man living offgrid redwoods
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
May 5, 2020 ·  6 min read

California Man Living Off-Grid Since 1968 (Property Now Valued At $4-6 Million)

Have you ever gone camping or spent a night in a national park and thought “I wish I could wake up here every day”?

Charles Bello and his late wife Vanna Rae had that dream too – and they ran with it. Now more than 50 years later, Charles is still living that dream.

A Nature Lovers Dream

Back in the 1960s, Charles and Vanna Rae wanted to live a simpler life. Charles had begun building homes and office buildings in high school served as a cartographer in the Vietnam War and worked as a civil engineer at Berkley, all before becoming an apprentice to architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles. (2)

He married Vanna Rae in 1965. For a time, they lived in New Zealand where Charles built and designed spec houses. They loved nature, and upon returning to America Charles decided he would rather spend his days outside, gardening and building in the sunshine, then sitting at a desk drawing. This pushed the couple to use their entire savings, as well as some help from their parents, to purchase 240 acres of redwood forest in Northern California in 1968. (1, 2)

A Cabin in the Woods

That original plot of land cost them $45,000, which is now supposedly worth 4-6 million dollars (1). For decades, the land had been used by the logging industry, so much of the old-growth trees had been cut down. There were no roads or bridges into what is now known as The Bello Ranch, and certainly no homes or buildings.

With the help of a few family members, they built their first A-frame cabin for $2,800 and in just five days. (1, 2)

They lived in and raised their two sons in that house for 15 years. They attached more rooms to the left-hand side of the house and planted grapevine leaves that acted as blinds for temperature control in the warm summer months. On the property, the family raised goats and chickens, grew fruits and vegetables, and ran a Christmas tree farm. The income from that allowed them to purchase another 150 in 1978 for $30,000. (1, 2)

The Grove House

Roughly 300 feet from their original home, Charles and Vanna Rae built their second home, known as The Grove House. They lived in this one for around 10 years, however, they knew it was time to pick another location on the ranch when the trees grew enough to block their view of the sky. (1, 2)

The Glass House

Charles and Vanna Rae wanted their house to make them feel as though they were a part of the nature they were surrounded by. This is the driving force behind the open and interesting design of the home that Charles still lives in today. (1, 2)

“I wanted to see the sky, so I came up here one day, and I sat on a box, and I looked up, and there’s a line that I scribed in my mind’s eye, and within 20 seconds, I had the whole house designed. This was to be a living sculpture—it’s a piece of sculpture we live in—and so every decision made in this house was not convenience or comfort, it was all to create the atmosphere of an artistic expression. Ninety percent of what makes this house is not the house itself but what you’re seeing outside, so it gives you a place to enjoy nature in a very intimate and very close way.” (2)

The house itself is stunning with panoramic views that most of us only ever dream of. There is a walk-out greenhouse that allows them to grow fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. The walls are almost entirely made of glass, so you almost get a 360 view of the ranch. Though some visitors are put off by the lack of window coverings, for Charles it’s pure paradise. (1, 2)

The Art of Restoration

All the buildings on the now 400-acre property are constructed to some degree from the wood found right there on the land. Everything is designed to work with the land and have as small a carbon footprint as possible. (1, 2)

Charles is an avid woodworker and has a beautiful little gallery on the property where he displays his sculptures. Between that, building new guest houses, taking on occasional furniture making contracts, and looking for others to take over the ranch when he is gone, he is one of the busiest and most energetic 87-year olds you will ever meet. (1, 2)

The Redwood Forest Institute

When they first arrived, much of the old redwood had been cut down. Over the past five decades, the couple has worked tirelessly to restore the forest and preserve the woods not just for future generations to enjoy, but also for the benefit of the planet. (1, 2)

In 1997, he and Vanna Rae founded The Redwood Forest Institute. The purpose of the non-profit is to protect and restore giant redwood forests by (2):

  • Purchasing and managing forest lands
  • Preserving existing forests
  • Educating the public about the importance of Redwood forests
  • Providing recreation opportunities in the forests
  • Designate trees to one day be considered old-growth

“I’ve selected 1,000 trees that can never be cut for 2,000 years,” he says. “So let’s not just look short-term, let’s look at what’s gonna happen in the long run.” (2)

Read: Family of 7 Living Completely Off-Grid in Northern Canada!

The Future of the Farm

With their sons grown and gone and Vanna Rae having passed away in 2010, Charles now lives on the property alone. He has help, however, and guests who come stay as well, which helps to fund the non-profit. Slowing down in his advanced age, Charles is looking for people to move in and take over. (1, 2)

“What I would like to see for the future of the farm is to find three highly motivated, middle-aged couples who are interested in settling down on this land as their permanent home, seeking to live the alternative lifestyle that this place has to offer: off-the-grid isolation, self-sustaining in food production, power, and finances,” (2)

Challenges include finding the right people for the job and maintaining board membership for The Redwood Forest Institute. Ideally, it will be the board that makes the decisions as to who is the right fit to take over the property. So far they’ve tried 15 to 20 people, all of whom have decided that the ranch life isn’t the life for them. (1, 2)

Finding people who want to do the work that the property requires is a tough job. His sons, who grew up in the space until they were 15, have established lives in the “normal” world, wanting a life of more adventure and travel. For many people, it seems like an idyllic life, because they have no idea the amount of work that must be done daily. (1, 2)

“I really hurt not having, right at this moment, a solution for the future of this property,” he says. “That is the most important thing to me, is hoping that I could put together some plan that could carry forward some semblance of what I have done here so that there’s a continuation of this.” (2)

If you or someone you know are interested in learning more about becoming a caretaker and resident of The Bello Ranch, click this link.

Keep Reading: A community of ‘voluntary anarchists’ is taking off-the-grid living to the next level