Making Slow Progress at Dos Arbolitos

Someone wisely observed that slow progress is definitely better than no progress. I couldn’t agree more. If there is one lesson that is deeply ingrained in my mind about developing Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property in Big Bend, it is that we make progress one small step at a time. And because we live so far from our little place, we have to make every step count and not get discouraged when we have to take a step back.

Since spending the last two weeks in August at Dos Arbolitos I have traveled to Uganda, Brazil, and El Salvador. I now carry a small journal with me where I sketch out current and upcoming projects, make supply lists, and jot down all kinds of off-grid stuff I need to research. So, wherever I happen to be, I like to spend a little time at the end of each day writing and reviewing notes in my journal.

This past week I returned to Dos Arbolitos loaded down with supplies. My friend James Meredith has been very kind to let me borrow one of his trailers to haul supplies. With an opening in my schedule, I took advantage of the opportunity to transport bundles of R-19 insulation, ceiling tin, trim for doors and windows, baseboards, cement, gravel, another water tank, and a burn barrel for our super kind and always helpful neighbors Joe and Lisa.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that since having our 1125-gallon catchment tank installed in August, we have captured 800-gallons of water from recent rains. I added the smaller water tank next to our larger container and transferred about 300-gallons from our larger tank. This will ensure that if there are more rains we will be able to capture more water in our main tank until I can plumb in our overflow to the smaller tank.

I also built a raised platform for our 55-gallon rain barrels. These barrels are situated next to our storage container and outdoor toilet and shower area. I had previously added spigots to these barrels to make it easy to fill containers or just have a hand-washing station. I added gravel to help keep the area from getting muddy in case of any spillage. Later I may add a water line and pump from one of the barrels to our shower area.

After completing my water-related projects, I started the process of trimming the interior doors. Using 1 x 4 x 8 primed lumber and Texas star medallions, this process was pretty easy. I like the look of the medallions much better than 45-degree miter cuts. I will trim the windows in the same way for a uniform look. Once this work is complete I will add beadboard wainscoting around the room and do final painting on all the trim, doors, and wainscoting.

The next big thing I need to do is insulate the ceiling and add the ceiling tin. All of the interior walls are insulated and finished. The temperature plunged into the 30’s on two nights making our little cabin an ice box. My little propane heater did little to help because the heat escaped through our un-insulated ceiling. The heater should work fine once the ceiling work is complete.

I also added some temporary steps into our cabin. I will improve these later. Cheryl was very happy about this. As much as we go in and out of the cabin when we visit, having these steps makes it so much easier, especially when moving supplies in and out of the cabin.

And, a final note of good news, Big Bend Telephone was able to squeeze me in to their schedule late Friday and get me hooked up with dish-powered internet and phone service. This means I won’t have to drive to Little Burro Country Store to use their WiFi to check in with home and will have service in case of any emergency.

So, a few more steps in the direction of completing our cabin. Maybe completing is not the right word to use. I have a feeling that we will always have something we will want to add or change or whatever as we use the cabin more and more. And, that’s ok. Dos Arbolitos has turned out to be a blessing in more ways than one. It has become a little haven of rest and refreshment, even in spite of the long days of work. I am happy with the slow progress we are making because it is indeed better than no progress.

A Storm in the Desert

There is a majesty that is associated with storms in the desert — perhaps because the desert provides unobstructed views that allow you to behold the immensity of distant or approaching storms. Or perhaps because you can feel the thundering waves of power wash over you even from a distance. But perhaps best of all is the way a storm in the desert scents the air with its distinctive fragrance that signals a change in the weather.

When John Denver wrote Annie’s Song in 1974, an ode to his wife at the time, he described how she filled up his senses “like a storm in the desert.” Those of us who have experienced storms in the desert can easily relate to Denver’s lyrical description. A storm in the desert will fill up your senses as few other things can.

Shorty after purchasing our property in the Big Bend Valley, Cheryl and I experienced our first storm in the desert. Even though the storm was miles away, it felt as though it would be upon us at any moment. The wind picked up and began to swirl up the desert dust as we felt the vibration of distant thunder. It was amazing — but also a bit intimidating.

Because we did not have any shelter at the time, we dropped what we were doing and headed to Little Burro Country Store three miles away where we sought refuge on the front porch. We were not alone. Other locals had also gathered there. And although the storm never came close to our little place, we nevertheless felt its ominous presence.

Since then I have experienced more storms at our Chihuahuan Desert getaway, the last one late at night. Before the sun ever set I knew the storm was coming. I could see it gathering strength far to the north. A little after ten at night it arrived with a volley of pea-sized hail and then sheets of rain accompanied by the most incredible displays of lightening.

I was especially excited about this storm because we had just had our water catchment system installed — seamless gutters diverting rainfall to our 1125-gallon container. Within an hour, our empty tank was filled with almost 300 gallons of water. We calculated that 1-inch of water falling on our 420 square foot roof would capture as many as 260 gallons of water. Our calculations were spot on.

We purchased our desert property because we just can’t get over the beauty of the surrounding mesas and mountains and the indescribable magnificence of the night sky, complete with Milky Way bisecting the heavens. Add to that one more reason why we love the desert — storms. John Denver was right. A storm in the desert will indeed fill up your senses and make you appreciate the awesome beauty of wide open places.

Solar Power for Dos Arbolitos

Pursuing our off-grid adventure in the Big Bend Valley section of Terlingua Ranch continues to be a journey of learning and discovery. When we started this journey we knew that we would need water catchment and solar power for our cabin. Our property is located far from grid power and in an area where it is too costly to drill a water well.

We had our water catchment tank installed last month. Our tank is fed by seamless gutters. Using a water catchment calculator, I estimated that 1-inch of rain on our 420 square foot roof will capture as many as 260 gallons of water. We had a desert storm that blew through our area last month, dumping lots of rain and pea-size hail. Our tank went from empty to nearly the 300-gallon mark.

This past month we finally had our solar panels installed by the folks at Green Desert Living. We purchased six 310 watt solar panels, an inverter / charge controller, and eight 100 amp storage batteries. Our solar system will enable us to run a small window unit air conditioner during the day, our dorm fridge day and night, our LED lights, fans, and provide juice for my power tools. We also have the option of charging our batteries with our generator.

We had the solar panels installed behind our cabin on the north side of our property. Our panels face due south and are angled to capture optimum sunlight during daylight hours. The night after our panels were installed we had a pretty fierce desert storm complete with hail. Thankfully our solar panels survived both the wind and the hail. Happy about that!

In preparation for our solar installation, I framed out a closest specifically for our solar system. I lined the walls with plywood rather than drywall to make it easier to affix our inverter / charge controller and other items to the wall. Having these items in the closet will make it handy for me to monitor our inverter during the day.

Having power in our cabin is a huge step toward enjoying our little place. And getting free power directly from the sun is pretty cool. Our investment will enable us to enjoy years of free power. And on those occasions when we have cloudy skies, I can still top off our batteries by using our generator. Either way, we now have power at Dos Arbolitos.

Later on I will add a small solar system to provide power to our container. I have already purchased what I need to provide lights and to power a fan in our container. These two things alone will be a big help in making our container workshop more comfortable. And, the thought of doing this on free power makes it all the sweeter.

We are enjoying our off-grid adventure. I am thankful for the folks who have shared about their off grid adventures on their respective YouTube channels. We continue to learn a lot from their successes and mistakes. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Every improvement that we make on our place gets us a step closer to the day we can just show up and enjoy ourselves without having to address a long list of projects. We are now several steps closer to that day. Thanks for following our journey. More to come!

The Western Horse Lubber Grasshopper

I met some new neighbors during my recent stay at our off-grid cabin in Big Bend — non-human neighbors to be more precise. Recent rains contributed to an active population of Western Horse Lubber Grasshoppers. These conspicuously large grasshoppers are hard to miss.

The Horse Lubber is one of the largest grasshopper species in North America. Females are generally larger than males and can grow as long as 3.5 inches. Their habitat ranges from the Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend and Mexico all the way to New Mexico and southern Arizona.

Horse Lubbers come by their name honestly. From the side, their head resembles a horse’s head complete with a bridle. The red coloration on the underside of their hind wings earned them the popular name Mexican General because of the similar coloring to the Mexican military uniform of old.
Their black coloration with yellow racing stripes, yellow-veined wings, and yellow or orange ringed antennae make them distinctive. This aposematic coloration serves to warn predators that they are not good to eat. This coloration and a toxic chemical secretion they exude from their abdomens are their main forms of defense.

Although they are not good to eat, Horse Lubbers love to eat. They feed on the flowers, seeds, and foliage of low-growing summer desert annuals. They are also opportunistic and cannibalistic carnivores that will eat the cadavers of other insects, including their own species.

Horse Lubbers are too bulky to fly, although males can coast short distances with their slightly longer wings. Their oversized hind-legs do enable them to cover distances up to 20 times their own length in a single jump.

Because they can’t fly and move slowly, Horse Lubbers are especially vulnerable. To avoid being eaten by nocturnal ground predators, Horse Lubbers will roost at night near the tops of desert shrubs. The following morning they descend once again to the desert floor to look for food.

I don’t have a garden at Dos Arbolitos, our little place in Big Bend, so I am not worried about having so many Horse Lubbers hanging around. In fact, I rather like their presence. They remind me that I am actually the intruder in the place they have called home far longer than me. I aim to get along with all of my neighbors — Horse Lubbers included.

Progress on Our Off-Grid Cabin

I have just returned home after spending two weeks alone at Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property in the Chihuahuan Desert. With the exception of a few visits with and from neighbors in the Big Bend Valley section of Terlingua Ranch, I was pretty much alone.

Screen time on my phone was down a whopping 62% — listening to music and using my Bible reading app accounting for the remainder of the time. For the most part, I enjoyed the absence of distractions and savored the opportunity to think deeply about so many things.

My goal for these two weeks was to continue working on the inside of our cabin, build an outdoor structure for a composting toilet and shower, address some erosion near our front gate, and have our solar power system installed. I am happy to say that I have checked these items off of my to-do list.

My first order of business was to frame our bathroom walls and solar storage closet and to hang the doors to each of these spaces. Once I framed the 14-foot long wall, I realized I needed help to get it up and in place, so I asked my neighbors Joe and Lisa for help (check out their Full Vegan YouTube channel).

Joe and Lisa moved to the Big Bend Valley from Minnesota and own 20 acres to the east of me in the shadow of Nine Point Mesa. They have an amazing set of off-grid skills and are always ready and willing to lend a hand. They did not hesitate to drive over to help me lift the wall into place.

Once the wall was in place and securely anchored, I decked the area immediately above for some much-needed storage. I wired in a bathroom light, added the remaining sheets of drywall, and hung the doors. Finally, I started the process of taping and floating — followed by sanding and then more floating and feathering out the seams, followed by more sanding.

With the drywall completed, I mixed a bucket of joint compound and used my texture sprayer to add a light orange peel texture to the walls. Once I got the consistency right, it took me less than half an hour to texture the walls. I am happy with the look of the texture. Later I will frame the doors and windows and install bead board wainscoting to all of the walls.

When I return to Dos Arbolitos I will add R-19 insulation to the ceiling and use corrugated tin to cover our ceiling. I will change our one-bulb ceramic light fixtures with LED fixtures and then add trim along the ceiling to wall transition. Kitchen cabinets will come next with the floor install as the final step in the process.
One thing is certain, there is never a shortage of projects in an off-grid setting. I enjoyed working from sunrise to sunset each day. I spent each night on my front porch, enjoying the magnificent Big Bend sunsets and night sky blanketed with stars from horizon to horizon. And, I slept peacefully. The solitude and silence of the desert is indeed a gift.

Ganado Cafe

When it comes to Texas towns with interesting names, Ganado is surely on the list. Located just a few miles east of Edna on Highway 59, Ganado is the second largest town in Jackson County. Ganado had its humble beginnings when a few cabins at the site of the present town came to be called Mustang Settlement, after nearby Mustang Creek. The early settlers were largely cattle ranchers who either drove their herds to New Orleans over the Old Spanish Trail or to northern markets in Kansas City.

In 1881, the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway laid track near Mustang Settlement. A company official looked out the window of his rail car and observed a large herd of cattle. He casually remarked that the place should be called Ganado instead — the Spanish word for ”herd.” The name stuck and the rest is history. Sometime in 1882 the railroad built a station at Ganado and the town grew around it. A post office was established the following year.

The Ganado Cafe is one of the local businesses that has served the town for years. Located on a main thoroughfare through town, the cafe remains a popular eatery that serves up delicious meals to locals and passers-through alike. Not a very big place, it has retained its original footprint next to the town movie theater.

While on a road trip from Katy to the Rio Grande Valley, I decided to veer off Highway 59 to grab an early lunch in Ganado. When I arrived I was the first lunch-time customer of the day — although folks were already phoning in orders. It would not take long, though, before a steady stream of locals dropped in for lunch.

I ordered my usual bacon cheeseburger with a side of onion rings. I opted for water instead of iced tea since I had a large Buc-ee’s fountain drink waiting for me in my truck. I ordered my burger on a sourdough rather than a regular bun. This was definitely a very good choice.

While I waited for my burger, I perused a wall of historic photos of the town, including an old black and white pic taken of the interior of the cafe sometime, I figure, in the 1940’s. I love old photographs — pics planned and taken intentionally in the days before smart phone cameras turned all of us into amateur photographers.

As for the burger, my first glance told me it was going to be good. Wrapped in gingham paper, it looked great and smelled delicious. The meat patty was generous, the veggies fresh, and the bacon crisp. One bite is all it took to convince me that I had made the right call to take a detour into Ganado. The onion rings were mighty tasty as well.

I have to confess that I could not finish my burger, something that rarely happens. Delicious as it was, it was just far bigger than my appetite. I hated to walk away and leave the last third on the plate but, alas, I was stuffed and had no more room. I did manage to eat all of the onion rings, however.

All things considered, I am really glad to have discovered the Ganado Cafe and have added it to my list of places I would like to visit again. I hope that if you find yourself anywhere near Ganado at lunch time (or anytime) that you too will veer off the main road and wander down to this quaint small-town eatery. You will not be disappointed!

Terlingua Ranch Community Church

Terlingua Ranch is situated in the heart of Big Bend. This is rugged terrain by any measure, complete with iconic vistas that take your imagination captive. The Chihuahuan Desert with its distant purple-hued and silhouetted mesas is a beautiful place — but also one that demands respect. The flora and fauna that call this place home survive because they have adapted to the harsh environment.

The same can be said of the people who call Terlingua home. Folks out here know the challenges of living in a hard place. A combination of high levels of resiliency and resourcefulness are an absolute must. Determination and grit are also essential. And, as evidenced by old churches like the historic St. Agnes Church in Terlingua Ghost Town, faith also plays an important role.

On our recent visit to Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property in the Big Bend Valley, Cheryl and I visited Terlingua Ranch Community Church. The church is located at the foot of a rocky hill on Church Road about a mile from the Terlingua Ranch headquarters. The small parking lot can accommodate a few vehicles and the hitching posts more than a few horses.

When we arrived, Pastor Hat Bailey greeted us warmly and invited us in. Ceiling fans turned slowly overhead, just enough to keep the place comfortable, as we took our seats on the wooden pew. But, just in case we needed a little more air, thy hymnal racks in front of us were stocked with funeral fans with a painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Pastor Hat (love his name) wore more than one hat. He led the singing, the prayer time, the observance of the Lord’s Supper, and also did the preaching. A tall, thin man with a soothing voice, he led with passion and conviction. His message on prayer was spot on — a really good word that reflected some deep thinking.

Afterward, we stayed around for a brief business meeting before joining Pastor Hat, Michael, and Beechie for lunch at the Bad Rabbit Cafe at the nearby Terlingua Ranch headquarters. We enjoyed hearing the stories of how each of these men ended up in Terlingua. Every one of us at the table have developed the same love for this amazing part of the Lone Star State.

We also learned that the church never locks its doors. That’s largely because the church has a modest little food pantry where locals in need can stop by to get a few cans of grub to help them make it through lean times. All they ask is that folks write down what they took so that the pantry can be restocked. Stuff you can eat right out of the can and that doesn’t really require cooking is best.

What was most obvious to us is how much Pastor Hat and our new friends love the people of Terlingua. While Terlingua Ranch Community Church is not and likely never will be a ”big” church, it is undeniably a church with a big heart. We look forward to visiting and worshiping again with our new friends.

Water Catchment at Dos Arbolitos

The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America. One of the challenges of living off the grid in a desert region is water. Drilling wells is expensive, and in this part of the desert there is no guarantee that if you find water it will be entirely potable. Because of its geological past, there is the presence of brackish water throughout the Big Bend of Texas.

There are several sources of water in the Chihuahuan Desert, especially in Big Bend. The Rio Grande River, even in dry times, is an ever-reliable source of water. Terlingua Creek, a tributary of the Rio Grande, as well as desert streams and arroyos also do their part to help hydrate the flora and fauna of this arid region.

The annual rainfall in Big Bend is somewhere around 12-inches per year. For off-gridders in the area, this rainfall (even if intermittent) presents the opportunity to resupply their water catchment tanks. I know that 12-inches does not sound like a lot of rain, but 12-inches of rain captured on just 500 square feet of roofing can yield as many as 3,700 gallons of water.

One of the considerations when ordering our cabin was the roof. Like so many roofs in the Big Bend area, we have a standing seam metal roof on our cabin especially for the purpose of rain catchment. We also purchased a 1,125 gallon water catchment tank fed by seamless gutters. We calculate that 1-inch of rain on our 420 square foot roof will capture as many as 260 gallons of water.

In preparation for the placement of our water catchment tank, Cheryl and I built a raised pad of tamped earth and pea gravel held in place by treated lumber. I will later add railroad ties to countersunk trenches around the pad to further strengthen it.



The good folks at Green Desert Living did a great job of installing our seamless gutters and feeding them into our tank with 2-inch PVC pipe. And now, we wait for rain, any rain, to start the process of filling our tank.


Advice on water catchment that I have received from several neighbors is to capture more than we will need. Good advice. We have the option of adding additional water storage in the future and likely will do so.

One of the things we did during our first week in our cabin was to recycle and reuse every precious drop of water. We captured the water from our foot-pump sink and used it to fill the tank on our camp toilet. We used the water we emptied from our ice chest to refill the tank on our foot-pump sink and to refill the two-gallon container on our off-grid shower. We used safe gray water to water the small trees around our cabin.

It really is amazing how much you can get done if you ration and use water wisely. For example, we showered all week with about 5-gallons of water. My camp shower is efficient, got us clean, and helped us to do so with little water wasted. The same with our efficiently designed flushing camp toilet — 5-gallons took care of our needs all week.

Learning to live off the grid is about the wise use of all resources, especially water. We know we have a lot more to learn and are excited about this new adventure. We are having the time of our lives learning to do new, and hard things, in our sixties.

Never stop learning and doing hard things. This is the best way to stay young! And, in the words of Toby Keith’s song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In.” Thanks for following our adventure.

Our Off-Grid Cabin Delivered

“The health of the eye,” said Emerson, “seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” I think that is why I am drawn to the Big Bend of Texas. There is something about the expansive views in this wide part of the state that is hard to put into words — but that the heart understands.

Almost a year and a half has passed since we bought our little place in Terlingua Ranch. When we first set foot on what was to become our property, Cheryl and I were instantly captivated by the beauty of the surrounding mesas and mountains. Rising above a sea of creosote bushes and stands of ocotillo stretching spiny fingers toward the sky, these distant vistas made our eyes feel good, really good.

This past week we took another big step in our off-grid journey — the delivery of our cabin. We bought a Derksen cabin from the good folks at Green Desert Living. We added some larger windows to enjoy the views of Black Hill and Nine Point Mesa, two of the most iconic landmarks in the Big Bend Valley.

The delivery of the cabin went without a hitch. Johnny, the delivery guy, maneuvered the cabin with total precision into the area I had cleared on my previous visit to the property. Our larger windows look out toward Nine Point Mesa to the East and our front porch faces Red Bluff and the Christmas Mountains to the South.

Our neighbors, Joe and Lisa, showed up to watch the delivery. Joe has a YouTube Channel called Full Vegan on which he chronicles their off-grid journey in the Big Bend Valley. I have followed them from the start. Joe and Lisa have acquired many off-grid talents. Joe included some footage of our place on his post entitled Deliveries in the Valley at 5 minutes and 35 seconds into the video.

Joe helped me get our air conditioner set up and then wired our generator to the electrical box on our cabin. We will use the generator during the day until we get our solar panels and batteries installed. Loved having cool air during the hottest part of the day. The nights were remarkably pleasant.

Cheryl and I spent the week working on the inside of our cabin. We insulated all of the walls and added sheetrock. I will return later to frame out our bathroom and to tape, float, texture and add wainscoting. We also got a lot done outside the cabin. We are shredding the dead stuff around the property to experiment with making our own mulch and compost.

Perhaps the best part of the day came after all of the hard work. We loved sitting on the front porch, enjoying the evening breeze as the light of day faded and the evening stars and the Milky Way made their appearance. There are no words to describe the beauty of the night sky in Big Bend, regarded one of the darkest places in the nation. The night sky is absolutely crowded with stars.

We are loving our adventure at Dos Arbolitos. Some might not understand what it is about the Chihuahuan Desert that we find so enchanting. A Terlingua Proverb sums it up best: From the outside looking in, you don’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it. We are definitely happy and blessed to be on the inside looking out. Loving the adventure.

The Cheerful Black-Eyed Susan

I love wildflowers. On a recent bike ride down the bayou trails in Katy, my path was flanked by blankets of cheerful Black-Eyed Susan flowers. And even though this happy little plant was adopted as the state flower of Maryland in 1918, I am happy that it has found a home in the Lone Star State as well. Here are five quick facts about this sunny flower.

1. This flower has a very interesting name.
The scientific name of this flower is Rudbeckia, in honor of Olaus Rudbeck, a famous Swedish botanist who died in 1702. How cool to have a cheerful flower and not a weed named after you. As for its common name, no one really knows for certain where it came from. In some circles it is referred to as the Brown-Eyed Susan or Gloriosia Daisy.

2. This happy flower comes from a cheerful family.
The Black-Eyed Susan has the characteristics of a daisy. That’s because it is a member of the daisy family, hence the name Gloriosia Daisy. It most commonly appears dressed in various shades of yellow but also in golden and orange shades as well, each variety with its distinctive dark centers. Like a daisy, its brightly-colored petals just make me smile.

3. Native Americans found medicinal value in this plant.

Like so many other plants, the Black-Eyed Susan has medicinal value. American Indians used the root of the plant to make a tea to treat for worms. They also consumed this tea to treat cold and flu symptoms. Juice made from the root was also used to treat earaches. They processed other parts of the plant to wash sores and to treat snakebites and swelling, making this happy plant a helpful one as well.

4. This cheerful flower is attractive to pollinators.
Butterflies and bees love the Black-Eyed Susan and serve as the main pollinators of this plant. Birds, deer, rabbits, and other wildlife are drawn to this plant as a source of food. Birds especially enjoy the ripe seeds found in the eye or cone of the plant. Black-Eyed Susan also serves as a nursery. The Silvery Checkerspot butterfly lays its eggs on the plant. The petals then serve as a source of food for the caterpillars after hatching.

5. Variety is the spice of life.
The versatile and drought-resistant Black-Eyed Susan plants are at home in prairies and meadows as well as home gardens. There are an estimated 90 varieties of Black-Eyed Susan, many cultivated for use in bouquets of flowers. Varieties include Indian Summer, Goldstrum, and Denver Daisies to name a few. Cut flowers added to a bouquet of flowers will easily last a week or longer.