Have you ever thought to yourself, ” How would I do it if I had it to do all over again?” Usually this thought only pops into your head when you are about to die or your life is in ruin or perhaps during a midlife crisis where family and job stress suddenly takes its toll. This feeling is usually accompanied by mounting debt and an overwhelming feeling of being trapped in the life you have chosen. Tension in the world, an unstable economy, high fuel prices, and mind numbing popular culture may also add to this feeling of utter futility.
YOU won’t find directions to the Field Lab, a homestead two and a half miles off Highway 118, deep in the West Texas desert and 30 miles or so from the Mexican border, on MapQuest. But John Wells, who built the place and lives there all by himself, will meet you under a highway billboard in his white Toyota pickup and lead you in, accompanied by a cloud of tenacious Fizzle Flat dust. (He might even offer you dinner: a plate of red beans, rice and broccoli, and a tangy slice of homemade cheese, olive and beer bread, cooked all afternoon in his solar oven.)
Known locally as the Moonscape, this raggedly lovely landscape of mesas and buttes, mesquite and desert juniper is rough and cheap, which makes it a tempting site for off-the-gridders like Mr. Wells. There are no paved roads, no electricity and no water, but you can see the Milky Way more easily here than you can at the Hayden Planetarium. (Last Thursday night, shooting stars fell with ho-hum regularity.) And your yearly property taxes might be less than a month’s worth of cable and Internet service. Last year, Mr. Wells’s were $86.
With his ZZ Top beard, battered cowboy hat and worn boots, Mr. Wells, 51, looks like a native. But like many of his neighbors, he’s a recent transplant, a former fashion and catalog photographer, late of Manhattan and Columbia County.
Despite those coordinates, which might suggest a kinship with the art-world pilgrims in Marfa, more than 100 miles away — a distance that counts as “nearby” in Texas terms — Mr. Wells is not here to make art, exactly, though his photographs of his new home are exquisite. Nor did he arrive with a book deal or an end date.
Following a long tradition of solitary back-to-the-landers, Mr. Wells came here to hash life out on his own terms. His focus is on taming this rough environment to his own frugal needs, and delighting in the mental and physical puzzles it presents. Wind power or solar? What’s it like to hand-mix cement? How much water can you snatch in a half-hour of rain? Can you dam a gully? How do you build a swamp cooler, or an icebox? How long does it take to cook chicken cutlets in a solar oven? What’s the best Spam flavor? (Hickory-smoked, as it happens.)
“Anyway, if it didn’t work out,” he said, “the investment was so cheap, I’d be able to walk away.”
IN October 2007, Mr. Wells bought this land — a 40-acre parcel — for $8,000 in cash, adding a 20-acre tract for $5,000 a year and a half later. It took nine days and $1,600 to build the shell of his one-room house, the first structure in a compound that now includes four shipping containers under a soaring arched roof planted on a lacy framework of metal trusses, all of which he made himself. He gave it all a fancy moniker, the Southwest Texas Alternative Energy and Sustainable Living Field Laboratory, but you can call it the Field Lab for short.
By the following summer, he had started a blog detailing his daily struggles and small triumphs, planting guy wires for the wind turbines or extracting a scorpion from the composting toilet. In its own quiet way, the diary is as compelling as the notebooks of some of the great 19th-century adventurers — more Joshua Slocum, say, than Barbara Kingsolver.
He shared a recipe for solar-oven baked bread and noted the pleasures of a long hot shower, the water heated by the sun. “Do I stink now there is no one here to smell me?”
He also posted winsome minute-long videos, one of dung beetles rolling a cow patty, another of muddy torrents pouring through the gullies and rock cliffs during a rare (and brief) rainstorm.
Sometimes, he wrote early on, “it’s hard to tell if I’m walking on some distant planet, or just lost in the desert.”
The rest of the blogging world took notice, particularly like-minded frugal-living, off-the-grid types who cheer each other along and trade tips on sustainable systems and practices. In 2009, TreeHugger, the popular environmental site, called Mr. Wells a modern-day Thoreau. By the anniversary of his second year here, he had recorded 200,000 visitors to his blog (this year, his site meter notes over half a million), and had attracted a core of about 800 regular readers, many of whom have come to see the Field Lab for themselves.
Last week, Mr. Wells was an amiable host, chain-smoking through a tour of the raw, rocky land on his still-growing compound, pointing out the ravaged beauty of a gully and the bulldozed bit he is hoping will turn into a temporary lake, come the April rains.
Four shipping containers (bought for $1,000 each), painted in white primer, are planted around an interior courtyard. A crane lifted them onto concrete blocks Mr. Wells laid in, but it was Mr. Wells alone who shimmied each one just so with a car jack and a plumb line.
This year, he’ll set pavers in the covered courtyard and build raised beds for growing vegetables. The roof above is corrugated galvanized metal, with a small section of transparent polycarbonate. (Desert sun has to be filtered; otherwise, it fries your crops.) One container is fitted out for guests, with a beaded curtain as a room divider — behind it, a white four-poster wears striped bedding — but Mr. Wells plans to move in soon, building a separate guesthouse on his 20-acre plot. The tiny shack he currently sleeps in is no bigger than a sailboat’s single cabin; its interior is painted bright orange and yellow, and it has a desk, storage cubbies, a single bunk bed and a kitchen counter; above it is a pendant lamp made from a tomato-juice can.
When you work alone, you have to be patient. Progress is measured in the completion of small tasks, and construction takes years, not weeks. Safety is a colossal issue
“When the containers were first delivered, I remember thinking, ‘What if the door slams and I’m trapped inside?’ ” Mr. Wells said. Glancing up at the span of trusses, this reporter worried about a fall.
“What I realized,” he said, “is that the Web cam” — which is trained daily on the Field Lab — “is a safety backup. Somebody’s always watching me.”
As if on cue, an opportunistic burro named Mr. Floppy knocked over the tripod it was mounted on and then used one of its legs to scratch his eyebrow, clearly a much-practiced trick. Later, Mr. Floppy edged ever closer to a visiting photographer, leaning into him like an old dog. An aeolian harp — a line strung tautly between the shack and the compound, amplified by a tomato-juice can — keened like a Martian opera. Meanwhile, Benita, a longhorn cow from a nearby ranch that visits Mr. Wells most days for a snack, a scratch and some companionship, posed like a supermodel. Mr. Wells said it took a year for her to warm up to him; now he frets on the weeks she goes walkabout.
BACK in 2001, Mr. Wells bought a Greek Revival farmhouse in Spencertown, N.Y., a little hamlet in Columbia County, and moved out of the city. It cost him $255,000, and after six or seven years, his property taxes had doubled, from $6,000 to $12,000. He was working as a contractor then, but was carrying $67,000 in debt. Single and with no children, “I couldn’t even enjoy this big house,” he said.
Mr. Wells was already playing around with alternative energy sources, mainly solar powerfor water and electricity. He read an article in Make magazine about a couple who were powering their little adobe house deep in the West Texas desert with some wind turbines, and on a trip to see his father in Arizona, he made a detour into Terlingua.
“I can remember driving out of Alpine,” he said, referring to the nearest town, more than 60 miles north and otherwise known as “uptown” by the locals. “And thinking, Who the heck could ever live here?”
He spent the night with the couple in Terlingua, who have since moved to Mexico, admiring their handmade house and frugal lifestyle. Days later, on the last leg of his drive back to New York, he hit a blizzard in Philadelphia and remembers “white-knuckling it” for nine hours on the way home.
That was in February. In March, he sold his house for a neat $600,000 to a family of five who had always admired the place, and paid off all his debt. He recalls calling American Express to cancel his card — “I sort of didn’t want to,” he said, noting his card’s seductive come-on, “member since 1985” — and the woman who handled his call asking him why. “Well, I’m debt-free,” he told her. “Well,” she replied, “I wish I could say that!”
After winnowing his possessions down to fit into a 24-foot rental truck — among them, an upright piano, his mother’s Limoges and his grandmother’s silver service for 12 — he headed west. Touring this land with another homesteader and a landowner, he chose a plot from which he could see no other dwellings.
Since then, Mr. Wells has spent about $35,000: water tanks are about $1,000 each (he has nine); solar panels and batteries cost about $2,500 (he switched to solar about a year and a half ago, because it is less fidgety and prone to disaster than wind turbines); and the container compound cost about $20,000.
His ongoing costs are minimal: that sweet, tiny tax bill; just over $80 a month for DSL Internet and phone service (it cost $10 to bury the cables and run them out to his property); and a $500-a-year donation to the Marfa public radio station, his lifeline, he said, during the months before he had the Internet. (When his first phone bill arrived, he drove to Alpine to pay it in person, and gave the women in the telephone office a bottle of Champagne.) Health insurance is $280 a month; truck insurance, $750 a year. And every year he pays $50 for a medevac helicopter service. (That’s a tip for all desert dwellers; otherwise, he said, “you might get a bill for $40,000” if you have to be airlifted to a hospital. “I’m good to go,” he added. “I can shoot myself in the foot.”)
He bought his first gun, a .357 Magnum, his fourth month here. One night, he recalled, a sheriff’s deputy drove up, looking for an armed felon. “People said, ‘You gotta have a gun,’ ” Mr. Wells said. “Of course I had to buy the Western holster.”
How did he figure out how to shoot the thing?
“After watching westerns your whole life, you get the picture,” he said. Also, he noted, he’s a photographer, trained to point and shoot.
Mr. Wells, a sociable and cheerful host, is more than content to be living alone.
“I’ve been single for so long,” he said. “I can’t imagine not being single. The thought of compromising my day doesn’t appeal to me; I don’t care what the benefits are.”
He’s happy enough to hook up others, however, having been ordained as a minister online. Two years ago, he married two friends here; Mr. Wells wore a new cowboy hat, and Benita was a decorous attendant.
In the early days of his blog, Mr. Wells recounted the cow’s slow overtures, and his squeamishness about cooking a steak in her presence. One night, he noted in a typical post: “Benita came back for a dinner snack, then wandered off to graze some more. Will see her in the morning no doubt. Life is good.”
On Mr. Wells’s birthday last April, the rancher who owns Benita and the scores of other longhorns that graze this scrubby land rode over and presented him with a birthday card. Inside was a deed of ownership, gifting one speckled roan, age 22, to Mr. Wells.