Far West Texas is one of Earth’s truly extraordinary landscapes, inhabited by equally unique communities. The climate, flora, and fauna of Big Bend are at the same time entrancing and austere. It’s a place where “remote” is hardly accurate to describe the distances. All this, and more, combine to attract and produce the creative, resourceful, and tenacious people who make home here. Here is a look into some of those homes.
Alpine Earthship: Ashley & Will Baker
In the 1970s the visionary architect Michael Reynolds began designing and building the first Earthship structures in Taos, New Mexico. These subterranean homes feature exposed south-facing windows and are typically constructed with recycled materials such as scrap tires, cans, and bottles. Load bearing walls are made by stacking tires and filling each tire with rammed earth. One such structure has been a work in progress in Alpine for nearly 30 years. Ten years ago, this loved and quirky structure became the home and ongoing project of Ashley and Will Baker.
When the unfinished Earthship came up for sale, they were determined to make it their family home, though unconventional structures such as theses are virtually impossible to finance. But the unconventional life was the perfect fit for this family of four. Will and Ashley were delighted to move into a home which innately spoke to the imagination and playful nature of their children. They remember how their son and daughter would climb on the roof and walls with their friends, excited and happy in what to them was a giant “playhouse.”
Shaped like a horseshoe and built underground, with windows and doors placed for optimal ventilation, the house needs little in the way of heating and cooling as the earth is a natural insulator. The Bakers use just two small propane heaters when winter temperatures plummet, and they turn on their evaporative coolers only in the afternoons of the hottest summer days. Underground living also creates a natural sound barrier and privacy. Will and Ashley playfully call themselves “sub- terrestrials” and everyone else “top- siders.”
Naturally inclined toward earth- conscious living, inhabiting an Earthship gives the couple no choice but to live an eco-friendly lifestyle. The used water from their shower and sinks returns to the earth through a grey-water system and waters the trees around the house. For this reason, they use only biodegradable soaps and cleaners. The interior walls are plastered with a mixture of water, dirt and sand, none of the manufactured or refined materials like paint or sheetrock are part of their living space. Living in the Earthship has “heightened his senses,” claims Will.
As a building contractor he is familiar with the “nauseating smell of new construction.” A native Alpine resident, Ashley is grateful one of her closest childhood friends, who is unable to enter most homes due to an extreme chemical sensitivity, can visit their house with ease. Will has built houses for most of his life and states that “Nothing in the Earthship is straight or uniform and the dimensional lumber, concepts, and applications of typical construction are not applicable,” which makes working on his own home always interesting and unique.
Ashley and Will’s Earthship is not only a work in progress, it is where life meets art.
Smaller sections of walls were filled in with stacked aluminum cans, bottles and concrete mortar.
The finished interior walls are plastered with a mixture of only water, dirt, and sand.The wooden siding was reclaimed from the local Baptist church.
The roof design is optimal for water catchment. A gutter collects rainwater at the roof’s lowest edge and can be directed into storage tanks.
After the house footprint was excavated, scrap tires filled with rammed earth were laid for the exterior and weight-bearing internal walls.
Terlingua Off-Grid: Zoey and Kevin Sexton
In the mid-1990s Zoey and Kevin Sexton were living and traveling in their RV when they discovered Big Bend National Park and fell in love with the area. During one memorable soak in the National Park hot springs they met Angie Dean, the original owner of the Starlight Theatre in the Terlingua Ghost town. Mid-soak, Angie offered them part-time work, one small part of a menagerie of (post-(semi)retirement) odd jobs and community projects around Terlingua they’ve engaged in throughout the years. From waitressing to bartending and guiding from Jeep and horseback, to helping establish a community garden and recycling program for South Brewster County, the Sextons quickly became valuable members of Terlingua’s remote and unique community.
For a while, they continued living in their intrepid RV, first in the park campgrounds and later for three years amongst the cottonwoods and eucalyptus at La Kiva RV Park. When they landed a long term caretaking job on Terlingua Creek, they knew the Big Bend was more than just a temporary stomping ground. For some time, they continued to spend summers in their native Minnesota, and more recently pieces of the hottest months in Virginia, where their son lives with his family. In 1999 they bought 40 acres bordering Big Bend National Park and made the Chihuahuan desert their permanent home. They moved the RV onto a magnificent piece of the raw undeveloped desert, which through their persistent ingenuity grew to encompass 200 acres and five structures.
Since the 70s, the Sextons developed and sustained an interest in alternative energy and natural building. They were eager to manifest their vision of a home ensconced in the solitude, peace, and rugged beauty of a remote location, without sacrificing the comforts of modern life. Homesteading in pre- “boom” Terlingua, before the town hosted even a hardware store, the goal was to utilize their savings in building a compound which would be self-supporting and require very little in the way of monthly bills.
More than 20 years later, they are a testament to the power of vision and dedication as they enjoy a comfortable existence in a home they built slowly over the years, without heavy machinery and far from the supply chain of box stores. As Kevin likes to muse, “We are not rich in money, but we are rich in time.”
An interior view of the bathhouse. The detailed stonework was constructed by a local master mason.
Except for the coldest winter nights or in times of extreme wind and rain, when they move into the main house, the Sexton’s bedroom is an open-air stand alone building.
The bathhouse contains a shower and sink. Used water, known as grey water, runs from the drains under ground to water the eucalyptus trees surrounding the building.The trees were grown from seed Kevin collected at La Kiva.
A container garden in an enclosure which protects from freezing in winter and overheating in hotter months. The garden produces up to 25% of the Sexton’s diet from September to April.