Tuesday, November 13, 2012


I write and teach writing for a living, so revising is a process I'm very familiar with.  Building a house and living off grid, however, have taken me into a whole new realm of revision.  I've already made several changes to my plans over time, and recently I've made a couple of really big ones.

I've had to face the fact that things just weren't functioning very well the way I was doing it. The hidden costs were adding up.  It was all taking too much time and causing too much stress in other areas of my life.  I mentioned in my last post that I even considered giving up altogether.

I'm not going to do that, but what I am going to do is build just one dome instead of three.  And the even bigger decision I've made is that I'm not going to live out there.

In the middle of September, I moved into a new rental house in town.  I love this place.  It's a funky sprawling adobe that was handbuilt over many years by a woman, my landlady's late mother.  I adore my landlady and her family, and this is the most comfortable, functional house I've ever rented.  It's on two acres so it's quiet and private, but it's also very close to pretty much everywhere I go on a regular basis.  I can walk Eliana to preschool from here.  And the rent is very reasonable. 

As I've settled in here and felt the stress of the past few months dissolve away, it's become quite clear to me that I need to quit swimming so hard against the current.  I need my home to be a sanctuary, a peaceful, nurturing place for me and my kids; and as a single mother with multiple jobs, I need a simpler lifestyle that doesn't involve a 40-minute commute, a third of which is on really really crappy roads.

So my revised plan is to build the one dome at a leisurely pace, and have it as a retreat space.  In the future, I can always add on and live out there full-time if my situation changes in a way where that makes sense.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sky Bus Upgrades

First, I should tell you that I've been filling my foundation trench with rubble and should have a post with photos of the completed trench soon.  In the meantime, I just wanted to share a couple of small but significant changes to my living situation this summer.

Upgrade #1

Last summer, I lived out of an ice chest, which was the one thing about living off-grid that could really become a drag at times.  Having a bulky ice chest in the kitchen, slogging around in it to find the desired item, and having things get waterlogged is just no fun.  Not to mention having to drag the thing to the bus steps every other day or so (at least it has wheels!) in order to drain the melted ice into a bucket.

The bus actually has a fridge, but of course, without electricity, it's not functional.  Or so I just automatically assumed last summer.  It smelled bad too, so I just kind of ignored it.  After I moved back out to the land this year, for some reason I opened the fridge one day and discovered that the glass shelf in it was cold to the touch, and I thought, "Hey, maybe I could use this as a cooler."  Duh, right?  I mean, why did this never occur to me before? 

Anyway, I cleaned it out, bought a dishpan to put bags of ice in, took out one of the rack shelves to accommodate the dishpan, and voila!  I now have a much better way to store my cold food.  For one thing, all my condiments can go in the door and no longer sink to the bottom of the ice chest where their labels disintegrate.  For another, the ice lasts longer.  And I no longer have a monstrous ice chest in the way (which is good, because now that I have an oven, there's a propane tank there instead.  At least it doesn't take up as much space.)

Upgrade #2 

The bus bedroom consists of three benches in a horseshoe shape; last summer I put a twin size futon mattress on one of the benches to sleep on.  I had to fold it up a bit so it would fit.  It was fairly comfy but narrow, of course, and it would annoyingly slip down from its half-folded position and I'd have to prop it up again. 

When I was getting ready to move back out to the land in the spring, I started putting some thought into how I could improve this system and realized that if I could place some kind of board the size of a full-size mattress over the benches, I'd be able to have a real bed.  And then, just around that time, a friend of mine was getting rid of a full-size bunkie board (this is one of those boards that goes on a bunk bed, in case you didn't know).  Perfect timing.

So now, I have a very comfy place to sleep, which makes all the difference in the world. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Perfect Circle: Rubble Trench Foundation Progress

"Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living." 
~ Anais Nin

Everyone says that building a house always takes longer than you think it will, but in my case, it's taking waaaayyyyy longer than I initially imagined.  Last summer, I came to a point of acceptance about that and decided to just take my time, not stress about it, and enjoy the process.  But it seems like the way life often works is that as soon as you come to acceptance at one level, you get thrown to a more challenging level.  Such, at least, has been the case with my housebuilding project.

Over the winter, I made plans to organize my life a little differently this summer.  I would work less and stay out at the land more, thereby making it possible to not only have more time for building, but live on the reduced income.  However, because of a variety of unforeseen factors, it did not work out this way.  I've found myself in town most of the time, and even out of town altogether.

I don't want to get into too much personal stuff on this blog, but I feel the need to give some context here.  This has been so far the most intense year of my life.  It has included the death of my younger brother; a dear friend going missing in the woods for nine days, returning, finding out he has a brain tumor and starting chemo, going missing and returning again; and a daughter who fell into a self-destructive lifestyle and has needed lots of help to get out of it.  All of this has been beyond challenging to deal with, especially while also living off-grid and trying to build a house, plus just the "usual" stuff of working and raising four children, the youngest of which has been in a "me-first-or-I'll-throw-a-tantrum" stage. 

I've had moments of discouragement and near-despair, when I've questioned what the hell I'm doing and if I should just give up and find a decent rental in town.  It all came to a head a couple of weeks ago.  I was just back from Denver after bringing my daughter to the airport to go live with her dad in Louisiana and get her life back on track, and I just felt defeated and exhausted.  Like I just don't care anymore and don't have the energy.  There was only ten feet or so left to dig on the first trench, but it just seemed pointless and beyond me.

But then, I just got up and started digging again, and once I started, I was determined to finish it.  That day.  In the Earthbag Building book, the authors say, "Action dispels doubt," and they are totally right.  That day, everything began to turn around for me.  I dug longer and harder than I ever have.  I spent that whole day digging, taking little breaks, digging some more.  And then it was done; the two ends connected, and they connected level.

To be able to then stand back and gaze upon the fruit of my labor, this perfect circle, was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, even if there's still a lot more digging to do.  I can only imagine what it will feel like when the whole structure is completed.

But the really significant moment was actually not when the trench was completed, but at the point during the day when I stopped for a break and realized there was only about four feet left, the length of my beloved orange level.  That's when I knew that I really would finish it that day, and I felt an immediate lightening, the proverbial burden off the shoulders.  I sat there on the edge of the trench with my feet on its floor, and just looked and listened, received the beauty and grace of this piece of land that I now know I belong to.  I felt a surrendered gratitude and intimacy with it like never before, this land that has claimed me, this place I am constructing and being constructed by.  Being here, doing this, is both sanctuary and pilgrimage.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Baptism of Butterscotch Brownies, a Barbecue, and Level Love

Concerning the Brownies

When I first bought the Sky Bus in the spring of 2011, I immediately started searching for an RV or camping oven on Craigslist for it, but it wasn't until a couple of months ago that I actually found one, and at the right price.  Last summer, I used a two-burner Coleman stove, which was fine, but a) I went through those tiny little propane canisters in a way that felt truly wasteful, and b) I missed being able to bake.

My new oven is a Flamineta, which is a Mexican brand.  Everything is in Spanish, including the instructions that came with it and all the text on the oven itself.

It's adorable, and that little sucker can put out some serious heat.  There are no numbers telling what degrees it is, so I had to buy an oven thermometer.  Turns out on "high" it will go up to almost 600 degrees, and you have to turn it practically off to get it to 350.  Not that I'm complaining; I'm thrilled with my new oven, and baptized it by making butterscotch brownies, like so:

Concerning the Barbecue

My dear and lovely friend Nicole, who is also co-owner of Serendipity, came to visit at the end of last month, so naturally, I threw a party.  I was a little nervous about having so many people out on the land, but it went swimmingly, and as they say, a great time was had by all.  I loved getting my neighbors together, some of whom didn't know each other very well before the party.  I love that I like my neighbors enough to invite them to (and enjoy their company at) a party!

Here are some photos Nicole took:

deepening the fire pit that Graeme created last summer

Can I Marry My Level?

I'm still digging my foundation trench, slowly but surely.  This summer (in fact, this whole year) has been full of detours, distractions, crises, and various other surprises, so progress is slow, but I'm fine with that.  I dig when I can, and I enjoy it immensely.  At the beginning of the summer I bought a new level that is 18 inches long, which is how wide and how deep the trench should be, so it's a very useful little tool.  (I have to admit that the first night I had it, I was very tempted to sleep with it like a teddy bear.)  Before I started building this house, I didn't even know what a level was.  I had no idea what I was missing out on.  I mean, is there really anything in life more satisfying than seeing that little bubble in the center of the window?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Shady Operation

Last summer, I loved living in the Sky Bus, but during the day it could get pretty miserable - too hot inside, no shade outside, too many flies.  I realized the need to address those problems as much as possible before moving back out there, so that I won't be tempted to flee into town during the hottest part of every day.
My original idea was to build a post-and-beam structure over the entire bus; fill in the north, east, and west walls with scoria-filled earthbags; then angle a metal roof over the whole thing for catching water in rain barrels.  Well, after discussing this plan with Aly, I realized it was a bigger project than I wanted to take on just yet, and really not even necessary.  So I scrapped the whole idea (at least until after the house is built), and decided all I really needed to do was create a bit of shade on the south side of the bus.  So I ordered a 12 x 20-foot piece of shadecloth online, and bought two four-packs of 10-inch steel tent stakes and some rope at my local (yes, I admit it) big box store. 

And voila!  I now have shade and a small patio, which Graeme and I created with the leftover Saltillo tiles we got for free last summer.  Soon I'll even have a table and chairs to go there; more about that later.

Grommets are so lovely.  The shadecloth is tied with rope to handles on top of the bus.

I took what used to be a bench/wood-storage box inside the bus, covered it with last year's shower tarp, and used it to raise and prop the shadecloth a bit, then staked it down.  Even with massive windstorms last week, it's held up great!

"Interior" view, with patio awaiting table and chairs.  We also made a little "floor" for Eliana's kitchen (back left).  The spare bus tire there next to it has bee balm from last year that unexpectedly has come back, so rather than move it, I'm just letting it be shaded and hoping for the best.

It's really amazing the difference having this shade makes.  It's even cooler inside the bus now, as the south-facing windows are shaded.  And the great thing is that in the early morning and late afternoon when the sun is not so scorching, the patio still gets light.  It's pretty darn close to perfect, I'd have to say.  And the whole project cost under $100.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dying to Dig

Well, spring has sprung, and we all know what that means - time to get back to building!  I'm still renting in town and will be until May 15th, but I've been going out to the land once a week for about the past month to get things ready.

After spending the winter hibernating, I'm more than ready to get out there and continue digging the foundation trench.  I didn't make as much housebuilding progress as I'd hoped last summer for a variety of reasons, so I've been working on ways to move things a bit faster this time.

For one thing, I will not be involved in as many writing projects this time, so I won't need to come to town every day for Internet and electricity.  Also, there have been a couple of serendipitous developments recently in the green building networking department.

First, for an article I was writing, I had to interview architect/builder Mark Goldman, who teaches some of the classes in green building technology at UNM-Taos.  During that two-hour(!) conversation we also talked about my housebuilding project.  He had me come present to one of his classes about it, and he wants to bring his students out to help me build :) 

Mark Goldman and the adobe structure his students built in their classroom/workshop.
The other development came out of a contact I made when I coordinated the UNM-Taos Fall Harvest Festival last year.  Alice Ko, who did an adobe brickmaking workshop at the festival, suggested we form a women's natural building collective (so far we're calling ourselves Ladies of the Mud).  The idea is that we can do workshops and work parties together and invite other women.  Aly (of Building an Earthbag Home in Northern New Mexico) and I went out to Alice's land a couple of weeks ago for a mud party and made adobe bricks, which I had never done before.

Another issue that slowed things down last summer was how unbearably hot and sunny it got during the day out there, so I've been working on creating some shade; I'll describe what I've done and post a photo or two next time.