A Little More Progress at the Cabin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for following our off-grid adventure.

Making Our Cabin Cozy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decorating Our Off-Grid Cabin

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

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

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

We are especially excited about two pieces.

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

A Floor and More at Dos Arbolitos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIY Rustic Toilet Paper Holder

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

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

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

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

Here is a list of the basic pipe fitting components:

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

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

Easy assembly steps:

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

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


Progress at the Cabin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Slow Progress at Dos Arbolitos

Someone wisely observed that slow progress is definitely better than no progress. I couldn’t agree more. If there is one lesson that is deeply ingrained in my mind about developing Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property in Big Bend, it is that we make progress one small step at a time. And because we live so far from our little place, we have to make every step count and not get discouraged when we have to take a step back.

Since spending the last two weeks in August at Dos Arbolitos I have traveled to Uganda, Brazil, and El Salvador. I now carry a small journal with me where I sketch out current and upcoming projects, make supply lists, and jot down all kinds of off-grid stuff I need to research. So, wherever I happen to be, I like to spend a little time at the end of each day writing and reviewing notes in my journal.

This past week I returned to Dos Arbolitos loaded down with supplies. My friend James Meredith has been very kind to let me borrow one of his trailers to haul supplies. With an opening in my schedule, I took advantage of the opportunity to transport bundles of R-19 insulation, ceiling tin, trim for doors and windows, baseboards, cement, gravel, another water tank, and a burn barrel for our super kind and always helpful neighbors Joe and Lisa.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that since having our 1125-gallon catchment tank installed in August, we have captured 800-gallons of water from recent rains. I added the smaller water tank next to our larger container and transferred about 300-gallons from our larger tank. This will ensure that if there are more rains we will be able to capture more water in our main tank until I can plumb in our overflow to the smaller tank.

I also built a raised platform for our 55-gallon rain barrels. These barrels are situated next to our storage container and outdoor toilet and shower area. I had previously added spigots to these barrels to make it easy to fill containers or just have a hand-washing station. I added gravel to help keep the area from getting muddy in case of any spillage. Later I may add a water line and pump from one of the barrels to our shower area.

After completing my water-related projects, I started the process of trimming the interior doors. Using 1 x 4 x 8 primed lumber and Texas star medallions, this process was pretty easy. I like the look of the medallions much better than 45-degree miter cuts. I will trim the windows in the same way for a uniform look. Once this work is complete I will add beadboard wainscoting around the room and do final painting on all the trim, doors, and wainscoting.

The next big thing I need to do is insulate the ceiling and add the ceiling tin. All of the interior walls are insulated and finished. The temperature plunged into the 30’s on two nights making our little cabin an ice box. My little propane heater did little to help because the heat escaped through our un-insulated ceiling. The heater should work fine once the ceiling work is complete.

I also added some temporary steps into our cabin. I will improve these later. Cheryl was very happy about this. As much as we go in and out of the cabin when we visit, having these steps makes it so much easier, especially when moving supplies in and out of the cabin.

And, a final note of good news, Big Bend Telephone was able to squeeze me in to their schedule late Friday and get me hooked up with dish-powered internet and phone service. This means I won’t have to drive to Little Burro Country Store to use their WiFi to check in with home and will have service in case of any emergency.

So, a few more steps in the direction of completing our cabin. Maybe completing is not the right word to use. I have a feeling that we will always have something we will want to add or change or whatever as we use the cabin more and more. And, that’s ok. Dos Arbolitos has turned out to be a blessing in more ways than one. It has become a little haven of rest and refreshment, even in spite of the long days of work. I am happy with the slow progress we are making because it is indeed better than no progress.

A Storm in the Desert

There is a majesty that is associated with storms in the desert — perhaps because the desert provides unobstructed views that allow you to behold the immensity of distant or approaching storms. Or perhaps because you can feel the thundering waves of power wash over you even from a distance. But perhaps best of all is the way a storm in the desert scents the air with its distinctive fragrance that signals a change in the weather.

When John Denver wrote Annie’s Song in 1974, an ode to his wife at the time, he described how she filled up his senses “like a storm in the desert.” Those of us who have experienced storms in the desert can easily relate to Denver’s lyrical description. A storm in the desert will fill up your senses as few other things can.

Shorty after purchasing our property in the Big Bend Valley, Cheryl and I experienced our first storm in the desert. Even though the storm was miles away, it felt as though it would be upon us at any moment. The wind picked up and began to swirl up the desert dust as we felt the vibration of distant thunder. It was amazing — but also a bit intimidating.

Because we did not have any shelter at the time, we dropped what we were doing and headed to Little Burro Country Store three miles away where we sought refuge on the front porch. We were not alone. Other locals had also gathered there. And although the storm never came close to our little place, we nevertheless felt its ominous presence.

Since then I have experienced more storms at our Chihuahuan Desert getaway, the last one late at night. Before the sun ever set I knew the storm was coming. I could see it gathering strength far to the north. A little after ten at night it arrived with a volley of pea-sized hail and then sheets of rain accompanied by the most incredible displays of lightening.

I was especially excited about this storm because we had just had our water catchment system installed — seamless gutters diverting rainfall to our 1125-gallon container. Within an hour, our empty tank was filled with almost 300 gallons of water. We calculated that 1-inch of water falling on our 420 square foot roof would capture as many as 260 gallons of water. Our calculations were spot on.

We purchased our desert property because we just can’t get over the beauty of the surrounding mesas and mountains and the indescribable magnificence of the night sky, complete with Milky Way bisecting the heavens. Add to that one more reason why we love the desert — storms. John Denver was right. A storm in the desert will indeed fill up your senses and make you appreciate the awesome beauty of wide open places.

Solar Power for Dos Arbolitos

Pursuing our off-grid adventure in the Big Bend Valley section of Terlingua Ranch continues to be a journey of learning and discovery. When we started this journey we knew that we would need water catchment and solar power for our cabin. Our property is located far from grid power and in an area where it is too costly to drill a water well.

We had our water catchment tank installed last month. Our tank is fed by seamless gutters. Using a water catchment calculator, I estimated that 1-inch of rain on our 420 square foot roof will capture as many as 260 gallons of water. We had a desert storm that blew through our area last month, dumping lots of rain and pea-size hail. Our tank went from empty to nearly the 300-gallon mark.

This past month we finally had our solar panels installed by the folks at Green Desert Living. We purchased six 310 watt solar panels, an inverter / charge controller, and eight 100 amp storage batteries. Our solar system will enable us to run a small window unit air conditioner during the day, our dorm fridge day and night, our LED lights, fans, and provide juice for my power tools. We also have the option of charging our batteries with our generator.

We had the solar panels installed behind our cabin on the north side of our property. Our panels face due south and are angled to capture optimum sunlight during daylight hours. The night after our panels were installed we had a pretty fierce desert storm complete with hail. Thankfully our solar panels survived both the wind and the hail. Happy about that!

In preparation for our solar installation, I framed out a closest specifically for our solar system. I lined the walls with plywood rather than drywall to make it easier to affix our inverter / charge controller and other items to the wall. Having these items in the closet will make it handy for me to monitor our inverter during the day.

Having power in our cabin is a huge step toward enjoying our little place. And getting free power directly from the sun is pretty cool. Our investment will enable us to enjoy years of free power. And on those occasions when we have cloudy skies, I can still top off our batteries by using our generator. Either way, we now have power at Dos Arbolitos.

Later on I will add a small solar system to provide power to our container. I have already purchased what I need to provide lights and to power a fan in our container. These two things alone will be a big help in making our container workshop more comfortable. And, the thought of doing this on free power makes it all the sweeter.

We are enjoying our off-grid adventure. I am thankful for the folks who have shared about their off grid adventures on their respective YouTube channels. We continue to learn a lot from their successes and mistakes. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Every improvement that we make on our place gets us a step closer to the day we can just show up and enjoy ourselves without having to address a long list of projects. We are now several steps closer to that day. Thanks for following our journey. More to come!

Progress on Our Off-Grid Cabin

I have just returned home after spending two weeks alone at Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property in the Chihuahuan Desert. With the exception of a few visits with and from neighbors in the Big Bend Valley section of Terlingua Ranch, I was pretty much alone.

Screen time on my phone was down a whopping 62% — listening to music and using my Bible reading app accounting for the remainder of the time. For the most part, I enjoyed the absence of distractions and savored the opportunity to think deeply about so many things.

My goal for these two weeks was to continue working on the inside of our cabin, build an outdoor structure for a composting toilet and shower, address some erosion near our front gate, and have our solar power system installed. I am happy to say that I have checked these items off of my to-do list.

My first order of business was to frame our bathroom walls and solar storage closet and to hang the doors to each of these spaces. Once I framed the 14-foot long wall, I realized I needed help to get it up and in place, so I asked my neighbors Joe and Lisa for help (check out their Full Vegan YouTube channel).

Joe and Lisa moved to the Big Bend Valley from Minnesota and own 20 acres to the east of me in the shadow of Nine Point Mesa. They have an amazing set of off-grid skills and are always ready and willing to lend a hand. They did not hesitate to drive over to help me lift the wall into place.

Once the wall was in place and securely anchored, I decked the area immediately above for some much-needed storage. I wired in a bathroom light, added the remaining sheets of drywall, and hung the doors. Finally, I started the process of taping and floating — followed by sanding and then more floating and feathering out the seams, followed by more sanding.

With the drywall completed, I mixed a bucket of joint compound and used my texture sprayer to add a light orange peel texture to the walls. Once I got the consistency right, it took me less than half an hour to texture the walls. I am happy with the look of the texture. Later I will frame the doors and windows and install bead board wainscoting to all of the walls.

When I return to Dos Arbolitos I will add R-19 insulation to the ceiling and use corrugated tin to cover our ceiling. I will change our one-bulb ceramic light fixtures with LED fixtures and then add trim along the ceiling to wall transition. Kitchen cabinets will come next with the floor install as the final step in the process.
One thing is certain, there is never a shortage of projects in an off-grid setting. I enjoyed working from sunrise to sunset each day. I spent each night on my front porch, enjoying the magnificent Big Bend sunsets and night sky blanketed with stars from horizon to horizon. And, I slept peacefully. The solitude and silence of the desert is indeed a gift.