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.
John Wells’ solar-heated chicken shack.
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.”