Jeff Halvorson built an idiosyncratic utopia at Orange Acres. Now it could all be yours for $399,999. 

The compound called Orange Acres is arranged in four quadrants. At the bottom of the sloping property, abutting U.S. 93, used cars are parked in grassy rows. Next to the cars, the first strawberries of the year are ripening in a garden. Uphill of the garden is owner Jeffrey-James Halvorson's single-story house. And across from his house, Halvorson has converted an old tannery into what's most simply described as a guesthouse.

Flagpoles flank the junction at the center of Halvorson's property. A flag showing a smiley face with the words "Peace, love and happiness" flaps atop one. From the other flies the yellow "Don't Tread On Me" banner of American revolutionaries, its coiled rattlesnake ready to strike.

Halvorson is Orange Acres' only permanent resident, but he likes company. He's variously advertised this 8.36-acre strip of land south of Arlee as a commune, couchsurfing community center, nerd colony, dharma station and free guest ranch. The Missoulian called it "peculiar." A couchsurfing Mother Jones reporter noted the unconventional house rules (dreadlocked guests must provide their own pillowcase) and the assault rifle Halvorson claims to keep on the premises.

In his late 30s and sturdily built, Halvorson smiles like an old friend as a reporter pulls up, stepping away from the yellow refrigerator that he and a preppy, twentysomething man named Wes are lugging across the yard. At the same time, a lanky, older guest turns off the lawnmower he's been pushing beside his motorhome. The sound of the engine gives way to wind chimes dancing in a summer breeze. The breeze blows open the doors to an outdoor cupboard, exposing stacks of dishware to the sun.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan

Halvorson is, in no particular order, an ambassador for couchsurfing, an ordained minister (credentialed online) and a used-car salesman. To the extent that others might see contradictions among those personas, he is unfazed. One minute Halvorson is explaining his spiritual mission to give food and shelter to veterans, homeless people and pretty much anyone who isn't drunk and wants a place to rest. The next, he's saying that Missoula County officials should be jailed for what he considers their campaign over the last six years to stop him. The minute after that, he's sprinkling "be-back" dust on a potential buyer whose first offer is too low.

A self-described Libertarian, Halvorson likes to demonstrate taxation policy by passing around a dollar bill and cutting off a third of it with each exchange. Pretty soon the whole dollar is gone, but what's really diminished is liberty.

"We started as a country where we left (England) so people could have their freedom to farm, to live, to thrive, to practice their religion," he says. "To practice who they are."

One of those Puritans, John Winthrop, famously imagined his colony "a city upon a hill." He was quoting the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus describes his followers as "the salt of the earth" and the "light of the world." The new world, Winthrop meant, would offer more than a chance for his fellow nonconformists to flee a king. It would carry the promise, and the baggage, of righteousness.

Nearly 400 years later, two poles of American righteousness are staked out on this gentle slope south of Arlee: the hippie and the rattler, the "take and eat" of Matthew meets the "Come and take it!" of battle and self-determination. In the middle is Jeff. Standing on his hill.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan



Jay Lewellen found Orange Acres on Craigslist, where it was listed as a "nerd colony, free guest ranch, for young adults." The post explained that people willing to pull their weight could stay for up to 20 days, maybe longer. The listing featured a photo of people in Stormtrooper helmets posing next to a black limousine.

"We are not a cult," the ad promised.

Lewellen is 29 years old, originally from Florida, with twin neck tattoos that depict a pot leaf folded into a peace sign and a skeleton hand flashing the sign of the horns. He was planting dragon fruit in the Philippines earlier this year when he decided to move to Montana. He doesn't consider himself a nerd, but figured rent-free temporary housing would buy him time to find his footing in a new city.

His plane landed in Missoula at midnight. Halvorson met him at the airport. After a quick tour of the Orange Acres property, Lewellen laid down in a recycled-wood cabin barely bigger than the mattress inside it. He couldn't sleep because of strange rustling sounds on the other side of the wall. "It was kind of like The Hills Have Eyes," Lewellen says.

Halvorson had forgotten to mention his sheep.

Missoula residents familiar with Halvorson likely know his name from the newspaper, where he's a frequent flyer on the Missoulian's letters page, and from that paper's coverage of Missoula County's controversial crackdown on land-use violations, which landed him in court. But most people who meet Halvorson are introduced to him online, through Couchsurfing.com and other sites that cater to people in search of a free place to sleep.

Couchsurfing is for idealists, strangers who trust one another to open their homes to fellow humans without recompense. This experiment in generosity and sharing has since been co-opted and commodified by Airbnb, but commercialized hospitality is sterile compared to couchsurfing havens like Orange Acres, where host and guest alike wear their eccentricities on their sleeves. Halvorson introduces himself in his Couchsurfing.com profile as a "rebel, do-gooder" who is "out to right the wrongs of the world." Then he lists the details: Guests staying more than one night have to pitch in on chores. No crackheads, Sierra Club members, haters or meanies allowed. Dogs and children are welcome if they're leashed. No one goes hungry, but if Halvorson catches you spending money on alcohol instead of food, you'll be asked to leave. Surfers without references must complete a lengthy questionnaire that asks whether they've ever clubbed baby seals and what they'd miss most about life if they died today.

click to enlarge Jeffrey-James Halvorson, 38, envisioned his eight acres near Arlee as an “ark” for economic refugees and vagabonds. Then Missoula County officials showed up. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Jeffrey-James Halvorson, 38, envisioned his eight acres near Arlee as an “ark” for economic refugees and vagabonds. Then Missoula County officials showed up.

Couchsurfing is a natural fit for Halvorson, who says he'd like to meet every person on Earth, if only he could live long enough to do it. He admits to being the guy who tries to strike up a conversation in the grocery line. His worst nightmare is being trapped alone on an island with $1 million and a direct line to an Amazon drone, because he'd have no one to share the deliveries with.

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