We wondered how people could live like this: trailers, surrounded by derelict trucks and other machinery, stripped of their parts and abandoned to the elements, with nothing but scrub land for miles around. Surely there was no electricity or fresh water this far out but it was obvious that people lived here. Some had extended their trailers using wood or corrugated iron sheets, their trucks (the ones that were working) sat on their ‘driveway’ just off highway 285.
We had crossed the New Mexico state line mid-morning and were travelling to Taos and, again, the road stretched out ahead of us to the horizon without a bend in sight.
Soon, we came upon an unexpected encounter with something very strange: we saw what appeared to be houses of many shapes and sizes, built into the ground and partially covered with earth. Some had solar panels and others had small wind turbines for power generation. We had stumbled upon an organisation and community called Earthship Biotechture, which is a project developed by a man called Michael Reynolds, an architect who graduated from Cincinnati University in 1969. Since then he has developed buildings he calls Earthships using alternative materials and in a way that is friendlier to the environment. This community just outside Taos consists of over 70 Earthships and welcomes people into its visitor centre to explore and learn something of the techniques involved in building these houses.
Load bearing walls are made from reclaimed car tyres, stacked tightly together and filled with compacted earth. Other walls are made from earth with bottles and used tin cans.
The community is completely ‘off-grid’, which means that there is no water or electricity coming into the site: electricity is generated onsite and water is collected when it rains, filtered and used and reused for drinking, washing, toilets and to water the plants and vegetables that are grown by community members for their own consumption.
A number of standard house designs have been developed but, as far as we can understand, the only design limit is the imagination of the builder and the costs involved.
If you want to build your own you must either attend a course run by the organisation or have the organisation send people to build it for you. This is to maintain standards and ensure it’s done right.
It was a memorable experience and we really enjoyed seeing, first-hand, houses in the process of being built. Michael Reynolds must be a real visionary to develop such techniques and to market them around the world: there is at least one Earthship in all 50 US states and in over 20 different countries, including Scotland and England (Brighton). He was onsite while we were there and we got the feeling that a celebrity was in our midst.
Taos is another laid-back community consisting of many high-end art galleries, shops and museums.
On entering Taos, we had lunch at Michael’s Kitchen and wandered in and out of art galleries and shops. A man was selling hand-made wind instruments on the street and we recognised his London, Del Boy accent instantly. He told us that he moved to New Mexico over 20 years ago to live with a community of indigenous people, who taught him how to make and play the recorder-like instruments. He even married into the community and his wife was with him. He played for us and made lovely mellow sounds with the different sized instruments on display. His music was on sale too.
We spoke to a number of art gallery owners and artists while we were there and they asked us about our trip and plans for the next couple of weeks. They were all unanimous, when hearing of our plans to visit Santa Fe, in insisting that we would not like it as much as Taos – too busy, too big, too “in your face”. There seemed to be a rivalry between the two. We would have to wait and see.
We couldn’t come to Taos without visiting Taos Pueblo: one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. The community is basically a small town, where its inhabitants live their lives in a very traditional way without electricity and other amenities that most if us take for granted. Their water comes from their “sacred lake” up in the mountains and is collected from the river running through the Pueblo.
Houses are made from Adobe, which is a mixture of earth, water and straw or grass, compacted together and formed into bricks that are dried out in the sun. More earth is used to provide an outside layer for weather-proofing and insulation.
Some dwellings are multi-story, such is the strength of the Adobe brickwork.
We were told that approximately ten families live in the Pueblo and their houses were open to the public, where they sold home-made jewellery and other works of art plus biscuits and bread baked in their Adobe-built ovens.
One of the inhabitants – a young man – took us on a short tour of the place. Most of his talk was about the injustices of the past and how his people were treated when the first Europeans and Americans arrived on the scene: a story of displacement and war. Thankfully, it was President Nixon who, after years of pressure applied to multiple presidents, gave these people back their land including their sacred lake.
It was only when we were shown the graveyard that the plight of the Puebloan people really hit home. This is the site of the church, where people sought sanctuary but were killed anyway. There is a story of women, who were taken from the church and hanged. The bell tower in the photo below is the original building. Everything else was destroyed in war.
After the tour, we went back to the graveyard for a closer look and there was a local man there who we began talking to.
“That’s my grandmother over there,” he said, “near the gate.”
He pointed to one of the crosses just a few feet away in the graveyard and the conversation turned, once again, to past injustices. He was a small man with a dark, deeply-lined and weathered face, jet-black hair and wore jeans and a blue checked shirt – cowboy style. His family had been here for generations. He was also very interested in our trip and our reasons for being here. But now the weather was closing in and the Pueblo was about to close to visitors. It was time to leave.
We spent the night in Fanta Fe.