Perched far above the Clearwater River is a 200-acre sprawl of windy grasslands with a post-card, top-of-the-world view of Idaho.
People from across the country settle here on ponderosa-spiked lots, crafting homes out of earth, logs and even car tires in this land of no building codes or inspectors.
They come in hopes of recreating the country, of living the way their ancestors did back before - they believe - the U.S. government began betraying its people.
The 5- and 10-acre lots are sold in a confusing web of trusts. No conventional banks are involved. To live here, you must sign a pledge to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
For a growing pack of disgruntled Americans and Christian patriots this place is Almost Heaven.
That’s the name former Green Beret and populist presidential candidate James “Bo” Gritz stamped on his hilltop subdivision.
He advertises the real estate and its patriot vision on his radio show and his “Center for Action” newsletter out of Nevada.
Contrary to public suspicion, Almost Heaven doesn’t resemble a militant compound.
It looks more like “Little House on the Prairie,” slowly filling with families trying to build homes before winter hits.
About 10 families have moved in. Another dozen are expected within the next couple years.
To get to Almost Heaven, you wind up an endless mountain road from Kamiah. There is no gate to mark the entrance, only an easy-to-miss string of mailboxes.
The only signs are warnings: “Do not enter private roads without permission. Please stay on public roads.”
The streets are gravel paths, which will some day, according to the master plan, bear the names of our founding fathers: Washington Way, Madison Lane, Franklin Drive and Adams Court.
Ross Spirling was just finishing the outside of his two-story home as the first snowfall landed in November.
“It’s nice to be up here with a bunch of people who don’t think we’re nuts,” says Spirling, a friendly, strapping man with large calloused hands and a Texas twang.
“My whole family thinks we’re nuts. They think everything’s just hunky dory. Once you learn enough about the U.S. government you can’t go back. You can’t accept the ‘everything’s-fine’ story.”
Spirling’s disgust with the government stems from environmental controls he believes strangled his livelihood as a Texas shrimper. He also grew weary of paying a hurricane insurance bill.
He laughs at the notion that Almost Heaven residents are preparing for a defiant showdown with government agents.
“We came up here to get out of their face,” he says.
The biggest house in Almost Heaven belongs to Jerry Gillespie, Bo Gritz’ business partner and a former Arizona state senator. His driveway bears this warning: “No Trespassing. Private Property. This Means You!”
Gillespie, who runs the Idaho land deals for Gritz, says he has sold about 75 lots, many over the telephone, for three hilltop developments. He says he never asks about anyone’s race or religion, although many are Mormons.
He says the attraction is this: “It’s the freedom to come up here and do what you want.”
Gillespie insists Almost Heaven won’t host another Waco or Weaver debacle. “We won’t let that happen.”
But he admits there is a militant edge to some of the settlers. “I have people right here who are packing guns and getting ready for when the government comes,” he says. “They’ve reached a boiling point.”
Depending on who’s talking, the man behind this remote enclave is either a reckless, self-promoting government-basher or one of America’s role-model patriots.
Some human rights leaders fear Bo Gritz is a dangerous racist, the populist party’s successor to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
They point to his 1992 campaign quotes, such as “If ballots can’t do it in ‘92, bullets may have to in ‘96.”
Gritz also is trying to distance himself from his comment that the Oklahoma City bombing was a “Rembrandt.”
People coming to live here know him as a decorated Vietnam war hero who fearlessly assails tyrannical leaders and brokered the settlement to the Randy Weaver standoff.
But most of them don’t really know Gritz. Many haven’t met him. He doesn’t live here yet. He hasn’t even started to build.
Gritz turned down repeated requests for an interview. His Nevada secretary explained that Gritz feels he has been burned in the past by The Spokesman-Review and others in what he has collectively called “the faggot press.”
Idaho County officials in Grangeville watch Gritz’ real estate adventure with fascination, suspicion and fear.
A woman in the recorder’s office says, “None of us want to be quoted in an article regarding Mr. Gritz. You can understand that.”
Many lots are purchased by trusts - such as The Steelhead Trust and Red Rose Trust - not individuals.
An official in the county auditor’s office describes the land deals this way: “It’s the strangest thing we’ve ever seen.”
County Commissioner George Enneking suspects Gritz is making good money off his land deals.
Idaho doesn’t require buyers or sellers to record the price of land transactions, so it’s hard to determine Gritz’ profits.
But real estate agents say it is safe to assume Almost Heaven Properties Inc., and other Gritz-affiliated companies, are earning at least a 300 percent profit on the Idaho land investments, which total about 900 acres.
Greg Heun brought his family to Almost Heaven from Mesa, Ariz. Four months ago, his wife, Diana, gave birth to Gabriel, the first baby born in Almost Heaven, at Gillespie’s home.
The Heuns say they were fleeing gang shootings and other random violence. Greg, formerly a Republican precinct man, says he also wanted to get far away from corrupt politics.
“Here we all know who we all are,” Diana explains. “We think along the same values of honesty and integrity.”
Greg Heun sees it as a return to simple living. “A place to pull together and do things the way our parents and grandparents did - and just help each other.”
Heun and most other Almost Heaven residents are not employed yet, but they all say they have received job offers and suspect there will be plenty of work as more people settle the hilltop.
While Almost Heaven is designed as an alternative paradise, it has some of the rules and conflicts of any growing subdivision.
There are limits on how long people can keep mobile homes on their property. The land has to be paid off in six months. There’s also serious talk of forming a town council of 13 people, of creating another layer of government.
And few of the heavenly views are guaranteed to last, as people continue to build in front of each other.
“Bo’s got the best spot,” marvels Greg Heun, pointing at Gritz’ hunk of cliffside land. “Nobody can build in front of him.”
For many in Almost Heaven, it is simply hard living right now.
In mid-November, the Harpers and their four children were staying in a camper that fits on the back of a pickup truck. They were waiting to finish their Earth Ship, a mostly underground home with car-tire walls and a big window facing south.
Standing in her muddy driveway littered with garbage freshly strewn by the family dog, Julie Harper smiles and says, “I sometimes call it Almost Hell.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Kootenai County sops walk the alti-government beat Some police departments have gang specialists. In Kootenai County, the spotlight is on political extremists. As part of the county’s risk management program, attorney Dennis Molenaar coaches cops and document-handlers to avoid confrontations and lawsuits by constitutionalists and tax protesters. It’s familiar territory for Molenaar. The former North Dakota attorney once won a lawsuit on behalf of a police officer who shot and killed a member of Gordon Kahl’s posse comitatus. At the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, Detective Jerry Weidenhoff’s job includes eyeing militia groups to make sure they obey the law. Capt. Ben Wolfinger says the focus isn’t that unusual. “If you’re a cop in Los Angeles, you have to be knowledgeable about Crips and Bloods. In Vancouver it’s Asian gangs. Here, it’s right-wing radicals,” Wolfinger says. “Everybody’s got their own little fringe group to monitor.”