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.

Fencing, Fire Pit, and Friends

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

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

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

Preparing for Field Fencing

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

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

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

Expanding Our Off-Grid Property

We are now two and a half years into our off-grid adventure in the magnificent Big Bend of Texas — and we could not be happier. Dos Arbolitos, our off-grid property, is good medicine for us. The nine-hour drive no longer seems so long knowing that each mile takes us closer to our cabin and the opportunity to breathe in soul-refreshing vistas.

Earlier this year we purchased the five acre tract adjacent to the north side of our property, giving us a 10-acre footprint in the Big Bend Valley of Terlingua Ranch. I met another property owner down the road who agreed that the plus of our location is the visual access to million dollar views.
The first thing I did after filing our paperwork at the Brewster County Clerk’s office was to arrange to have the tract surveyed. Once the survey was completed, I made a trip to the cabin to check the survey monuments and to take down a 100+ year-old fence running across the property.

The old fence was still standing strong, even after all these years. Remarkably, the slender cedar posts were still as solid (and fragrant) as the day they were put into the ground. I rolled up the old barbed wire and cut the rusted field fence into 10-foot panels. We may use this old material in the future, possibly to make some gabion walls.


Once I removed the old fence, I put cedar posts at the northern corners of the new tract. I wrapped these with orange tape to make it easier to see them from a distance and to get a better sense of the property. I then stretched fluorescent mason’s line from corner to corner. This enabled me see the new fence line and get an idea about what I will need to clear to prepare for fencing.

The next step was to set the corner braces and midway brace on the west side of the new tract. Cheryl and I added cedar posts and cross braces and tamped them in place.


The final step was to tension the braces with barbless cable. This will add strength to the fence and take the strain off the t-posts when we add and stretch the field fencing and barbed wire.

On our next trip I will add the cedar posts interspersed with t-posts along this side of the property. The final step will be to add the field fence topped with a strand of barbed wire. Then we will repeat this whole process two more times to complete the fencing.

The good thing is that we can add the new fence a side at a time and without getting in a rush. Even though the work is hard, there is something very satisfying about fencing. The whole process is stress-relieving and enjoyable.

This past weekend the Jackass Flats Improvement Association sponsored a fun event at the Little Burro Country Store location. Cheryl and I took a break and visited with local artists, heard some good music, and met new friends. We also bought a couple of art pieces for the cabin that we will enjoy for a long time.

We look forward to our next visit to the cabin and the wide open spaces that have captured our hearts. Thanks for following our adventure.

Small Conveniences at the Cabin

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

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

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

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

Off-Grid Comforts at the Cabin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.