Small Conveniences at the Cabin

Some folks equate off-the-grid with primitive or uncomfortable. While off-grid living does have its challenges, it does not have to be either primitive or uncomfortable. Without question, those who choose an off-grid life-style must be considerably more intentional than folks connected to the grid. But that is part of the allure of the off-grid lifestyle.As we continue to make progress on our off-grid cabin in Big Bend, we have to make every trip count. That means planning ahead, making careful lists, making sure we have everything we need for projects, and that we have contingency plans in place. There is nothing more frustrating than laying everything out for a project and realizing one thing is missing.

On our last trip to the cabin we added a small sink to our indoor bathroom. This adds just one more layer of comfort and convenience to our little place in the Chihuahuan Desert. Once I secured the vanity and sink to the wall, I jury-rigged parts from our old foot-pump sink to work on our new sink.

The sink is fed by a foot pump attached to a five-gallon water basin. I rigged the goose-neck faucet to work on the new sink. The water then drains to a five-gallon catchment bucket underneath the sink. We use this water to nourish the trees around the cabin. Nothing is wasted. This is part of the circle of life in the off-grid world.
My buddy Selim accompanied me to do some work on our trees. I have been slowly working to add water catchment basins around the mesquites on the property. These catchment basins will allow us to capture as much water as possible from the infrequent rain that falls in the desert. The water in the basins will slowly seep into the area around the trees rather than just running off the property.

I also added a deck of sorts to my shipping container workshop. For the time being, I packed dirt into the frame and then topped it off with a layer of pea gravel. In the future I will add pavers to make this area even more usable. On a previous trip I added solar power to the container so that I can have lights and operate power tools without having to run an extension cord to the cabin. Small steps toward convenience.
Of course, the best part of being at the cabin is enjoying the amazing views of the surrounding mesas, bluffs, hills — and the awe-inspiring night sky. At the end of a long day of projects, what I love best is watching the transformation of the sky from daylight to darkness. The night breezes are an added bonus. And the satisfaction that comes from having made more progress makes for a good night’s sleep.

El Camino del Rio

I am a road-trip junkie. Because I have spent so many years traveling around the planet on I-have-lost-track-of-how-many-hundreds-of-flights, there is nothing I enjoy more when I am home than windshield time in my pick-up.

Since establishing our base camp on our little off-grid place in Big Bend, I am taking advantage of every opportunity to explore this amazing part of the Lone Star State. For reasons I can’t explain, I am drawn to the vast Chihuahuan Desert that spans the Trans-Pecos.

The small town of Lajitas is not far from our cabin. The name Lajitas is Spanish for “little flat rocks” and refers to the Boquillas limestone of the area. Located along FM 170 on the western edge of Big Bend National Park, Lajitas has a goat for a mayor and a world-class golf resort and spa that attracts visitors from around the world.

The stretch of highway along FM 170 between Lajitas and Presidio is known as El Camino del Rio, or the River Road. National Geographic Traveler rates this spectacular road as one of the top ten scenic routes in the Unites States. This drive should be a bucket list item for any road-trip junkie.

El Camino del Rio follows the curves and turns of the Rio Grande River through Big Bend Ranch State Park from Lajitas all the way to Presidio, a name that originates from the Spanish word for fortress. The highway plunges over mountains into steep canyons and then up again like a desert roller coaster. Drive slowly and savor the views.

There are several scenic overlooks with views that will take your breath away. The magnificent vistas will allow even an amateur photographer to take amazing shots and look like a pro. The geography is about as iconically cowboy as it gets in Texas and the place names hail back to the days when Spanish explorers came through the region.
Whether you start your journey in Lajitas or Presidio, don’t be in a hurry. Take the time to stop to take in the views and to snap a few pics. Be sure to take water and snacks. And remember that there is no cell-signal on this 51-mile stretch of road.

I hope that you will add El Camino del Rio to your adventure list. You will be glad you did. Enjoy your drive and be safe.

Death in Big Bend

I love adventure.

Over the years, I have participated in amazing adventures from the Lone Star State to dozens of locations around the planet. I not only enjoy participating in adventures that make my heart race, I like everything about researching, planning, making lists, packing gear, and every little thing associated with preparing for a grand adventure.

I have made an agreement with myself to always make wise decisions when adventuring. In many cases, this means not venturing out alone because alone is dangerous. On a few occasions I have had to make the tough decision to turn around and head back in order to live to adventure another day.

More than once I have thought about Sir Ernest Shackelton, one of my adventure heroes. In 1908, he made the hard call to turn back when he was within reach of the South Pole. After assessing his situation, he determined that if he pressed on he would run out of food and die on the way back. He later wrote to his wife, “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.”
I recently purchased a copy of “Death in Big Bend” by Laurence Parent. I spotted the book at a gift shop in Terlingua. I was immediately intrigued because, now that we have an off-grid cabin outside of Big Bend National Park, I am doing a bit more hiking at the park. The book is a collection of 17 stories of death and rescue in Big Bend National Park.

While most visitors to the park enjoy an incident-free vacation that becomes a memorable part of their adventure narrative, a few have not been so lucky. The stories in this book are well written and illustrate what can happen when only one small things goes wrong on an adventure. Once one thing gets misaligned, then it often triggers a series of other missteps that often lead to tragedy.
I recommend this as a must-read for any adventurer or anyone thinking about hiking at Big Bend National Park or Big Bend Ranch State Park. Too many times I have come across people on the trail who appeared ill-prepared, hiking miles from the trailhead with, at most, a 16-ounce bottle of water.

Once while hiking in McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas / New Mexico border, I came across a couple in serious need of water and nutrition. I had it and offered it freely. I recently wrote about what I carry in my day-hike backpack. I carry this little extra weight even on short day hikes just in case. I was able to help this couple on one of those just in case days.

The stories in the book are captivating. I could not put the book down once I started reading. Spoiler alert — most of these stories are heartbreaking but instructive. Some of those who got in trouble overestimated their abilities and underestimated the hostility of the Chihuahuan Desert, resulting in tragedy. In each case, just one small thing could have changed the equation to equal life instead of death.

Whether your adventures take you to Big Bend or other locations, I recommend reading this book. If nothing else, the stories will cause you to reevaluate your planning and to take a second look at your gear, your route, and your preparedness. I remain committed to careful planning lest I become the next story of death or rescue in Big Bend.

Off-Grid Comforts at the Cabin

Off-grid does not have to equal discomfort. When were started our off-grid adventure at our little property in Big Bend, we determined that we wanted a place that we would look forward to visiting. Of course, that meant factoring in some of the comforts of home.

On our most recent visit to our cabin, we took two more steps toward adding small measures of comfort. We are still off the grid, and while there are more primitive ways of doing things like using water and bathing, we added a couple of things to make each of these tasks a littler easier.
Our first project was to add a bold Southwestern color to our base cabinets in our kitchen area. We chose a color called Pursuit of Teal that we selected at Lowe’s. We like it a lot. The cool thing about the Southwestern color pallet is that each vibrant color pops against the bland browns and tans of the desert.

I purchased an on-demand water pump designed for drawing water out of five-gallon jugs. This pump feeds our simple faucet and can pump up to a gallon a minute. Even so, we can’t leave the water running while washing dishes. Instead we use only the amount we need and no more.
The water we use for cooking or washing dishes drains from our sink into a gray water catchment jug. Once at capacity, we remove this jug and then use the gray water to irrigate the trees closest to our cabin. Lucky trees! We don’t want to waste a single drop of water but instead responsibly use even our waste water.

We have a very comfortable all-season outdoor shower area complete with composting toilet. However, we wanted to add an indoor shower area. Last year, I purchased a Durastall Shower Stall. This easy to assemble shower stall comes in a flat box for easy transport. The components fit together easily and, once assembled, make a durable shower stall.

At this time we are not adding plumbing. That will come later. In the meantime, we are using our homemade pump sprayer. Topping off the 2-gallon sprayer with a teapot’s worth of hot water is enough to warm up the water. We average two showers per fill-up - a very efficient way to bathe.
I built up the shower base area and plumbed the shower to drain out the side of the cabin into a gray water catchment pail. We then use this gray water to nourish our trees. I left a narrow opening to the side of the stall to add plumbing in the future. In the meantime, I built some narrow shelving to fill in this area and as a place to store bathroom essentials.

Future projects include finding the right LED light fixtures, adding an old-fashioned screen door, and installing a more permanent shutter system that we can use to protect the windows in the event of one of those no-warning Chihuahuan Desert hail storms.

One thing is certain, there is a great deal of satisfaction that comes with each little improvement that we make to the cabin. We are also working on some permaculture projects on the property and have added a lot of bird feeders. I will report on some of these projects in the coming weeks.

My Day Hike Backpack

Although I am not a “prepper” in the strict doomsday scenario sense of the word, I am intentional about being prepared in regard to my outdoor adventures. Being prepared was drilled into me by my Boy Scout leaders by both their example and instruction.

As a Boy Scout I enjoyed making my own survival kits. The challenge was to pack essential survival items into a metal Band-Aid box or a hinged Sucrets lozenge tin or, better yet, into a hand-sewn leather pouch. I still have one or two of these packed away in a box in my attic.

As a world traveler, I keep my international travel backpack packed and ready to go at all times. The only thing I add before a trip is a change of clothes in a pack-it folder just in case my luggage arrives at my destination after I do.

I also keep my day hike hydration backpack ready to go at all times. The only thing I add before I hit the trail is my hydration bladder and trail snacks. You can see this pack on my back in all of my hiking photos. I don’t care how short a hike I am on, I strap this bag on every time.

As a fan of shows like “I Shouldn’t Be Alive,” I have noticed a common theme: folks heading out on a simple adventure ill-prepared only to have something unexpected happen that becomes life-threatening.

I prefer to err on the side of caution by carrying a little extra weight just in case. Not only just in case something unexpected happens to me, but just in case I come across someone on the trail who had something unexpected happen to them.

So, here is a look at what I carry in my day hike hydration pack. Each of these items stays in my pack at all times. I do not borrow items from this pack to put in my other packs that I use for extended hikes or other outdoor adventures. I always want to know that the items I need to count on in an emergency will be in my pack if needed.

Survival Kit | I picked up a lightweight survival kit at Academy that is packed with useful items, including an emergency blanket which can also be rigged for use as a shelter. I also carry a paracord bracelet for emergency cordage.

First Aid Kit | I consider this an essential no matter how short the distance I hike. I also carry a roll of waterproof first aid tape that can be used on hot spots on my feet or a blister.

Bivy Sack | I carry a bivy sack just in case I am forced to spend the night out on the trail. This super lightweight sleeping bag provides plenty of warmth. I also carry a compact little blanket in case I need extra warmth.

Life Straw | This is a must in case my hydration bag is compromised or I run out of water. This straw can safely filter water from most sources, although I would not use it in a water source that has been contaminated by agricultural runoff.

Emergency Poncho | A 99-cent poncho can mean the difference between staying warm and dry and possible hypothermia.

Toilet Paper | No explanation necessary.

Knives | I carry two knives. My Bear Grylls knife has a partially serrated blade which can serve as a mini-saw.

Lights | I pack a Black Diamond headlamp plus a bright light stick.

Whistle I regard a good whistle as an essential part of a survival kit. This little item can be a lifesaver. The sound of a whistle can carry farther than the sound of the human voice.

Pepper Spray | I started carrying pepper spray when I thru-hiked the Lone Star Hiking Trail. It is a good idea to have it handy just in case you run into any ornery critters (or people) on the trail.

Monocular | I carry a monocular to scope out what is ahead, to look at wildlife, and for making sure I can find my way out of tight spots.

Trail Snacks | Trail snacks and goo packs are essential to carry on any hike. I also carry Nuun tablets to add some electrolytes to my water. I have encountered hikers who desperately needed an energy boost with whom I was able to share nutrition.

Trekking Poles | I also hike with trekking poles. They relieve a lot of stress on my aging joints, give me more stability on rocky terrain, can be used to fend off animals, and make excellent tent poles in an emergency situation.

A Little More Progress at the Cabin

We are now a little more than two years into our off-grid adventure. If there is one thing that Cheryl and I have learned along the way it is that progress is made in small but intentional steps. This past week we took a few more small steps by working on projects both inside and outside the cabin.

My friend Doyle and I had scheduled an adventure to complete two more of the 8,000+ foot peaks in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. However, because of camping restrictions due to the pandemic we decided to reschedule that trip. Instead, Doyle agreed to help me get some work done at the cabin and also do day hikes at Big Bend Ranch State Park.

We started by installing the base cabinets on the kitchen end of the cabin. Cheryl and I purchased the cabinets and countertop at Lowe’s. A friend gave us the sink. The process was fairly easy. We had to add only a couple of shims to get the cabinets both level and plumb. We secured the cabinets and countertop in place and then cut the opening for the sink and dropped it in place.

I will add Lone Star themed drawer pulls after we paint the cabinets. We debated whether to stain or to paint the cabinets and have agreed to paint them — a bold Southwest color to be revealed soon. I will also add a faucet powered by an electric pump and plumb the sink to drain into a gray water jug. We will use the gray water to irrigate our trees.
Doyle also helped me to dig out rain catchment basins under fifteen of forty-something mesquite trees on the property. My hope is that by digging water catchment basins under the trees, extending from the trunk to the drip line, we can give them a little more advantage when the monsoon season returns in June.

Cheryl and I are in the process of photographing and identifying all of the trees, shrubs, and plants on the property. We are also nurturing the native grass in hope of seeing it thrive. And, we are doing some research on the birds in the area and what we can do to attract more birds. There are some pretty little birds in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Doyle and I set aside time to do some day hikes at Big Bend Ranch State Park. The park road just outside of Lajitas follows the Rio Grande River and is one of the most scenic drives in Texas. We followed this road from Lajitas to Presidio where we found a Mexican food place that was open and allowed us to eat on the porch.

We explored the Hoodoos, a cool place with a name that sounds like it came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. The Hoodoos features some amazing natural formations and easy access to the river. The vistas from the Hoodoos are absolutely breathtaking.

We also hiked Closed Canyon. This hike reminded me of Petra in Jordan. The narrow canyon walls provide shade and cool breezes. The most important thing to keep in mind is when to turn around. As the canyon descends know your limits. Keep in mind that it is easier to scramble over a boulder and go down than its is to scramble up a boulder and go up.

I will write about the Hoodoos, Closed Canyon, Rancherias Canyon, and the Redford Cemetery in future posts and include plenty of pics. As I explore other hiking trails at Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park I will write about these adventures as well. Since our cabin sits between these two parks, this is now our big backyard. I have to explore!
And, of course, I have to say something about the Big Bend skies. We were privileged to see some amazing sunsets as well as one of the coolest moonsets ever — a little after six in the morning. We always look forward to the vast skies in the Chihuahuan Desert. They never disappoint.

Thanks for following our off-grid adventure.

Pitman Cemetery in Muldoon

The Lone Star State has more than its share of towns and places with interesting names — Muldoon among them. Were it not for the city limit sign, you would never know you had entered and passed through Muldoon. Less than a hundred people call this tiny spot on the map home. Only a few buildings remain as ragged reminders of Muldoon’s past.

Muldoon is named after an Irish priest named Michael Muldoon. The town is located on a grant of land originally made to Father Muldoon, the curate for Stephen F. Austin’s first Texas colony. Father Muldoon was associated with the Diocese of Monterrey, Mexico. He served in Texas from 1831 to 1832 and was the only priest appointed to serve non-Hispanic Texas settlers.

The Pitman Cemetery is located just a few miles outside of town in an absolutely idyllic setting. An old chapel serves as the gathering place for memorial services — complete with old wooden-slatted pews covered with layers of faded butterscotch paint and ample windows to let in the breeze. It really is a perfect place for a memorial service with burial sites within walking distance.

I enjoy walking through old cemeteries, looking at dates and epitaphs on weathered tombstones. This hallowed ground has soaked up the tears of many grieving family members and friends over its long history. Every headstone has felt the touch of the hands of those who have stood there, perhaps weeping in silent remembrance.

In places as old as the Pitman Cemetery, the weather has erased names and dates on many of the tombstones, a solemn reminder of the words of Psalm 103:15-16:

As for man, his days are like grass;

As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
When the wind has passed over it, it is no more,

And its place acknowledges it no longer.

As I meandered through the cemetery I was especially touched by the tombstone of a mother who had died in childbirth. And the plastic flowers on the grave-site of another child that passed away on the same day he was born served as an indication that someone still remembered this child, even after so many years.

As much as I don’t like thinking about death, strolling through old cemeteries reminds me that I must acknowledge its reality. The day will come when my remains will be placed into the ground and a headstone will mark my resting place.

When I am finally placed in the ground, the dash between the dates will tell nothing about me or what happened in the span of my years. A well-written line or Bible verse may be the only thing to tell future cemetery-strollers a little something about my faith or beliefs about what lies beyond the grave. And, the passage of time may eventually erase any words on my tombstone. Like a flower of the field that has withered away, even my resting place will one day no longer acknowledge me.

Making Our Cabin Cozy

Seems that every time we load up the pickup to head to Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property in Big Bend, we look like the Beverly Hillbillies. If we are not pulling a trailer, then we pack every square inch of space in the bed and cab of the truck with supplies and food. Because our cabin is 600-miles from our home in Katy we have to make the most of every trip.

On our recent Spring Break trip to the cabin we took some more furniture with us as well as supplies for a week of projects. The goals for this trip were to make the inside of the cabin a little cozier and to add shelving for lumber storage in our shipping container workshop.

We are happy with the progress on the interior of the cabin. The queen bed alone has made a huge difference in regard to comfort. Sure beats sleeping on our camp cots! Cheryl also added a comforter and lots of bed cushions to bring in a little color. The comfortable chairs are great for relaxing and reading in the evenings. We will add a couple of southwest-themed area rugs soon.

We also added a dresser / library combo piece that we recently found on a shopping trip. We like it because it has big and deep drawers on one side and a place for us to keep our books on the other side. And the rustic look is perfect for the cabin and ties in well with the old pic of my grandfather. We both enjoy reading in the evenings and this will be a great place for us to have our off-grid library.

We added some shelving in the kitchen. I made the framework for the shelves out of black pipe. Cheryl stained the wood shelves and then I secured them to the frame using pipe straps. I also added a paper towel holder made out of the same black pipe. This was an easy DIY project that has added some much-needed storage space. We will add our kitchen counter and sink on the next trip to the cabin.

We plan to do most of our cooking outdoors so I built an outdoor kitchen counter that fits in a corner of our porch. We painted it to match the porch and so that it blends in and doesn’t take away from the look of things. Forgot to take a pic but Cheryl loves it. We keep a 20-gallon propane tank underneath to fuel our stove. And, cooking outside keeps us from heating up the interior of the cabin too much, especially on warm days.

Lumber storage has been a challenge. The sun in the Chihuahuan Desert can warp a piece of wood left outdoors quicker than you can fall off a log. So, I built a handy storage area for lumber in our storage container that helps me see our lumber inventory and protects the wood from the sun. Again, forgot to take a pic. Will do so next time.

Cheryl and I were also able to start on some of our outdoor projects. We are working to make it possible for native grasses to grow, clearing creosote away from purple prickle pear, and digging water catchment under some of the native trees.

One very important project was adding an overflow pipe to our water catchment tank. We have captured about 1,500 gallons of rainwater with only margin for another 300 gallons. Without the overflow we were in danger of putting too much stress on our gutters in case the tank fills up. No more worries about that. Will add more water catchment later.

We are still in love with the phenomenal Texas skies, especially at sunrise and sunset. The dark skies with bazillions of twinkling stars still take our breath away. And the vistas of the surrounding mesas and mountains are unbeatable. Sitting out on a porch was never so good.

Thanks for following our off-grid journey. Look forward to posting again soon.

Decorating Our Off-Grid Cabin

One of the things I like most about our home in Katy is the art on the walls. Every item has a story behind it. In addition to art I purchased on my travels, we have oils and prints painted by my late mother-in-law, Frances Crane.

Frances painted until shortly before her death. Her works adorn many homes around Texas. She also had the honor of having one of her paintings displayed at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin.

This week I will transport furniture to our off-grid cabin in the Big Bend Valley section of Terlingua Ranch. It’s hard to believe that our little place is ready to be furnished. Because we have limited wall space in the cabin, Cheryl and I have carefully selected what we will display on the walls.

We are especially excited about two pieces.

We have one of the last paintings that Frances was working on before she died. It is a scene of Native Americans on horseback in tall grass with rugged mountains and mesas in the background — a perfect piece for the cabin. Terlingua has a rich Native American history.

The next consideration was getting this oil painting framed. Instead of purchasing a custom frame, we decided to utilize some of the 100-plus year-old cedar fence posts that we had removed soon after we bought the property. We could think of no better way to honor Frances as well as those who had labored on Terlingua Ranch more than a century ago.

I consulted my good friend Mike Aronson who is an exceptional woodworker and furniture maker. Mike agreed to help make it happen. We wanted something that would feature the natural twists and imperfections of the aged cedar posts — a rugged and imprecise-looking frame.


I took the painting and the posts to Mike who looked at every possible way to wrestle a frame out of the old posts. Mike took lots of measurements, looked at the not-so-straight posts from every conceivable angle, and devised a game plan. And then he cut, planed, measured and cut again, and finally fine-tuned his cuts with a wood chisel until all the pieces made sense and fit together well.


Mike then put the pieces together, carefully counter-sinking and hiding all of the fasteners and reinforcing every joint from behind the painting. The result was better than I expected. I can’t wait to hang the piece in the cabin and for occasions to share its special story. It will serve as a reminder of the blessing of family and friends.

Last month we also had another piece prepared for the cabin. My old friend Bill Crenshaw had given me a window frame built by the German family who first homesteaded the property he purchased in Cat Spring. This old window frame became the perfect way to feature an old photo of my grandfather taken on his ranch soon after the turn of the Twentieth Century.

The best part of all this is that when we visit the cabin we will have comfortable furniture to enjoy as we are surrounded by comforting memories of parents and grandparents. And the frames that display these respective pieces will remind us of the blessing of having good friends like Mike and Bill.

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!