Weekend Warm-Up: A Desert Life

There's no mistaking Alf Randell's climbing abilities, but he's best known for his lifelong eccentric devotion to an off-the-beaten-track life.

What makes a person interesting? Whatever it is, Alf Randell is one of those guys. He doesn’t live in a typical house, and if you were to find him in a supermarket, you could easy assume that he’s somewhat bored with life. Maybe even sad. He carries forward-slumped shoulders that are often a sign of a person lacking confidence. He wears dirty clothes and unkempt hair. His beard is not trendy, his oversized glasses date back to the 1970s. He gives the impression that he just doesn’t care too much about, well, life. On the surface, Randell, 57, appears anything but interesting. But those assumptions would be wrong.

Alf Randell fixes rock shoes to fund his dirtbag climbing life in the Utah desert.

Randell says that until the age of three, his parents thought that he was mentally handicapped. This wrong diagnosis played a part in how he wanted to pursue his life, off-grid, off-normal.

At the age of 16, after stealing and reselling enough photography supplies in New York to buy a motorbike, he ran away from home. A considerate thief he was, shoplifting a small number of items from a larger range of stores, so as to spread the burden of his petty crime.

In the years that followed, Randell flew with the wind, expanding his five-finger discounts to food and spoons. That’s right, spoons. For Randell, spoon stealing was a hobby of sorts. Eventually, he bought himself a Ford F150 crew cab pickup truck for $100. He still has it. He lives in it.

“I can’t live in a house,” Randell dryly states. “I tried it.” With the Ford pickup as his crash pad, he is able to lead the kind of life he feels most humbled by: spending up to four months at a time in the Utah desert.

In 1980, Randell first discovered Utah’s granite, sandstone and shale walls. A keen climber, he fell in love with those desert cliff faces with “50 or 60 of these crazy, crazy cracks”.

Although his climbing skills are impressive, it’s his nomadic existence that most influences his fellow rock jocks. He earns a modest living by handyman work and by repairing his colleague’s climbing shoes. It’s just enough to cover the essentials of a frugal life far from the city.

For some, Randell may have uncovered the secret of freedom. He wakes up each day with views of red rock and uninhabited plains. His choices extend little beyond whether he’ll climb or run that day. It’s either an idealistic life of pure simplicity or one of cunning strategy with a carefully cultivated narrative.

The video below, A Desert Life, focuses on his quest to minimize the importance of money and has been viewed more than 100,000 times.

Following its success, he started a blog which is mostly dedicated to philosophical rants. There’s politics, tales from his formative years and even a short story which is the exact opposite of short.

Randell also has a photo blog and is trying to become a photographer. Apparently his early years in New York as the son of a pair of camera store owners gave him a head start in this new passion. It’s unclear whether his parents’ shop was a victim of his early pilfering.

In 2007, an emotional plea came from his brother to track down the long-lost Randell. They eventually reconnected for the first time since he left the family home some 41 years earlier.

More recently, Randell has become a sort of Tiny House expert, earing a little off the growing trend of downsizing.

Ecce homo: Behold a man who to the naked eye seems uninteresting but in truth is anything but.


About the Author

Chasing Dreams Travel

Alex Myall

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.

Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.

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1 year ago

Wonderful, many thanks for bringing such stories to our ears.

Steven Jay Randell
7 months ago

this article blew me away! i am so impressed with your writing! as far as the printing shop, i actually ran a printing press. in fact, i became on of the last specialists who did letterpress raised printing. And, far from extorting from the multigenerational Randell business, i urned down an invitation to set up my own business at their expense. There was a giant money gift, and a new company vehicle. the only requirement was that i pursue this business in New York. I chose a life as a climber and repaired climbing shoes for money. i have included… Read more »