Moving Back Forwards

11 Feb



As this year moves forward, so does our plan to move to the desert. To some people, our plans might appear as moving backwards. In one respect -technologically- they are. In another respect, they certainly are: back to a time in my life where simplicity and frugality were the rules. My ten years living in the backwoods of Maine exemplified such a lifestyle and were the happiest of my life. This time, it will be in the Chihuahuan Desert. In my perspective, our plans will be moving forward.

Temporary living accommodations are already established on our twenty acres of desert: a 24-foot travel trailer. The 1995 trailer is by no means new and modern, but it is light, structurally sound, and provides some comfort for temporary living. Much more comfortable than the tent we usually camp in.

Thanks to the help of our fellow desert-dweller Randy, we built a fire pit out of flagstone. Randy picked up and stored flagstone near his desert ranch. We loaded his flatbed trailer and hauled it to our place with the Jeep over Thanksgiving weekend. Waylaid by a flat tire (almost two flat tires), it took us 4 hours to navigate the desert roads from his ranch and into Study Butte, a mere 25 miles from Randy’s. We built our fire pit the next day; our first construction and a christening to enjoyment and pleasure on our new place. I even added a bench next to the pit to serve as a cooking counter. A bit further out at the point of the pennisula that overlooks the badlands below, I erected a low flagstone bench and which I call the ‘Meditation Point.’

We hauled the Metal Tent (our trailer) to the property during our two-week stay over the Christmas holidays of 2010. Those two weeks provided us with many revelations. And I’m sure more will come with each visit.

Off  the Grid

Unlike most RVers we have no services that many take for granted. Ten miles and beyond into the desert, there is no infrastructure to provide electricity, water, or waste collection. We, and the few others that live out there, must provide our own. Although the Metal Tent had a new battery, it proved deficient in supplying power to run the sensor for the propane refrigerator (a small amount of power is required to aid the propane system), short bouts of heating (also propane source), and the water pump. Despite our attempts to minimize electical use, our battery was inadequate. (We later learned that the new battery was malfunctioning and has since been replaced.)

Thanks to another desert-dweller friend in the area, we borrowed an 80-watt solar panel. It was amazing how much this little panel powered the essentials. Still minimizing our reliance on electricity, the panel served our needs throughout the remainder of our stay. Except for one cloudy day when solar collection was reduced. From that experience, we considered that we would require another panel and battery to augment collection and storage.

We rarely used the lights in the Metal Tent. Because we typically went to bed shortly after sundown, we didn’t need them much. Mostly I used my SolLight water bottle. This amazing little light generates a wonderful glow useful inside and out for almost anything but reading. Outdoors, and sometimes inside, we also used our headlamps that are normally packed for camping.

The fresh water tank in the Metal Tent holds about 20+ gallons. I’m not sure how long a full tank would have lasted. Used only for the few showers we took and washing dishes, the tank was filled again when we took the Metal Tent into town during our stay. Water was supplemented by a 5-gallon container with a spigot which was stationed on the table outside the trailer. Our drinking and cooking water were supplied by this container and it was filled many times over the duration we were there. This impressed upon us the importance of accurately planning for our water needs and supply.

Parking and setting up the trailer on our place was a chore. We had to choose a relatively level spot and then level the trailer with the old stands that came with it. Not the most efficient method, especially since they were a mismatched foursome. Despite several attempts to level it, neither the inside bedroom and bathroom door closed and latched. We were able to achieve a degree of level so that one or the other closed, but not both. I finally concluded that swinging doors in a travel trailer were a bad idea. Accordion doors are a better design element in RVs. They are less finicky about leveling and open doors don’t get in the way of moving about.

An outdoor rug anchored with rocks and a long folding table outside of the trailer extended our living space to the outdoors. The two folding lounge chairs allowed us to spend the days and part of the nights outside. Despite the comfort of the Metal Tent for basic needs, it was too small to actually do much inside except eat and sleep. Barely two feet of space between the dinette and the couch made it practically tight for two people and a medium-size dog. Buck prefers to sleep on the floor in that two-foot space, so we were constantly stepping over a living long-haired rug.

Cooking meals was divided between inside on the propane range and outside on the grill or a single-burner propane stove. In the future, I hope to install a removable grill for the campfire to extend cooking outdoors with cast iron pans and ovens. Additionally, we intend to construct a solar oven for baking. Wood is a rare commodity in the desert and must be conservatively used. On the other hand, sunlight is abundant.

Dealing with black and gray water in the trailer forced us to disassemble the trailer and haul it into Study Butte after the first week. We paid to empty both at a local RV park where friends Bob and Gloria stay during the winters. A problem was encountered when we discovered the black water system was plugged with old dehydrated waste. It wasn’t until Ed’s next visit down there that this was completely resolved. Meanwhile, during our two weeks there, we utilized the old method used in the wilderness: shovel and dig, or wait until we were in town for other reasons. Alternative methods for dealing with waste moved to the top of our list after power and water. I plan on designing a collection and filtration system for the gray water, and recycle filtered water for landscape projects (simple desert garden and small herb patch). A temporary composting toilet may also be in our future until we are more permanently settled and ready to install an Envirolet or E-loo toilet system.


On our way out of town the last day, we stopped for breakfast at the Chili Pepper, a local favorite in the Terlingua/Study Butte area. I read in a copy of the recent local newsletter, The Terlingua Moon, a notice for a cooperative purchase of water cisterns. Two spaces were available on the tractor trailer for tanks. On a whim, Ed called the number listed and was notified that a space for a 1,700-gallon tank was still available. We reserved it and headed back into town to drop off a check for the tank.

Two weeks later, Ed drove down to Study Butte and picked up our new water cistern. After hauling it onto our place, he unloaded and set it up by himself. So now it sits ready for a catchment surface to fill it. That is the next project: a steel pole structure with metal roof to serve as shade and water catchment.

In the near future a new online blog site will be devoted to our journey from Urbania to Off-Grid. First, I must learn WordPress and establish a hosting site. (Is there a ‘WordPress for Dummies’ book?) Meanwhile, Ed and I progress toward pulling the plug here; jobs, houses, and belongings. Paring down on personal belongings is our immediate goal and prepping ourselves for living with small incomes. That includes long-term prepping the motorcycles. That’s another post.

We have a long way to go, but we’re having fun doing it. Stay tuned for developments along the way. Meanwhile, enjoy our view of a sunrise over the Chisos and Christmas Mountains from El Punto Coyote.


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