One woman’s surreal adventures living off the grid in a New Mexico earthship, preparing for the fall of America.
Samara Reigh works on a wall painting in her New Mexico earthship.
My friends west of the Mississippi are prepared for a crash. They’ve got gardens, goats, chickens, big dogs, good boots, loaded guns, composting toilets, and off-the-grid houses. They talk about it like it’s for certain. They’re not just prepared for the system to crash; they want it to. They say, I love America. I love it so much that I want it to crumble and fall. I love America so much that I want to see it reborn.
My friends east of the Mississippi, in their grad programs and office jobs, acknowledge that the economic situation is perhaps a bit grim. Some of them give me detailed analyses of why and how the financial market will rebound. Most of them say, Yeah it’s probably going down, but I figure I have at least five, ten years, right? Then they ask, If shit hits the fan, I can come stay with you, right?
“Sure,” I say, “but bring a goat.”
Two years ago I was deciding whether to move to New York or New Mexico. A professional clown in Madrid, New Mexico asked me to watch her land for the summer while she was away. I would have to feed her dogs, water her plants, fill in a ditch, and pick tumbleweeds. This was the best job offer I had. I packed my truck with my belongings and my dog and kitten, and I drove west.
The state’s motto is the Land of Enchantment, the locals call it the Land of Entrapment, but to me it’s the land of the free. The gaping sky, obscenely blue, with clouds lumbering across like buffalo. The mesas and volcanoes rising up in the distance, and canyons ripping the land along fault lines. Sagebrush and piñon and rattlesnakes and that one week in summer when all the tarantulas march across the orange parched land. The land is bewitching, dangerous, sexy. She knows what she wants and you’ll gladly give it to her, all your blood and sweat and years. Land of enchantment, land of entrapment, people come here and they fall in love and they never leave.
Madrid is an old coal-mining town with a population of a few hundred. Most people just pull off the road to buy a turquoise bracelet and then keep driving to an actual place. The hills are black and the bar is built on top of a mineshaft. The men dress like cowboys and are somehow sepia-toned, smelling of sage and weed and urine, with matching long beards.
I met the clown lady at the mineshaft bar. She was dreadlocked and dusty. The pool hall was playing the same Muse song on repeat. We had a beer and then I followed her in my truck for a half hour, up winding unmarked dirt roads to the top of a mesa. It was desolate and dry. Nothing but sagebrush and sky. The clown lady showed me the off-grid house where I’d stay, a little adobe casita painted with stars and arrows and hearts in bright colors.
It’s my studio, she said. The clown house.
Inside was a single room packed with boxes of oversized shoes, juggling pins, wigs, and fancy velvet suit jackets. I barely had room to set down my suitcase.
Outside, my dog went off in search of local fauna and my kitten was investigating cacti. The clown lady told me that there was a solar bathtub around the side of the house. It turned out to be a dirty old tub with a piece of black plastic in it to heat rainwater from the sun’s rays.
It hasn’t rained in a couple of months, though, she said.
There was an inch of water in the bathtub and six scorpions. It occurred to me that similar bathing set-ups throughout Madrid were probably responsible for the sepia-tone of its residents, and that it was only a matter of time before I joined them.
The clown lady departed and suddenly the mesa was echoingly empty. She had mentioned that there were some neighbors a half-mile away, meth-heads of a very serious sort. One day I saw a few of them trying to tow a pickup truck with another, smaller truck, slowly moving across the mesa under the blaringly bright sun.
Other than that, I was alone. I wore nothing but jean shorts, a straw hat, and work gloves, and picked tumbleweeds for at least four hours a day, barefoot and topless. The clown lady told me to pick as many as possible. The mesa was covered in them. If I picked tumbleweeds all day every day for the rest of the summer, the mesa would still be covered in them. I’m not sure why she wanted me to pick them. I forgot to ask her that before she left. There were holes in my work gloves and my hands bled. I didn’t mind. I liked picking the tumbleweeds. I declared aloud to the big blue sky that this was the best job I’d ever had. I also had to fill in a 20-foot long ditch, but that was definitively not the best job I’d ever had.
I cooked on a propane stove outside. It was baby blue and looked like it came from a children’s kitchen set, but even so, it still didn’t fit inside the clown house. The wind whipped across the mesa so fiercely that half the time I couldn’t get the stove to light. On those days I just ate cold canned beans and sat pressed against the side of the clown house to escape the wind.
It was lonely, desperately lonely. I built a bonfire every night and found pockets of cell phone service and called everyone that I normally neglected to call. I talked until my battery ran out. And then, when the last embers of the fire finally diminished and my nightly search for extraterrestrial activity was concluded, I went to bed and read by candlelight, my knife beneath the pillow, praying that the meth-head neighbors wouldn’t decide to pay a visit.
After I was there a week, the townsfolk realized that I wasn’t a tourist and they broke their stoic Old West silences. They sat down at my table at the coffee shop and gave me full historical accounts of the town and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. A guy with a sepia-toned mohawk and his identical twin invited me to go looking for gold in the Ortiz Mountains with their metal detector.
Anyone with any money worked for a gas drilling company. At the little grocery store, men and women in full-leather biker gear leaned against the porch with their Harleys parked nearby, smoking cigarettes. People came in their trucks to haul water from the store to their properties.
Everyone drank at the mineshaft bar, and there was an open mic every week, with enthusiastic participation. And everyone attended the town’s annual faerie party, where all the women dressed in full Renaissance garb and trapezed from the ceiling of a big old schoolhouse. The men still wore their cowboy hats, watching, drinking wine.
One day in town, at a biker breakfast tent, I met Louise. It turned out she was my neighbor. She was the queen of the meth-head den, the only woman, the one that held the others in her thrall. She was of indeterminate age, maybe 50 or 60, but also maybe 30 or 40, desert-tan and looking, frankly, fabulous. Her eyes were ringed in black and she wore tight jean shorts and a leather jacket. She had a crusty voice. She introduced me to her dog, Bolt. Her line was, “I’m nuts and he’s Bolt!” It was true. But Louise was also an artist, an incredible artist, literally one of a kind. Her masterpiece was Tiny Town, a miniature village constructed entirely out of coyote and goose bones and super glue, probably the greatest tweaker project of all time. I had heard townsfolk talk about it, always in wonder, but I had never seen it myself. Halfway through her green chile burrito, Louise pulled a bone-and-glue motorcycle from the inside pocket of her leather jacket, a small piece of Tiny Town. It was pale yellow and absolutely perfect, with exquisite craftsmanship and detailed knowledge of motorcycle mechanics. I expressed my admiration and she shrugged it off.
One evening a few weeks later, there were cars going back and forth across the mesa. A pickup stopped in front of the clown house. I stood at the door, holding my knife behind the frame. A wild-eyed bearded man leaned out the window of the truck. He said Hey. He said he wanted to tell me what was going on, in case I was curious about all the cars. He said his name was Johnny. Johnny told me that Louise’s ex-boyfriend went on a jealous bender and came up to the mesa and slashed all of Louise’s tires. Johnny said that Louise’s ex was an alright guy, but the V.A. gave him pills that made him crazy. All of them up here on the mesa were afraid that he’d come back and try to destroy Tiny Town. And they couldn’t let that happen to Louise. So they were moving it down, piece by piece, to hide with friends in Madrid. That’s why they’d been driving back and forth all evening.
Oh, I said. Good luck.
I liked Johnny. And I liked Louise. And I especially liked Tiny Town. The specter of Louise’s pills-crazy ex going on a rampage on the mesa kept me awake all night, knife clutched tight, but I felt like my neighbors had my back. Like, if I screamed, maybe someone would come. And they’d probably be armed. I found that comforting.
A few months later I was living in Taos, New Mexico, on another mesa, this time in an earthship with a stonemason boyfriend I picked up along the way. People say that earthships are the most ecologically sustainable housing thus far created—built halfway into a hill so the earth does the heating and cooling and the temperature stays around 70 all year, with big south-facing greenhouse windows and raised garden beds inside, a grey water recycling system, and windows on either side of the long corridor so the wind blows through. And somehow, when you’re inside, looking up at the big blue sky and the castle-like clouds drifting by, you actually feel like you’re in a ship, moving like a giant worm across the desert.
New Mexico’s rotten nepotistic bureaucracy inspires complete distrust, and therefore people are more motivated to create local community and generally do as they please. It’s liberating, actually. Such places are known by earthship-builders as “pockets of freedom”—areas where building codes are not enforced. Code housing is expensive, and it’s not necessarily what people want or need.
My neighborhood had a pyramid, a castle made out of tin cans, more earthships, yurts, teepees, domes, windmills, Star Wars-like pods, chickens, goats, llamas, and packs of dogs. A few miles behind the astrologer’s house was the dump, but people were too poor or cheap to pay the five-dollar dumping charge, so they threw their trash and furniture in piles along the mesa. I took the dog on long walks on ragged dirt roads through the sagebrush. Sometimes I dug through the trash piles and found teacups or trinkets and brought them home, horrifying my boyfriend. I called it mesa shopping. He called me a trashpicker.
There were plenty of contradictions and hypocrisies in the neighborhood—to be off the grid but work a computer tech support job? To homeschool your kids to shield them from a damaging system, but to buy beer and cigarettes in town every day? To deplore the government but to be on food stamps? I cleaned my earthship with bleach and drove a big truck. There was no ideological purity. And the neighbors sure as hell didn’t talk about sustainability or philosophize about the merits of their way of life. They were just getting by, however they could.
Winter came. The power went out in Taos and we were snowed into the earthship. We had a cord of piñon and a woodstove, and propane for our kitchen. The house was hot and cozy. I cooked Indian food and pretended we were in the tropics. A few days passed. We were bored. We found some paints in the mudroom. I made stencils of crows and spray painted them all over. We painted a mural on the tall white walls.
After a week, we started hearing bits of news from our neighbors, about how bad it was in town. The temperature dropped to 10 below, and there was some sort of large-scale mistake on the part of the gas companies, such that nobody in town was able to heat their houses. People were literally dying of cold.
We felt lucky. But it was also an inkling of what it is like to be prepared, and a realization of how dependence on the grid makes you vulnerable.
Spring came. The cats were peeing on the plants growing inside the earthship. We tried red pepper, small fences of pointy sticks, and spray bottles, but the cats kept finding a way.
I decided to build a garden outside. My obstacles were wind and bunnies. The spring wind thrashed across the mesa, ripping the flashing off houses, slamming car doors shut, ruffling chickens. Even the dogs didn’t want to go outside. I knew my garden wouldn’t survive in the open. And the mesa bunnies were big, long-legged, and hungry.
There was a lean-to out in the sagebrush. It looked like someone had tried to build a tiny earthship into the hill and gave up. There were stacks of earth-pounded tires and rotting wood vigas, and it was full of trash, weird trash. Barbie parts, broken glass, a rosary, syringes. The place seemed frankly satanic. I tried to make peace with whatever entity had taken it as home and reluctantly decided to plant my garden there, since really it was my only choice.
I cleaned the lean-to completely, hauled soil with my truck, and spread it inside, and then rebuilt the walls and segments of the roof with stones and wire and boards I found in mesa trash piles. I got shadecloth free from a coffee shop to shield the plants from the harsh sun. I blocked every possible bunny entrance. I had to climb in through a hole in the shadecloth roof to get inside. And because I didn’t have a hose, I had to haul eight bucketfuls of water every morning out to the garden, precariously balancing as I climbed the tires down inside through the hole. The two neighbor kids, my dog, and my cat followed me back and forth from the house to the lean-to for each bucketful of water, four little blonde heads bobbing across the mesa.
For four months, I managed to fend off the bunnies. And then, when my plants were ready to yield vegetables, they came. They ate everything, right down to the stem. I discovered this one morning as I climbed inside with a bucket of water. I set the bucket down, climbed back out, and never went back. I surrendered.
When you’re living in a city, it’s easy to idealize life off the grid. It’s beautiful, it’s free, it’s radical sustainability. But out here, you learn that the system is impossible to escape.
I don’t know what’s coming. I’m back on the grid now, living in Santa Fe, going to school. The plan is to get out of here as soon as I can, get back to the country. But for now, here I am, plugged into a wall. And the truth is, when you’re on the grid, it seems a whole lot less probable that it will crash. All these people driving cars, going to the grocery store, shopping for clothes, eating at restaurants. How could all of them be wrong? Could we really be stumbling so blindly into a future we’re totally unprepared for?
I don’t preach apocalypse. But I do see change. It could be five years, ten years out, but it’s going to come down to water.
For some people, if things do go south, things won’t change, or at least not much. Because they know how to build and grow and shoot. Life will be hard for them too, but it was already.
There’s no place safe. There’s nowhere to go. Radical freedom is not about escape and it’s not about utopia. It’s about doing whatever the fuck you want to do and standing up to anyone who tries to prevent you. It’s about water. It’s about regeneration. It’s about evolution: finding what will thrive.
Samara Reigh is a writer living in Santa Fe. Excerpted from Brooklyn Rail (June 2012), a monthly magazine offering critical perspectives on art, politics, and culture.