A new home in the desert

TERLINGUA, Texas – You won’t find directions to the Field Lab, a homestead four kilometres off Highway 118, deep in the West Texas desert and 48 kilometres or so from the Mexican border, on MapQuest.

But John Wells, who built the place and lives there all by himself, will meet you under a highway billboard in his white Toyota pickup and lead you in, accompanied by a cloud of tenacious Fizzle Flat dust. (He might even offer you dinner: a plate of red beans, rice and broccoli, and a tangy slice of homemade cheese, olive and beer bread, cooked all afternoon in his solar oven.)

Known locally as the Moonscape, this raggedly lovely landscape of mesas and buttes, mesquite and desert juniper is rough and cheap, which makes it a tempting site for off-the-gridders like Wells.

There are no paved roads, no electricity and no water, but you can see the Milky Way more easily here than you can at the Hayden Planetarium. And your yearly property taxes might be less than a month’s worth of cable and Internet service. Last year, Wells’ were $86.

With his ZZ Top beard, battered cowboy hat and worn boots, Wells, 51, looks like a native. But like many of his neighbours, he’s a recent transplant, a former fashion and catalogue photographer, late of Manhattan and Columbia County, New York.

Despite those coordinates, which might suggest a kinship with the art-world pilgrims in Marfa, more than 160 kilometres away – a distance that counts as “nearby” in Texas terms – Wells is not here to make art, exactly, though his photographs of his new home are exquisite.

Nor did he arrive with a book deal or an end date.

Following a long tradition of solitary back-to-the-landers, Wells came here to hash life out on his own terms. His focus is on taming this rough environment to his own frugal needs and delighting in the mental and physical puzzles it presents. Wind power or solar? What’s it like to hand-mix cement? How much water can you snatch in a half-hour of rain? Can you dam a gully? How do you build a swamp cooler, or an icebox? How long does it take to cook chicken cutlets in a solar oven? What’s the best Spam flavour? (Hickory-smoked, as it happens.)

“Anyway, if it didn’t work out,” he said, “the investment was so cheap, I’d be able to walk away.”

In October 2007, Wells bought this land – a 16-hectare parcel – for $8,000 in cash, adding a 8-hectare tract for $5,000 a year and a half later.

It took nine days and $1,600 to build the shell of his one-room house, the first structure in a compound that now includes four shipping containers under a soaring arched roof planted on a lacy framework of metal trusses, all of which he made himself.

He gave it all a fancy moniker, the Southwest Texas Alternative Energy and Sustainable Living Field Laboratory, but you can call it the Field Lab for short.

By the following summer, he had started a blog detailing his daily struggles and small triumphs, planting guy wires for the wind turbines or extracting a scorpion from the composting toilet.

In its own quiet way, the diary is as compelling as the notebooks of some of the great 19th-century adventurers – more Joshua Slocum, say, than Barbara Kingsolver.

He shared a recipe for solar-oven baked bread and noted the pleasures of a long hot shower, the water heated by the sun. “Do I stink now there is no one here to smell me?”

He also posted winsome minute-long videos, one of dung beetles rolling a cow patty, another of muddy torrents pouring through the gullies and rock cliffs during a rare (and brief) rainstorm.

Sometimes, he wrote early on, “it’s hard to tell if I’m walking on some distant planet, or just lost in the desert.”

The rest of the blogging world took notice, particularly like-minded frugal-living, off-the-grid types who cheer each other along and trade tips on sustainable systems and practices.

In 2009, TreeHugger, the popular environmental site, called Wells a modern-day Thoreau.

By the anniversary of his second year here, he had recorded 200,000 visitors to his blog (this year, his site meter notes over half a million), and had attracted a core of about 800 regular readers, many of whom have come to see the Field Lab for themselves.

Recently, Wells was an amiable host, chain-smoking through a tour of the raw, rocky land on his still-growing compound, pointing out the ravaged beauty of a gully and the bulldozed bit he is hoping will turn into a temporary lake, come the April rains.

Four shipping containers (bought for $1,000 each), painted in white primer, are planted around an interior courtyard. A crane lifted them onto concrete blocks Wells laid in, but it was Wells alone who shimmied each one just so with a car jack and a plumb line.

This year, he’ll set pavers in the covered courtyard and build raised beds for growing vegetables. The roof above is corrugated galvanized metal, with a small section of transparent polycarbonate. (Desert sun has to be filtered; otherwise, it fries your crops.) One container is fitted out for guests, with a beaded curtain as a room divider – behind it, a white four-poster wears striped bedding – but Wells plans to move in soon, building a separate guest house on his 8-hectare plot. The tiny shack he currently sleeps in is no bigger than a sailboat’s single cabin; its interior is painted bright orange and yellow, and it has a desk, storage cubbies, a single bunk bed and a kitchen counter; above it is a pendant lamp made from a tomato-juice can. When you work alone, you have to be patient. Progress is measured in the completion of small tasks, and construction takes years, not weeks. Safety is a colossal issue.

“When the containers were first delivered, I remember thinking, ‘What if the door slams and I’m trapped inside?”’ Wells said. Glancing up at the span of trusses, this reporter worried about a fall.

“What I realized,” he said, “is that the webcam” – which is trained daily on the Field Lab – “is a safety backup. Somebody’s always watching me.”

As if on cue, an opportunistic burro named Mr. Floppy knocked over the tripod it was mounted on and then used one of its legs to scratch his eyebrow, clearly a much-practiced trick. Later, Mr. Floppy edged ever closer to a visiting photographer, leaning into him like an old dog.

An aeolian harp – a line strung tautly between the shack and the compound, amplified by a tomato-juice can – keened like a Martian opera. Meanwhile, Benita, a longhorn cow from a nearby ranch that visits Wells most days for a snack, a scratch and some companionship, posed like a supermodel. Wells said it took a year for her to warm up to him; now he frets on the weeks she goes walkabout. Wells, a sociable and cheerful host, is more than content to be living alone.

“I’ve been single for so long,” he said. “I can’t imagine not being single. The thought of compromising my day doesn’t appeal to me; I don’t care what the benefits are.”

He’s happy enough to hook up others, however, having been ordained as a minister online. Two years ago, he married two friends here; Wells wore a new cowboy hat, and Benita was a decorous attendant.

In the early days of his blog, Wells recounted the cow’s slow overtures, and his squeamishness about cooking a steak in her presence. One night, he noted in a typical post: “Benita came back for a dinner snack, then wandered off to graze some more. Will see her in the morning no doubt. Life is good.”

On Wells’ birthday last April, the rancher who owns Benita and the scores of other longhorns that graze this scrubby land rode over and presented him with a birthday card. Inside was a deed of ownership, gifting one speckled roan, age 22, to Wells.