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.

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.