Rick McLaren arrived in this mountain town 12 years ago, hoping to plant a vineyard. He didn't trust the government much, but that's not unusual in this corner of west Texas, where tumbleweeds outnumber people and the "seek" button sends the radio dial into an infinite loop.
But this week, Mr. McLaren and his brethren in the "Republic of Texas" brought the nation's full attention to this rugged patch of high desert. After state troopers arrested two of McLaren's followers, Republic members stormed a neighbor's house and took two hostages in retaliation.
The ensuing standoff here marks the final chapter of McLaren's personal odyssey into the American frontier - a journey that is at once quixotic and highly disturbing.
It's easy to mock a man who believes that Texas is an occupied nation, a man who faxed an eviction notice to the governor. Yet McLaren's last stand is not an isolated event. It's the latest in a series of episodes throughout the West in which small bands of citizens have taken up arms against the government, a sign that progress, in its current guise, has left some Americans behind.
"These moments reflect real grievances," says Chip Berlet, who studies antigovernment groups for Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass. "People like McLaren are flamboyant and irrational, but they're also like canaries in the mines, telling us there's something wrong."
These miniature rebellions are the product of a sense of powerlessness, he says, fed by everything from changing gender roles to the emergence of a global economy.
"A lot of these people bought into the American Dream," Berlet adds. "They joined the Army, got married, bought a house, and worked straight shifts with overtime at some industrial plant. They did what they thought society expected of them, and now the social contract has been ripped up and tossed in their faces."
The problem, he concludes, is that the government has fueled frustrations by only answering with aggressive law enforcement.
Although the two hostages were released Monday, the group has called for support. On Wednesday, police reportedly stopped seven armed men attempting to join the 13 secessionists holed up in the mountains.
Here in the Trans-Pecos region of west Texas, time seems to move slowly. Five miles from McLaren's "embassy," there's a historical marker honoring stagecoach drivers who roamed these dusty expanses just three generations ago. It's a quiet reminder that the frontier idyll is still fresh in mind here, that the values of self-determination and Manifest Destiny still echo in these canyons.
"People who live west of the Pecos are independent," says George Christian, former press aide to Lyndon Johnson and a longtime student of Texas culture. "They resist anything that might interfere with their lives and they're pretty skeptical of government. They want to be left alone."
To the ranchers and small business owners who populate this scenic area, interactions with government are rarely pleasant. Most often, they say, government officials only show up to reprimand them for grazing cattle on public land, or miscalculating their taxes. Roger Kinzie, who runs a grocery in Fort Davis, says the last thing people here want is "more big brother."
It's an adversarial view of government that McLaren seems to have seized upon and carried to a wild extreme. According to locals, McLaren's first brush with authority occurred after he disagreed with the results of a land survey. In subsequent years, he filed hundreds of bogus liens on the property of neighboring landowners, forcing many of them to endure years of costly litigation.
But that was just the beginning. After concluding that Texas was never legally annexed by the US in 1845, McLaren and other Republic members declared it a sovereign nation and labeled state and federal authorities as occupying forces.
SINCE then, Republic members have waged a campaign of "paper terrorism" that has cost the state an estimated $450,000. They have floated phony checks and money orders, threatened to "replace" sheriffs who did not swear allegiance to the Republic, and convened a common law court that ordered the federal government, among others, to pay the Republic a $93 trillion penalty for "plundering."
According to Mark Pitcavage, a historian who studies right-wing groups, McLaren's style is similar to most people in the "patriot" movement. "He's persuasive to a certain set of minds," Mr. Pitcavage says. "He's energetic and combative, and he's got a bit of larceny in him."
It's this streak of greed that, in the end, distinguishes McLaren from his neighbors in this cactus-strewn outback. West Texans may joke about seceding from the union, but this is still a place where drivers wave at each other, where neighbors always lend a hand, and where hardships are borne with quiet dignity. To most people here, self-reliance and revolution are contradictory goals. "We're not necessarily upset with his ideals," Mr. Kinzie says of McLaren. "It's his methods we don't like."
Still, the 1,200 residents of Fort Davis hope that the lessons of this standoff are not lost on a government that few here count as an ally. "People like McLaren can do something that allows us to take them down, but they don't necessarily disappear when they're arrested," Pitcavage says. "They can live on in the minds ... of people who feel they've been forgotten."