Simple Living in the Southwest

We're discovering the simple living in the Southwest and the wonders of solar power, desert gardening and living on less.

Southwest Cabin

The solar, straw bale house.


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I never thought I’d be asking my children this question, but there it was: “Would you rather have a house with land or indoor plumbing?” My children, ages 9, 11 and 13, didn’t hesitate: “Land,” they said. That settled it.

After months of combing the Internet for houses in northern New Mexico, I finally found one with everything we’d said we wanted. It was near the mountains; it had trees; it was only 30 minutes from Taos; and even though it sat on five acres, it was still within my meager budget. The house was also located in a gorgeous spot, with one set of mountains looming large to the east, and a charming valley stretching away to the west, bordered by ethereal mountain ranges beyond.

On the other hand, it was a 500-square-foot, one-room cabin. The only electricity was from one solar panel that pumped just enough juice to draw water from the cistern and run a low-wattage light. In lieu of a bathroom, it had an outhouse and a shower enclosure in one corner of the cabin, with a camper’s shower bag hanging over it. It had a woodstove for heat, a propane stove for cooking and no refrigerator.

The cabin was a radical departure from our little farmhouse in Kansas City, Mo., where nature was harnessed into manicured lawns and tidy hedges. But for me, the cabin was a dream come true. While living in Kansas City, I’d been working to live more simply: I started a little garden, stopped using air conditioning and learned to rely on a woodstove for heat. But moving to this cabin would really test the convictions I’d been spouting for years.

My kids, who are far more game than most children I’ve met, kept expecting me to get over this fantasy — like the time I wanted to get a nose ring — but I didn’t. I bought the little cabin and we moved in.

Low-Impact Living

Our cabin is a straw bale octagon that was built by a woman and her adolescent son. They built it out of beautiful stripped logs and straw bales plastered with cement stucco, which makes it feel unbelievably cozy, quiet and sturdy.

The first night I heard the winds roar down from the mountains, I worried that my car would be knocked over. But the house was unshaken. The front three walls of our house face south and are built almost entirely of double-pane glass. The temperature doesn’t matter, if the sun is shining — and it usually is — our house will be warm by about 10 a.m. and stay warm until long after nightfall. During the winter, one good fire at night keeps the place very comfortable.

A Spirit of Adventure

When we moved here about two years ago, my main job was as a freelance journalist. I stumbled into another job when, one weekend, my kids and I volunteered to help a local environmental organization, Amigos Bravos, block illegal ATV paths that were damaging the forest. The leader of that project was looking for a program coordinator for another environmental group, the Rio Colorado Reclamation Committee, that’s tackling pollution from a local mine. I fit the bill and she hired me. My jobs allow me to work from home, which is great because I’ve always homeschooled my children.

I was, in many ways, completely unprepared for this adventure. I didn’t really understand how to work the solar-electric system or the pump that sucked water from the cistern and groaned deafeningly, like a cranky garbage disposal that’s caught hold of a fork.

Fortunately, I have smart and curious children. By reading the owner’s manual and playing with the switches on the DC power box and inverter, we learned which ones turned on the water pump, and which turned on the outlets. We saw that if the indicator light was green, we were good to go. If it turned yellow, we were getting low on battery power and if it turned red, we were in danger of zapping our batteries entirely.

We made a few mistakes. I knew that refrigerators were energy hogs, but I didn’t realize that so is anything else that heats or cools. One day, feeling bold, we plugged in the toaster oven and tried to make a piece of toast. The power indicator on the inverter looked like the stock market ticker on Black Monday. After that we made toast in the propane oven. Working has been another challenge. I need my computer to write, so when the power is too low to run my laptop, I drive 30 minutes to an Internet cafe in Taos.

But learning to live with very little electricity was easier than I thought it would be. One doesn’t, it turns out, actually need a food processor, microwave oven, television, blow dryer, or any of those other things that are part of a “normal” household.

Living without privacy was something else. My oldest and youngest children are boys and my middle child is a girl. We plan to add a small straw bale addition this summer, which will give us additional bedrooms, but we needed something in the meantime. I thought of the pioneers who rigged up bedrooms using sheets suspended from the ceiling, and decided to make a wall comprising bookshelves, my dresser, a set of glass-front kitchen cabinets I’d bought at a salvage place and a wonderful old quilt. This divides the front of the house, with the sink, woodstove and front door, from the back of the house, where we have the shower enclosure and the beds.

Also in the back of the house we have our chamber pot, of sorts. I knew we wouldn’t want to travel to the outhouse in the middle of the night — bears, mountain lions and coyotes all live around here. So we built an indoor toilet, based on a design I found on the Internet. It’s a box with a removable lid, and a toilet seat that sits on top of a 5-gallon bucket with some wood shavings in the bottom. My children are appalled if, while buying the shavings, I make any reference to how we intend to use them. For the benefit of anyone in the store who might be listening, I am supposed to pretend we have a gerbil.

I thought the outhouse was going to be my biggest obstacle. I met a woman who, every time she had to go to the outhouse in the winter, picked up her two cats and took them along as insulation. I had also heard of people who found all kinds of lovely things to say about outhouses. I thought those people were deluded, but now I understand them better. When I step outside first thing in the morning, even on a rainy or snowy day, I am always struck by beauty. The smell of the sagebrush and the pine trees mingles with the sound of birds, and I have new joy to be here.

In fact, my biggest trial has been the lack of a refrigerator. We eat a lot of canned vegetables and beans, and canned tuna and chicken, as well as pasta and rice, but fresh food has been more of a challenge. I’ve learned that buying ice every day costs a fortune and that one good thing about high-fat foods, such as butter and whole milk, is that they actually keep better. We also realized that to eat more fresh vegetables, we needed to plant a garden.

Desert Living

Because we lack a reliable water supply, we didn’t try to plant our own garden the first spring we lived here. But a friend shared her garden with us, so the kids learned about tilling, planting and the irrigation canals called acequias, whose water is as precious as gold in this arid climate. The local official in charge of when the acequias run is called the mayordomo, and he decides how much water each person gets. We had to water on his schedule and do flood irrigation — like the ancient Egyptians. While inundating the fields with water is not my favorite irrigation method, it does figure heavily into ancient history, and I thought it was cool for the kids to learn about it firsthand.

In fact, when I think about it, the kids have learned a lot of what I hoped they would learn by moving here. We’ve been so busy, I hardly noticed. They’ve learned from daily life that rain and snow mean water for us, not just the plants. We buy our drinking water, but our bathing water falls from the sky, onto our roof, down a drain pipe and into the cistern. When there’s a dearth of moisture, the cistern goes dry. That connects our lives with nature in a practical way, which I love.

It’s the same with sunshine. When the sun shines, the house is warm and there’s enough power to run the water pump and sometimes even a light or two. When the sky is overcast or the days are short, we know we have to plan ahead. We must collect water during the middle of the day when the sunlight is powering the water pump. If we don’t, then when we turn the water on in the evening or early morning, the thing might not work at all. The kids know they have to gather wood for the fire. And last fall, they gathered pine nuts for food from our hundreds of piñon trees as well as pine cones and sage brush for kindling.

They’ve also learned not to be fussy. We all revel in visiting people with houses where we can take long, hot showers and watch a movie. But we also love coming back to our cabin where we have to heat our shower water in a soup pot on the stove and use only a couple of gallons apiece; where we have to make the fire and empty the chamber pot, and we read at night by oil lamp or flashlight.

And we have our five untamed acres of piñon and sagebrush, prickly pears and yucca plants. Hundreds of rabbits live here, and a pack of coyotes lives nearby. We’ve seen bear scat and mountain lion or bobcat tracks. We have human neighbors, but we can’t see them from the house.

At night there is silence and a dark sky full of stars. When the moon is full, it turns the piñon to indigo and the sagebrush to silver and one expects to see mythical creatures dancing outside. We have plans for goats and chickens and horses and a garden. But whether we cultivate the land or just enjoy the wildness of it, I have to say, I think the kids made the right decision.

5/11/2011 8:31:34 PM

I too enjoyed your article and would love an update. I live some 'green' but really want to become more so. My setback is money. I would be interested in knowing more from Gloria_1 also. To know what profession she was preparing for. I prepared to be a carpenter. And I am one. But I forgot there are still prejudice against women in America. No one will hire me because I'm a woman. And now, even though I'm a good office worker. They won't hire me because I worked 10 years as a carpenter. Good for you Susan Lahey!! Your kids are a testiment to you as a mom too.

betty l
5/11/2011 1:30:21 PM

To sksteward_1: My family and I lived with an outdoor toilet for many years when I was young and CPS never came to see us! That's just the way it was and for many others. And my Dad did not believe in the inside pot unless we were ill, confined to bed and could not go outside and down the path quite a ways away from the house. Got a bathroom when I was in Jr. High School. Then after I got married at 18 my husband went to work on a dairy farm and the tenant house we lived in only had an outhouse, a pump outside the kitchen door several feet away. We had a small old laundry stove in the kitchen where I heated water for laundry, etc., in colder weather. I did have a wringer washer on the back porch as we did have electric, and I dried my laundry in the very small rooms upstairs in the winter. It was a very small house and I had many Sunday dinners for both sides of our families with home made yeast rolls, and all the other trimmings. Since we got milk from the dairy and I didn't like whole milk, I always skimmed it and then churned butter from the cream in a Mason jar to top my rolls. I always had refrigator dough in my frig and my husband (at the time) also had hot rolls for breakfast because they milked early and I then would make up the rolls that we needed for breakfast. I remember some were surpised that a bride of 18 could do that.Of course I realize I am 76 now and I would hate to go to that right now. I live in a city now as I have for many years.

suzanne horvath
5/11/2011 12:37:36 PM

Since this story is 4 yrs old, it would be nice to have an update with photos. I'm assuming that they are not still living exactly the same way as when they first moved there. Solar power has changed for the better in recent years. Sites like Lehman's have lots of "off the grid" appliances and gadgets. I'm compiling a large online notebook for when I can start my adventure in the Southwest. I'm leaning towards hyperadobe, but if I find something already built (like Susan's property) that can be customized, then I'll rethink the plans. And the older I get, the sooner I need to do this :-} I will be so glad to get away from the sound of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, weed whackers etc. Even on a Sunday morning, it's impossible to sit outside and enjoy a cup of coffee and relax. Someone will fire up some piece of equipment and off we go! Peace and quiet is something I long for.

8/9/2008 2:27:08 PM

Way to go, susan! Having lived off grid in southern Colorado for 3 years, I love what Susan has to say. I know she is living as she says. I would like to recommend for expanding her solar capabilities affordably. Also I would recommend buying an older propane fridge. They can be had for under $500.00 at times. Mine ran on one 5 gallon propane tank per month and allowed the luxury of occasional ice cream (as long as you remember to get dry ice at the grocery store so it is still frozen when you get it home). I have also lived with the sawdust potty. You may be able to get the sawdust for free (we did) from a local sawmill. Just take a rubber garbage can and fill it up once you have permission! I loved not having utility bills hanging over our heads every month! I also loved the blue skies nearly every day, the very visible milky way at night and the way you learn respect for your animals and they for you as you work together to survive. I am currently learning a profession I can do from anywhere so am looking forward to living off grid again in the future.

6/21/2008 10:40:53 AM

Wow, what a life story! I think the hardest thing (for me) would be having no privacy. Sometimes you just need to get away from your kids. Mine bicker to distraction. Hope Susan is able to get a few more creature comforts (hot showers, etc.) and with an addition to her home a little more "me time" for the mom. Do Susan's children have friends? Being home schooled seems a little lonely. In the past, people used to grow hollyhocks to beautify the outhouse. Wonder if hollyhocks can grow in arid locations with extra irrigation? Good luck, Susan! What an adventure!

saint tim
6/20/2008 9:42:31 PM

That story was very inspiring. I live in KC currently and live a very simple life green minded life. One thing struck me odd. Buying ice every day and driving 30 minutes to a cyber cafe seem to off set some of the simplicity. I kept waiting to read that she upgraded her solar power or something to add a little more power to the home and stop her from having to drive to purchase her other needs. Great story all the same.

10/29/2007 4:46:27 PM

I don't think the bravest thing she has done is publish this article like the last commenter implies! I think it is extremely brave to look convention in the face and make a bold move against it. Moving her family across country to a more "simple" green yet beautiful life all on her own was extremely brave. I would argue pioneering even in this world of fast food and electronic gadgets. Yes one can make small steps to a better world by choosing canvas over plastic but I applaud Susan for taking HUGE STRIDES for a greener planet and a better life. It couldn't have been easy!

9/24/2007 9:20:40 PM

Living simply can be done on 5 acres in NM or in 5 rooms on Manhattan. And, it only takes simple changes. Our family lives in an older mobile home on 2.5 acres. We have indoor plumbing but heat (and sometimes cook) with wood; we garden; we use products that have little packaging; we use canvas bags at the store. Very little changes can make a difference for everyone. The bravest thing that Susan has done is publish her story in a national magazine. Someone CPS working lurking out there will decide that her children are being neglected because of the outhouse.

7/9/2007 1:02:29 AM

I would love to hear from Susan Lahey. She is living my dream. I would like to contact her to talk about how she achieved it. Thanks

6/5/2007 9:40:39 AM

I was reading Simple Living in the Southwest by Susan Lahey. I was wondering how I could contact her.I wish speak to her about her article. Any help cntacting her would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.