Off the Grid in Terlingua, Texas

Disclaimer: I am writing this over a week after this discussion and I did not take notes. This is the best of my recollection. I would welcome corrections from any Road Scholars reading this.

Before dinner on Wednesday evening all the Road Scholars piled into a van and went out to see the “residential” area of Terlingua about 30 minutes outside Terlingua Ghost Town (see previous post) and about 30 minutes from the entrance to Big Bend National Park. Jamie, an artist friend of Erin and Erica has built two homes on the 100 acres he owns in the Chihuahuan Desert. These homes are “off the grid”. He has both listed on AirB&B. He rents one year round and the other only about half the year. He travels the other half. These rentals are his main income. He is also a carpenter and picks up some work doing that. He graciously showed us around the home he built and lives in part of the year and explained how he survives out in the desert.

Jamie used Rammed Earth Construction to build the exterior walls. The walls are between 18 and 24″ thick. A vertical form is built where the wall is to go. The material for the wall is mainly cement, clay and earth, all of which he had locally. The material is very tightly compacted in shallow layers. This wall thickness maintains the temperature within the house. The floor is of similar material.

He has stationary solar panels on the roof that provide electricity to power an air conditioner as needed ONLY during the day, it powers a small refrigerator, an on-demand hot water heater and lights, TV, computer, etc. The Chihuahuan Desert gets sun all day most of the days of the year but electricity still cannot be wasted. He has some kind of efficient heater for the winter but I had never heard of what he was talking about and didn’t understand it.

Jamie collects runoff water from his roof and stores it in black tanks beside the house. This water can be used for showers. It normally only rains there from July to September and they do not get much then but he said that it is all he needs. He has a filter on the sink tap but I think he said he uses bottled water for drinking and cooking.

He made beautiful concrete kitchen counter tops inlaid with colored glass. He said he scrounged a lot of the materials he built with but the wood used in the kitchen cabinets and the wooden dining table is as beautiful as I’ve seen anywhere. He did say he bought multi-pane windows from the “local” hardware store (60 miles away) but mentioned he’d use better windows if he ever built another house.

He also built in seats in the dining area (now covered with cushions) and a form-fitted window seat (in the pictures below one of our group is sitting in it enjoying the views outside). He had hammocks hanging on his front porch. His bed is in the bed of a pick-up truck.

Jamie added a lean-to “green house” on the side of his earthen cabin. It is not climate controlled so can get very hot in the summer but would be nice during winter days. He has a small cook stove out there to cook on so it doesn’t heat up the living space in the summer. He is beginning to start his own vegetables in pots in the green house.

He talked about the toilet in his rental property being a compost toilet and the guests had to empty it at the end of their stay. He talked about separating the waste in his home but I didn’t hear what he did with it afterwards.

I had always considered “off the grid” to be unable to be found but Jamie has phone access to maintain his AirBNB account and has WiFi service in both his rental and his home. The post office does not deliver out to his home (a very poor dirt road runs about a mile to his and other folks’ drives) but there was a string of mailboxes at the beginning of the “development” so I assume mail is delivered there or a post office box.

There is a school in the area for primary and middle school aged kids (this includes kids whose parents work year-round in Big Bend National Park) but there are no buses so the parents must get them there. High school students must go to the school over an hour away. Most stay there during the week with friends and come home on weekends. The nearest hospital is also over an hour away and there are no nearby doctors or clinics.

There is one gas station/convenience store in the area. Erica / Erin said they normally go across the border into Mexico to get what they need about every two weeks. One advantage of living in the middle of nowhere is that there are many fewer regulations. There are not many places in the US that allow construction without strictly regulated permits.

I will admit this visit with Jamie and discussions with Erin / Erica opened my eyes to the growing numbers of people choosing to live this alternative lifestyle and why. I had come across posts by many young people living stealthily in vans in cities while trying to save money for apartments, travel or paying off college debt while I was trying to decide how I wanted my van set up so I was aware of some of the alternatives to luxuries we take for granted (I especially researched alternatives to ‘fridges and toilets).

Jamie, Erin and Erica are all very intelligent, vibrant, energetic, creative and hard working people. They are not choosing this life style because they want to lay around all day, because they are somehow mentally or emotionally crippled, because they are evading the law or because they have no marketable skills. It takes a lot of effort and forethought to live like this. They choose to live in a beautiful area that gives them continuous access to nature. They chose careers that, while they may not make a high wage, they do have a lot of control over their work and totally enjoy it. They also believe they have a responsibility to use the resources they have efficiently. And I’m sure they get a sense of satisfaction of successfully solving problems that come their way when those of us “grid-lovers” would simply leave and go back to the comforts of home.

When we got back to the Longhorn Ranch Motel we had an al fresco dinner of lasagna and garlic bread. I spent some time trying to update the blog but most people went out to stargaze after dinner. I forgot I had wanted to see the Milky Way. I have never been anywhere that dark before and was looking forward to that. Rats!

One comment

  1. I liked reading your insights at the end of your blog. You MISSED the MILKY WAY!!!?? NO way! If I’d been there I’d have reminded you of that rare treat.

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