The Therapeutic Value of the Chihuahuan Desert

Cheryl and I are back at our off-grid cabin in the Chihuahuan Desert, our comfy little retreat under the vast skies of Big Bend. After returning home from my trip to Papua which required 58-hours of round-trip air travel and more than 30-hours of airport transit time (not including three in-country flights), I couldn’t wait to point my Tundra in the direction of the cabin for a few days of rest and recovery.

The time it takes to travel from our suburban home in Katy to our front gate at the cabin — almost ten hours across Texas — is the first step toward recharging after an international trip as arduous as traveling one-way more than half-away around the world. The trip to the cabin no longer seems far to us. It’s just the first step in enjoying time away.

The city of Alpine is our final stop before turning south on Highway 118 to descend into the belly of the Big Bend. We always stop there to top off the tank and buy the final few groceries from Porter’s Grocery Store. On this trip, we added an extra stop at the Brewster County Clerk’s office in Alpine to file the survey on our newest tract that we added in March. Happy to get that done.

It’s always a good feeling when Little Burro Country Store comes into view about an hour south of Alpine. That’s where we turn east off the highway and travel down the caliche road that leads to our cabin. With views of Nine Point Mesa and Black Hill in front of us, we are within a few miles of our desert retreat.

After settling in, Cheryl prepared a charcuterie board for a light supper. And then we sat around the fire pit, enjoying a remarkably pleasant evening. We watched the sun set to the west — brush-stroking the wispy clouds with beautiful shades of blue, pink, and orange. Soon after, the full moon made its entrance between Nine Point Mesa and Red Bluff to the east. Stunning. We sat in silence.

The plan for Friday and part of Saturday was to set the cedar corner posts on our new tract and then the cedar line posts along the east side of the tract along the road. Once that was done we marked the halfway points and added the H-brackets that we will later tension with barbless cable.

Fencing is hard work but something I really enjoy. I am careful to make sure everything is perfectly lined up so that when we later add the t-posts and field fencing the fence looks straight and true. And since the fence will outlive me, it is something of a signature — and therefore something I want to do with excellence.

Reuniting with our neighbors is always a must when we are at the cabin. Every time we return we host a hot dog and hamburger cookout and invite the neighbors over for food and conversation around the fire that lasts into the night.

Another project that I find therapeutic is working on our swale and berm on our north tract. Our son Jonathan encouraged us to add swales as part of our permaculture plan for the property so that we could capture lots of water during the monsoon rains.

We were delighted to see that our once barren swales and berms were now teeming with native plants. The swale had created its own micro-riparian ecosystem — complete with flowers, cacti, thistles, and grasses.

Encouraged by the new growth along the swales, I took the time to connect the two swales running east and west to increase our capacity to capture more water. We now have a 300-foot long swale and berm that will capture hundreds of gallons of rain as it sheets across the property.

In addition to getting a few projects completed, we visited the Farmers’ Market in Terlingua, enjoyed a meal out in Study Butte, and worshiped with our friends at Terlingua Ranch Christian Church. And now, it’s time to head home — much more relaxed and refreshed than when we arrived.

Although it may sound strange, there is something therapeutic about coming to the desert. I know that a visit to the desert is not what will help others relax, but it works for us. As locals often say here in the Chihuahuan Desert: from the outside looking in you don’t understand it and from the inside looking out you can’t explain it. We are already looking forward to our next visit.

A Big Bend Adventure for Boys and Mentors

Last year at this time, my wife Cheryl and I hosted a Spring Break camping adventure for boys from the Brookshire community, located west of Houston. Brookshire has the highest number of fatherless homes in the greater Houston area.

Several years ago, our church entered into a strategic partnership with a local ministry called Eyes On Me — a ministry that exists to mentor, disciple, and serve at-risk youth and their families. EOM has a presence in Brookshire at The Hangar Unity Center.

My friend Ryan Orbin is the Director of The Hangar. Among their many community initiatives, Ryan and his team have a mentoring program for boys, many of whom have never ventured far outside their community. The Hangar provides opportunities for these boys to participate in outdoor adventures along with their mentors,

For the second year, Cheryl and I were thrilled to host the boys from Brookshire at Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property located outside of Big Bend National Park. The boys arrived on Sunday afternoon for a week of hiking, working, and adventuring in the Chihuahuan Desert.

The first order of business was to set up base camp at the property. For many of these boys, this was their first time to set up a tent. Because of the size of the tents, the boys had to work together to get the task done.

One of the lessons we want to drive home is the importance of cooperating in order to get a task done. And the boys did just that — they worked together to set up their tents. Teaching boys to work together and to do life in community with others is important because trying to do things alone is difficult and often dangerous.

On the first evening, we enjoyed hamburgers around the campfire. Afterward we gave each of the boys a hydration backpack and the hiking and survival gear they would need for the week. We took the time to talk about why a particular item was important and how that item was a metaphor for how to be better prepared for life in general.

After we gave the boys their hiking gear, my friend and fellow pastor Bobby Cooley shared his personal story around the campfire. Bobby is an outdoorsman who has hiked every trail in Big Bend National Park. He and his kids joined us for a couple of days.

Bobby grew up in an at-risk home — a very broken home — and shared his remarkable story of how a caring adult changed the course of his life. I have heard his story more than once and always wonder what might have happened to Bobby had that one caring adult not come into his life. His is a story of hope and one that encouraged the boys.

The boys enjoyed two and a half days of hiking in Big Bend — recently recognized by National Geographic as one the top places to visit in the world. Once again, we stressed the importance of having adventures in community with others because alone is dangerous.

For most of the boys, this was their first visit to a national park. They hiked, climbed, soaked in hot springs, swam in the Rio Grade River, and enjoyed lunch under the endless Big Bend sky.

Of course, the sky is one of the best things about the Big Bend region of Texas. Big Bend offers visitors some of the darkest skies in the nation. So when the sun goes down, the stars come out — more stars than are visible from Brookshire and the light-polluted skies of the greater Houston area.

I invited my friend Joseph Bear, known as Yogi to locals, to do a star party for the boys. Yogi and my neighbors were kind enough to set up one of his large telescopes. As we sat around the fire, Yogi told stories about the night sky and how the constellations got their names and so much more.

The boys then formed a queue at the telescope to see planets and stars. So cool to see their curiosity spill out into questions about the night sky. The following night Yogi returned with his laser pointer to continue teaching about the Big Bend night sky.

Our campfire times in the evening were special times for reflecting on their day and for sharing stories. Two friends from El Paso joined us and shared their personal stories around the fire.

One of the men shared about the death of his dad in a suicide by cop encounter and how that set him on a destructive course until he had an encounter with Jesus. The other shared about growing up in a broken home, spending fifteen years in prison, and how Christ transformed his life. Both men offered encouragement and hope.

We set aside one day to do work projects at the property — tasks that can only be completed by working in cooperation with one another. Cooperation requires good communication, asking for help, taking the initiative to offer help, and doing what it takes to finish a task well.

The boys cleared a fence line on our newest tract, set t-posts, and stretched field fencing. They learned to nail the fencing to the cedar fence posts and to use clips to attach it to the t-posts.

Once again, every hike and task was designed to teach life lessons. Before working on the fence we talked about doing all things with excellence because the quality of our work is like our signature. Red Steagall is one of my favorite cowboy poets and The Fence That Me and Shorty Built is one of my favorite poems about doing your work with excellence. It’s worth listening to this story.

On the final day, three of the boys who professed their faith in Christ chose to be baptized in the Rio Grande River. This was a special time for everyone and another reason why the work of Ryan and his team at The Hangar is so important.

Of course, every adventure needs fuel — lots of good food to provide the energy to hike and climb and swim and drive t-posts. Once again, my friend James Meredith ran point on providing all of our meals. My friend Doug Rogers and others assisted in meal preparation. One thing is certain, we ate like kings. Every meal was outstanding.

This Spring Break adventure is important, especially when you consider that many boys from at-risk homes are just one decision away from becoming a statistic. But, in the words of motivational speaker Josh Shipp, every kid is one caring adult away from becoming a success story.

I am grateful for every caring adult who participated in this second annual Spring Break Big Bend adventure. This was time well spent — and only time will reveal the full impact of this investment in the lives of a group of boys from Brookshire on the road to manhood.

Plans for Our Off-Grid Guest Cabin

Projects seem endless when it comes to developing an off-grid property. There is always something more to do — and I am ok with that. I keep a project journal in which I make sketches, develop task lists, determine supplies that I will need, and track my progress.

A couple of months ago, the guys in my Band of Fathers group surprised me with the gift of a guest cabin build for our place in Big Bend. Last month several of the guys came out to construct the cabin. It was like an Amish barn raising. In about 36 hours the cabin was up, dried in, painted, and ready for the interior work.

After the work was completed we had a dedicatory prayer, the guys all wrote encouraging messages on the interior stud walls, and we dubbed the cabin the BOF or Band of Fathers cabin. I will finish out the cabin interior a little at a time on every visit.

This week, I marked the location of the interior wall that will separate the main cabin area from the bathroom and solar equipment closet. I will frame the wall later. The bathroom will include a shower stall, composting toilet, vanity and sink, galvanized metal wainscoting, and cedar ship lap above that.

One of the challenges of small spaces is storage. Because the cabin is built in a shed style fashion, I will have room for storage above the bathroom. This will be a good place to stow extra sleeping bags and cots for guests.

The solar closet will house the electrical panel, charge controller, solar batteries and a clothes bar. My plan is to add a front porch and affix the solar panels on top of the south-facing porch roof. That will save me from having to install a frame for solar panels on the ground.

The other thing I got done this week was installing the cabin floor. We chose a wood-look laminate flooring that was easy to install. It is a floating floor with a foam vapor barrier underneath. Once I add the shower stall in the bathroom, I will complete the flooring in that room. I am pleased with the look of the floor.

I added a few batts of R-13 insulation in the corner where I will add the shower stall. I will wait on the rest of the insulation until all of the electrical work is completed. We installed R-19 insulation between the floor joists and will also use R-19 on the ceiling. This will make for a cozy cabin.

My plan is to use T1-11 panels for the interior walls painted in a Sherwin Williams color called Sands of Time. I will finish out the interior with 6-inch baseboards painted a glossy white. The closest and bathroom doors will also be a glossy white. I will then frame the windows with 4-inch boards accented with Texas star corner blocks.

Since the cabin is mainly a place for family and friends to set up base camp for exploring Big Bend, I will build in four bunk beds with plenty of storage underneath. Each bunk bed will have its own USB port for charging phones or computers.

Finally, I will add a counter in front of the big window with a dorm fridge nestled underneath. This will be a convenient spot for light meal prep or eating or just sitting and enjoying the views of Red Bluff and the Christmas Mountains in the distance.

As you can see, there is a lot to do. However, the fun part is doing it a little at a time, marking our progress in small steps. Thanks for reading and coming along for the ride.

Saying Goodbye to Little Biscuit

I still remember the conversation, brief as it was. The year was 2010. I could hear the anxiety in my daughter’s voice.

“Dad,” she said, “there is a little dog wandering along the side of the road. It’s going to get hit by a car. I am going to get the dog and bring it home.”

“Niki,” I replied, “please do not stop and please do not bring that dog home.”

A short time later Niki walked through the front door with the dog. She simply could not go on knowing that this little dog was in danger.

Long story short, we took measures to find the owner. The dog did not have a collar and later we found out did not have a micro-chip that would lead us to the owner. After failed attempts to find the owner, Niki asked if we could keep her.

I gave in and told Niki we could keep the dog. When she followed me into the pantry I looked down and said, “You look like a little biscuit.” And so, the name stuck. Biscuit, it seemed, would indeed become the newest member of our family to Niki’s delight.

It did not take long for Biscuit to win our hearts.

As first-time dog people, we were happy that Biscuit’s previous owner had done an excellent job of potty-training her. This made our first steps into pet ownership much easier.

Cheryl took responsibility for walking Biscuit every evening — a routine that made both of them happy. In fact, Cheryl avoided using the work “walk” in Biscuit’s presence because if she heard the word she made a bee-line for the front door.

I have to admit that having Biscuit around became a good thing for me, the guy who did not want a dog in the house. I knew that when I walked through the door each evening Biscuit would be there to greet me with her little tail wagging.

A couple of years into having Biscuit, Cheryl decided Biscuit needed a special diet so that her little tummy would not get upset. On one of those rare occasions when I shopped with Cheryl she put some really expensive food items into there grocery cart.

“Cheryl,” I said, “do we really need that stuff. It’s expensive.” On my honor, she just looked at me and said, “Oh, it’s not for you, it’s for Biscuit.” I just nodded and had the good sense to keep my mouth shut.

Having Biscuit around made it impossible for us to watch any television show that featured animals. Any animal on TV ignited something primal in Biscuit. She had to defend us against that threat by barking at the television.

And so, having Biscuit around on the everydays and holidays became our new normal.

When we bought our place out west in Big Bend, Biscuit accompanied us on our ten-hour road trips to the cabin. She loved the freedom she enjoyed there. No leash and the freedom to explore, sniff stuff, and bark as loud and often as she wanted.

Biscuit loved to tag along on projects or to watch Cheryl fill the bird-feeders on the property or to just sit and guard the cabin door. This was her place and she was the big dog on this campus.

This past year Biscuit’s health declined dramatically. Lots of visits to the vet. Although we spent more on Biscuit’s health care than mine, I dared not say a word. After all, this was Biscuit we were talking about. We all agreed that she deserved the best health care — and she got it. I had no idea how much money we could spend on a pet’s health care.

The last few weeks were the worst as it became increasingly apparent that Biscuit was not getting better. Her heart and lungs were tired. We gave her all of the medications the vet prescribed knowing they could only help so much.

While visiting our granddaughter in Lewisville this past week, Niki called. I could again hear that same anxiety in her voice that I had heard twelve years ago when she rescued Biscuit. We cut our visit short and drove back to Katy.

When we arrived, Niki was in tears and Biscuit was barely breathing. We knew this was the end. The vet had told us what to look for. We all held her close and then made the difficult drive to the veterinary emergency clinic. There was nothing more that could be done. It was time to say good-bye to our little Biscuit.

And so we did. Niki and Cheryl and I stood around Biscuit and wept. Biscuit was in so much pain with no hope of recovery. We each placed a hand on her little body as she breathed her last.

We chose to take her remains to bury at our place in Big Bend, the place she loved so much. Cheryl and I made the long trip to the cabin early Sunday morning. The following day we buried Biscuit next to a favorite old mesquite tree with Nine Point Mesa in the background — a beautiful spot.

Cheryl and I wept all morning and even more when we placed her little body in the ground with a favorite toy. We thanked God for the day Niki rescued Biscuit and brought her to our home and for all of the years we enjoyed her company.

Later that same afternoon I built Cheryl a bench that we placed at the spot where we buried Biscuit. We plan to add bird-feeders and watering stations around the mesquite and develop Biscuit’s final resting place into a peaceful spot to sit and enjoy the beauty of Big Bend.

Those who have lost pets understand. And we now understand what other dog-owners have experienced. We knew this day would come. We will move forward with a grateful heart for the blessing of having enjoyed life with Biscuit for so many years.

The Band of Fathers Cabin Build

A little more than seven years ago I started Band of Fathers, a group for men interested in embracing God’s vision for biblical manhood. Our Band of Fathers are committed to doing life in community with one another because alone is dangerous. From the start we committed ourselves to doing three things: shared study, shared mission, and shared adventure.

In addition to meeting every Wednesday for a time of study around the dinner table, we have also engaged in shared mission by serving people in need and shared adventure in the great outdoors. We have summited Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, and have enjoyed camping, hiking, biking, and paddling adventures. I look forward to meeting with my Band of Fathers every week.

At a recent meeting, the guys in the group gave me a card and asked me to read it before starting our lesson. My eyes got wider as I read the card. After I read it I looked up in disbelief. The guys had pooled their resources to bless Cheryl and me with a guest cabin at our place in Big Bend. They would buy the materials and build our guest cabin on site.

A little more than a month later the guest cabin has become a reality.

This past week several of the guys purchased the materials and transported them to the build site. Cheryl and I arrived at our cabin a couple of days early to prepare for their arrival. The convoy pulled onto the property at mid-afternoon on Friday and the guys wasted no time in off-loading and staging all of the materials.

The next order of business was to measure and prepare the site and to mark the locations for eight piers. We drilled down three feet and set each pier in concrete. The following morning, half the guys set the ledger boards and then secured the floor joists and screwed the decking in place. The rest of the guys framed the front and back walls of the cabin and set them in place.

Once the front and back walls were secured, the next step was to add the roof rafters, roof decking, tar paper, and finally the metal roofing and trim. When the roof was completed some of the guys framed the side walls while others set the siding and the skirting around the perimeter of the cabin. As soon as the siding was in place, we painted the exterior walls and trim.

On the final morning we installed the exterior windows and door trim, finished painting the exterior walls, and installed the nine-light door and hardware. In a span of 48-hours the cabin build was complete. Unbelievable — this was nothing short of an old-fashioned Amish barn-raising.

At the conclusion of the build, the guys used a Sharpie to write encouraging words and Scripture passages on the inside walls. We prayed together and officially named the cabin the BOF (Band of Fathers) Cabin — a place where family and friends can enjoy periods of rest and that will serve as a base camp for outdoor adventures.

In the months to come Cheryl and I will finish the inside of the cabin a little bit at a time. We will also add solar panels and batteries, gutters and additional water catchment, and a front deck and shade awning held up by rough cut cedar posts.

Cheryl and I are beyond grateful for my Band of Fathers and the generosity they have shown us. Even though only half the guys were able to make the trip, all of the guys in the group contributed to make this dream a reality. The new guest cabin will always be a reminder of the kindness of friends and the goodness of God.

I am blessed to do life in community with my Band of Fathers. I treasure their friendship and look forward to future adventures with them and more time around the campfire under the magnificent Big Bend sky.

Working Remotely at the Cabin

With more international travel on my horizon, I was happy to get away for a few days to work remotely at the cabin — and to just plain work hard at the cabin. The windshield time on the road to Big Bend and the solitude at the cabin have done me a lot of good.

I set aside time to work on writing and editing two upcoming publications for our men’s ministry and our missions ministry. I am excited about our new Men of Character devotional guide that will go to press soon. This is a follow-up piece to our Men of Courage guide that is available in seven languages and has now been used by thousands of men around the globe.

I also got tons of work done on our 2023 missions ministry piece that will be printed and mailed to homes of our members at the end of November. Really exciting stuff as we work with our partners to cover every home and every nation in prayer in 2023.

I also completed some fun projects at the cabin — always enjoy that!

I made more Texas-themed chairs for sitting around our fire ring on dark and starry Big Bend nights. These sturdy chairs are fun and easy to make and very comfy. I enjoy experimenting with variations on the Lone Star and Texas flag colors. There is something so relaxing about sitting in these chairs and talking around the campfire.

I took some time drive in to Terlingua Ghost Town to have lunch with my neighbor Chris Smith. Chris lives a couple of miles from us and kindly keeps an eye on things when I am away. My favorite meal at the High Sierra is their bacon cheeseburger — one of the top burgers in Brewster County. Definitely worth checking out the High Sierra if you are ever in this remote neck of the woods.

I also added another Blink security camera at the cabin for a total of six cameras. I can now remotely enjoy views all around my cabin from anywhere in the world. I have to confess that I check in daily to watch the sun rise over Nine Point Mesa and then set behind the silhouetted mountains to the west of the cabin.

As we do on every visit to the cabin, we enjoyed food and fellowship with several friends here. It is always fun to reconnect with our Big Bend friends and to get caught up on local happenings. We all sat around the campfire until late.

I was happy to find that because of the monsoon rains, all of our water catchment tanks are full — giving us a total of 2,075 gallons of water. And, the desert has never looked so green and vibrant. The little ocotillo plants that I put in the ground more than a year ago finally came to life. These plants flank our gate and are small now, but I can’t wait to see them grow. They are going to look magnificent.

One final project I had to start on was digging a 45-foot long swale and berm in a low spot on our north tract. This will help us to capture more rain water as part of our permaculture plan. Later on we will add selected seeds of native plants along the berm. And then I will connect this swale with our other 150-foot long swale and extend it an additional 25-feet to the East.

It’s hard to believe that Cheryl and I are now in our fourth year of our off-grid adventure. And what an amazing journey it has become. We have learned so much. And we know that there is still more to learn as we enjoy this place and continue to find refreshment under the magnificent Big Bend sky.

A Solo Trip to the Cabin

Since my last trip to the cabin I have logged ten international flights that have taken me to Israel, Turkey, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Somaliland. I absolutely love being out among the nations, but I don’t mind telling you that spending so much time in airports can make me long for windshield time in my Tundra.

This past week I borrowed a trailer from my friend James to haul cedar posts and rain barrels to the cabin and hit the open road. Ten hours later I pulled up to my gate and breathed in the welcoming view of Nine Point Mesa and Black Hill to the East.

Knowing I only had a few days at the cabin, I planned my time well so that I could complete my projects while enjoying the views that make my heart happy. And, of course, I always look forward to reconnecting with good neighbors and friends who live here year round.

My first project was to utilize all of the scrap wood in our container to build some comfortable Texas-themed chairs for the fire ring adjacent to our shade structure. These chairs are fun to build, comfortable, and look great. I built three of them on the first day and a fourth on Sunday afternoon. They came in handy on Saturday evening when all of the neighbors came over for a hot dogs and s’mores cookout.

My second project was to add rain catchment to our new shade structure. I opted to use five rain barrels. I positioned them behind the half wall of the structure so that they would not obstruct our view to the north.

Once I leveled and lined up the barrels I added bulkhead fittings and linked them all together. These barrels will give us an additional 275 gallons of storage, bringing our total catchment capacity to 2075 gallons.

My final project was to set cedar posts on the new five-acre tract that we purchased last year. I managed to get in twenty-two of the fifty posts in the ground. As with our other fence, I am installing a cedar post every fifty feet and t-posts every ten feet. Once I have all of the posts in place I will stretch field fencing topped with a strand of barbed wire.

I did get to enjoy good fellowship with my neighbors. I joined several of them for pizza at Long Draw Pizza in Terlingua. The owners, Andy and Mallory, are gracious hosts and make the best pizza in Brewster County and beyond. On Saturday, everyone came over to the cabin for a cookout. And on Sunday after church I enjoyed a delicious steak lunch with my friends Mark and Michelle. We are blessed with good friends and neighbors here.

An added bonus was a magnificent rain storm on Sunday afternoon. Being in the middle of one of these storms with strong winds accented by thunder and lightening is an amazing experience. After my first desert storm years ago I had a better understanding of John Denver’s lyric, “You fill up my senses like a storm in the desert.”

The storm added lots of water to the new rain barrels and filled the 150-foot swale that I completed last year. We will add more swales in strategic locations to capture and keep more water on the property as part of our permaculture plan. The cherry on top was a beautiful rainbow stretching from Nine Point Mesa to Red Bluff.

And now, it’s time to make the long drive back to the suburbs and back to the office on Tuesday. I will return refreshed after having my senses filled by the beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert and the magnificent night skies in this wide part of Texas. I am really glad to have made this solo trip to cabin.

Halley’s Comet and The End of the World

My grandfather was 66 years-old when I was born. I was at his bedside when he died 30 years later. The years between my birth and his death were magical years for me. His influence in my life was significant, to be sure.

My grandfather and I spent a lot of time together. And he told me stories, lots of them. He loved to read and he understood how to use stories to whip up bowls full of childhood curiosity. I couldn’t get enough.

As I got older he gave me books, lots of them. Books bulging with stories that begged to be read at a time when television was beginning to bewitch children. Books that introduced me to wonderful characters like Androcles and the Lion, Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver, and others who lived in times and worlds beyond my own.

Perhaps best of all were the stories he shared from his own childhood. By the time I came along he had already lived an amazing life.

Felipe Garcia was born in 1893 on a ranch in Duval County. He worked as a cowhand on the George West Ranch, attended business college in San Antonio, and became a real estate developer.

He sold a car to Pancho Villa, played a key role in recruiting Hispanics to serve in the First World War, and started the first Hispanic Boy Scout Troop in Duval and Hidalgo counties. He served on the Mission city council and in his later years was recognized as the longest and oldest serving city commissioner in Texas.

There is so much more to tell, but I will do that a bit at a time as I begin a journey to blog about his story.

I recently started reading through his personal journal, two notebooks bulging with single-spaced lines hammered on to the pages in uneven Courier font using two index fingers on the lettered stems of his Royal typewriter.

I was delighted to read one of the stories he had shared with me more than once when I was a kid — the 1910 appearance of Halley’s Comet. This is the story in his own words:

Ranch after ranch, men, women and children were very much upset about Halley’s Comet being so clearly visible for several nights in a row. The fantastic stories about what was going to happen when its tail would hit the earth. All these scenes took place, and one could observe how many of these simple folk would re-act. To think about the earth being destroyed was no fun at all.

I remember that the night the comet was supposed to strike the earth several of us boys made our beds in a wagon that we may be able to see what was going to happen. That early morning was supposed to be the time that the comet would hit the ground. We were a disappointed group, we did see its tail probably bigger than before but this lasted only a short time, as the sky began to darken with gulf clouds which obliterated the scene. So this year of 1910 was not the end of the world.

It was also the general conversation among old pioneer residents that there would be a time that the earth would be destroyed because people were beginning to fly contrary to the wishes of Almighty God.

Whatever the anguish, anxiety and suspense Halley’s Comet bought to this area’s inhabitants, the news of its failure to destroy the earth was accepted calmly and reverently. I was glad that the suspense had ended to our favor.

Halley’s Comet makes its rounds about every 75 years or so. When my grandfather was a teenager, the comet streaked across the night skies in April 1910. This was also the first time in human history that the comet was photographed.

Interestingly, a French astronomer named Camille Flammarion claimed that gas from the tail of the comet “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” That claim went viral and so, even in rural Duval County, folks believed that the appearance of the comet spelled the end of the world.

Like my grandfather and his friends, I am glad that the world is still here. And like the pioneer residents of Duval County, it would be wise to not behave in ways contrary to the wishes of God.

More stories from my grandfather’s journal to come. Stay tuned.

The Pace of Progress Off the Grid

We started our off-grid adventure four years ago with nothing but raw land surrounded by some of the most magnificent views in the Big Bend of Texas. Although we had no intention of developing our property for full-time living, we nevertheless wanted a comfortable and inviting place to visit several times a year.

Four years later we have a cozy cabin powered by solar panels, almost two-thousand gallons of water catchment capacity, a workshop, and a recently added shade structure that we are developing into an outdoor kitchen. Looking back, it has all happened slowly — one small project at a time.

One of the first things I did when we started our off-grid adventure was to get a little black book — a place to scribble notes, sketch ideas, make materials lists, and record our progress. This simple step has made a huge difference because it has kept me focused on planning and completing one project at a time.

Developing anything off the grid requires careful planning, in large part because if you forget something it is a long way to the hardware store. And because we only visit our cabin a few times a year, we can’t afford to waste time by postponing a project because we failed to plan accordingly.

We have learned that redundancy in regard to tools and supplies is important to making progress. This usually translates into buying an extra coupler or an additional box of screws or extra lumber or whatever the case may be according to the project at hand. Over time I have built a good inventory of extra items — the things that I know we need to stay on track with our projects.

Although we like to visit our cabin to relax and unwind, we also want to take advantage of our time there to make a little more progress on the development of our property. It is a long way from our driveway in the suburbs to the gate to our property so we always plan on completing at least one or more projects every time we visit.

This past week we added pavers to the area under our shade structure. Because dust is an ongoing reality of off-grid life in the Chihuahuan Desert, every little thing we can do to mitigate the dust is a win.

I ordered three pallets of pavers from McCoy’s Building Supply in Alpine and had them delivered to the property. In preparation, I leveled the area and ran a line of mason twine from post to post to guide the installation. I then notched the corner pavers to lock them in around the corner posts and then started the installation.

Getting the first row of pavers perfectly level and in line was important to avoid having to deal with cumulative error on the next rows. This was the tedious part of the process but worth the extra attention to get it right.

All in all it took us a day and a half to install the pavers. Having knee pads made a huge difference since I spent most of the time on my knees while Cheryl handed me the pavers. I had to cut the entire final row of pavers and was happy when I laid the last one in place.

Once we completed the installation, we swept sand between the joints to lock everything in place and then added a line of gravel around the perimeter. I am thinking about adding a decorative border around the perimeter sometime in the future. We’ll see. And then the final step in this phase will be to add an inch or two of gravel all around the shade structure and cabin.

Spending a day and a half, mostly on my knees, setting one paver at a time in place reminded me that this is how we have been able to make so much progress over the past four years. Like eating an elephant, it all happens one small bite at a time! That is the pace of progress off the grid.

Boys, Mentors, and Adventures

When Cheryl and I bought our little slice of heaven in the Chihuahuan Desert, we dreamed of developing our property not just for ourselves but for others as well. In particular, we talked about hosting at-risk boys and offering them the opportunity to experience outdoor adventures, including doing work projects that require cooperation.

My friend Ryan Orbin, the Director of the Hangar Unity Center in Brookshire, and I have had lots of conversations about how to help at-risk boys become good men. He works for an organization called Eyes On Me, Inc — a ministry that exists to mentor, disciple, and serve at-risk youth and their families.

Earlier this year, Ryan approached me about hosting a Spring Break adventure at our place, including a work day, for boys from Brookshire. I immediately agreed. The Hangar has a great mentoring program that is making a difference in the lives of young boys. Some of these boys are one decision away from becoming a statistic. But thanks to Ryan and his team, things are changing.

Motivational speaker Josh Shipp knows what it means to be a kid at risk of becoming a statistic. Thankfully, one caring adult made the difference in his journey. Josh champions the belief that every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story. Josh is absolutely right in his observation. One caring adult willing to mentor a kid can make all the difference.

Cheryl and I have waited with anticipation for Spring Break. We headed to the cabin this past Sunday to get everything ready for the Brookshire Boys Big Bend Adventure.

The boys arrived late Tuesday afternoon as temperatures started to cool. The first order of business was to set up camp. For some of these boys, this was their first time to pitch and sleep in a tent. My friends James and Selim, members of my Band of Fathers group, came along to prepare meals.

We spent each evening around the campfire. My friends Doug, Ba, and Bobby are three of the men who meet with the boys week after week. I was so glad they joined the boys for their week of adventure. All of these men shared good insight into biblical manhood each evening around the campfire.

On their first night around the campfire, we gave each of the boys a hydration backpack and lots of outdoor gear. Each of the mentors explained the reason they should carry these items on outdoor adventures and then used those items as a metaphor for how to deal with life’s challenges.

We planned two days of hiking adventures for the boys at Big Bend National Park. The weather was perfect for hiking. Our first adventure outing was to Santa Elena Canyon, one of the park’s signature vistas. We hiked along the Rio Grande River to the end of the trail.

From Santa Elena we headed to the Hot Springs where the boys soaked in the natural hot spring pool and then swam in the Rio Grande. Their laughter filled the air and it was hard getting them to leave.

We set aside day two for work projects that required a high level of cooperation. We divided the boys into three teams. Team Doug and Ba was assigned the task of pounding in t-posts along the northern border of our property. They learned how to use a level to check for plumb and mason’s twine to check the height of each post.

Team Bobby was assigned the task of clearing brush for a new fence. The lesson here was to learn the importance of removing things that prevent us from making progress. Clearing fence line is the first step to putting in posts and stretching wire.

Team James and Selim was assigned the task of installing a new gate on our northwest tract. The boys learned how to measure the proper distances between holes and then learned to use an auger and a post hole digger. They set the posts and then set the gate.

At the end of the day our campfire conversation was about the value of working cooperatively and leaving a signature of excellence in all they do in life. Ryan reminded the boys that the work they had done would now be a part of their legacy. Several of the boys commented on how they felt really good about what they had learned and the work they had done.

Day three took the boys back to the park where they hiked the window trail and then hiked to the balanced rock — two more iconic locations at the park. Some of the boys said that they learned to push past some of their fears about the outdoors. We reminded them that in both outdoor adventures and in life, alone is dangerous. Men often get into trouble when they do life alone.

Our final night around the campfire turned into a share time as the boys and their mentors talked about our time under the Big Bend sky. We concluded the evening with prayer and then a final night in the tents.

The boys headed back to Brookshire this morning. The place is quiet again but not the same. As I look around I see part of a legacy left here by young boys on a journey to manhood. The boys returned home a little wiser, better friends, and with the understanding that God does indeed have good plans for each of them. Cheryl and I can’t wait to host the next group.