House on the Rocks

With a wren as a housemate and sandstone from wall to wall, one man discovers that nature is a great decorator.

| November-December 2001

I never expected anyone to take my house seriously. It was just a quick fix at a transitional time in my life, a maverick dwelling that I put together with reworked materials and an overworked imagination. But soon after I started building I knew I had something different, something abiding. The project drew inquisitive, contemplative looks from visitors; people with far more house than mine were asking questions. In 700 square feet of shelter built on the rocks, I rediscovered simple, long-forgotten truths.

It all began rather naively. When I strolled into the local real estate office back in 1989 and announced that I was looking for a piece of land that was off the beaten track and didn't care whether it had power or water as long as it was cheap, the man behind the desk was ready for me. We walked over to a big map of Navajo County, Arizona, where he had listings all over the place marked in different colored dots. He pointed to an isolated gold dot and declared it just the property I was looking for, so we jumped into his Wagoneer and with four-wheel drive and a shovel set out to find it.


He had been paying attention when I said I wanted a place out of the way. Four miles after turning off the paved highway, we left the dirt road and drove overland, across a meadow, toward a group of stunted trees at the far end. There we picked up the washed-out trace of an abandoned right-of-way and pursued it another mile. The terrain got rougher, more hilly, with frequent dry washes and outcrops, at times requiring shovel work to clear the way. Layer upon layer of eroded rock created a labyrinth of ravines and jumbled boulders. Weathered pines and junipers grew out of the shallow soil like forgotten bonsai in groping, conciliatory shapes, toughened by two centuries of wind and little rain.


It was a wild and fanciful landscape, and the farther into it we drove, the more enamored with it I became. At the road’s end we got out of the car and walked another hundred yards to a magnificent sandstone slab bordered on one side by sculpted rock that would have left Frank Lloyd Wright teary-eyed. That was it. I talked a friend into splitting the cost with me, and a month later I owned the property.