The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988

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The Truchas Peaks

Mary’s 12’ x 12’ strawbale vault under construction last fall

Mary snowshoes out for supplies and a visit with family

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 beautiful.

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.

Signpost cartoon c. Rudi Klimpert

For sustainability, a city beats the country

—ALISON WILLIAMS

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 get better.

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 windows.

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 for exercise.

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.

 

 

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