A Floor and More at Dos Arbolitos

Progress continues at Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property in the Big Bend Valley section of Terlingua Ranch. Because we only make it out to our place a few times a year, we have to make every trip count. I am happy that on our latest visit we were able to complete several projects.

Our primary goal was to install the flooring in the cabin. We opted for vinyl plank flooring because it is durable, flexible, waterproof, and easy to install. I watched a couple of YouTube videos to learn the basics. Unlike laminate flooring, I was able to cut the vinyl planks using a utility knife. This made for a really easy installation.

After laying the floor, I used decorative trim rather than quarter-round to finish the baseboard. I then filled in the nail holes in the trim with wood-filler, ran a bead of caulk around the perimeter, and finished with semi-gloss touch-up paint. Amazing how little details make such a big difference.

Our second project was to add a second 300 gallon IBC tote for additional water storage. Our main 1,125 gallon rain catchment tank was almost full when we arrived. Cheryl and I built a base for the new tote and transferred 300 gallons from the main tank to the tote. Later on I will add overflow pipes running from the main tank to the totes. With our tank, totes, and barrels we now have the capacity to store 1,800 gallons of rain water.

Our next project was to build our composting toilet. We’ve been using a 5-gallon bucket with a camp toilet seat in our outdoor bathroom but wanted something more durable. I took an old ottoman and salvaged the frame and then converted it into a composting toilet complete with a regular toilet seat. Much more comfortable, indeed!

I also built a composting / humanure bin where we dump our composting toilet bucket and any kitchen scraps. For the time being we are adding a layer of peat moss on top of the waste but later will use straw. It will take some time for the waste and scraps to break down but we hope to get some good soil out of this to use around the property.

As we continue to improve our outdoor toilet and shower area, I added a mirror, a toilet paper holder, and a solar powered light. The light is a welcome addition for our evening showers. Later on I hope to add a water storage tank to directly service our outdoor shower.

Finally, we completed the wainscoting in our indoor bathroom area and added a mirror that we picked up on a day trip to Boquillas, Mexico. We also hung the lyrics to the song Dos Arbolitos. Our daughter Gina printed and framed the lyrics for us. We put these frames next to the front door to remind us of how blessed we are to enjoy a great marriage and to have a relaxing place to get away from it all.

Cheryl and I are enjoying the journey as we work on the cabin and the property a little at a time. One thing is certain, no matter how much work there is to do we are loving it. We love the sunrises, the sunsets, and the night skies. And, for whatever reason, meals at the cabin just seems to taste better!

Alicia’s Mexican Restaurant

I recently did the unthinkable in my quest to find the best bacon cheeseburger in Texas — I ordered a burger at a Mexican food restaurant. Yes, I was that guy. I have seen others do it and wondered what they were thinking. I mean, who orders a burger at a Mexican food joint.

I don’t know what possessed me but it was a spur of the moment decision. With Mexican food on the brain, when the waitress came to our table I blurted out that I wanted a hamburger, more specifically a bacon cheeseburger with fries.

Fortunately, this is one decision I would not regret.

Alicia’s Mexican Restaurant in Alpine has been around for a while. I had stopped at McCoy’s lumber earlier in the day to buy some supplies for our off-grid cabin in Big Bend. While there, I asked folks to recommend a good Mexican food restaurant. More than one person recommended Alicia’s so that settled the matter for me.

Alicia’s is housed in a modest-sized old building that has all the earmarks of a dive. Nothing fancy on the outside or inside but inviting nevertheless. One thing you don’t want to miss is the signage — scrawled out on white paper with a black marker — that alerts customers that this is a cash only (and local checks) establishment.

My bacon cheeseburger with an ample serving of home-cut fries arrived in a plastic paper-lined boat. At first glance I noticed that the meat was not a warmed-up frozen patty but rather hand pressed with ragged edges. The bacon was crispy, just the way I like it, and the cheese perfectly melted. The buns were moist and lightly toasted on what could only be a well-seasoned grill.

The first bite was amazing. The meat was seasoned to perfection. This burger had a symphony of flavors that worked in perfect harmony. Tasty does not even begin to describe the flavor. It was beyond that. This burger was absolutely delicious — the kind of delicious that moved the meter and convinced me that I would have to make this a regular stop on my treks to the cabin.

Alpine is somewhat off the beaten interstate path but if you are ever anywhere near this home of Sul Ross University, make it a point to head to Alicia’s. Just make sure you have cash in your wallet. If not, stop at an ATM because this burger is worth the eating.

DIY Rustic Toilet Paper Holder

Someone wisely observed, “Everyone wants to change the world but nobody wants to change the toilet paper roll. Be the change.”

I could not agree more! Toilet paper is indeed one of life’s most necessary necessities. And, one of the kindest things any of us can do for others is to change the toilet paper roll.

Having recently completed our outdoor toilet and shower area at our off-grid property in Big Bend, I set off to purchase a toilet paper holder. I never realized how many different types of holders are available for purchase. They are pricier than I thought and none that I looked at seemed to have the sturdiness I want for our outdoor composting toilet area.

So, I decided to make a sturdy toilet paper holder using pipe fittings. This sturdy little holder should stand the test of time, especially in an outdoor area. Once I purchased all of the components it took me less than 5 minutes to assemble.

Here is a list of the basic pipe fitting components:

½ inch floor flange
½ inch x 6 inch pipe (threaded on each end)
½ inch x 2 inch nipple
½ inch end cap
½ inch 90-degree elbow

The cost of all of these items was a little more than $12.00, about the cost of the cheapest and flimsiest toilet paper holder you can buy.

Easy assembly steps:

• Clean pipe components with mineral spirits (highly recommended)
• Thread ½ inch nipple onto the floor flange
• Thread 90-degree elbow onto the nipple
• Thread 6-inch pipe onto other end of the 90-degree elbow
• Screw end cap onto the end of the 6 inch pipe

That’s it! You’re all done except for securing your new sturdy toilet paper holder to the wall.
If you need a sturdy toilet paper holder option, don’t wait too long to assemble it because as someone else wisely observed, “Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end the faster it goes.”


Balanced Rock at Big Bend National Park

Balanced Rock is one of the most popular hiking destinations at Big Bend National Park. This geological feature is very cool and frames some of the most spectacular views in the park.

Balanced Rock is accessed by way of the Grapevine Hills Trail, an easy 2.2 mile out and back hike with an elevation gain of 80 feet. The trailhead is located approximately 6 miles off of Highway 118 down the Grapevine Hills road. Although this is a well-maintained dirt road, make sure that your vehicle has reasonable clearance.

This is a pleasant hike, especially in the morning or late afternoon. The trail winds its way through a little valley in the Grapevine Hills, featuring some of the most spectacular rock formations in the park. Take the time to enjoy the views and the varieties of desert flora along the way.

The final quarter mile leads up some boulders, so you will have to do a little scrambling — nothing too difficult. The trail ends at the Balanced Rock. From this point you will enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding area with the distinctive Nugent Peak off in the distance.

As with all hiking in Big Bend, be sure to take plenty of water and a trail snack. It’s always good to be prepared in case something unexpected happens along the way and you have to wait for help. And remember my hiking mantra: pace and place. Hike your pace and watch where you place your feet and you will have an enjoyable hike.

Progress at the Cabin

Working on our off-grid cabin in the Big Bend Valley section of Terlingua Ranch has kept me on my toes. Because I decided to do the work myself, I have had to call into play every DIY skill I have developed over the years — and then some. And I have had to make every trip to the cabin count.

Fortunately for me, I have lots of really kind friends who have helped along the way. Without their help I would be woefully behind on the work. There are just too many things that require more than one set of hands. YouTube DIY videos have also been helpful in guiding me through various phases of the work.

We have made lots of progress over the past month. A few weeks ago several of the guys in my Band of Fathers core group set aside a day from our adventuring agenda to help me insulate the ceiling, install the ceiling tin, and finish the trim work on all of the interior windows. Insulating the ceiling has made a huge difference in keeping the cabin cozy, especially on those occasions when the north wind blows all night long.

Adding the baseboard and window trim immediately made the interior look more finished. I especially like the Texas star medallions that we chose for the doors and windows. They add a cool look and made it much easier to install the trim — eliminating the need for 45-degree miter cuts.

Installing the beadboard also changed the look of the interior. We decided to do a beadboard wainscoting measuring three-feet up from the floor — up to the height of the doorknobs. Once we installed the baseboards and beadboard we caulked all of the seams in preparation for paint.

This past week Cheryl and I returned to the cabin to paint all of the trim and the wainscoting. We chose a flat paint for the walls, a semi-gloss for the trim, and a satin finish for the wainscoting. We also added trim where the walls meet the ceiling tin. We painted the trim before installing it and then filled in the nail holes with wood filler before finishing this phase of the work with touch-up paint.

We had just enough time to complete the ceiling in the bathroom. We opted for a shiplap look with long 1 x 4 x 8 lumber. This was very easy to install and to tack in place with my finish nailer. We ripped some lumber on the table saw to add trim to the perimeter of the ceiling. We completed this step with wood filler, caulk, and touch-up paint.

Next steps include painting the doors and adding new LED light fixtures. We have also decided on vinyl laminate flooring for easy maintenance. Hopefully we can finish these steps sometime after the first of the year.

One of the things I noticed was how this interior work has enhanced our view of Nine Point Mesa and Black Hill to the east. Our east-facing windows have become an even more beautiful frame for the magnificent view of these iconic Big Bend landmarks.

We remain excited about every small step that gets us closer to moving furniture to the cabin. We know the day is coming when all of the interior work will be completed and we can turn our attention to some of the outside projects we want to do — including working to restore some native grasses.

This Thanksgiving Cheryl and I are thankful for all of the friends who have helped get us to where we are — from fencing the property to working on the interior of the cabin. We can see the signature of their kindness every time we visit Dos Arbolitos, our little slice of heaven in the Big Bend of Texas.

Mule Ears Peaks at Big Bend

The picturesque Mule Ears Peaks is one of the most recognizable landmarks along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at Big Bend National Park. The twin pillars of black igneous rock that jut up from the desert floor are hard to miss.

The Mule Ears Spring trailhead is located at the end of a short spur off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The sign at the trailhead advises hikers to carry plenty of water — advice that should be heeded, especially in hotter months when temperatures can easily soar past the hundred-degree mark.

The Mule Ears Spring Trail is a moderate 3.8 mile roundtrip trek that winds through the foothills of the Chisos Mountains. The mostly rocky trail that leads to Mule Ears Spring skirts Trap Mountain and crosses several arroyos. The spring has created a desert oasis that nourishes thick stands of cottonwood trees, ferns, cattails, and a variety of desert shrubs.

Before arriving at the spring is a rock corral, a reminder of the resourcefulness of early sheep and cattle herders in the area. The corral is constructed of rock that was dry stacked and fitted together without the benefit of mortar. The fact that it still stands is amazing. If those stones could speak what wonderful stories they would tell about the challenges faced by early settlers to the area.

Mule Ears Spring is a turnaround point on the trail. However, you can hike through the vegetation and continue on a well-defined trail that leads ever closer to the peaks. The trail eventually leads to a bluff that offers absolutely spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert and the peaks.

The desert is rich with life and with beauty. You will enjoy the bigger views along the trail but don’t overlook the desert flora along the way — sotol, lechuguilla, yuca, ocotillo, and several species of cacti. The trail to Mule Ears Peaks is definitely worth adding to your day hiking itinerary on your next visit to Big Bend National Park.

The Window Trail at Big Bend

Beyond the Pecos River lies the vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, that wide part of the state that boasts some of the most magnificent vistas in the Lone Star State. This is where the Rio Grande River makes a dramatic turn, giving Texas its distinctive and recognizable shape.

In the southernmost part of the trans-Pecos is Big Bend National Park, a place Lady Bird Johnson once described as “the very edge of the world.” Big Bend was established as a national park in June 1935. Encompassing 1,252 square miles of land, this national park is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

From the riparian region of the Rio Grande River to the rugged peaks of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend offers outdoor enthusiasts more than 150 miles of hiking trails. These avenues offer access to the amazing geography and geology of this region that is home to more than 1,200 species of plants and more than 600 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

The Window Trail is one of the most popular treks in the park. This 5.2 mile roundtrip trail is an easy hike for anyone in reasonable shape. The trail begins near the Chisos Mountain Lodge and descends 800-feet over a 2 mile stretch to a magnificent overlook of the Chihuahuan Desert. There are places along the way to stop and rest or to just sit in silence and listen to the sounds of the breeze and the birds.

At one point the trail descends slightly into a streambed where the rocks have been polished smooth by the flow of water. Steps carved into the rocks make it easy to navigate this section of the trail that leads to the breathtaking overlook flanked by rugged cliffs.
I should note that the overlook drops 220 vertical feet to the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The rock at the overlook is slick, so you should exercise lots of caution and not get too close to the edge. If you happen to be there in the evening, this notch is a great place from which to watch the sunset.
There is a junction a quarter mile from the end of the Window Trail that leads to the Oak Springs Trail. It is worth hiking the section of this trail that ascends to a ridge that offers unobstructed views of the Chihuahuan Desert. The views from this ridge are truly breathtaking.

The Window Trail and Oak Springs Trail will not disappoint. It’s worth taking the time to add these short day hikes to any visit to the park. The views at the end of the Window Trail and from the ridge on the Oak Springs Trail make it worth every step.

A final word to anyone planning on hiking in Big Bend — please make sure that you read the signs at the respective trailheads. These signs will help you to get oriented, understand the time commitment required, and remind you to always take water with you (at the least).

I have seen far too many hikers on trails at the park who ventured out without water. It is important to stay hydrated and to be prepared in case of any unexpected injury or delay that might occur along the trail. That is just hiking smart.

If you have not visited Big Bend I encourage you to do so. It is well worth the drive from any place in the state or the nation.

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!