New Mexico

There is a certain loneliness to traveling, though it isn’t malignant. Perhaps it’s even necessary. The road is an experienced and talented seductress, and traveler’s momentum is real. A certain amount of loneliness is a healthy tether that keeps one connected to the rest of the human race in the face of the overwhelmingly attractive but ultimately empty vacuum of solitary adventure. It’s the feeling of being on your own out here, far from home and disconnected from your tribe. It’s long intervals of silence, sometimes so that the sound of your own voice surprises you. It never really goes away, but to me it’s most obvious the first night after leaving a person or group. It creeps up on you at nightfall when even the sun can no longer stay, and leaves you to reap your just reward under the paradoxically empty embrace of darkness. At moments like those, all the logic and reason in the world can be brought to bear to no avail against the tide of emotion that wells up into the gap left by recently departed, or more often departed-from, companions. And so it should be – not to care about people and not to miss people you care about would be inhuman. All that can and should be done at those times is to allow the waves to build and reshape the shore; to let reason and emotion ebb and surge until the cliffs and pinnacles of the sand are once more smoothed out, and enriched by new inroads to the heart and purposed by the singularity of the mind, the journey can begin anew.

Such are the musings which occurred after spending a little over a week at an off grid homestead in New Mexico as a guest of a couple from Texas who were building a cob cottage on their property. Cob is a cousin to adobe, one of the most enduring building materials known to man. Basically it’s clay, sand, and straw combined to form a mixture that when dry is stronger than concrete, releases no harmful gases, and is much cheaper. Unlike adobe, cob is sculpted from small hand-sized pieces (the word cob is an Old English word for lump) into monolithic architecture – a building that is sculpted as one fluid piece rather built of bricks.

I became interested in cob the summer before leaving for AmeriCorps. I don’t remember why. However, after spending hundreds of hours tearing apart and rebuilding modern homes as a disaster relief worker the idea of cob, and building with natural materials in general, took on new meaning. I’d volunteered with Habitat for Humanity years ago, and spent my high school and first couple college summers doing odd jobs for my parents, family, friends and neighbors on their houses: spackling, insulating, dry-wall, endless hours of painting, stud-framing, building rock walls. I’d learned how to build or fix most non-specialized items in a house at an amateur level, and was well versed in how much it cost homeowners in time and capital to maintain the modern McMansion. In Louisiana, after the great floods of 2016, I witnessed entire city streets piled high with the sodden garbage that was once people’s homes: fiberglass insulation, clothes, rotted wood studs, mountains of moldy drywall. All of it headed for the landfill. The principal emotion of the time was the loss of the homeowners, of course. But the image of all that waste stuck with me. We spent two months building homes in West Virginia after another flood (the fourth in the same town in one resident’s lifetime. This time, we finally put houses on stilts). The modern building process and materials are arranged around economic and temporal expediency – there is no less waste in the building process as we scrap large portions of standardized materials, trading waste of material for efficiency of time. And most of the materials are designed and destined to degrade relatively quickly during their use, but very slowly once discarded. Whereas the houses of older cultures would stand for hundreds of years with an expected amount of maintenance, our own degrade quickly, in fifty to one hundred years, and what materials avoided waste in the building process find their final resting place in a landfill anyway.

When a studframe house floods, we throw it all away and spend a small fortune to cut down a small forest to make a new one. When an earthen house floods, we turn it back into mud and use it again.
The idea of natural building is a relatively radical one in today’s society, though there are many who are working to make it less so. I’d read, watched, and listened to lots of material, but never actually touched the process myself. So I went to New Mexico, the heartland of historical adobe usage, to see how real people were using clay and sand and straw to build a real home today.

Unfortunately, the homeowners had severely underestimated the amount of time required for completion of their current step in the building process, which was raising a stem wall about 2 feet off their rubble trench foundation using scavenged basalt and mortar. When I realized I would probably be spending almost the entirety of my planned three weeks there hauling lava rocks, I decided it was time to move on.

However, the experience was not at all wasted time. I’d been reading Thoreau’s Walden during the trip (kind of an ironic setting for encountering a hermit’s homage to simple living), and though the famous author’s often impassioned speech is sometimes contradictory in his simultaneous love and disdain for society as we know it, many of his arguments spoke to me. The experience of spending a week sweating in the desert sun, sleeping in a half finished stable, using a creepily half open-air outhouse and helping haul water from pumps far away helped give me some valuable perspective as to how difficult homesteading actually is. And these people weren’t even growing their own food. It doesn’t mean I don’t still like the idea of escaping somewhere to live simply off the land for a while – but I’ll think a lot harder about it first.

The land out there defies description, though I will try. It is beautiful in a way previously unknown to me, a way which cannot be understood from photographs, movies, stories or anything short of an extended experience. New Mexico, or at least Sunshine Valley, nestled in the enclave of the sacred Ute mountain to the North, the Sangre de Cristos to the East, the Guadalupes to the South, and the Rio Grande gorge to the West is truly a land of enchantment. The sky, vast and omnipresent, is dynamic and constantly evolving. The air is clear and pure. I could see for miles and miles around, between fifty and a hundred miles between the mountains across the sagebrush. The clouds change every minute, a new visual drama unfolding fluidly every quarter hour. It was monsoon season, and so it seemed always to be raining somewhere, though the unique geography of the place usually caused the storms to visibly horseshoe around the edges of the mountains, leaving the desert valley in the rainshadow of the lush mountains. Though it would be bright, sunny and hot on our particular plot of sage, somewhere off miles in the distance a massive stratus column would be dumping a curtain of grey rain onto the land, strafing the surface of the Earth with a violent life-giving downpour that appeared to stretch unbroken from the heavens to the scrub. I have never seen a cloud isolated like that, never been able to see so far in the absence of hills and trees, buildings and haze as to watch the lifecycle of a cloud unfold from the far away safety of a sunnier spot. Sometimes there were two or three of these individual systems spread out across the valley, blessing their own chosen fiefdoms with cool, liquid sustenance.

The evening and night sky evolves even faster, changing colors and geometry minute by minute. I was privileged to share with my hosts and fellow guests a new and different sunset every night, each more beautiful than the last. The dome of the sky would illuminate from west to East with vivid oranges, rosy pinks and dusky yellows. Patches of vibran red would begin to glow through the clouds, the telltale signs that the last dying rays of the day were heating up their vapory blankets before brilliant sunbeams burst through their cover in every which direction and ignited the clouds, expending in one or two glorious moments the last jubilant energy of a day well lived. For another half hour after, the western sky smoldered in orange and purple until the creeping blue blanket of twilight smothered the embers.

Meanwhile the moon would have stealthily begn its rise to power in the new nocturnal order, casting such a brilliant light at its zenith as to drown out all but the most determined stars. For a weary guest, it provided ample light to navigate from a sputtering campfire through meandering sage paths to their bed in a brightly painted trailer, an ancient wood-paneled campervan, or a leaky-roofed but cozy stable. But to a determined nocturnal observer the moon’s celestial boast issued a challenge to outlast its short tenure in the valley’s sky as its arc passed up from under the Sangre de Cristos to its bed beneath the Rio Grande. Absent the overpowering light of the moon, the silky black night came alive with the visual symphony of the cosmos: the milky way billowed up over the mountains in a dense bluish-white cloud, surrounded by the faint light of the strongest individual stars in much more distant galaxies. Every few minutes one of their restless cousins rocketed across the sky, celestial sojourners meeting a fiery end to their travels at the hands of Earth’s unforgiving atmospheric shield. In the valley, coyotes mourned their passing, or perhaps, merely the escape of tonight’s prairie dog breakfast. Some nights, spectacular lightning storms raged across the valley, electrical blooms flickering impossibly bright only instants but miles apart, like bombs exploding across the horizon above some unfortunate city. Deep, visceral waves of thunder boomed and split the air. I could almost feel the glass of my little kerosene lamp rattling as the sonic shockwaves rolled into my little stable.

Though fatigue and the cold desert night would defeat an observer, he or she could go to bed satisfied in the knowledge that sunrise would be no less spectacular. The return of the valley’s namesake heralded instantly renewed warmth as the first rays of morning vaulted the mountains and pierced the clouds to cast the dark woody stalks of the sage in deeper shadow while in eery contrast setting their leafy turquoise tops aglow. Morning casts shadows long and dark, and as one walks through the glowing desert one cannot help but feel they have encountered an enchanted place. Every day I felt I had participated in one of God’s most sweeping dramas intoned in the oldest and most enduring dialect of the language of the divine.

As beautiful as the land was, the people were the real gems. My hosts were world travelers, having collectively spent three years on America’s roads, time in Ireland, Thailand, England, the Nordic countries, and Europe. One was an environmental chemist and musician, another a non-profit director, entrepreneurial adviser, and former Apple employee. They were both excellent cooks and had worked in the catering business for years. They’d worn a lot of hats before leaving the hedonistic utopia of the big city in a bid to get back to basics in the desert. My fellow workawayers were a navy submarine veteran who left suburbia after his father passed to spend three years in the wilderness of Maine; a prolific world traveler who currently teaches college English as a civilian aboard navy ships on active deployment; and a young woman from Botswana who spent two months motorcycling across India and has been in the US since April conducting research for a community center she wants to build on her land in Africa. One can imagine I heard some incredible stories.

I made some great new friends out there. It’s the kind of thing that’s very difficult to write about, because although I want to preserve and share the experience, the most valuable part of the relationships are inexplicable. A literal description or overview of a new friend’s story can certainly be interesting but falls pitifully short of describing their depth of character: who they are, how it feels to know them in a specific context. I can record gourmet dinners painstakingly crafted and served to an unlikely group huddled around a square camper table sitting in the middle of the desert. Candlelit meals beneath the deepening evening sky. Listening to incredible stories stowed away in the back of a camper van bumping very, very slowly down rutted dirt roads. Sweating over boulders in the punishing New Mexico sun, slowly but surely orchestrating together the rise of a wall out of the dust. But I can’t record how it feels to get to know a person in extraordinary circumstances from extraordinary origins, a group of people far flung and far fetched who form a bond at a brief confluence of their lives all under the context of transitory presence: the knowledge that what is now will not soon be, and so every inside joke, each philosophical conversance, every cursing fit, each unlikely campfire tale and dream quietly shared takes on significance particular to the specific people experiencing them in as unique, singular context. It’s a beautiful, complicatedly simple phenomenon transpiring in different but essentially similar ways all over the world referred to simply as community. For me it served to reinforce one of the core lessons this trip has offered to me, namely that it really doesn’t matter where you live. Beauty to surmount any mountain panorama, any morning bird-song symphony, any soaring city skyline can be found anywhere there is meaningful work to be done and a community you can love and be loved by. Interestingly enough, for so many of us, something within us whispers it will be so much easier to spend thousands of dollars on “dream” vacations, or slave our way up the corporate ladder, or run to the farthest corner of the undeveloped earth in search of the fulfillment that can be found anywhere in the world simply by starting a conversation.