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 Three: The Warmth of the Sun
Now go out and get yourself some thick black frames / With the glass so dark they won’t even know your name
John Wells is a sixtysomething contractor, photographer and sculptor from New York, and a self-described press whore. He’s got a blog, The Field Lab, chronicling the last year and a half of his life, building a compound north of Terlingua on a plot of land surrounded by mountains and canyons. He’s been profiled by Make Magazine and his website’s been BoingBoinged, so he’s a celebrity by Terlingua standards. It doesn’t hurt that he’s remarkably photogenic with an epic beard, and reflective sunglasses under a sun-bleached straw cowboy hat.
He smokes cigarettes while standing around jawing with some portly good ol’ boy-types who are bitching about Obama and what they fear will be an increase in property taxes. Wells’ primary reason for leaving his giant house in upstate New York was an aversion to such expenses. Out here he pays about $100 in property taxes per year for his 128-square-foot hut and 40 acres of pristine Chihuahuan desert.
They’re gathered around Wells’ solar cooker, a giant wooden contraption lined with reflective panels that amplifies solar rays, directing them today onto a chicken sitting in a glass dish. It’ll be ready for sampling in two or three hours at about 210 degrees, though some heavy clouds may delay dinnertime. “Clouds are not your friend when you’re solar cooking,” he says.
Wells uses the cooker out on his compound—it’s officially known as The Southwest Texas Alternative Energy and Sustainable Living Field Laboratory—for baking most of his meals, which range from heated up cans of vegetables to home-baked bread and lasagna. He invites me to swing by and check it out tomorrow afternoon, and then rejoins the conversation with his buddies, which has turned to aquaponics, or the use of fish tanks to fertilize and irrigate the greenhouse he’s building right now. For the fish in the tanks he’s considering catfish or tilapia, as they’d also make for good eating.
“There’s full systems you can buy for $5000,” he says, “but of course I found a YouTube video, some guy who built one with $20 in materials and his fish are there and his plants are growing. And so I’m gonna try one little setup of that, see how it works.”
He plans to live in the greenhouse once it’s set up. I ask him what he wants to grow and he talks about marijuana and meth. He’s kidding, but I’m also curious about what seems like a lack of meth-heads out here. They’re a staple in the California deserts, half-toothless burnouts in torn-up sleeveless T-shirts, often seen riding to and fro from their toxic trailer labs on ATVs and dirt bikes.
“It’s mostly just drunks down here,” he says. ” I haven’t seen anybody with any really rotten teeth—except for if they’ve never been to a dentist.”
One of Wells’ friends, Hat Bailey, an older tall skinny dude in a straw hat and T-shirt with what looks like a Captain America shield on the front chimes in.
“There’s just not much crime,” he says. “A lot of people have property out here and nobody seems to bother it, even though they’re gone six months out of the year.”
Bailey moved to Terlingua six years ago, “looking for a little more freedom from bureaucracy and so on. I wanted to build my own place without having to worry about permits and inspections. Or taxes or fees or people messing around over deed restrictions.” He’s also involved in what he calls “an experiment” in living without a social security number or driver’s license.
“My license plate says ‘Hat’ on the back,” he says. “The first couple of years I drove up to Alpine every week. Never had a hassle or problem. Now they’re getting a little more careful and I’m not looking for confrontation so I avoid driving on the highway. But I drive the little county road out there all the time with no problem.
“I needed a place where I could survive without having a lot of confrontations with the so-called authorities, you know,” he says. “I just don’t respond well to extortion. In our modern society most people don’t look at it that way. It’s hard to find a place where you can live your own lifestyle without encountering that all the time.”
He says New Mexico, Texas and a few places up in Montana are the only places he knows of where a person can do what he’s doing, but in most of those locales the property values are just too high. He arrived in Terlingua with $5,000 he’d saved up, and built a little house for a thousand bucks, on five acres that he bought for $500, “just off the pavement on an all-year weather dirt road.” He lived on wind power for a year, and then switched over to mostly solar. “It’s been a real cheap lifestyle for me,” he says.
It’s not Hat’s first foray into the off-the-grid lifestyle, either. He worked as a long-haul trucker based out of Bakersfield, California for years, but before that he was down in Los Angeles making money as an extra in Hollywood. He built a house in a wooded right-of-way area between Burbank and North Hollywood, right behind Universal Studios. He lived there rent-free for years, hassled only by the occasional drunks that would stumble by the structure he assembled out of plywood, PVC piping, plexiglass and old rugs for insulation.
“It was so much fun,” he says. “And I figured I could do the same thing down here legally.
“At one time I used to be a person who got lonely. But I don’t get lonely anymore. I enjoy my own company. And I’ve got more good friends out here than I’ve had any other place I’ve ever been. ‘Cause there’s more people like me, I guess. I don’t know.”
He gets by on handyman work, and is one of a handful of year-rounders. “I’ve got foot and half thick walls and good insulated ceiling. Vents for air. Hottest it’s gotten in there is about 95 degrees.”
He’s got a little 3-watt fan if it gets really oppressive.
“It’s really not bad,” he says. “I hate to tell everybody how good it is because you get too many people coming out here.”
After checking on his sun-baked chicken, Wells comes back into the conversation and offers a counterpoint to Bailey’s classic desert rat “but it’s a dry heat” talk.
“There were three weeks last summer where it was 110 degrees,” he says. “It was getting to the point where I was going to bed in a sopping wet T-shirt and I’d wake up at three in the morning in a bone dry T-shirt and I’d have to wet it down again.”
After the third night of these miserable wet T-shirt contests, he decided to build himself a swamp cooler.
“Sorta like that one,” he gestures to the spiky-haired vendor set up next to him, selling swamp cooler kits. “Except not super expensive. I built it for about $30 in parts.”
Now it never gets above a chill 80 degrees in his house, he tells us.
Next: Folk singer and painter Collie Ryan on making your own dirt. Click here to continue.
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.