Our venture into homesteading in the desert began in 2003 with 10 acres of high desert in remote southeastern Arizona. We were nearing our retirement from teaching and wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream. Building our own home, enjoying a sustainable and healthy life, and being part of an active rural community again were all parts of our dream.
The land on which we elected to build our new lives is high on the bajada, or alluvial fan, of the Dragoon Mountains. From our place, we can look over the Sulfur Springs valley and see other mini-mountain ranges with such wonderful names as the Chiricahuas, the Galiuros, the Pinalenos, the Dos Cabezas, and, far to the south, the Pedregosas. While small compared to the Rockies, these Sky Island ranges are home to deer, bear, cougar, coatimundi, and dozens of other species of wildlife. Even an occasional wandering jaguar is spotted in the southernmost regions.
Although the beauty of the valley and the mountains is hard to dispute, the land, seen up close and personal, is a bit of a mess. At one time this valley was a savannah, grass lands with sycamore and willow trees bordering the stream beds. But years of intense overgrazing have replaced the grass with a jumble of mesquite, creosote, and a variety of spiny succulents.
Despite the obvious abuse, or perhaps because of it, we loved the place at first sight. Like an abandoned kitten, scrawny and unkempt, our land looked rough. But we believed that with work and care, we could reclaim it to a condition where it would be a comfortable home for us. Knowing we were in for years of work, we vowed to build one step at a time.
The First Step…
We began the process of creating our desert homestead with the decision to build in stages. That is, we would have all the functions of a single home under three roofs. By doing so, we could complete a smaller project working weekends and summers while we were still teaching. We elected to build a small 320-square-foot adobe house that would be our temporary home while we worked on the other buildings. Ultimately, it would be a writing studio and guest quarters.
To minimize the environmental impact of moving onto the land, we cleared the mesquites from our 300-foot driveway with a pick, shovel, and saw. With a path opened, a small pop-up camp trailer was installed next to our selected building site. We were sharing a well with our neighbor, but had not run either the electricity or the water to the building site when we began.
We ordered a 24-ton load of adobe clay from nearby clay mine. Ultimately we would go through 96 tons of adobe in the Bear Cave construction.
One of the best qualities of rural life here is the willingness of neighbors to pitch in and help. We had a couple 55-gallon “poly” barrels that we filled with water at the neighbor’s house and trailers over to our place for making adobe blocks and, at the end of the day, washing the adobe off our bodies.
Making It Happen…
To make the adobe block, we mixed our mud in tubs with a hoe and shoveled the mixture into a form made from 2x4s subdivided into 10″ x 12″ cells. In the hot and dry air of the Arizona desert, the blocks set up in a few hours and we could lift the forms and let the blocks dry. We used the same adobe mix, a little wetter, for mortar. The result is a 15″ homogenous wall – solid and secure.
After putting in the footings and stem wall of concrete, we began laying the block and forming the walls. We developed a routine for the school year. Drive the 75 miles to the trailer after school on Friday, make new block all day Saturday and lay last week’s block on Sunday. Monday it was back to teaching and resting up for next weekend. It’s impossible to express the gratitude we feel for our neighbors. Every Saturday, after work and clean-up, we walked over to Dan and Anneke’s place, the 20 acres next to us, for a fantastic hot meal. Gracious hosts and a great cook! Thanks guys!
Barbara mortared and leveled the walls and I mixed and shoveled adobe mortar. Eventually, the walls were up and we started on the top structure.
We built our trusses on the leveled and tamped earth sub floor. Then purlins, steel roofing, and insulation were put in place. The adobe floor and the porch pavers were done last. The satisfaction of seeing the Bear Cave emerge from a pile of loose clay was beyond compare.
When we began the adobe building process, we were essentially novices. We relied on excellent books with trial and error combined with some common sense. By the time the Bear Cave had fully emerged from piles of loose clay, we were well past the novice stage.
It had taken us 18 months of weekend and summer work to complete, but finally the big day arrived. We invited Dan and Anneke over for a celebratory dinner of chili and cornbread. We had done it. Even though there remained a straw-bale utility building, a garden, a workshop, an orchard, and a straw bale main house yet to build, we had completed the first step. So, we celebrated.