We had barely begun our long-delayed, much deserved summer reading on a tranquil desert morning at the earthship when I heard an unnatural utterance from my wife in the next room. “What is it?” I queried. There was a muted buzzing sound and an eerie silence, followed by the vacation-shattering cry: “Lock the kids in the bedroom!”
Tina stared into the cold, alien gaze of the rattler nestled among her sandals and the children’s shoes. The snake reared back, ready to strike. Time stopped. Its triangular head pointed directly at the intruder, not wanting to strike and release its limited supply of poison, but prepared to do so if necessary. Its tongue flitted anxiously, tracking the humanoid movement, gathering information from its genetic memory banks to use for the lightening strike, soon to be called in with pinpoint accuracy should that creature reach out a second time.
The three week family vacation in the “Greater World” earthship community of Taos, New Mexico, was simply a victim of extenuating circumstances – and some poor choices. Minor calamities began before we ever set sail. When the family started out in Venice, California, there were early signs that the trip wouldn’t be smooth. In classic tragedies, there usually are such forebodings issued by the gods.
Our family's exit from the forceful orbit of Los Angeles included a mad dash to get the place ready for the vacationers who were renting our home for the month. Coming at the tail end of a remodel, we scrambled to get new carpets and kitchen countertops installed (24 hours prior to leaving). On the morning of our departure, we aspired to put our ’78 diesel Benz greasecar in the garage, but it didn’t budge. Tina and I eventually pushed as our 10-year-old son steered the vehicle around the block, cajoling it into the garage. We'd deal with repairing it upon our return.
We hit the road, bound for Vegas, kicking off a week of preambling travel in a cramped Prius across five Western states, en route to the earthship. We were Miles and Tina, son, Zachary, three-year-old daughter, Katrina, and our desert tortoise, Speedy. At some point in the blur of travel preparation, Tina decided it would be fitting to take the tortoise. There was an indoor garden at the earthship, he’d enjoy the spacious retreat. I didn’t recall having much of a say in it, though I had misgivings, forebodings and warnings in the back of my mind and knew they existed for a reason.
Tina and Zachary had probably lost Speedy nearly a dozen times. One time he bolted beneath a fence, trudged down the alley and took up residence in our neighbor’s yard down the street for a week. He enjoyed trips to the beach, frequented cafes with the family, and had won tortoise-racing competitions, almost taking on an aura of invincibility with his solid shell and sturdy gait. Speedy had begun to seem like a reincarnated cat with nine lives. I imagined Speedy wandering away from the earthship, off into the desert, never to be seen again. As it was, even though his name defined him as a desert tortoise, it didn’t mean the species was impervious to heat, especially those raised as pets.
Five days into the trip, having rushed out early for a boating trip on Lake Powell, Speedy died back at the campsite in a shaded, ventilated tent with a plate of dried-up apples beside him. We were hit by record-setting heat of nearly 120 degrees. After a long night and a period of mourning, we stowed Speedy inside the kayak atop the car and buried him along the way, near Monument Valley in southern Utah.
That night, near Moab, a strong wind whipped through the campsite and flattened half the tents. It was the kind of wind you hear approaching like a bullet train. Scrambling to keep the tent (made of kite-like materials) connected to the earth, it felt as if the family might be lifted up into the air and flown away. Was this the work of angry gods, we thought, punishing us for our transgressions with Speedy. The next morning brought more bad news.
While entering the grandeur of Arches National Park, Tina received a call that her aunt had died. The images of fantastic natural beauty, now bittersweet, etched forever upon our minds. Were we reckless? Ill-prepared? Unlucky? I thought of how my dad had instigated a 16-mile horseback trip through a canyon called Keet Siel, in Arizona, when he was five years old. Each with his own horse, they had zigzagged down steep canyon ledges and galloped across the canyon floor at high speeds. He was even bitten by his cousin’s horse.
Along the way, and well into our stay in New Mexico, creditors and subcontractors chased us about payments. Lingering bills for the remodel combined with a failed batch of scheduled electronic bills forced us to become cybernomads, driving up and down the main strips of sleepy Western towns, lurking with laptops in dark motel parking lots, trying to find free wireless networks to transact business and stop the bleeding of late fees and finance charges. We didn’t realize our lives had become so intertwined with wireless and online communications.
We wondered when, exactly, that had happened, where the line (or cable) had been crossed. For now, though, we were on the long destination stretch toward stability and safety in New Mexico. Crossing the state line, the police were waiting for us. I wondered why so many state and county lines have steep downhill grades that are easy pickings for quota-hungry cops? Welcome to New Mexico.
As dusk approached and the warm glow of sunset stretched across the hilly sagebrush landscape, we pulled into the earthship “neighborhood". Curious abodes nestled partway into the ground, resembling Luke Skywalker’s village of Tattoine. The children bolted from the car and ran around in front of the earthship. My niece found a four-foot-long Western rattlesnake curled up in the overgrown grass, warming itself against the earthship wall. (Family members had joined us). My father and I had the task of getting rid of the rattler. We shooed it away and checked the grass and brush surrounding the place – an unsettling experience. The earthship had no land line, cell phones were rendered virtually worthless in the Southwest outback. We had to be reasonable. Snakes and other critters were a part of normal desert life. This one had gone on its merry way.
The “biotecture” of earthships is wondrous. Constructed from rehashed and sustainable materials (i.e. car tires rammed with dirt form the basic walls and local clay cut with mica becomes an integral part of the sculptural walls). There’s a magical, non-linear quality to the design. Water is re-used as much as possible: greywater from the kitchen sink and showers flow into the interior garden before seeping into the exterior gardens. Sustainable living dictates that windows are positioned on the southern side, and that earth is pushed up against the northern side (to preserve heat in the winter and coolness in the summer).
In the purplish pre-dawn light, we often saw distant hot air balloons hovering over the gorge. At night, we were sometimes awoken by elk thundering across the earthship mound overheard, which butted up against the bedroom ceiling. Crickets chirped — inside. House rules: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down". With the group sharing a single bathroom, this might have seemed tiresome, but it was only a minor inconvenience.
What was more troubling was the split-level design of the two main rooms, with rustic ladders accessing the upper levels, but with no railings to prevent a kid from stepping backwards off the eight-foot drops, onto hard slate flooring. With our daughter fond of climbing, we limited access to the upper levels, living in fear of an accident. We couldn’t let the kids roam outside, and there were plenty of hazards inside, too.
To make a cell phone call, Tina and I had to go outside and climb on top of the earthen mound. Each could be seen at times traipsing back and forth like some strange bird that’s mating, trying to attract a signal by holding the phone out, in various configurations — all the while battling swarming ants that were trying to get into the house via the fireplace flume. If the flies didn’t get us, the chunky flying beetles with compromised navigational systems occasionally collided with our faces. If by some miracle the phone connected, it would inevitably drop out in the middle of the call.
An RV parked in front of the earthship was an experiment in contrasts and paradox. Though the two abodes shared a fiercely independent, survivalist mentality, in more obvious ways, they were polar opposites. The RV took double-digit gas mileage (swallowing nearly $200.00 worth of fossil fuels each fill-up), and was made of unnatural materials. The earthship demanded a militantly natural design process and aimed for a footprintless existence vis-à-vis the earth.
We hit the annual powwow at the Taos Pueblo, and enjoyed some leisurely entertainment – until I received a desperate call: “There’s brown liquid coming through the ceiling from the upstairs and down the walls of the apartment". Days of back and forth broken cell conversations later, necessitated a healing activity. We sought legendary hot springs nestled beside the Rio Grande River. In our quest, we dodged mud puddles. Trying to squeeze around one particularly large puddle, I slid into it and got that sinking feeling. How to extract ourselves? At first we tried to stay out of the mud, but quickly realized that would be impossible. Somewhere in the frenzy, Zachary dropped the video camera in the puddle and Katrina had a hunger fit.
By the time we had redirected a good deal of the water through an intricate network of midget canals, a benevolent local sped around the puddle and offered assistance. He also gave us a ride to the hot springs. Things were looking up. The next morning we limited our adventures to the earthship and catching up on summer reading. After a few trips to the car, gathering items from the previous day’s adventure, we allowed the kids to indulge in unbridled screen time. At some point the rattler returned. When Tina bent down and reached for her sandals, their eyes locked. “Lock the kids in the bedroom!”
Was this the snake we'd seen before, I thought. We reached the caretaker by phone. He came quickly, used the end of a rake to gently scoop up the surprisingly docile creature and put it in a covered garbage pail. He drove it many miles away, across the chasm of the Rio Grande gorge and let it go.
They say whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Adventure, by its own definition, involves certain measures of hazard, risk and unknown factors. As a parent, you can’t afford to ignore reasonable precautions and have contingency plans in place. Finding a proper balance between these two facets of travel is called Life.