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.

| June/July 2007

Playing Go

Liam and Dillon play the strategy game "Go."


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.

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.

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