Life off the grid in a wild West Texas border town
Words and photos by Daniel Chamberlin
In April of 2009, Arthur contributing editor Daniel Chamberlin got down with the DIY homesteaders and off-the-grid outsiders of Far West Texas at the first annual Terlingua Green Scene. Find part one “No Winners, Only Survivors” by clicking here.
Part Two: Hot Tubs and Poop Buckets
Green Scene organizers Shannon Carter and Mark Kneeskern—both somewhere in their 30s—met in Terlingua seven years ago. Carter grew up in Baytown, a city located on the humid coastal plains east of Houston, home to several massive petrochemical industrial complexes. She recalls the year that the river behind her house caught on fire and their family had to be evacuated. In high school she got involved with Future Farmers of America, where she worked with calves, pigs, chickens, turkeys and lambs.
After two years at the community college in Baytown, Shannon moved to Alpine, one of the two small towns north of Terlingua—Marathon being the other one—that offer the last chance for ranchers, hunters and hikers to patronize anything resembling fast-food franchises or fully-stocked grocery stores before heading out into the West Texas wilderness. She tells me she wanted to get as far from Houston as she could while still paying in-state tuition, and Alpine’s Sul Ross University satisfied those requirements. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Animal Health Management and Wildlife Biology. She tried grad school for a minute, but soon dropped out and moved to Terlingua in the spring of 1999.
“I’ve lived lots of beautiful places,” Shannon says, and happily recounts an adventure-job-circuit C.V. that includes six seasons of sea kayaking in the Virgin Islands, four seasons as a river guide in Colorado and a year in Moab.
“But none of those places compare to the solitude and vastness of this desert,” she says.
Mark Kneeskern hails from Audubon, Iowa where he had what sounds like a fairly idyllic childhood, adventuring on the East Nishnabotna River and roaming the pastures around his parent’s farm. He got a BFA from a state university that he decries as “worthless.”
Mark first came to Terlingua to visit a friend who was working in the Chisos Mountains, the high country of Big Bend National Park. They hiked and camped and Mark got to see a bear. His friend took him on a tour of the local drinking holes and they had what he describes as “crazy times” that left him “shook up.” He moved to Terlingua three years later to become a river guide.
“Terlingua is a hard place to live,” says Mark. “No running water or electricity on most properties. Flush toilets are rare. At first, these factors seem like obstacles, but when you get used to things, you realize that ‘simple’ is the best and happiest way to live. You learn to make it work if you have the will. When it’s nice, it’s paradise. When it’s not nice, it really is a living hell.”
In addition to opening the Odd Nook gallery, a venue for local artists, Mark has worked on trail maintenance crews in the Big Bend National Park, and developed a keen interest in hitchhiking, a pastime that he picked up from a longtime interest in Beat literature. Hitchhiking has lead him from Canada to Mexico, journey’s that he has recorded with lovely attention to detail in his recently published book, The Last American Hitchhiker.
It was hitchhiking that lead Mark to his meet-cute first encounter with Shannon, who saw him thumbing his way to work one morning in Terlingua.
“I was already late to work myself,” she says, “but you just don’t pass someone up on the road here—it’s not neighborly.”
Mark joined her and Rio, her super mellow Labrador-shaped mutt, for a ride to work; they were guiding for competing outfits, which is kind of a big deal in a town where canoeing, kayaking and rafting tours are one of the main sources of income.
“He was so beautiful,” she says, “even though I was late I would’ve driven him to the moon.”
Shannon lived in a tent for her first four years in Terlingua. When she started waitressing, she and Mark moved into bona fide civilized accommodation: an apartment.
“Oh my god!” she remembers. “Running water and lights that worked by a switch!”
They pulled that off for six months, and then decided to leave such amenities, including indoor plumbing, behind. Mark wanted to work on his photography and painting full time, and Shannon wanted to be a gardener.
Around the same time, some long-haul trucker friends of theirs (trucking is a profession of a solid number of Terlinguans) departed the West Texas border region for parts unknown. With their permission, Mark and Shannon moved onto their land, located just outside of town on the road to Lajitas, where they occupied a decaying straw bale house and a decommissioned school bus. They don’t reckon their friends are coming back anytime soon, if ever, and as Carter puts it, “Why buy when you can squat?” Mark and Shannon are careful to clarify that they consider themselves to be stewards of the land: they’ve customized the area around their school bus bunkhouse with artfully sculpted adobe walls and comfortable, fully shaded outdoor living and cooking areas.
By the end of April Mark and Shannon will escape to central Colorado—they spent a summer here on the border early on and have vowed to never face the broiling heat of “oven season” again. They continue to live rent-free in the Rockies, setting up camp in a National Forest. Shannon hangs out in the woods with Rio, working occasionally in a nearby town, while Mark hits the road, thumb extended.
Shannon says they’re thinking of adding a hot soaking tub to their modest compound.
“I told Mark that I’d be happy pooping in a bucket for the next five years if he builds me a hot tub,” she laughs.
There’s plenty of water available via their rainfall catchment system, so once they get their wonky solar panels working again, a hot tub/cool pool combo unit looks to be on track for the winter of 2011.
Next: From squatting the freeway-adjacent greenways of Los Angeles to living SSN-free on the Texas-Mexico border. Plus a miserable wet T-shirt contest. Click here to read ¡Verde Terlingua! part three: The Warmth of the Sun
For more information on this year’s Green Scene, happening April 10, 2010 in Terlingua, TX, visit www.terlinguagreenscene.com. For more of Chamberlin’s photography of Texas mountains, the old growth forests of Arkansas and the light-polluted flora of Los Angeles, see intothegreen.wordpress.com.