Yurt Living on the Rio Grande

Find out how to build a yurt, outfit it with the proper structures and appliances, and settle into yurt living as Lisa tells her story of creating her homestead in northern New Mexico.

| August/September 1999

My half acre is on a high desert mesa in northern New Mexico, 21 miles from the nearest "real" town. It sits above a shallow arroyo on the east side of a soft slope, where sparse sagebrush, thin native grass, black pockmarked volcanic rock and minuscule wildflowers dot the landscape. From my yurt, I have a breathtaking view of a 100-mile stretch of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just below the Colorado border. The Rio Grande Gorge snakes between my mesa and the peaks. The earth under my feet is a powdery mix of adobe and sand; I am told I can seed it into a rough pasture by using a variety of tough drought-resistant native grasses and getting rid of the sagebrush.

Every morning I watch the sun creep slowly over the peaks, burning off the chill of night. At sunset, a golden fight etches the sagebrush in high relief, as lengthening shadows envelop the mountains in pinks and then purples, earning them the name "The Blood of Christ Mountains." When night falls, there are no artificial lights to dim the millions of stars; Orion is right overhead. I understand now why the Native Americans thought the night sky to be a giant bowl. Sometimes as I bump home on my dirt road during the full moon, I turn off my headlights and ghost across the mesa, scaring up jackrabbits along the way.

Why I Chose Yurt Living

I remember how much time I spent racking my brain about how I could get onto this land once I owned it. I looked at every imaginable kind of housing option—from straw-bale to earthship to conventional stick-frame—but I would not have gotten so much as a roof on one of these structures with the money I had. I imagine I could have built something over a period of 10 years, but I did not want a mortgage and I wanted to move in within a year. Considering my circumstances, a yurt seemed the only choice.

One of the most inexpensive, quick to-build, modest and sturdy structures a body can use for shelter, a yurt is the most comfortable way that you can be close to nature and at the same time build a meaningful relationship with your land. Inside my yurt, I can be warm and cozy and protected from the elements while I listen to the beating wings of migrating sandhill cranes passing overhead.

Acquiring and Improving the Land

I found my half acre of paradise through an ad in the classified section of my local paper. It said: "Quarter acres of land for sale: $250." I couldn't believe land could be so inexpensive, so I called. The woman who answered gave me the description of the land for sale and told me she had bought it at the last tax auction in order to sell it for profit. I checked the deeds in the county court house and learned she was indeed the only owner on record. I had no idea what a "unit," "block" or "lot number" was, but I was determined to find out. I went to the county planning department, where for under $10 I purchased a topographic map of the 100-square-mile area and a Xerox of the actual subdivision survey map. I also purchased a USGS topographic map of the same area for around $15.

As it turned out, my property was a minuscule 60' x 180' spec on the lower left quadrant. There's an awful lot of desert out there, but by identifying hills, dirt roads and old highway signs, I got an idea of where it was. I spent day after day inching my way down two-lane ruts and up flood-scoured arroyos with whatever unlucky friend I could snag, looking for invisible 34-year-old wooden surveyor's stakes. Unsuccessful, I bought the land anyway because I liked the view. it took three and a half years before I actually stood on what I carefully measured and determined was my little strip of mesa.

2/16/2016 10:59:42 PM

A well written article. I would like to see some photos - the work in progress and the final product. Also I would like to know how the yurt holds up in the high spring winds in NM. You must have had some 40-50 mph winds. I am in southern NM and several years ago we had 70 mph winds in late March - tore down my greenhouse. I love how you thought this project thru.

1/2/2016 11:48:44 AM

So interesting still, after all these years. How about an update?

3/23/2007 8:48:06 AM

Howdy, found this very interesting article while doing a search for info on old Servel gas refrigerators. Wanted to correct an error (in a friendly manner!) concerning the statement about the old Servel fridges being "outlawed". In the United States, there is a voluntary "recall" where you can get $100 if you prove you have destroyed your unit, but if it still works, it's worth more than that to someone who knows what they are. They are not "outlawed" in the U.S. The powers that be just discourage their use. Also, you could probably make more than $100 by parting it out. Just don't cut open the cooling system! I have read that the old Servels are "outlawed" in Canada, but don't have any factual evidence to support that, and see them advertised for sale on Canadian websites quite often. The recall has to do with carbon monoxide emmisions from the unit if the user doesn't keep the burner and flue clean as per the old factory owner's manuals. Keep the burning system clean, or put the fridge out in the shed or on the front porch like some of the old-timers used to do, and it should be fine. A carbon monoxide detector, as mentioned in the article, is a very good idea just to be safe. I agree with the writer, if you have an old Servel, and use it, protect that sucker, cause they havn't made them since for over 40 years!

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