A Trip to the Desert

On March 19 I took a trip to southwest Arizona and then Mexico. I spent three days at Bill and Athena Steen’s strawbale compound 60 miles southwest of Tucson and then flew to Mexico to hike in the mountains east of Alamos (about 400 miles south of Tucson).

Mud and Straw

The Steens have done a lot since I photographed their work for Home Work. They live in a beautiful part of the desert, at the end of a dirt road. They’re on a creek and in addition to their good-feeling house, there are numerous buildings scattered around the grounds — all built of natural materials. They wrote the original best-selling The Straw Bale House book, and run strawbale building workshops. They mastered straw bale building years ago, but the unique thing about their work is the plastering and coloring, the surfaces. When you see this wall (that separates their office from the rest of the living room), you can’t help but run your hand over it. There are bits of golden straw. embedded in the solid surface. It’s tactile, the kind of surface that feels good to be around.

Interior strawbale wall

Here are a few pics from the Steens:

Straw bale building with murals



Strawbale pump house. Walls tie into foundation seamlessly, corners rounded.

Nook in strawbale wall at neighbors new home. Plastering by Bill Steen.

On Sunday we all drove over to Bisbee, an old gold and copper mining town five miles from the Mexico border. There’s a good-vibes motel consisting of trailers, including some great old Airstreams, and this vintage diner:

Dot’s Diner, seats about 10 people max. Great burgers and shakes.

Vintage gas pump, 1950s trailer in background

Into the Mountains

This whole trip started because a running friend, Mike Durrie, asked if I wanted to go on a trip into the mountains in Sonora, Mexico. His daughter and son-in-law run bird-watching and river-running trips and the plan was to hike into a mountain camp, stay there four days, going on hikes to a remote ranch and then to Arroyo Verde, a unique canyon with exotic birdlife and diverse plant species. It was a great trip and I’m tempted to write a lot about it now, but will keep the blog short and cover it more fully in a later newsletter.

Ten of us came into Alamos, which is a drop-dead beauty of a town in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, colonial style, built in the 1600s. The buildings have high arches, 3-foot thick adobe walls, and are painted a variety of bright colors. A photographer’s delight. I got up early the first morning and walked around shooting photos as the sun came up and the town came to life. We spent two days there.

School in Alamos

Then five of us, plus Mike’s son-in-law Dave, took off in a big 4-wheel drive Ford van. We drove to the end of the road — it took 3+ hours to go 23 miles, rocky roads, through streambeds, creeping over boulders. Then we hiked 3 hours to get to the camp, much of the trail steep and rocky, criss-crossing a stream, swimming occasionally in green pools.

This pool was at elev. over 4000′. Man, was it cold! I got under the waterfall, then scrambled out. On our way back into town a few days later, Dave took us to a very large, deep pool in a canyon, where the water was warmer and swimming great.

The ranchers in this area split roof shakes from a local pine tree for their buildings.

Interior of rancheros’ remote shelter for making lechuguilla (mezcal from local agave) and hanging out

Hard-workin’ little woodstove built out of 50 gallon drum. An example of Mexican ingenuity, evident throughout Mexico, making useful objects out of junk. There was an oven in the lower half. It worked beautifully.

Stove (with oven) welded up from 50-gal. drum

We slept on cots under the stars. Dave was the chef, his wife Jen had pre-prepared all the meals. It all went harmoniously, it’s a pleasure to be around people that are thoughtful . . . things like doing dishes, cleaning up, serving meals.

Here are a few pics from the trip:

Mike Durrie standing under rock face. There are pictographs on the wall here.

Ruben Alvarez, one of the ranchers from Rancho Santa Barbara, at 5000 feet elevation. Ruben does not drive and walks 13 miles to get to his ranch.

Roof of hand-split pine shakes, typical of ranches in Sonora mountains

Old kitchen at Rancho Santa Barbara (Ruben’s parents’ home). Stove is built of adobe, metate stone (for grinding corn for tortillas), on left.

From left, two rancheros, Dave, Mike, Michael, Tricia and (seated), Michael. The rancheros got a kick out of the fact that we had three Michaels, since there’s (I believe) a musical group in Mexico called “Los Tres Migueles.”

I am gathering a LOT of material these days that I think would interest people of similar outlook — builders, designers, people who work with their hands, people who are interested in how things are put together. Pretty soon we’ll have a builders section on our website, and I’ll be posting photos of interest to builders. This way I can communicate current info I’m gathering without waiting years to get it into a book.

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

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