Thursday, March 4, 2010

On The Road to Pilar.....

Driving along a sunny New Mexican road which runs parallel to the Rio Grande Gorge, we spied a dirt road marked by Tibetan prayer flags and an intriguing array of homes in the distance. Making our way up the dirt road, we were met with scene after scene of interesting (and frequently ramshackle) homes dotting the windswept landscape.

This little compound consisted of a small house expanded with metal shipping containers converted into living space:

As we traversed the mud and bumps, we spied this little compound which gave us a sense of what we might eventually want: a small and simple home with an adjacent shed and room for our rig:

While the road upon which we were traveling was rutted and bumpy at best, the side roads leading off towards the homes along our route were seas of mud and half-melted snow. Every which way we looked, we saw something of interest: old school buses parked in scrubby lots, chimneys for woodstoves poking from their roofs or out side windows; ramshackle structures apparently built from salvaged materials and landfill castoffs; old mobile homes parked next to sheds and tents, forming small clusters of shelter for individuals or families; modest (and not so modest) adobe homes and earthships built on small lots adjacent to other lots strewn with rusted cars and other flotsam and jetsam.

Making our way to the end of the road, we came to a pair of small homes where two older women were working in the yard. We stopped, and Mary engaged them in conversation, telling them about our trip, and asking about this intriguing neighborhood.

The two women---sisters, aged 67 and 65---have lived on this land for a number of years, and their brother lives nearby. They explained that the land in this area was part of a strange "land scam" from the last century, whereby 1/4-acre lots were sold sight unseen---often at the Worlds Fair and other venues---to unsuspecting buyers. Local laws generally stated that lots needed to be 3/4 of an acre in order to be built upon, but everyone has ignored those ordinances for years, thus this community of homes has grown here, with everyone off-grid, the roads completely unmaintained by the town. Since the municipality couldn't care less, the "settlers" of this area have had the luxury of naming their own streets and creating a neighborhood of their own design.

The sisters' twin homes are incredibly simple structures, with porches added recently in order to expand the amount of livable space. Originally planned as temporary shelter while building a larger home, the two reported now being satisfied with their situation, the larger home now no longer likely to materialize.

Happily living totally off the grid, the sisters have propane trucked in for heating and cooking, and their electricity is provided by solar panels. Meanwhile, rainwater is collected and stored in a cistern, and during periods of relative drought, water can be delivered by truck. Two years ago, the two successfully built a lovely outhouse out of "papercrete", and they invited Mary to take a seat on the "throne" and pose for a photo. Not wanting to be photographed themselves, they were happy for us to take pictures of their little compound, a piece of paradise with the Sangre de Cristo mountains on one side, and protected federal wilderness on the other.

"We love it here," one sister commented. "It's so quiet. Nobody bothers you."

When asked about neighbors, they certainly appeared to know everyone in their immediate vicinity, but said that get-togethers can be rare.

"You can go months without interacting with anyone, really. That guy," she points to the west, "he's a German engineer, and every year he comes for a few weeks to work on his house. Our brother lives over there, and the woman beyond his house does a monthly radio spot on women's issues." In the house across the street, an elderly returns every year after the cold weather ends, and the sisters watch over her place during the winter.

The sweeping vista from the sisters' land was breathtaking, and we can see why they love it so much. But living such a rustic life isn't for everyone, and we know for sure that we would at least like to have running water, electricity (solar would be fine), non-wood-burning heat, and manageable, well-maintained roads. Still, this gives us a picture of how many people live economically and sustainably, and it was a detour well worth taking.


  1. This was such a fascinating post to read!
    Such innovative people...sound very hardy!
    I think the untended roads would probably be a real challenge for most folks. Also, as I was told by a local while visiting there, the Rattlesnakes are quite prevalent in the area, but people seemed so used to them.
    (With that bit of news, I was on my way out of Dodge!) Thanks for this really interesting snap-shot of real life there.
    Your blog is like a good book come-to-life!
    Be well.

  2. I like what Ruth said...ditto...LOL!
    Fascinating, innovative...and I hear you can eat Rattlesnake.
    Thanks, guys.