In the spirit of trial and error, and with a propensity as old as humanity itself, Anton Tinner forges a path to freedom. With a barely-existent budget, trailer loads of recycled materials and the will to live a life free of debt and dependence on the industrial military complex, Anton’s effort is reminiscent of another era: an era which espoused the grit and ingenuity generations of human beings drew upon to survive in harsh desert and mountain regions. This grit is necessary not only in West Texas, but throughout the Earth and throughout humanity’s long and evolving tenure here.
Terms like sustainability, survivalism or off-grid living could be applied to this ancient/modern concept. The idea is that a human being could survive and provide for their simple needs from the land around them, however harsh. Unlike our ancestors, modern man has the great boon of scientific discovery and technology which create an arena of unlimited potential, and provide the infrastructure to sustain lives and lifestyles. Anton Tinner’s 20 acres in the Chihuahuan Desert is an experiment into what is possible.
He knew almost nothing about the region, community, and landscape in which he purchased his property sight-unseen off an internet site, searching “cheap property.” After some research and discovering Brewster County’s lack of building code requirements, Anton hit the “buy now” button. He gave up his career, let go of his city house and set out to make a home in a desert of which he knew very little. Yet he was certain about putting his ideals and his body into action, to build his forever home and his independence. Inspired by sustainability concepts such as earthships, geodesic domes and alternative energy, his desire is to be “free of a consumptive human system that is broken, or actually never worked at all.”
Raised on an exotic game ranch in the hill county outside Austin, his first language was French as both his parents immigrated to Texas from France. Anton’s life has always been unique. Growing up, he and his sister spent every other summer with their grandparents in France. Back in Texas he lived among the emu, ostrich, rhea, and ring-tailed lemur his parents raised on the ranch, along with other exotic animals they boarded. He worked seasonally as a party boat captain on Lake Travis, to help finance his land and construction costs. Before his decision to leave the city and the city life, he built a career for 10 years, working his way up to management at one of the largest restaurants in the Austin area.
Though he spent his life in Texas, his only experience with the Big Bend region was a brief visit at 12 years old on a road trip with his family. He knew nothing about Big Bend National Park, nothing about Terlingua, and nothing about the enormous and picturesque landscape of which he was soon to be a part. He knew little about the climate, which is why he embarked upon his new adventure as a land owner and builder in the Chihuahuan desert, just north of the Mexican border, in the relentless heat of summer.
From the beginning his plan was to excavate and build several adjacent subterranean domes with a living area between them, covered by a larger connecting roof. That first summer in 2013, Anton dug out the first dome chamber by hand with a pickax and shovel. The summer heat restricted him to work only for a couple hours around sunrise and sunset. The rest of the day he spent in the only shade he could find, underneath his Jeep. To keep cool he spent five or six hours reading or napping, laying on a piece of cardboard under his high clearance vehicle. After six weeks of this Anton decided to leave and come back to work in the cooler months. His routine until recently was to work on Lake Travis in the summer, and spend the cooler part of the year building his place outside of Terlingua.
The town of Terlingua, already a remote outpost, is a 45 minute drive down seven miles of a slow dirt and gravel road to Anton’s land. And, though the vistas from his location are vast and far-reaching, there are no visible signs of humanity except for the remains of an abandoned hunting camp in a nearby arroyo, and the rough road that leads there.
In the early 1970s Terlingua’s phone book was one page long. Idealistic desert lovers slowly trickled into the area, restoring ruins in the ghost towns of abandoned mercury mines, as well as erecting their own unique desert shelters.
These early transplants fell in love with the canyons carved by the Rio Grande, their Mexican neighbors, and the beauty and space of a vast mountain desert expanse. For decades Terlingua was a small, friendly, and resilient group; a diverse community tied together by their love for a place and their ability to survive in it. In recent years, the effects of social media, internet sites like Airbnb and reality shows and other programs about the area have turned this once-intimate community into a sprawling, ever-changing collection of “locals” buying up and developing the land and/or living off increasing tourist dollars.
Hard won Terlingua locals are made with time and love of solitude. After seven years, Tinner is not about to give up building his vision of sustainability. Yet, after recently purchasing a small boat, he allows himself time to float the Rio Grande and explore the desert wilderness that has become his home. Though his tenure in South Brewster County is reaching toward a decade, he still knows only a handful of people and has little interaction with the waves of tourists and locals circulating on the distant pavement of the Terlingua Ghost Town. Anton Tinner’s experiment is not only a remnant of the past, but also hope for the future.
The future Anton hopes for is not only regarding his 20 acres, but is aligned with an organization called the Venus Project. According to their website, “the Venus Project recognizes the important connection between global resource management and problems such as war, poverty, and hunger. This project presents a new socio-economic model utilizing science and technology toward social betterment to achieve a sustainable civilization of abundance for all, without exception.”
If one can successfully build and live off-grid in a remote desert landscape, it can be done anywhere. Anton is not the first, nor likely the last, to put his ideals into practice in one of the many remote pockets of the Big Bend. Oftentimes out of necessity, and for lack of infrastructure, many structures in the area rely on solar and wind power, water catchment, grey water systems, composting toilets, solar hot water heaters, and various other sustainable technologies. These technologies provide the comforts of the modern world and allow the opportunity for individuals as well as communities to connect with a simpler, slower, and more ancient way of life.
– Story and photos by Kleo Belay