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.

Our Chihuahuan Desert Kitchen

The desert is not for everyone. I understand that. But, for whatever reason, I am attracted to the beauty of the desert like a moth to a porch light. It’s not any one thing in particular but instead several things conspiring together to draw me back again and again.

I like the long views, the amazing air, the heat of the day and the cool of the night, the first light of dawn and the signature of the sunset, dark skies crowded with stars and the silence of the night.

The desert is a spiritual place for me — one where I can practice neglected monastic disciplines like silence and solitude and simplicity. When I am away from noise and distractions that swirl around me like a desert dust devil then I can discern God’s voice a little easier.

I enjoy introducing others to the desert — the Chihuahuan Desert in particular. Our little off-grid cabin sits outside of Big Bend National Park and gives us easy access to some of the most magnificent landscapes in the Lone Star State. Cheryl and I have become amateur guides to friends who come to camp at our place.

We have been working hard to make our place as welcoming as possible. Every time we visit our cabin we invite our desert dwelling neighbors over for eats around the campfire. Always fun. To that end we added two fire pits and picnic tables that have seen lots of use.

We also added a shade structure to shelter an outdoor cooking area for those nights when the neighbors come over. On this trip we started and made a lot of progress on the outdoor cooking area under the structure.

I ordered our supplies from McCoy’s in Alpine and had them delivered directly to our place. The delivery arrived on time. Cheryl and I measured and marked and then staged supplies under the awning.

We started by setting the posts along the north side, taking great care to make sure every post was plumb. We then measured four-feet up and checked for level, marked and cut the posts.

Once the posts were cut to measure, we added the stringers to tie them all together to form the framework for the corrugated tin wall. We then painted all of the framework before cutting and installing the panels. I have to say that we love the look of the wall.

We had time to add one of the countertop areas. I took old reclaimed maple floor boards from a gym demo and made a butcher-block type countertop. I think it turned out pretty good. I then cut an oval to receive a galvanized pail sink. On our next trip I will add the drain and run the gray water line to a nearby mesquite.

The final step was painting and installing a Texas-flag themed backsplash. Love the way this all came together. Next steps will include adding a counter top to the opposite side that will be used as a serving area. And then we will add a fire place in the center between the two countertop areas.

We want for our Chihuahuan Desert kitchen to be a place where neighbors, friends, and family can enjoy good food and fellowship in view of the surrounding mesas and mountains and under the canopy of the Big Bend sky. Just another reason why the desert is a special place for me and for Cheryl.

Ending and Beginning at the Cabin

Whenever folks ask me how long it takes us to get from our home in the suburbs to our cabin in Big Bend, I usually reply by saying it only takes us 8 hours and 60 minutes. While that may seem like a long trip to some, Cheryl and I have grown accustomed to the drive — making only four stops along the way.

We generally leave our home in Katy at 6:00 AM and travel to Luling for breakfast at Buc-ee’s — stop number 1. From Buc-ee’s we head through San Antonio and on to Sonora where we take Exit 404 to get fuel — stop number 2.

From the Pilot gas station in Sonora we drive the short distance to Ozona to have lunch at the Dairy Queen — stop number 3. From Ozona we drive toward Fort Stockton where we turn south toward Alpine — stop number 4.

About 30 minutes or so south of Alpine we pass Elephant Mountain on our left and then a few minutes later Kokernot Mesa on our right before Nine Point Mesa comes into view. Our cabin is just west of Nine Point. Although it looks close at that point, it is still another half-hour away.

After enjoying the holidays with our family, Cheryl and I packed up and headed to our cabin to spend the last days of 2021 and to welcome the new year. We always have a list of projects big and small but really just wanted to get away to enjoy the beauty of this wide part of the Lone Star State.

We arrived to find that our neighbors Joe and Lisa had complete our new shade structure. We have fun plans for this space so stay tuned. We decided to celebrate with a cookout under the awning, so we invited a few of the neighbors to join us. It was good to reunite with friends who are just as captivated by the beauty of this place as we are.

The next day I prepped the iron posts and purlins on the shade structure for painting and spent the better part of a day going up and down a ladder to apply black matte finish oil base paint. I don’t like painting with oil base but do love the results. It was worth the messiness.

Cheryl was excited to try her hand at Dutch oven cooking. Using a recipe from a Dutch oven cookbook she received from our friend Karen Attaway, she cooked her first Dutch oven meal — a baked fideo dish that was absolutely delicious. Looking forward to more Dutch oven meals.

I piddled with some scrap wood in our container shop and made some Texas-themed key holders. I hung the wooden Texas flag craft that I made. I also hung one of my favorite pics that I took a few months ago along the magnificent River Road between Lajitas and Presidio. This pic hangs over our bed and is just like looking out a window.

A few months ago when our son Jonathan visited the cabin, we started digging a swale as a part of our permaculture plan for the property. The swale will allow us to capture and keep more ground water on the property during the monsoon season. We extended the swale by about another 25-feet. We’ll add some native rocks and stones later to mimic a dry stream bed.

The days and nights this week have been magnificent. No air conditioning or heat necessary in the cabin. However, as I write this post the temps are expected to drop into the upper 20’s so we might have to turn on the heater later tonight. Thankfully our cabin is well-insulated.

Cheryl and I have enjoyed quiet evenings listening to music, reading, and savoring the beyond-beautiful night skies here. Tomorrow we will join our friends for worship at Terlingua Ranch Community Church, enjoy lunch at the Bad Rabbit Cafe — our Sunday routine — and then get ready to leave for Katy early Monday morning.

We remain grateful for this place that is so soothing for our souls and embraces us with the amazing beauty of God’s handiwork in the Chihuahuan Desert. The words of another describe how we feel about our little place in the desert: From the outside looking in folks don’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it. Thanks for following our adventure.

From Curbside Trash to Cabin Treasure

I have always been attracted to broken things. I think it’s because I enjoy looking beyond the actualities in something tossed aside to consider the possibilities. Giving broken and discarded items a second chance can yield some pretty cool results.

A couple of weeks ago I drove a friend home from a meeting and noticed a large trash pile in front of his neighbor’s home. Among the bulging bags of garbage was a yellow bench that looked to be in pretty good shape — at least it did from a distance.

I walked over, picked up the bench, and put it in the bed of my truck. When I got it home and did a closer inspection, I discovered all of the reasons why the bench had been tossed to the curb.

All of the joints were wobbly and weak. The mortise and tenons on one of the cross-braces had rotted away. The paint job was a globby-bad mess and there was considerable dry-rot on one of the armrests.

No worries!

I could not wait to get the bench to the cabin to start the repair and restoration process. I made a list of things I would need and only had to buy some wood dowels and plastic wood filler for this project. I had everything else in my shop. This project would cost me about $15.00 total.

The first thing I did was to address all of the loose joints. I cleaned and sanded these areas and then drilled holes and glued in reinforcing poplar dowels. I then reattached the horizontal cross-brace using poplar dowels. I clamped everything together to give the glue time to dry.

The next step was to address the dry rot in the armrest. I applied layers of pliable plastic wood and built the area up. Once it dried I sanded the area down, following the shape of the armrest. With this final step complete it was time to paint the bench.

I wanted to keep with the Texas-themed outdoor furniture at the cabin, so I painted the bench red and then added a small lone star medallion in the center of the backrest. I used the official Texas flag shades of red, white, and blue.

I love the finished product. We will keep this bench on the small front porch of the cabin where it fits perfectly. Cheryl and I enjoy sitting on the porch in the evenings, waiting for the stars to populate the Big Bend night sky. We will enjoy sitting on our salvaged bench that only took a few dollars and a few hours to be transformed from curbside trash into another little cabin treasure.

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.

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.


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.