olson said, “I feel like God directed us out here and we just went with it.”

People move to Riverbed Ranch because “they want a safe place to raise family and food,” Gleason said. “Because they’re concerned about the dependencies that they have in a community. They’re concerned about what’s in the water. They’re concerned about the spraying and stuff that goes on.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eric Cleaver waves as he makes upgrades to his underground greenhouse on Saturday, February. 17, 2024, at Riverbed Ranch, a remote self-reliant community two hours outside of Salt Lake City in the western desert.

A cradle-to-grave community

The agricultural cooperative is subdivided into 250 lots or “shares.” People pay $35,000 for 2 acres and water rights. So far, Gleason sold 131 shares and about 120 people are now living on the cooperative full time. Many are still working full-time jobs in Delta or Nephi — more than an hour’s drive each way. Others work remotely using satellite internet provider Starlink.

To purchase a share, potential residents must create a transition plan. On their website, the cooperative offers a guidebook titled “Matrix Exit Plan: A Guide to Escaping Society’s Dependencies” for $9.99.

Several nurses and retired doctors made their home at Riverbed Ranch. That’s proved helpful since the nearest hospital is more than an hour away. A resident helped stabilize Gleason after he had a heart attack. Five children were born at Riverbed Ranch in the past year and a half.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jonathan Olson is joined by his daughter Opel, 8, as he talks about the progress he’s made on his 2 acre property at Riverbed Ranch on Saturday, February. 17, 2024.

The cooperative is working on getting the proper permitting for a cemetery for when, eventually, the first resident dies. Gleason said they have a good relationship with the local county governments and he is stern about the need to pay taxes and remain on good terms with their neighbors.

Larry and Jenny Jones — close friends and one of the earliest couples to join the project — opened their doors to visitors on Saturday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Phillip Gleason feeds his chickens on his 2 acre lot at Riverbed Ranch, a remote self-reliant community he founded two hours outside of Salt Lake City, Saturday, February. 17, 2024.

The Joneses built a small 400-square-foot apartment inside a barn to live in temporarily while they constructed their main house.

Jenny showed Krista the store room where she kept canned tomatoes, peaches, pickles and big sacks of Yukon Gold and Russet potatoes. She also stored bins of dried ramen noodles, boxed mac and cheese, evaporated milk and Miracle Whip.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jenny Jones, left, gives Krista Elmore a tour of her “barndominium,” where she and her husband, Larry, have built a 600-square-foot home inside a barn at Riverbed Ranch, pictured Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

The couples walked out to look at the greenhouse, where rosemary and chard were still thriving in the heat.

Across the way from the Joneses, Jonathan Olson and his 8-year-old daughter Opel opened up their greenhouse to the visitors as well. In the back, they’d installed an above-ground swimming pool. Other members had built a place for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to worship — about 70% of residents are members — and some planned to open a yoga and dance studio in a couple yurts.

There are plans to create a campsite so that extended families can come and visit.

“I want a place where we can gather and have fun,” Gleason said, “and if something happens it becomes a refuge.”

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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Remi Cásares Flores works on a greenhouse featuring geothermal tubing to help circulate air once complete at Riverbed Ranch, a remote self reliant community in the western Utah desert.