Off-Grid Doesn't Necessarily Mean Resilient or Sustainable

The mission of the Strong Towns movement is to support a model of development that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient. And while much of what we talk about is at the community level and related to the design of our built environment, there’s a large place in this discussion for the role of financial strength and resilience in our individual lifestyles, as well.

After all, government is but one of the arrangements through which we obtain the resources we need to survive—and so there is a broader question at stake when we talk about a government that can pay its bills: that of a society that can do so. Are we generating real wealth for posterity, or are we living beyond our means now in ways that our descendants will end up paying for?

It is in this spirit that we’ve invited people like Mr. Money Mustache to be part of our conversation, and that we’ve featured musings on off-grid and/or frugal living and personal resilience from writers like Karen Treanor and Steven Shultis.

Today’s guest post along those lines is from Leah Nelson, a Strong Towns writer who discusses the time she spent living on New Mexico’s Two Peaks Mesa, and makes the case that the apparent sustainability of a life without costly public infrastructure isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

Many people across the country have embraced the minimalist, off-grid lifestyle in recent years. Reasons for this rural exodus vary widely, from anti-capitalism ideals and affordability to a commitment to minimalism, individual fiscal prudence, or ecological sustainability. But maintaining an ecological balance is an insurmountable task in many rural areas, where off-grid living is attainable, but building a Strong Town may be out of reach.

Some off-gridders come close, like those living on the Earthship Biotecture in Taos County, New Mexico, which Strong Towns visited in September. The Earthship is an organized community of sorts, but residents still heavily rely on city amenities including groceries, laundry facilities, and entertainment.

Others are solitary homesteads, or else rag-tag “neighborhoods” that eschew conventional organization and building plans and, in a way, keep the Wild West alive.

One such community is just down the road from the purposefully built Earthship community—a 2 mile drive down scenic State Highway 64, and then a right turn onto Sheep Herders Road, just before the stunning Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. 

From there, visitors still have a few miles to travel, on uneven, unpaved roads, until the first homesteads come into view.

The Mad Max-esque destination is Two Peaks Mesa, or simply “Two Peaks” or “The Mesa” to its residents. And the undetermined number of vagabonds, free spirits, disabled veterans, and social outcasts who live there are just a small chunk of the U.S. off-grid population. 

2016 estimates put the number of people living off-grid in the U.S. in the ballpark of 180,000. But that number may vary greatly as the off-grid lifestyle is fleeting for many—a large number of those heading to The Mesa with the notion of living a free, simple life find that they can’t handle the isolation or the lack of the city amenities they're accustomed to. And those who do stay often find that living a “free” off-grid lifestyle can be arduous and expensive.

Once, I was one of them. An idealist looking for a sustainable alternative to my wasteful, materialistic life in small-town America. But in 2009, after about 4 years of Mesa living, I traded in my converted city bus near the edge of Two Peaks for life in the big city, and I never looked back.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate. I think about those days often, although less so as the years go by. Late at night, I sometimes reminisce about the night sky as seen from my Mesa home. Few views compare to the majestic Sangre de Cristos mountain range (the highest in New Mexico) crowned by the Milky Way and its infinite stars. It’s this type of poetic idealism that has drawn visitors to Taos for centuries.

Along with the unparalleled beauty of my former home, I also ruminate on the myriad problems that accompany Mesa living, sustainability in particular.

Not as Inexpensive as it Seems

The Taos home—now a museum—of frontiersman Kit Carson, the namesake of Carson Estates. (Source: Flickr)

While difficult to confirm, like so many other local tales on The Mesa, it is said that Carson Estates (the official name of Two Peaks, still present on deeds and area maps) was once intended to be a semi-rural suburb of Taos, with a true infrastructure, strict zoning laws, and pre-fab houses. Sometime in the 1960s, around the same time that hippies discovered the majesty of Taos and began to move to the area en masse, plans for Carson Estates were scrapped.

Why some of those free spirits began to settle in a remote landscape, in a climate that receives only 13 inches of rain annually, is unclear but likely comes down to the cost factor. Today, a quarter acre of Two Peaks land will set you back an average of $1,900, if you purchase through a realty company. That’s equal to one month’s rent in many major cities.

However, as Strong Towns has noted, “affordable housing isn’t affordable if your transportation costs are too high.”

My housing costs were essentially nil after purchasing the land and gutted bus. But my homestead, on the far edge of Two Peaks in Unit 11, was 16 miles from the nearest grocery store, 8 miles from a gas station, and a 20-mile drive to the nearest hospital, Holy Cross. Thus, both affordability and walkability were off the table.

There’s also the cost of necessities to consider. Taos County itself exists in a sort of isolation, far from big cities, big box stores, and regular bus service. Its picturesque yet remote location means elevated gas and food prices, stretching thin budgets even thinner in an area where more than 22 percent of residents live below the poverty line, nearly the national average of 14 percent. Further, the high elevation of Taos (7,200 feet above sea level) means that foods typically cook more slowly than at lower elevations, resulting in excess fuel consumption and cost.

Compounding Taos County’s rural isolation issue is the fact that a reliable, 4-wheel-drive vehicle is a necessity when one lives so far removed from the grid. The NM State Cooperative Extension Service’s “Code of the West” for Taos County lays out just some of the transportation issues that accompany local rural living, including:

●      Increased vehicle maintenance costs

●      Impassable roads during periods of inclement weather

●      Significantly delayed response times of emergency vehicles

●      School bus service blackout areas

While it doesn’t necessarily set out to do so, Taos County’s Code of the West provides viable proof that off-grid living and green living don’t always co-exist.

In fact, on The Mesa, green living isn’t even a goal for many of those living on the rugged land.  In contrast to their Earthship neighbors, Two Peaks residents first settled the area with cheap land and over-arching freedom in mind rather than the concepts of sustainability or community. And with land that is zoned agricultural/residential/recreational with no time frame to build, or even requirements to build, nearly any structure can become a dwelling place.

On the Mesa, you’ll see everything from eco-friendly, straw bale adobe homes built to code and equipped with solar power and running water, to semi-dilapidated manufactured homes with no amenities to speak of. And while many Two Peaks homes, solar-powered and rustic alike, use wood stoves for some or all of its heating needs, cooking typically requires another source, one that only the town of Taos can provide: propane.

The Need for Fuel and Water

The need for natural gas means that even the most steadfast off-gridder is essentially tied to the grid. And that could be a problem in years to come. According to some estimates, natural gas, including propane, will become scarce in the next few decades. About 55 years from now, these essential gases could no longer be available, off-grid or on.

And propane isn’t the biggest challenge. Nearly 50 years after the Summer of Love and the bohemian immigration to Taos, water remains a critical issue in the high desert. And on the Mesa, the problem is a trifecta: Taos County’s arid climate, coupled with the high cost of drilling a well and statewide water rights issues mean that the Mesa is a dry place. Water must be hauled in or collected via rooftop collection systems of an impervious roof material, gutters, and cisterns.

In Taos County, as well as in numerous other rural and semi-rural areas, infrastructure is not heavily subsidized but is the responsibility of off-grid homeowners, meaning that off-grid residents are responsible for collecting their own water. However, the cost of drilling a well is prohibitive to the majority of rural Taos County residents. And as the Code of the West points out, “Having a well permit doesn’t guarantee that there will be water where you first drill for it.”

If you do possess the financial means to drill a well and you locate a viable water source, your work is just beginning. The water must still be stored, in large quantities. Also, gathered water must be treated before consumption, a massive job where an entire community is concerned but a relatively simple endeavor for an individual homeowner.

This doesn’t mean I’m advocating for private wells. On the contrary, I believe that rugged individualism on the Mesa should be limited to housing and personal privacy. Water brings life to the desert and the homesteads that dot its landscape, and those who are fortunate enough to possess a well on their property should consider sharing that water with their neighbors.

In an area where underserved residents lack access to reliable transportation and the ability to haul large amounts of water, accessing a shared-use, community well could improve the wellbeing of the entire community.

Beyond Rugged Individualism

The Earthship model favors individual property ownership over shared spaces, just as Two Peaks residents tend to do. Both areas, however, inherently lack the vital features that turn a group of single-family houses into a true community, especially shared spaces where members can gather over locally-grown food and stories, and build a lasting foundation of trust and cooperation. 

Surprisingly, the Earthship Biotecture lacks communal spaces with the exception of its Visitors Center, which was built for tourists and those interested in building an Earthship rather than for the residents of the community.

And as Earthship dwellers partially rely on grocery stores for food, they fail to achieve true sustainability and off-grid living. Rural Taos County is a massive food desert, and those living off-grid can improve the overall health of their entire neighborhood by taking a page from walkable communities: Instead of growing their own veggies and edible plants in the passive solar greenhouses that double as living spaces, neighbors can work together and turn unused outdoor spaces into community gardens.

Shared neighborhood gardens provide incalculable value to an off-grid community. Along with helping community members to supplement their food budget, a community garden can foster personal connections, beautify the overall space, and bring a neighborhood closer to true sustainability.

Community gardens, designated meeting spaces, and a communal shared water program are achievable goals for rural off-grid neighborhoods and may help bring rural areas closer to achieving Strong Town status. But individualism and a continued reliance on the town of Taos for basic necessities will likely keep Two Peaks and Earthship residents reliant on the grid into the foreseeable future.

Why did I ultimately leave Two Peaks? It was a complicated mix of inefficient transportation options, drought-like conditions culminating in a long-term water shortage, and general loneliness that ultimately drove me off of the Mesa and eventually New Mexico altogether.

In a walkable community, where accessibility, affordability, and health are key components, the issues that led me to back to city life would have been virtually non-existent. Perhaps I would have stayed if Two Peaks felt more like a liveable community rather than a gathering of strangers. Maybe I would have worked with my neighbors to build a free communal coffee house and meeting space, with a community garden in the back. Or drilled a well and shared the bounty with my thirsty neighbors.

It’s been almost a decade. Maybe that high desert community coffee shop/edible garden is someone’s reality today on Two Peaks Mesa.

(Cover photo: Wikimedia Commons)

About the Author

Leah D. Nelson writes about music, sustainability, and traveling. Her work has been featured on Flypaper, Backroad Planet, Insteading, and Mobility Lab. The single parent of a creative and dorky teenager, Leah lives, works, and rides her bike in Boise, Idaho. You can read about her adventures on Twitter: @PrincessLeahD23