Hitch a Ride on an Earthship

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”  ~  Native American Proverb

Landfills overflowing, waterways choked with trash and plastic drinking bottles, 728,000 tons of trash tossed out in America daily, and, according to EPA estimates, roughly 290 million tires discarded in the United States each year. The numbers are staggering.

One American architect, Michael Reynolds, has taken this troubling dilemma of what to do with our trash one giant step further by introducing a unique concept, an “Earthship” passive solar home. His idea of  incorporating trash that typically goes into landfills (think discarded tires, aluminum cans, glass and plastic bottles) into the designs of his homes, homes that are independent of the “grid”, has turned the homebuilding industry on its head. He is a staunch proponent of “radically sustainable living” and what he has created is quite fascinating and oft-times futuristic-looking. His vision came to fruition on a beautiful, barren mesa outside of Taos, New Mexico, back in the 1970’s, and it is at this main campus location that he has built a visitor center, Earthship Academy, and intern program.

Earthship Interns ~ photo credit earthship global.com.

Michael wanted to create housing that would do three things:

  1. Utilize local materials and/or recycled materials wherever possible.
  2. Rely on natural energy sources and be sustainable (“off the grid”).
  3. Allow for someone with limited construction skills to build these homes themselves.

His vision can be seen in the home designs dotting the mesa here today.

The foundation of the earthship is where the used tires come into play, known as “rammed earth tires”. Like-sized tires are placed on the ground, creating the diameter of the house. Dirt is shoveled into the tires and a sledgehammer is used to pack the dirt in tightly. These tires can weigh up to 300 pounds so they are typically placed before filling, and because the tire is filled with dirt, it will not burn if subjected to fire, an issue today, particularly in many western states.

Raising an earthship in Taos, NM
Earthship in the making. Note the rammed earth tire foundation.
All the modern conveniences of a “normal” home.

The walls, referred to as “tin can walls”, are often made of a network of recycled cans, plastic bottles, and concrete, and plastered with an adobe finish.

Earthships are designed to collect all the water they need from that which Mother Nature provides. Water collects on the metal roof, is channeled into a device that removes the silt, then flows into a cistern. From here it moves into a module that filters out bacteria and other contaminants, making it potable. The water collected in this manner is used for everything but flushing toilets. The toilets are flushed with filtered wastewater from sinks and showers (grey water). This is an oversimplified explanation for a much more sophisticated system. 🙂

Another unique earthship design

These unique homes are also designed to collect and store their own energy, the majority of this energy harvested from the sun and wind by way of wind turbines and solar panels.

Current models have an outside wall of glass that runs the length of the house, angled towards the equator, enhancing thermal performance. An inside greenhouse runs the length of this hallway of glass, where the owner can grow a supply of their own food.

Earthship Biotecture Visitor Center, Taos, NM

The earthship has a natural ventilation system. A 30-foot pipe extends under the berm outside the house into the inside, cooling the air by the time it reaches the interior of the house. As hot air rises, the system creates a steady airflow, cooler air coming in through tubes near ground level and warmer air blowing out through smaller upper windows in the greenhouse.

Most all homes have esthetically pleasing stained-glass windows as part of their design and a woman who works at the main campus is the creative artist behind the beautiful patterns built into many of the home’s walls, using the bottoms of various colored glass bottles.

Many doorways adorned with attractive glass bottle designs

We were so intrigued after touring the visitor center that we decided to take a short tour of the grounds with Justin, whose diverse background seems perfect for such a forward-thinking venture. His knowledge of permaculture has led him to study how much food can be raised for personal consumption in the smallest of spaces. We decided on a whim to delay our travels by a day and spent the night in one of the Global Earthship models – Picuris.

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Since Michael has seen his uncommon housing concept come to fruition, he has taken his Earthship Academy on a ride around the globe to teach other cultures to build autonomous homes. He is organizing sustainable development and poverty relief projects around the world. A list of those international projects can be seen on his website, earthshipglobal.com.

If you have a passion for sustainability, as we do, and find yourself near Taos, New Mexico, I highly recommend taking a tour of the visitor center at Earthship Biotecture, or perhaps rent an earthship for the night. You just might enjoy the ride. 🙂

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A Few New Mexico Gems

Continuing on our road trip, we pointed our vehicle towards Taos, a long-time artist community in northern New Mexico, bordered by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This city of roughly 6,000 is home to a world-class ski resort, the Rio Grande Gorge, and one of the most photographed and iconic churches, San Francisco de Asis.

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, built between 1772 and 1816
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Although we would have enjoyed exploring the area in more detail, we had a time crunch to get to Denver to visit family, so spent only a night in this lovely city, wanting to visit Taos Pueblo on our way out of town. We had visited individually in the past and were interested in exploring it again.

We arrived at Taos Pueblo, just north of the city of Taos, at the opening hour, opting to take a short tour by a local member of the Taos tribe, Juan.

Taos Pueblo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited pueblos in the U.S., for over 1,000 years. And although the pueblo is much quieter than in years past, 15 hearty souls still reside here, not allowed running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing, by rule of the Taos Tribal Council. Juan is not one of the 15, opting instead to raise his family outside of these walls, but still strives to keep many of the old customs alive, including teaching the language to his children. He shared that roughly 85% of the Taos Puebloans still speak in their native tongue. They have been said to be one of the most private of the Northern Pueblo tribes, not speaking of their religious customs outside the membership. Their language has never been written, so much of their culture remains a mystery to the rest of the world.

The most prominent architectural feature within the pueblo. Built between 1000 – 1450 AD, it is said to be the most photographed and painted building in all of North America.

Many archeologists believe the migration of the Taos Indians to the Rio Grande River originated from the Four Corner area (Utah, Arizona, California, and New Mexico).

This particular pueblo was a major trading hub at one time, but although many of the tribes were friendly, there were those who attempted to raid them. A lookout was stationed up on the mountain behind the pueblo, and when a dust cloud was seen on the horizon, a smoke signal was sent up, the sign that someone was approaching. The fort would be secured, making it almost impenetrable.

The pueblo buildings had very few doors or windows. Access to the rooms was by square holes built into the roof, reached by climbing down long ladders. These wooden ladders were quickly pulled up when the pueblo felt at risk of attack.

Taos Pueblo is the only North American community designated as both a UNESCO and National Historic Landmark, still used today for sacred ceremonies.

Arroyo Seco was our lunch stop before continuing our journey to Denver. This village of less than 2,000, founded in 1806, includes historians, politicians, hippies, artists, and several interesting shops.

It proudly boasts of one of the top 25 best ice cream parlors in the world, the Taos Cow. All natural and rGBH free, it was some of the best ice cream we’ve had. Two big ‘thumbs up’ for the Cafe Olé, coffee ice cream with cinnamon and chocolate chunks…yum!

Next Up: Hitch a ride on my Earthship

Road Trip!

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, we did not have the means to take exotic vacations, but even still I have fond memories of taking road trips. In our early years of marriage we carried on that trend, but as time marched on careers got in the way and the idea of road trips fell by the wayside.

Our need to get away this year grew exponentially as the “dog days of summer” wore on us, and as the end of August approached, space opened for us to take to the road. Since we both have family living in the Heartland, we decided a road trip might be in order, so we threw our bikes on the back of our vehicle, packed our camping gear (just in case), and headed out.

Our first stop was Boulder City, NV, where two of our buddies who we met on the road as RVers have thrown down a few more roots, buying a lovely home in this delightful town outside Las Vegas.

One of many beautiful lakes in the west – Lake Mohave

It’s a perfect location for these hard-core hikers and Jeepers, and although it was still quite warm outside to do much sightseeing, we had ample time to play catch-up, enjoying time in their lovely home and pool, thanks to their generosity.

The impressive Hoover Dam
Of course we had a bighorn sighting, thanks to our ‘bighorn whisperer’ friend Pam.
Bowl of Fire
Our gracious hosts and friends – Pam and John

Their’s is a relationship that can comfortably be “picked up just where we left off” last visit, the very best kind of friendship. We were thankful for some quality time together and left already looking forward to another winter visit.

Next stop was Corrales, NM, where another couple of RVing friends have settled. Located just outside Albuquerque, it has the perfect blending of Native American and Spanish traditions, stubbornly trying to hold onto its rural personality amid the expanding city of Albuquerque.

Their home was so cozy and charming.

Welcoming blue door
Labyrinth and relaxed seating area to enjoy bird life and the setting sun.
Wonderful mountain views from a side yard.
Our wonderful host and hostess – Hector & Brenda. I was having too much fun to take a photo while in Corrales.

And a river runs through it, the Rio Grande.

Two days flowed into four as we chatted away the days laughing, biking, sightseeing, and sitting out in their lovely gardens listening to the birds and catching the alpenglow on the mountains. We cannot thank Hector and Brenda enough for their generosity and look forward to seeing them again later this year.

Although not the travel year we had anticipated, having the time to reconnect with friendships developed across this country and beyond during our travels has been as rich an experience as the sights that have taken our breath away.

Join us as we visit the Heartland of this country, a region I am embarrassed to admit I wanted to escape as quickly as I could once I graduated high school. Hopefully time, and a bit more wisdom, have allowed my eyes to see beyond what I did as a teenager.

Shifting, Ever-Changing ~ White Sands National Monument ~ Alamogordo, NM

As we looked west to the San Andres Mountain range rising from the desert floor, wave after wave of blinding white seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, rolling out to the horizon.  We had arrived at one of the world’s great natural wonders, White Sands National Monument.

miles of white sand

Approximately 15 miles outside of the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico lies the world’s largest gypsum dune field, 275 square miles of white, glistening sand dunes, ever-shifting, ever-changing.  Technically this should not be here, as gypsum is soluble in water, which makes it a very rare form of sand.  Typically, rain and snow high in the mountains carry dissolved gypsum to rivers, which then flow to the sea.  But the Tularosa Basin is not typical; no river drains this desert land so the gypsum that collects here becomes trapped, along with various other sediments.

During periods of rain or snow, water evaporates in the Tularosa Basin, breaking the gypsum down into a crystalline form known as selenite.  Freezing, thawing, wetness and dryness break the crystals down even further into fine grains of sand.  As the wind tosses them along the ground, theses tiny grains crash into one another, scratching their surface.  These scratches change the way light reflects off the sand particles, causing them to appear white.

White Sands is a living laboratory, providing scientists an understanding into our past and a peek into our future, as they explore the gypsum dune field on Mars.

As we drove the 8-mile loop road through the monument, we had the feeling we would begin sliding at any moment, as it appeared we were driving on an icy, snow-packed road, with snowdrifts as far as the eye could see.  I wondered what keeps dunes like this, so exposed to the wind and weather, from simply blowing away.  New Mexico does have its fair share of high winds with so much open desert.  I learned that the dunes can shift west to east up to 30 feet per year but it is ground water, found 12-36″ below the surface that keeps the dunes at 100% humidity year-round, helping to stabilize these massive sand piles.

Looking out over this vast expanse of white, you would think that nothing could live here, but many species of plants and animals do just that, having adapted and evolved over time to a white pallor that provides the perfect camouflage.  The bleached earless lizard is one who is coping well to a life without color.

Terry, looking out over the Sacramento Mountains, at sunset
Terry, looking out over the Sacramento Mountains, at sunset

Many come here to slide down the massive dunes, purchasing wax-coated sleds in the visitor center’s gift shop.  I decided to let the kid in me run barefoot up and down the dunes, while Terry, who had cut his toe earlier in the day, kept shoes one, shaking his head as he watched me run up one dune and down another.

As the sun began to dip below the San Andres Mountains, we sat watching in awe, as this wonder of nature was wrapped in a golden glow.

Sunset over the San Andres Mountains
Sunset over the San Andres Mountains

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Silver City, NM

Silver City, NM, sitting at the edge of the Gila National Forest, is a high desert wonderland of ponderosa pine, red rock mesas, and deep gorges.  Founded in 1870, it once was an Apache campsite and a silver mining town.  Geronimo had his roots near Silver City, being born just north of here at the headwaters of the Gila River and Billy the Kid made a name for himself here as well, having been arrested twice in Silver City.  His mother is buried in the town cemetery.

We stayed at the Rose Valley RV Ranch for a few days, enjoying some time with friends Kevin and Erin, whom we met initially in Ajijic, MX.  They showed us the lay of the land while we were south of the border and generously did so again during our time in Silver City.  Our only regret was that the weather did not cooperate to allow us to hike this beautiful part of New Mexico, as a winter storm pushed its way through most of the state during our time there.

Terry celebrated a birthday while we were in Silver and Kevin, the gifted chef that he is, made a very special birthday lunch for the four of us.  Thanks to Kevin and Erin we had the inside track on some tasty meals in a couple of the local haunts as well.

Although rain plagued our visit, we all braved the weather and perused some of the more tasteful galleries in town, of which there are many.

Gallery row in Silver City

We can’t thank Kevin and Erin enough for giving of their time as they did while we were in Silver City to show us the flavor of the area.  Given their warm and giving spirits, we were reminded of why we connected with them during our time in Mexico and why we chose to spend time with them again in Silver City.

Kevin & Erin