Sandoval Signpost

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Mary's yurt

Mary’s Mongolian “guest yurt,” decorated with hand-painted doors and rafters, insulated with natural felt, and tied together with horsehair rope.

Mary's corral

Mary in the corral with her animals.

Living on the Edge

—Barb and Ty Belknap

Everybody thought Mary was crazy when she set out to build a homestead by herself in the mountains. She had been living in the wilderness for twenty years since she left Placitas, but we thought that her husband Rico did most of the pioneering while she cooked and philosophized. At fifty-something, recently divorced, daughters raised, it seemed more sensible to move to town. We published an article ( after a visit in December 2007 when Mary had moved into her ten-by-twelve-foot vaulted straw bale shelter on private land at 9,500-foot elevation above Truchas. She hunkered down alone there through the deep snows of 2008.

Mary’s homestead is not far from the trailhead to a classic backpacking trip deep in the Pecos National Forest and the Truchas Peaks, which at over thirteen thousand feet are among the highest in New Mexico. Hikers are deterred by several instances of theft and vandalism of vehicles in the area, so we were glad that Mary had arranged for us to park at her friends Sammy and Irma’s place—the last house in Truchas before entering the wilderness. We drove through mud and rivulets of melting snow as far up as possible, dropped our dog Lalo, the skis, and backpacks; and then drove back to the house to drop the car.

It was t-shirt weather for the hike up an unmaintained forest road, the early spring air fresh with pines scents as we climbed from piñon-juniper ecosystems through Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir into blue spruce and aspen forests. After about a mile, there was enough uninterrupted snow to leave our skis on for the final four miles. Luckily, Sammy had broken trail with a snowmobile all the way to Mary’s makeshift gate with a sign asking other snowmobilers to keep out. The climb was gentle but steady, and we were happy to drop our packs at her new Mongolian “guest yurt,” decorated with hand-painted doors and rafters, insulated with natural felt, and tied together with horsehair rope ( We were glad to see sleeping pads and bags there as promised, as well as a plenty of firewood for an old Ashley Automatic stove. There was a bucket for melting snow and a clear creek flowing nearby.

Continuing up the trail, we passed a corral housing two llamas and two miniature donkeys that greeted us with hee-haws and whistling sounds.

Concerns about Mary’s sanity were eased a bit by the sight of the metal-roofed straw bale at the other side of a large meadow surrounded by tall aspen trees. Next to the house were a woodshed, chopping block, hydraulic wood splitter, a satellite dish, and a solar panel to power a laptop. Not that it looked like a resort, but Mary had obviously learned a lot about modern pioneering. We were greeted by the loud barking of Lucy, a Great Pyrenees, who seemed uncharacteristically territorial toward Lalo when he approached some large bones.

Mary greeted us warmly. She doesn’t get many visitors during the winter—especially not from an ex-sister-in-law. She explained that the bones were all that was left of Ed, the llama, who had recently passed away. She said it took several attempts over several days to drag Ed out of the corral and onto a sled. After that, it was easy enough to slide him down the hill for his Buddhist mountain burial, compliments of crows and coyotes. Unfortunately, Lucy had dragged Ed’s skull and spinal column back up to the house and was guarding them obsessively.

Mary has long been a vegetarian, so we didn’t have to worry about the meat in our dinner. We dined on potatoes from last summer’s garden, hand-ground wheat tortillas, and beans slow-cooked on the wood stove in the cozy confines of the hut. Mary apologized for the still unfinished straw walls, but claimed to feel totally safe, even during a raging blizzard.

Candles were lit at sunset, and we headed down to the yurt. Too much fire in the stove forced us to leave the door open while reading by candlelight and just sitting there for hours. It was all very relaxing, but the long nights would take some getting used to.

All this is the Edge Habitat Wilderness Sanctuary. It is remote and a little scary—even for seasoned outdoor enthusiasts like us who had perhaps been in the lowlands too long. Mary’s mission statement is, “Hmmm . . . I guess to provide a safe place of peace and quiet in the wilderness, for relaxation, recreation, and reflection, serving individuals and small groups who appreciate simple, primitive accommodations. Off-grid, petroleum-free. I’m not looking for hoards of visitors, just a few choice folks here and there.” She is happy to correspond by email; in fact, there is a “contact us” page on her website at

We slept pretty well after figuring out how to regulate the temperature in the yurt. During the next day, we skied up toward the Truchas Peaks to a ridge looking for signs of bighorn sheep and saw none, but enjoyed the views. We split wood, adjusted the solar panel, fed the animals, and just sat there in the sunshine for hours doing nothing. That night we slept a little better.

Skiing out was sunny and beautiful, downhill all the way. Near the village of Truchas, the snow was melting fast and the mud was getting deeper. The spring thaw makes travel to the Edge more difficult, but it is always a welcome time.

After the road dries out, driving to the Edge is feasible until monsoon season. Fall is a great time to visit, especially when the aspen leaves are turning gold. Mary emailed the other day from the Truchas Library saying that her system was temporarily broken. She said she had come down to visit her daughters and had left Lucy to guard the Edge, with the help of a brand new automatic dog food dispenser (No, not Ed!). It was snowing again and she had to snowshoe back up the trail in eighteen inches of fresh powder.

Dust off your survival skills

—Marcia Hensley, Writers on the Range

These are good days for survivalists, those dour predictors of dire times who’ve said all along that we’d better prepare for the worst. With people losing jobs, homes, and life savings through no fault of their own, and with natural disasters, oil shortages, and terrorists in the news, those long-predicted grim times may have arrived.

Kurt Wilson, who hosts a website called “Armchair Survivalist,” predicts that the nation is falling into such chaos that survival skills will be crucial. But what are those skills? I think I have a good idea, based on what pioneers endured as they worked to settle the West. I believe they have a lot to teach us about what it takes to make it through hard times. Here’s a hint: A gun isn’t the most necessary thing.

Where I live in Wyoming’s inhospitable high desert, settlers in 1908 knew that if they were ever going to grow anything, they needed to build a reservoir and ditches to direct water down from the Wind River Mountains. They did that by working together, and the ditches they dug a century ago still run water today.

Some families lived in tents their first winter, burning sagebrush until they could bring logs from the mountains to build cabins and provide better fuel. They cleared the sagebrush; planted hay and grain; and hunted rabbits, antelope, and sage chickens. Gardens provided vegetables—fresh in summer, canned for the rest of the year. Each family had a cow, a pig, and chickens. Surviving meant working dawn to dark.

Because it took two days to ride in a wagon to Rock Springs, Wyoming, the nearest town, they stocked up on staples once, maybe twice, a year. As recently as the 1930s, folks here were about as close to self-sufficient as you could get. Asked about life during the Great Depression, one old-timer said, “We didn’t notice much difference. No one had any money, but we had a roof over our heads and enough to eat.”

That kind of self-sufficiency may again become necessary, says Barton Biggs, a New York-based strategist who advised investors at Morgan Stanley. His recent book, Wealth, War, and Wisdom, echoes survivalists by warning that the breakdown of civilized society is coming. Biggs advises creating safe havens stocked with necessities such as canned food, liquids, medicine, seeds, and fertilizer. For the long term, he says, these “survival retreats” will also need a supply of water and a way of growing food. That makes them sound a lot like the early homesteads that were established in my community a hundred years ago.

Since my husband and I live on some of the same ground that supported settlers and their descendents — even in the same log house (although since remodeled) that they built—I’ve been wondering if we could survive under the same conditions they endured. We had a dress rehearsal during last year’s severe winter. We were snowed in for days and had to dip into our stores of canned and frozen goods. Fortunately, neither the electricity nor the propane failed, so our TV, stove, refrigerator, and heaters kept us cozy.

But what if the power grid was completely wiped out by weather or, as alarmists warn, by sabotage? Could we make do by heating with only our wood-burning stove and cooking on the camp stove? How long would batteries sustain our transistor radio? No email? No telephone? No indoor plumbing? What if there were no gas to drive the fifty miles to town for supplies, and what if the shelves were bare even if we managed to get there?

It puts our gardening hobby in a whole new light. Forget the petunias. Put that precious water on the potatoes and beans. Hunting local wildlife would no longer be recreational. It would be a necessity. Could we raise chickens or barter with friends who do? We could try to get a calf or pig to fatten, and we’d want to replace our horse with a milk cow. On second thought, we might need that horse to get to the post office, assuming we still had mail delivery.

If what armchair survivalist Kurt Wilson calls a “grid-down societal collapse” really did thrust us back to a frontier culture, he thinks we who live in the rural West would have an advantage over urban and coastal dwellers. The nineteen states rated as best “retreat areas” on are all inland Western states. The top five are Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and my home state, Wyoming.

The prospect of having to survive for long under truly primitive conditions is daunting, even frightening. But I like to think that if we absolutely had to, we could go back to living off the land. After all, I tell myself, we’re only a few generations away from the pioneers who did exactly that.

Las Placitas Association upcoming events

Las Placitas Association (LPA) organizes a number of activities in which you can participate. Educational hikes, led by experts which feature birding, native plants, local history and archeology, offer Placitas residents an opportunity to learn about the interesting and unique features of the beautiful high desert.  A newsletter detailing the events is distributed every March using the Sandoval Signpost's mailing list.

The following events will occur in April:

April 11, 2009 - 9:00 AM - 12:00 PM.
Montezuma Crest Hike:
We all see Montezuma Crest every day and this is your opportunity to see the view from the top. We would classify this hike as "mildly strenuous," since it does involve off-trail-walking on somewhat steep ground at times, yet it isn't very long. A walking stick might be very useful. Please wear sturdy shoes, a sun hat; bring snacks and extra water. Meet at the Placitas Post Office and we'll carpool to the site.

April 15, 2009 - 5:30 PM - 6:30 PM.
Las Huertas Creek Watershed Project Meeting:
Placitas Community Center. Community members welcome!

April 15, 2009 - 6:30 PM - 08:00 PM.
Las Placitas Assoc. Board Meeting:
Placitas Community Center. Community members welcome!

April 25, 2009 - 8:30 AM - 12:00 PM.
Migratory & Nesting Birds of the Placitas Open Space:
A birding hike led by Hart Swartz, a leading New Mexico bird specialist. Wear sturdy hiking shoes and bring lots of water and a snack. See the Placitas Open Space bird list at No pets, please. Meet at the Open Space East Access at 8:15 AM. Directions at

To learn more about Las Placitas Association or 2009 workshops and field trips, please visit the website at






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