The Truchas Peaks
Mary’s 12’ x 12’ strawbale
vault under construction last fall
Mary snowshoes out for supplies and a visit with
Back to The Edge
—BARB AND TY BELKNAP
“My batteries may be going to die so I'll do this quick!
It’s going to snow all night again, gulp, so I'll wait till
Thursday and then go out on snowshoes to Truchas. Between the
three of you maybe someone will see this and can meet me, and
then take me to Taos to get some supplies. I hope this isn't too
much of a hassle. If I can I'll check email later today, but if
the batteries are dead I wont be able to, so I'll just head out
to Truchas and keep walking till I run into someone.
“The snow is beautiful! Already ten inches in this storm
and more to come. Good thing I have Henry and the snowmobile!”
That was the text of an email Barb and I got from Mary Steigerwald
via her solar-powered battery-powered computer. She lives alone
in the mountains five miles above Truchas in a newly completed
twelve-by-twelve vaulted straw bale hut. Well, not alone exactly.
Her three llamas, two dogs, and miniature donkey live in the hay
barn. Friends and family visit and, in the summertime, bears come
around to nibble on the wild strawberries. Cattle come to defile
her wilderness if Mary doesn't keep the old fence propped up.
We drove as far past Truchas as the road was plowed, parked in
a snowbank, and started skiing in snowmobile tracks up the forest
road, faithful retriever Lalo bounding ahead. Mary’s three
daughters worry about her living up there, but on this particularly
perfect New Mexico morning, it didn’t seem crazy at all.
Mary is Barb’s ex-sister-in-law. Her oldest sons are first
cousins of Mary’s daughters. We’ve been regular visitors
for the nearly twenty years since she and Rico left overdeveloped
Placitas and moved to the remote community of La Joya—populated
by old hippies and back-to-the-landers. Several years later, they
became caretakers of a private inholding at an altitude of 9,400
feet in the national forest.
Rico was a great outdoorsman and a hardworking, talented craftsman.
He built a fine little cabin of rocks and timber for them to live
in. He bought a draft horse to haul trees to his solar sawmill
and plow the potato patch.
Mary took care of the kids and animals, hauled water, cooked,
and made felted hats and toys for sale in town. She wasn’t
there for sport, and took a more cerebral approach to living in
the wilderness. She came up with the idea for a retreat called
the Edge Habitat.
Mary says, "I'm not a hermit. I just like living in the
wilderness. I also like to offer a place where people who wouldn't
normally come up here can come to visit me and experience the
beauty that I see every day. I still hope that someday I can fulfill
my dream of making a modest retreat center where people can come
to experience peace and quiet for while.
“I like to live by making the least impact I can on the
Earth. I heat with wood, use solar energy, and use gasoline as
little as possible. When the consequences of global warming really
hit, a lot of people are going to very challenged.” Mary
believes in striving for sustainability at the local level.
We were as shocked as anybody when, in the fall of 2005, Rico
loaded up his horse, packed up the sawmill and moved to Washington
state with an Englishwoman who was a leader in the Neoanderthal
movement (primitive tools, tribal living, buckskin clothes).
Mary faced her first winter alone in the wilderness. Lucky for
her, it was a mild one and the roads stayed open most of the time.
Then the property was bought by a Santa Fe group of Zen Buddhists.
This seemed like a godsend at first, but it soon became apparent
that Mary and the new owners had different agendas for the use
of the land.
During the following record-breaking snowfalls of 2006, Mary
was snowbound and didn’t see another soul for thirty-four
days, and then again for almost a month. By springtime it was
obvious that she would have to make a change, but she didn’t
move to town as people expected. Instead, the owners of a twenty-acre
former homestead a little further up the mountain agreed to let
her built a place to live in an Alpine meadow near a flowing stream.
With help from friends, she got the hut built just before the
first snow this winter.
We met her two or three miles up the road, smiling broadly in
her snowshoes and homemade felt hat. My dog and I continued on
for a ways to give the sisters a chance to talk. It was all too
We all spent the night in Dixon at the home of one of Mary’s
daughters. It was the first time in twenty years that we’d
seen Mary illuminated by electric lights.
She bought three hundred pounds of dog food and seven cases of
soy milk to take back home, but Henry's snowmobile wouldn't start.
So she snowshoed home with a plan to meet her friend Brad who
hauled the food up as far as he could in a four-wheel-drive truck
the next day. Mary snowshoed out and carried the load back in—her
three llamas sharing the weight.
For sustainability, a city beats the country
In 2006, my husband and I moved to a little town in New Mexico
called Socorro where he was starting his Ph.D. program. Socorro
means help in Spanish. We should have known we were in trouble,
but how hard could it be to find an energy-efficient house and
a sensible way to live?
I was going to be working from home, so we started looking for
a two-bedroom house. Nearly everything we looked at, though cheap,
was falling apart. When we first set eyes on a spacious, bright,
three-bedroom house with very nice landlords, we were smitten.
So we failed to notice it was a manufactured home until after
we signed the lease. Maybe we were in denial. Maybe it was the
pink, adobe-looking plaster façade and the concrete steps
in front and back. Maybe we were just too afraid that it wouldn't
I have nothing against manufactured homes except this: They’re
not well insulated. Because of that, not to mention an air conditioner
that wasn't big enough for the house, we were overheated all summer
and racked up huge energy bills. The windows were supposedly top-of-the-line,
but perhaps they weren't sealed correctly or just couldn't compete
with the rest of the house. It was hot. And we were helping to
destroy the environment.
The winter was worse. We were forced to sleep in the guest room
on our futon because the heat from the furnace did not reach across
the house to the master bedroom. It was still routinely less than
60 degrees inside when we woke up in the morning. And the energy
bills did not subside. We lived in less than one-third of the
house for at least one-third of the year.
So when, after a year, we decided to hit the road to the big
town of Albuquerque, we had some priorities. We wanted a house
with a smaller footprint, real insulation, and no traditional
New Mexican single-pane windows. One thing we had enjoyed in Socorro
was our ability to walk all over town; we wanted to keep on walking
in a city.
We looked for well over a month. Our desire to walk limited the
area to downtown and Old Town, where prices are higher. Homes
are also much older and invariably, too small, too rickety, too
lacking in insulation. And nearly all had those cute New Mexico
Then we found the perfect house. For $125 more than we had been
paying each month in Socorro, we found a house half the size with
walls at least three times as thick. It was an old adobe that
had been lovingly restored by an architect, with wood and brick
floors, a traditional tin roof, inset bookcases and gorgeous trim.
It was also small, at 730 square feet.
A swamp cooler blows out of one vent, keeping the house cool
on the hottest days with some help from floor fans. A gas-powered,
wood burning stove is the only source of heat in winter. Skylights
and windows mean the lights are off most of the day. Our combined
gas and electric bills have been under $30 per month.
So we lowered our energy use, which made us feel good about our
pocket books and our environment. We donated a lot of our stuff
-- perhaps way too much -- which made me feel less anxious, and
we put our faith in an area of town that is euphemistically called
“rebuilding.” My mother thinks it is still scary.
But then, she has always lived in the suburbs.
We traded a bigger, cheaper house for a smaller, more expensive
one that is less than a mile from the Old Town Plaza Vieja. We
can ride our bikes less than two miles to the beautiful 16-mile
Paseo del Bosque Bike Path. We are half a mile from four museums
and a beautiful park. We are surrounded by local businesses and
have a mix of neighbors, from a 93-year-old Hispanic woman to
a white lesbian couple.
We can walk to the post office, the grocery store, the movie
theater and the Farmer's Market downtown. We can also take a bus
nearly anywhere in the city. (Maybe eventually they will run past
6 p.m.) We traded sprawl for infill, and we traded gas expenses
We would never have guessed it, but we found sustainability in
the biggest town in New Mexico
Alison Williams is a contributor to Writers
on the Range, a service of High
Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org).
She is a research analyst and writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.