My Private Utopia

Sep 11, 2015
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Transcript

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

We're going to kick off the show with a story about a man with a very different mission. You see, Dylan Evans was bound and determined to shake things up, and Dylan had big plans.

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DYLAN EVANS: When the big day arrived, I got up early in the morning. Most of my stuff I'd either sold or given away. All I had left now were a few essential things - a tent, some sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and my cat, Socrates, who was very upset, I think, to be going up to the cold North Scottish Highlands. But I was ecstatic when we arrived. And so I just had to pitch my tent by the river and, you know, that's when things begin to sink in. It's like right, this is where I'm going to be sleeping for the next year and a half.

NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Dylan was very, very far from where he'd stood just a year before.

EVANS: I had, you know, a regular job, and I had a salary, and I had mortgage and a house.

LOPEZ: He'd been working at one of the best robotics labs in the world, tinkering with humanoid robots that could read and express emotions. He had a lovely girlfriend, but something wasn't feeling right.

EVANS: No, it was a feeling of being trapped, like in a zoo. I was blaming everything on the world around me. And so I think all of these things came together to sort of put me in a position where I felt I just wanted to escape.

LOPEZ: Sitting in his lab, where he was surrounded by fly-eating robots and a humanoid head called Eva, which sat propped like a trophy at his desk, Dylan thought if all this technology that we depend on weren't here for us, could we survive?

EVANS: If the Internet went down and the banking system went down and the shops ran out of food, I would be completely useless.

LOPEZ: So he started dreaming of a return to nature, of living off the land, of becoming a survivalist. And that's when he came up with an idea for an experiment.

He'd recruit people, and they'd pretend that society had collapsed. Out of this apocalypse, they'd use their own hands to rebuild and create a sort of utopia, a place where humans depend on each other, not on devices or robots.

EVANS: At first, I called it an experiment in utopia.

LOPEZ: This community would be based on three main ideas.

EVANS: Firstly, it would be a learning community, so each member would have some distinctive skill or area of knowledge that they could teach the others, like growing vegetables or making boots or building accommodation. The second main idea would be that it was a working community, so everyone would have to contribute by working and the money to fund the experiment would all come from me. The third main idea was that it would be strictly time-limited. This was very explicitly just to last 18 months. I phoned up a friend of mine at the time and sort of told her about the idea. And she was saying well, why do you want to do this? And I was saying well, you know, I want to, you know, inspire people. I want to make people more aware of the dire straits that the planet is in. And she said to me Dylan, you've got a God complex (laughter).

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EVANS: My family, my mother was very sort of worried about what this would mean. My sister was - advised me to not sell the house, to take out some legal cover. Everyone was giving me lots of good advice, but I was completely incapable of listening to any advice then. I was just so fired up with this plan.

LOPEZ: Dylan sold his 200-year-old cottage in the Cotswolds. He rented three acres of farmland up in the Scottish Highlands, and he started recruiting volunteers.

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EVANS: I put up a webpage asking for volunteers to come and join me in this experiment in post-apocalyptic living. I didn't really know if anyone would apply at all. But I was pleasantly surprised when, within a couple of months, I already had over 300 applications. So in 2006, I quit my job, and I moved up to Scotland to start the utopia experiment. The first few nights, I was there on my own and Socrates, my cat, was really not very thrilled to be living in a tent. I didn't see him very often from then on.

The first volunteer to arrive was Adam. He was dressed in a sort of cowboy hat with a feather poking out of his hat band and black leather cycling shorts over some bright red socks and a British Airways blanket thrown around his shoulders and a very sort of - a long, gray beard. He looked a bit like Gandalf out of "Lord Of The Rings." But he was very passionate about the experiment, and he had been living on various communities around England and Wales for several years, so I thought he was probably quite a good person to have in the sense of being quite experienced about this kind of way of living.

The sun was beginning to go down. And Adam and I, we realized that we wouldn't have time to put up the second yurt that day, so we began to make a fire. We cooked some supper - some beans as a stew with some potatoes and carrot. And we sat back and admired the yurt that we had put up. It was a great moment to look there and look around and beautiful site and listen to the sounds of the birds singing as the sun was setting. And I had sort of imagined myself gradually transforming from this rather nerdy robotics engineer into a strapping backwoodsman who could be handy with a saw and a hammer and a screwdriver and a chisel. Adam wandered off to the first yurt to go to bed, and I wandered back to my tent. I sort of snuggled up into my sleeping bag and switched off the torch. And then I thought I heard a wolf howl in the distance. I wasn't sure, but I sat upright, and I was straining my ears to listen. And then I heard it again...

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EVANS: ...Clearer and louder. There was a distinctive sound of a wolf howling. And now I really was afraid. As I emerged from my tent, the clouds had dissipated and the moon was shedding quite a lot of light. And I could see in this clearing by the trees the silhouette of a man. And from the shape of the hat, I recognized Adam standing upright by the river, his head tilted backwards as he let out another long, bloodcurdling howl.

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EVANS: Oh, dear, who on Earth have I got as my first volunteer? If this is the first volunteer, what are the others going to be like?

LOPEZ: One by one, the rest of the volunteers trickled in until there were 15 of them. There was Nick (ph), a high school graduate, Harmony (ph), a 23-year-old musician with a flute. There was David, an ex-Marine, Angus (ph), an old friend, Romy (ph), she came with a handful of pigs.

EVANS: There was Agrick (ph) who was our expert vegetable grower, Todd (ph), who was good at butchery, Adam (ph), of course, who was always telling us what the great spirit would want us to do. It was a lovely group of people, and we were all sort of dressed in thick woolen jumpers and muddy boots and old jeans. And we must have looked like a bunch of rather sort of sorry stragglers. In the distance, you could see snowcapped mountains, some arable land for growing food on. There were no houses visible from the site. It dropped down into this small river valley, which was overgrown with trees. And it did sort of help us to live out this sort of scenario in which we did feel completely cut off from the rest of the world.

LOPEZ: In two months' time, Dylan and the volunteers erected two yurts. They built a shed, planted the first vegetable crops. They spent their days chopping and storing firewood, harvesting food and making sure there was enough to go around.

EVANS: We were all very enthusiastic about the way the experiment was developing, and we were very happy. I had fantasies of myself becoming this sort of wise guru-type figure with all the volunteers looking up to me for - and looking to me for guidance and me sort of providing my wisdom in this sort of paternal, generous, loving way.

LOPEZ: But when real tensions started to grow among the volunteers, mainly between Adam and the rest of the group, Dylan wasn't sure how to respond.

EVANS: Adam consistently refused to follow any orders or system that we designed to share out work amongst us equally. That really annoyed people. And then he started squirreling bits of food away that were - really belonged to the whole community and various tools and hiding them in his yurt. And at one point, I, you know, overheard people talking about well, how are they going to administer justice to Adam? One of the volunteers suggested that they should cut his hands off. And the other one said well, you can't do that. You know, what about the police? You know, the other one said well, society's collapsed. There aren't any police around anymore. And I couldn't believe what I was hearing because I wasn't sure - did they mean well, look, maybe society really has collapsed. There really aren't any police out there. But either way, the fact that they were discussing cutting Adam's hands off made me think that yeah, this crossed that boundary between a sort of imaginative scenario and real life. And at that point, I began to think that well, this is really drifting out of control here.

LOPEZ: Dylan didn't speak up. He didn't ground the conversation or find a reasonable solution to deal with Adam's transgressions. Instead, he just sneaked away.

EVANS: There's something in me that sort of shies away from that and recoils from ordering people about. I thought that I would become a charismatic leader, but I discovered - much to my own chagrin and surprise - that I don't have it in me for that, and I don't really want to be in that role.

LOPEZ: Without a leader, the people of utopia started to run rampant with the experiment. When Adam started talking about building an ark, like in the Bible, for when the sea levels rose, Dylan became less and less confident that everyone knew this was still just an exercise.

EVANS: We were still having to buy some of our food because we weren't totally self-sufficient. I was getting very low on funds, and it was only sort of halfway through the experiment. So I confided in Agrick, and he said oh, look, don't worry, Dylan. I think we'll find that you don't need to worry about that, you know, within a couple weeks or a month at most. It became clear to me that he meant that, in fact, you know, that civilization might really collapse and then there wouldn't be any supermarkets to go down to buy our food anyway, so money would become irrelevant. When I realized that that's what he meant, I thought wow, he's even more sure than I am that civilization is going to collapse and not just sort of in the next few years, but, you know, in the next few weeks. And that seemed extreme, even to me, and I thought I was sort of fairly convinced and fairly sort of fanatical about this. But these people have overtaken me.

Ten months after I'd arrived in Scotland, it was almost like the scales fell off my eyes. I remember waking up one morning and thinking - looking around me at these other people sleeping around me in sleeping bags in the yurt and the smelling of wood smoke and damp socks and a bit of rain dripping on me through this hole in the canvas and thinking what have I done? What on Earth have I done?

And it's suddenly dawning on me that I had no plan B. I had no plans for what I'd do afterwards. I'd sold everything I had. I'd ran out of money, and I was up in the Highlands of Scotland, you know, living in a yurt, surrounded by sort of volunteers who I no longer connected with. The barn where we ate our meals no longer sort of felt like a cozy place to bake our bread and eat supper. It was dark. It was smelly. It was piled high with these plates that we could never get completely clean because we didn't have much hot water. And Socrates, my cat, he found a much warmer farmhouse to sleep in. Occasionally, he would come back and sniff around the site and look very disapprovingly at me and then he'll go away again.

I began to increasingly just wander off on my own and hide away, find little places, nooks and crannies or wander down the end of the river or go and walk into another part of the countryside and - just so that I could avoid other people and avoid having to keep up this pretense that I still believed in it when I didn't. I was eating less, and I was like a ghost, one of the volunteers later said. I didn't really know what I was doing there anymore.

Agrick was more convinced than ever that the first signs of global collapse were imminent. Some of the other volunteers had said, you know, why do we just have to go home after 18 months? Can't we just stay here? I mean, civilization's going to collapse soon anyway. And when it did, this would be a pretty good place to be if we wanted to survive, so let's not go. Let's just stay here.

Oh, my God, you know, I'm going to be trapped here forever. I began to wonder if I could just find some herbal plant that would kill me or I could just die of hypothermia one evening or something like that. And then I realized, you know, I really did need help.

Well, one day, I summoned up my little remaining kind of sense of purpose and managed to hitchhike to the nearest village and see a doctor. When I told him everything - that I was pretending that the end of the world had come and (laughter) there's a whole community of people living out there, and I was the leader, (laughter) he just thought this guy is completely crazy. He said look, this is way above my pay grade. I think you need to talk to a psychiatrist. So I ended up in this hospital having been interviewed and having a clinical interview with a psychiatrist, who, again, thought well, this was all delusional on my part. Eventually, they did some Googling and found some news stories about it and realized that, in fact, I was actually telling the truth, that I had really, you know, lost my reason in the process of this experiment. I was skinny and malnourished. I was dirty and disheveled. I was compulsively fidgeting and pulling out hairs on my chin. And it looked quite freaky. The senior doctor said well, we'd like to offer you a bed here as a voluntary patient. I said well, look, could I think about it for a while? And they said yeah, sure. So I went into the canteen and sat there for about five hours just trying to make my mind up about what I would do. Would I accept this offer or would I say no and go back to utopia?

I mean, it was clear to the doctor that I couldn't make my mind up. And he said to me - he said look, we're going to detain you under the Mental Health Act for your own safety.

LOPEZ: Dylan spent the next four weeks slowly recovering his senses. He was put on a steady diet of antidepressants. He met with his doctor once a week. The nurses checked in on him regularly. He watched a lot of TV, smoked a ton of cigarettes, and he occasionally chatted it up with the other patients.

EVANS: It was very sort of ironic, and in hindsight quite funny. I'd sort of gone off to live in nature with the idea that this would make me happier. And it actually sort of driven me into the worst depression of my life. Here I was now in a psychiatric hospital, and it was the sanest place I'd been for a year. You know (laughter) the people - the other patients on my ward seemed relatively sort of normal in comparison to the volunteers of the experiment.

I knew that if I was going to - literally, if I was going to survive, you know, I wasn't going to kill myself - if I had a future of any kind, I had to get out of that awful place that I'd created for myself.

When I got back to the experiment, I came out of hospital, went back to utopia. And I told Agrick - I said look, Agrick, it's over. And he said yes, you mean you're better now. And I said no, no, no, not that. I said the experiment's over. Oh, you know, I'm sure you feel like that now. You've just come out of hospital. You know, give yourself another week or two, you'll soon be feeling fine, and we'll be OK, don't worry. And I felt sort of again, the anxiety rising in me, like no, you're not understanding. You know, this - I mean it. The experiment is over. It just can't go on anymore.

Over the next few days, you know, he and some of the other volunteers came and tried to talk to me and said, you know, you're saying you want to end the experiment. But we're not going, and there's nothing you can do to make us leave. I had failed to foresee this so completely that I - I just sort of was bamboozled. I didn't know what to do. I just - for one moment, I thought oh my God, I'm going to be trapped here forever, or at least as long as they want to carry on the experiment, I'm going to be just sort of sitting in the corner sort of gibbering away (laughter) for the next few months or years. I'll just be stuck.

I mean, I could try and evict them, but it would take months to do that. And I didn't have months because I didn't think I could stay up there for even a few more days without going completely crazy again. It just took me a while to realize that it really wasn't my experiment any longer. It was - it had really become theirs. So one day, I managed to get my remaining few things together and early in the morning before anyone was up, pack them up into my beaten up old car, which was just about still working, find my cat, who had managed to sort of survive up in Scotland there. And I guess I was really nervous because I just didn't want anyone to see me packing and 'cause they might try to stop me going. So my main concern was just to do it as quietly and as quickly as possible so that I could leave. I began to drive down that road. And I looked back, and then at that moment, I did suddenly begin to feel this huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I didn't know what the future held. You know, I had virtually no money left. I had nothing. But at least I was getting away from utopia, and that meant that there was hope.

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WASHINGTON: The volunteers at utopia renamed it the Phoenix Experiment. Some of them are still there, and Dylan, who lives in Guatemala in the company of his wife with 22 horses and 17 Tibetan mastiffs. To find out more, check out Dylan Evans' book "The Utopia Experiment." We'll have a link at snapjudgment.org. The original score for that piece was created by Pat Mesiti-Miller, and it was produced by Nancy Lopez. When SNAP returns, a man abandons everything he loves in order to save everything that matters, when the SNAP JUDGMENT Man on a Mission episode continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.