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. 🙂

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.

The Village that Stole our Hearts ~ San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

We knew the Atacama Desert offered more than enough to entertain us for the five days we were to be in the region. We just didn’t expect to fall so hard for San Pedro.

As I sat down to write this post, I struggled, as I did while we were there, to describe why I was so drawn to this dusty little village. Dirt roads, countless stray dogs, more tour companies than we could count, and streets lined with endless shops wouldn’t normally be our ideal place to wander, but it was obvious we were smitten. Behind the doors of these adobe-caked façades lie upscale boutique shops, amazing cafes, great artisanal ice cream, and pisco sours infused with local desert herbs.

San Pedro is an oasis sitting at roughly 8,000 feet, a swath of fertile desert surrounded by a strikingly conflicted landscape. Sprawling, barren desert of salt flats, hot springs, and contorted rock formations swiftly ascend to the Altiplano, butting up against the soaring Andes and a dozen volcanos. San Pedro is at the center of immeasurable interest for scientists across several branches.

The uniqueness of this village is not lost on Volcan Licancábur, who, at 5,916 meters (19,410 feet), looms over San Pedro like a protector. This volcano is sacred to the Inca Empire, and given its perfect conical shape, it seems to be the model volcano for all others.

Volcan Licancabur standing guard over San Pedro.

There are 360-degree awe-inspiring views here but if you never looked up at night you would be missing a spectacular light show. Given its lack of light pollution, aridity, and altitude, the Atacama has drawn its fair share of astronomers and is known as the place to be if you are an astronomy geek. I wouldn’t call us geeks but we were drawn to the idea of looking at the night sky through powerful telescopes so chose this as our last venture into the Atacama.

With an astronomer as our guide, we soon were educated on terminology, got an impressive laser light show of planets, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, and zodiac sign constellations, and did some telescope viewing, along with iPhone shots of the moon. It was another great tour experience.

Another adventure that we had read was a must-do is the El Tatio Geyser Tour. Since we had lived in Yellowstone National Park for a couple of years and visited several times since, we didn’t feel the need to drag ourselves out of a warm bed at 4:00 am and climb to over 14,00 feet to witness sunrise over the steaming geyser basins. Had we had the time, the 4-day trek to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia would have been on our agenda.

Beyond the myriad of tours available to hold your interest, just walking the streets of San Pedro is a source of entertainment all its own. This is a people-watching village, as characters from across the globe gather here. And for a town of little more than 2,500 (although it is growing), the number of highly recommended restaurants is impressive. The one we will forever remember is Roots, the place we went for breakfast, every single day. The coffee prepared by a real barista, every menu item we tried, the waitstaff, and the music (watched the cook singing and dancing to Adele vocals) were all wonderful. It was like saying goodbye to family when we departed from San Pedro.

The Atacama Desert and San Pedro seem to have developed a symbiotic relationship of sorts, both needing one another for their vitality. The remoteness of the Atacama draws the curious and San Pedro holds their interest, booking tours into the desert.

Until recently, discoveries made in the Atacama could be seen in the Gustavo Le Paige Museum in San Pedro, which is no longer open to the public. The world’s oldest mummies, the Chinchorro, a culture found in the Atacama from 7,000 to 1,500 BC, are buried in this unforgiving environment. They, along with other artifacts, are well-preserved, due to the arid climate, and are found to predate even Egypt’s oldest mummies. The indigenous community here finally won the right to have their ancestors removed from the Le Paige Museum, which seems the proper decision.

As we packed to leave this magical place, we agreed that with all the breathtaking scenery surrounding us throughout our time in Patagonia – soaring mountains, jagged, crevasse-filled blue glaciers, grassy steppe, misty forests, the barren Atacama desert, remote, stripped naked of virtually all moisture, may be Chile at her best.

What we initially saw as a passable event on our trip planning calendar was one of the great joys of our South American adventure. This land of such breathtaking natural beauty, born from the basic elements of gravel, clay, salt, and minerals, provided us some of our richest experiences and heightened all our emotions. Even the “animas” we saw on our drive to the airport, those little houses built along the side of the highway to memorialize those who had died on the roads, seemed to flow with the drama and mystique of the Atacama.

Upon our arrival back to Santiago, Chile, where we started this journey, we drank our final pisco sour in honor of our time in the Atacama Desert.

If you want to read more about our time in the Atacama, here are links to my earlier posts:

Like Nowhere Else on Earth, Part I

Like Nowhere Else on Earth, Part II

We are now home in southern California, back a bit earlier than we had planned, due to the wild Patagonia weather and a dislocated finger that has plagued me since early March. More on that later, as I wade through the U.S. healthcare system, which is always a joy.

Like Nowhere Else on Earth ~ Atacama Desert, Chile (Part II)

There are countless ways to see the Atacama. Because it is so vast, a local guide is key to experiencing its intense beauty. Since there are tour companies on almost every block in San Pedro, it pays to do your homework first, as there is always someone ready to grab you off the street and entice you with their colorful photos.

Given how much I loved my first tour with CosmoAndino Expediciones, who seems to steadfastly adhere to their motto “quality time in the Atacama”, I booked a second tour, and this time I would have my hubby by my side and Pablo as our guide once again. 🙂 Valle de la Luna, also part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, was our tour of choice.

The tour began at the CosmoAndino office where our little group of roughly a dozen hopped onto an awaiting van. A short drive outside of San Pedro we stopped at the Mirador Piedra Del Coyote for some photos of this windswept landscape, warming us up for what was to come.

From here we jumped back on the van for the short drive to Mars Valley, where the real adventure began. The soil here has been compared to that of Mars, hence the name. NASA has used this region to test instruments for future Mars’ missions.

Hiking along the rim of a vast red rock canyon rimmed with towering mountains and volcanos, sand dunes rose at dizzying angles before us, the steepest the perfect setting for sandboarding.

Trying their “feet” at sand boarding. Not as easy as it looks.

Pablo took us back in geologic time as we hiked to the point, then proceeded to share our next adventure, running down a 230-meter (755 feet) sand dune to join up with our van parked far below us. That sounded intriguing, except none of us could see how we were going to get down from the top of the canyon to the top of the sand dune. As we continued our trek, Pablo joked about making sure we all had our travel insurance cards handy.

Our escape route was finally made known and we were helped down from the rim. Pablo assured us there was no danger, then proceeded to begin running down the steep dune, encouraging us to join him, running in a zigzag fashion. We all giggled as we sank to our shins in loose sand. Halfway down we stopped on a ridgeline for photos and removed our shoes. There was nothing better than pulling off hiking boots we had lived in for the past two months and playing in the warm sand.

With huge smiles on our faces, we piled into the van and headed to Moon Valley, a striking lunar landscape formed by eroding salts and minerals. Several mountain ranges surround this region, as well as a chain of volcanos, not surprising, as this stretch of Chile falls within the Pacific Ring of Fire. The most active in northern Chile is 5592-meter tall (18,346 ft.) Lascar, which looms over Lake Miñiques.

Gnarled fingers of rock reaching skyward came into view as we walked through red-rock sand rimmed with salt. One of the more famous formations in this area is “Tres Maries”, created by gravel, clay, salt, and quartz, worked by the whims of wind and erosion for over one million years.

We found one of the more interesting structures in Moon Valley to be the “Amphitheatre”, part of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Chain), formed by horizontal accumulations of sand, clay, salt, and movements in the earth’s crust.

The action of wind, with a little water thrown in for good measure, created a sequence of peaks that are similar to the bellows of an accordion. Some see a resemblance to the Colosseum in ancient Rome. I have to agree.

Our final hike was up to a vantage point overlooking a ridge skirted in dunes, with the Amphitheatre as a backdrop. This is where one hopes to get the iconic shot of the moon rising over the Atacama, as well as a sunset shot bursting with color. We were not confident of either as clouds had chased us all day, with rain a possibility, a most unusual occurrence in this land devoid of moisture. We saw neither the moon nor an enchanting sunset, but still labeled this a magical day.

Moon Valley iconic shot. Photo credit – kimkim.com.

As I perched on the ridgeline overlooking this ethereal void, I mused how an area so remote, so empty of life, could make me feel so alive, so full. I was reminded of the quote:

“Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself.” 

Next Up: Night Sky, a Stroll through San Pedro, and Final Thoughts