Sunsets and Stars at Big Bend

From ancient times, mankind has had a fascination with the sky and all things related to the heavens — a curiosity that is far less common today because we tend to spend our evenings indoors.

David, the young shepherd boy who became the most famous king of ancient Israel, spent much of his boyhood under the stars. His fascination with the heavens led him to write the eighth psalm in which he concluded that God placed a greater value on him than on any stars or planets in the cosmos.

When I was a much younger man, I explored the ancient paths of Machu Picchu, a lost city of the Incas, nestled high in the Andes Mountains. I learned about the profound knowledge these ancients had about the night skies. The Inca constructed many structures in harmony with what they understood about the heavens.

I have had the privilege of looking up at the heavens from locations around the globe far from the light pollution that robs so many of an unobscured view of the stars. I have spent hours gazing at the darkest skies in the world from Darfur to the steppes of Mongolia to vantage points high in the Himalayas.

The heavens are one of the reasons we started our off-grid adventure in Big Bend — a place that boasts some of the darkest skies in the United States. Big Bend is famous for its magnificent star-studded skies bisected by the visibly bright band of the Milky Way. There are no words. You have to experience these skies for yourself.

Every dark night in Big Bend is preceded by an explosion of colors as the moon chases the sun toward the welcoming western horizon. Sunsets in Big Bend are breathtaking and never — and I do mean never — disappoint. Each and every evening, the sun leaves its impermanent signature across the sky in ever-changing combinations of colors.

There is something good about contemplating the heavens and slowing down enough to watch the sunset introduce the night. We should all do more of this — looking up at the stars more than down at our feet and the mire of the moment. It’s hard not to dream or to smile or to breathe in wonder when we look at sunsets and stars. God gave us these gifts for a reason — so make the time to unwrap them. You will not be disappointed.

Shafter Ghost Town

The Lone Star State has more ghost towns than any other state in the Union, by some estimates as many as one-thousand.

Ghost towns are the decaying remains of yesterday’s progress — of what once was. Each ghost town has its unique story of a time when life coursed through its streets, nourishing homes and businesses and dreams.

People are the lifeblood of any community. But when circumstances force folks to leave behind a place that sustained them, then the pulse of that particular place weakens until its heartbeat can no longer be detected.

Shafter, once known as “the richest acre in Texas,” is just such a place — a ghost town slowly decaying among sagebrush and ocotillo at the east end of the Chinati Mountains in southern Presidio County. Located between Presidio and Marfa along US Highway 67, a handful of folks still live in the vicinity of Shafter.

As the story goes, a freighter turned prospector named John W. Spencer found silver ore in the Chinati Mountains in 1880. Spencer showed his find to Col. William R. Shafter, commander of the First Infantry Regiment at Fort Davis. Shafter had the sample assayed.

When Shafter learned that the sample showed small amounts of profitable silver, he wasted no time in recruiting two army friends to buy the land surrounding Spencer’s claim. However, because they lacked the technical expertise to mine the ore, they struck a deal with a California mining group in 1882.

The mining company then formed the Presidio Mining Company in 1883 and bought out the interests of Shafter and his friends, including Spencer. The mining company recruited Americans, Mexican citizens, and black Americans to work the mine.

The Presidio Mining Company provided housing, a company store, and a company doctor for mine workers — and so the town of Shafter was born. The town was granted a Post Office in 1885. Over the years the population of Shafter grew until it peaked at about 4,000 in 1940.

In 1942, the mining operation shut down for good because of labor disputes, lower grades of ore, flooding in the mines, and a depletion of silver reserves. Once that happened the population rapidly declined. By 1949, the population of the cemetery was far greater than the twenty or so folks who chose to remain in Shafter. In 1976, the Shafter Historic Mining District was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, little remains in Shafter. The Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, established in 1888, is still in operation. Mass is celebrated there on the third Sunday of each month at 2:00 PM. The church is the only building in the area that has escaped the ravages of time.

A small museum housed in a cinder-block building is open to the public and features lots of old historic photos of Shafter through the years. It’s worth strolling through the history of this out-of-the-way place. Lots of interesting stuff here.

The Concordia Cemetery is worth a visit. Like the old cemetery in Terlingua Ghost Town, the names and dates on many of the grave markers have long since faded away.

The waters of Cibolo Creek trickle gently nearby, nourishing a ribbon of green through the stark desert landscape. Beyond the creek, a few homes remain where a population of 11 and maybe a few more folks have chosen to remain among the ruins of what once was the richest acre in Texas.

A Picnic Table in the Desert

I am convinced that food tastes better at the cabin.

Long before Cheryl and I pack the truck to make the long trek to our little off-grid cabin, we make lists. I make careful lists of projects and the supplies we will need to complete them. In the weeks prior to our trip I purchase those items and stockpile them in the garage.

One of the very best things about our time at the cabin is meal time. Cheryl plans all of our meals because I know absolutely nothing about cooking. She makes lists of the groceries we will buy in Katy and the remaining items that we will pick up in Alpine, just an hour from our cabin.

Our closest neighbors live a quarter mile south of us. We have enjoyed getting to know this family and make it a point to do a hot dog and hamburger cookout with them, complete with s’mores, every time we are at the cabin.

This little tradition prompted us to think about a picnic table. So, we bought a picnic table kit and paint — the official colors of the Texas flag. What I envisioned was a tabletop painted with blue and red with a white lone star smack dab in the middle.

We started by laying out all of the pieces and hardware. Then we painted all of the parts plus the underside of the tabletop and seats before assembling them. This step made things a lot easier - certainly much better than later crawling under the table with a paint brush.

Once assembled, we measured and marked the middle of the table and seats. We painted one side blue and the other red. The weather was perfect for painting. We had a little cloud cover and plenty of heat to quickly dry the paint.

Once the tabletop was dry, I marked out the lone star and outlined it with painters tape. The white star was the perfect finishing touch. Our table has Texas painted all over it. We really like it and can’t wait to invite the neighbors over later this week to officially inaugurate it with food and fellowship with friends.

One of the best things about being off-grid and outdoors is a good meal prepared on a campfire or camp stove and then sharing that meal with others. Our hope is that friends who stop by to visit, camp, and boondock will all enjoy delicious food and good fellowship around this table.

Blessings of the Off-Grid Lifestyle

I love the challenge of making off-grid living comfortable. Off-grid does not have to mean spartan or miserable. Off-grid is about harnessing alternative ways — like solar power or rain catchment — to provide for household needs in a setting far removed from the conveniences of the grid.

Cheryl and I are having a great time working on our off-grid cabin in the Big Bend of Texas. We have made the most of every trip over the past three-plus years of traveling to and from our little place — and it shows. We can now walk into our cabin and enjoy a very comfortable stay.

As we continue develop the property, we are now focusing on fencing our new adjacent tract to the north. We have added all of the cedar fence posts around the perimeter and are now adding t-posts between the cedar posts. Once this is done we will start stretching and securing the welded wire field fencing.

One of the things on our list this past week was to install a six-foot gate to give us more convenient access to our north tract. Our son Jonathan joined us for a couple of days and helped me install the gate. Cheryl and I are very happy to not have to walk the long way around to work on the north tract.

In addition to adding the new gate, Cheryl and I spent some time clearing fence line in order to add t-posts along our northern boundary line. Clearing brush is always tedious and hard but once it’s done sure makes it easier to drive t-posts — and later to stretch the rolls of field fencing.

We also took a day to dig out catchment basins around the mesquites on the north tract. Because the Chihuahuan Desert averages only about 12 to 14 inches of rain per year, we want to give the mesquites every advantage to capture and take long sips of water after a rain.

Cheryl asked me to add some clothes hooks in the bathroom — a place for hanging clothes at the end of the day. I was more than happy to oblige and scavenged through our container for leftover items to use. I found three hooks, leftover talavera tiles, and some lumber and trim and turned these into a nice little clothes bar. I enjoy doing these impromptu projects that don’t require a set of plans.

Our final project was to dig an experimental swale and line it with pea gravel to capture rain water. We hope to develop a micro-riparian ecosystem along the swale. Time will tell if this will help nurture some of the native grass and promote the growth of other native flora.

All things considered, we had another productive visit to the cabin. The good thing is that we do not have to do anything in a hurry — but we do have to do things right so that we don’t end up having to do them over again. Not getting in a hurry is also giving us time to enjoy reading, bird watching, going for drives, savoring the quiet, taking afternoon siestas, and enjoying the magnificent night skies — all blessings of the off-grid lifestyle.

Rest and Small Projects at the Cabin

Cooking on a propane cooktop is challenging. At least that’s what Cheryl tells me. But somehow, it really doesn’t matter if the pancakes are too crispy or if something ends up on our plates a little on the burnt side. We are convinced that everything just tastes better at the cabin.With every trip to our cozy little off-grid cabin in Big Bend we become more convinced that life is better at the cabin. There is something calming about being surrounded by mesas and mountains, chaparral and cactus, and a night sky overcrowded with stars.

Cheryl and I spent Spring Break at the cabin. Our goal was to rest, piddle around doing small projects, feed birds, worship at Terlingua Ranch Community Church, enjoy the company of friends, and eat at The Chili Pepper Cafe, our favorite Mexican food restaurant in Study Butte. I am happy to say that we did exactly that and enjoyed every minute.

On our list of small projects was to set some t-posts on our new tract, paint our 55-gallon utility water barrels black, and do a few other little things that have been at the bottom of our project list because they are not essentials, just preferences.


We spent part of an afternoon setting t-posts between our cedar posts on the new tract. We did the better part of the western side of the tract. Only four more t-posts to set on that side and we will be ready for the next step which is to stretch field fence topped by a strand of barbed wire.
I painted our utility rain barrels black so that they will absorb more heat during the day. We supply these barrels with rain water from our larger tanks behind the cabin. This is the water we use for hand washing, dish washing, drawing water for our bird watering stations, miscellaneous projects requiring water, and bathing. I also painted the base on which these barrels sit.

I spent another afternoon splitting firewood, something I have been wanting to do for a long time. I also reinforced our firewood rack and then re-stacked all of the newly split wood. We now have enough wood to last us for several visits. I also did a little maintenance work on our composting area and added a new light to our outdoor shower area.
Some friends stopped by to camp and to visit the national park. They could not have asked for better weather for hiking and exploring Big Bend. And the moonless nights made the night sky all the more dramatic. There is no way to explain the beauty of the night sky in Big Bend — you just have to experience it.
We live a short distance from Little Burro Country Store which is the closest place to pick up provisions. I made a quick run there to buy our favorite Mexican fruit popsicles and met Pam, one of the locals who stopped by on her horse. You can count on meeting interesting folks at the Little Burro. Pam owns the nearby Cactus Farm and the Greasewood Grocery Bed and Breakfast cabins.
We always enjoy arriving at the cabin and always feel a tinge of sadness as we drive away. But we are grateful for how God uses this place to refresh our souls and revive our spirits. It is always worth the 600-mile drive from our home in Katy to the vast expanses of Big Bend that still take our breath away.

Wild Burros at the Cabin

There are particular signs along Highway 118 between the Little Burro Country Store, one hour south of Alpine, and Study Butte near Terlingua Ghost Town that caution drivers to watch for burros.

Feral burros have a long history in the wide spaces of Big Bend. They are somewhat iconic and conjure images of rustic days gone by in the old west. Burros just look good on the Chihuahuan Desert canvas painted in the colors of creosote, ocotillo, and distant mesas and mountains.

When it comes to the burros of Big Bend, there are folks who hate, love, or just tolerate them. Those who dislike these braying equids argue that they cause damage to Big Bend’s ecosystem. Others say the opposite. Concerned about the impact of burros at Big Bend Ranch State Park, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is exploring non-lethal methods for removing or managing the wandering wild herds.
Earlier this month, I had my first close up look at the burros of Big Bend at my cabin. Near the end of a good day of working on projects, I looked to the South and noticed a herd of about 25 burros just outside our fence in the direction of Red Bluff. I walked over to the fence and just stood there enjoying the sight.

The burros hung around for a while and then wandered toward the road and moseyed north toward Legions Road. They stayed in the immediate area a couple of days. The next day I saw the burros hanging out near Jackass Flats where a few of their kin live on a fenced tract behind the Little Burro Country Store.

As for me, I weigh in on the side of liking the wandering desert burros. I say that strictly from a personal and not an environmental perspective. I will do more research and read both sides of the what-to-do-about-burros argument. In the meantime, I hope to see them again.


My First Deer … at Age 64

I did not grow up hunting, although I come from a family of hunters. Never really had much of an interest. But all of that changed a couple of years ago after I bought a shotgun for our off-grid cabin. Just wanted to have some kind of protection against snakes or pesky varmints but certainly not because I wanted to become a hunter.

My friend Gil Harris is an avid hunter and outdoorsman. We both enjoy outdoor adventures and have traveled together internationally. When Gil found out I had purchased a shotgun, he and our friend Dennis Turnipseed invited me to join them on a turkey hunt at The Five Seeds Ranch — Dennis’ place hear Hallettsville.
I did not shoot a turkey but I did shoot my first feral hog with a rifle that Dennis had loaned me. I was hooked. Feral hogs are a nuisance to ranchers who are always more than happy to decrease the hog population. I was happy to do my part.

Gil was determined to get me on other hunting adventures and took steps to remove any excuses. He bought me a Mauser M18 .243 caliber rifle complete with a scope. That’s the same rifle I had used to shoot my first hog. “No more excuses now,” he said, “when I invite you to go hunting.”

After shooting more feral hogs, Gil and Dennis urged me to think about deer hunting. My nephew Ryan Rogers learned about my new interest in hunting and said he wanted to guide me on my first deer hunt at Casa Monte Lodge — an outfitting service that Ryan’s dad founded outside of Carrizo Springs. Ryan’s dad Robert Rogers has written several books on whitetail deer and hunting in Texas.

Earlier this week, Gil and I drove out to Casa Monte for my first deer hunt. After we arrived at Casa Monte, things unfolded quicker than I expected. By late afternoon, Ryan and I were seated in a blind, surveying corned cenderos, and waiting for the deer to show up. The deer did not disappoint. They showed up in big numbers.

We patiently watched until a mature eight-point buck arrived on the scene. Ryan patiently coached me, much in the same way that Gil does when we hog hunt. I breathed slowly, watched the activity through my scope, waited for the right moment — and then squeezed the trigger.
One shot right behind the left shoulder. The deer jumped, ran about fifty yards through the brush, and then collapsed in a dry wash. We waited to make sure the buck was dead and then hurried off to pick up Gil from a nearby blind. Together we walked into the brush and found the buck lying on its side.



After taking a few pics, Gil and Ryan dragged the deer out to an open area. Ryan initiated me into the deer hunting family by dipping his finger in the deer’s blood and then wiping it across my cheeks and forehead. Official member of the club now! With darkness fast approaching, we tossed the buck into the truck and headed back to Casa Monte.

At 64, this was an amazing experience for me. To share this adventure with men who love the outdoors made it even better. Apart from the kill, the fellowship in the blind and around the table at Casa Monte was great. The meals alone at Casa Monte are reason enough to book a hunt. Beyond amazing and totally delicious!
I am grateful to Gil for encouraging me to take up hunting, even at my age. To Dennis for his encouragement and opportunities to hunt at the Five Seeds Ranch. To Robbie and the Casa Monte staff for a great experience at the lodge. And special thanks to my nephew Ryan for making it possible for his old Uncle O to shoot his first deer. Thank you all for blessing me with an amazing adventure.

Snow at the Cabin

It happened!

On the day that Cheryl and I bought our little slice of the Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend, I commented on how awesome it would be to see it snow in the desert. It rarely happens but it does happen when conditions are right.

All of the necessary ingredients to whip up a snow event came together yesterday. The temperature dropped steadily all day long. The wind picked up and pushed in moisture-filled clouds and packed them tight from horizon to horizon.

And then at about 7:30 last night, snow flakes started to fall soundlessly and gently — and continued to do so through the night. A light dusting of snow turned into several inches by morning. We woke up to a winter wonderland here in the middle of the desert.

We were wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and speechless at the sight. Had to get outdoors. Here are a few pics of our first snow day at the cabin.

Fencing, Fire Pit, and Friends

Cheryl and I returned to our off-grid cabin to spend the last few days of the year under the endless Big Bend skies. We look forward to every sunrise and sunset out here. Somehow something as simple as the sun coming up over Nine Point Mesa or painting evening skies with brushstrokes of fading light is just like a soothing balm for the soul.
Because we only visit the cabin a few times a year, we always have a few projects to do. This week we wanted to get the last eighteen rough-cut cedar posts in the ground on our new tract in preparation for the next phase of fencing.

Cheryl and I have our fence post routine down and can work pretty fast. Once we measure and mark the location of the posts, I dig holes with an auger and Cheryl cleans them out with a post hole digger.
Once a hole is ready, we set the post and then tamp it down. No cement necessary. Once tamped, the posts are set rock hard. Later we will add t-posts between the cedar posts and then stretch field fence and top that off with a single strand of barbed wire.
We also added a second fire pit in an area where we plan to build an outdoor cooking area. A friend gave us the fire pit and stone surround. Setting it up was easy. We invited friends who are camping on the property this week and one of our neighbors to join us for hot dogs. We sat around the fire until late into the night.
Our final big project was to add a few inches of caliche to the entry to our property. We have been wanting to do this for a while in order to keep some mild erosion in check. I ordered six yards of material from a local guy.
My friend Dan Williams helped me to spread and tamp it down. Dan and his family camped on the property this week while doing day hikes at the national park. They had a great time and we enjoyed having them around.
As I write, the wind is blowing hard, the temperature has dropped, and the sky is covered with clouds. I ran down to Little Burro Country Store to buy some propane and talked to a guy who had just come in from Alpine where, he said, it is snowing. Even though it’s cold, Cheryl are I are hoping for a dusting of snow.

Thankfully, our little cabin is well insulated and we have some warm blankets. We are just going to hang out inside and read, drink hot chocolate, and wait for snow.

Preparing for Field Fencing

Working on Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property in Big Bend, has its challenges — not the least of which is long gaps between visits. However, after two and a half years of work divided up into segments of a few days to a week at a time we have made lots of progress.
Our cabin is a few miles shy of 600 miles from our home in the suburbs. However, we have become accustomed to the nine-hour drive. In some strange way, it just doesn’t feel as long as it did a couple of years ago. We make three stops for gas at our designated exits and a final grocery run in Alpine before heading south on Highway 118 to the cabin.

Cheryl and I spent the better part of a week at the cabin in October after the survey of our new tract was completed. Our goal was to find the survey monuments on the new tract, mark the corners with cedar posts, and then map out our new fence line. We were able to do that plus set the posts that will break the span on the West side of the tract.
This month my friend Philip Brashier joined me at the cabin. Our goal was to add and tension rough-cut cedar posts with cross braces on the corners and the spans. This is important because these tensioned braces will take a lot of pressure off the field fence once we install and stretch it.
We ran fluorescent mason’s line from corner to corner. This is really great stuff because it has lots of give. This enabled us to pull it taught to get a good line of sight. Once the line was stretched and taught, we were able to measure and mark the location of where to dig each hole.
This work is not necessarily hard but it is time consuming and it has to be done right. Having an auger made it easier to dig the three-foot deep holes — although we had to clean each hole with a post-hole digger. We then set the posts in the holes and made sure they were plumb. No need to set these posts in concrete. We used a 21-pound tamper to pack dirt in each hole.
Once we installed the posts in each corner and the midway spans, we added cross braces. We secured these in place using 3/8 inch rebar. These foot-long rebar nails held the cross members in place while we added barbless wire and then tensioned this wire with 2-foot long pieces of rebar.

With only a few hours remaining before having to return home, we installed the cedar posts along the West side of the tract. Later I will add t-posts between these cedar posts. This will give us a solid frame for adding 40-inch field fence topped with a strand of barbed wire.
I always enjoy fellowship with good friends like Philip while working on projects at the cabin. The best part of it all is how this time off the grid allows me to relieve stress and to reset my soul for the demands of my day to day work. This is a way for me to sharpen my axe in order to remain effective in my work. In the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes (10:10): “If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed.”