Sacked by the "downturn", an unemployed architect touring the country in a bus...

I used to live in New York City. I designed homes for the tycoons of Wall Street; Park Avenue, Scarsdale, Greenwich. It was great fun. And, after years of saving up for a down payment, I was just about to buy my own little place in Fleetwood, half an hour north of the city, when the economy fell apart. Architects are like canaries in a coal mine when the economy slows, and true to form, there were massive layoffs in firms all over the country. Devastation of the profession. So, I decided to try to find something else to do for a while. I bought a 23' school bus and I'm on the road to see if I can figure out what that might be.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Taos Mesa

I'd heard about the Taos Mesa a couple of times.  The first was from Craig, whom I met at Tannia and Jeff's farm, Talpa Gardens.  Craig is a welder from Columbus, Ohio, who had arrived in Taos several weeks prior, fell in love with both the town and a women, and had decided to stake a claim out on the Mesa where he would build a studio and make art, although he admitted he had no experience or training in art, and only a little in construction, except for his welding, at which he was proficient.  Craig's ironic sense of humor and enthusiasm for his dream on the Mesa were infectious.  He told me it's an area out west on the flat lands, beyond the Taos Gorge, where property is still available for cheap.  There is no infrastructure, no water, electricity, or sewers, only unnamed dirt roads.  Ownership records of the land are murky.  Some large corporation owns a lot of it, and divided it into quarter acre lots long ago, some of which can be purchased for a few hundred dollars, including back taxes.  Other larger chunks are available from private owners.  Craig was in the process of making repeated trips to the Mesa to identify places he liked, and alternating these trips with visits to the town planning department to find records and then trying to contact the owners.  He'd sent out 6 or so letters, but had been told by friends that it often took a hundred tries before success.  Craig was boundless in his energy, and we had a good time a few days later when he helped me weld a broken strut on my bus' door opening lever.

The second time I heard about the Mesa was from Clay, the bus traveler I met at the east end of the Taos Gorge Bridge (May 23rd post below.)  "The Mesa is pretty cool.  Some of the old timers have been there quite a while and they can be pretty weird.  It's pretty lawless, though.  If you call the police, they will only come and meet you at the edge, because the roads have no names and they can't find anything in there."  I of course wanted to know more.  "I can take you out there, if you want" Clay offered.  "What if I just went out to look around?"  "Sure, but just be cool.  A lot of people are out there because they want to be left alone.  If you pull up to the wrong house and they don't know you, you'll be greeted at gun point."  Gulp.  "Thanks, how do I find it?"  "Over the bridge, out past the water tower, first left, then the first right takes you to TP, (I learned later that's Two Peaks) or straight takes you to a sign that says 'Evolve', and go right there."  I figgured anyplace with a sign can't really be trying to keep people away, so off I went.

The only worse roads I have ever driven on were in Coasta Rica, where I cracked a gas tank on a rented 4x4.  These are dirt paths with deep ruts at the sides, potholes a foot deep an d 3 feet round, and continuous "washboard" texture hard packed along the surface, which forced me to keep my speed to about 10 miles an hour.  I rolled along and looked at an amazing array of odd houses cobbled together out of found materials, shipping containers, abandoned cars, buses, campers, and scraps of wood.  Though I remained a bit skeptical about Clay's warnings, as I proceeded I kept my head down, in case of sniper fire.  Then I noticed a few of the homesteads were surrounded by stockade fences, with pointed tops, as I remembered from movie westerns, to keep the Indians out...  "Don't get out of the bus, don't get out of the bus...", I parrodied to myself from Apocalypse Now's "Never get out of the boat..."  I did manage to get a number of photos through my windows and through the open door.

Click here for a Flickr slide show, which includes a friendly encounter.

After a point, I tired of the rough ride, and feared I might damage my suspension, so I turned around and headed back to Taos.  Soon, I saw an old bearded man sitting in a derelict car in one homesteaded compound, so I opened my door and waved.  He waved back.  I felt better.  A little further on, a car passed with a woman in her twenties, with a nose ring, and two dogs.  She looked like she was going home, somewhere here on the Mesa,... how bad could it be?  Finally, an open top Jeep with about 6 twentysomethings comes along, so I slow down and wave, and they stop.  I asked "Who lives out here?" meaning, generally.  The driver answered "I do", somewhat defensively.  So I explained, I'm an architect, and I'm curious who's out her, and what are they building, and I made it sound as chatty and innocent as I could, and the driver said "We're building an Earthship just 100 yards back, you want to see it?"

Ben had saved some money and now was getting help from his friends to build this house.  Suddenly it became clear to me what was happening.  The Mesa, former exclusive home of loons, outcasts, and malcontents, was being gentrified.  As I'd seen Bed Sty in Brooklyn, the East Village in Manhattan, as is happening in Treme in New Orleans, Laptops and I-pods are coming to the Taos Mesa.

I spent an hour learning about their construction, which had been learned by many of them as volunteer's on Mike Reynolds official Earthship projects.  One of the kids demonstrated his skill on the slack line they had rigged next to the mess tent where they ate.  I learned of another Mesa dweller who could help me convert my bus to run on vegetable oil, possibly doing the conversion for a lot less than I'd feared.  I got his number.  Then I said my goodbyes, thanked them, and found my way out of the Mesa and headed back to Talpa Gardens.

I tried a short cut, which led me to a road that meandered all the way down to the bottom of the Taos Gorge, and then back up the other side.  The short cut added an hour or so to my return trip :-)


  1. Welcome to Taos!

    I live near flag road in a development to the east side of the rim road.

    Could you share the contact or location for the person who does the veggie conversions? (if they are willing)

    my email is paul _at_ taosdigital _dotcom_


  2. Hi Paul, thanks! Sorry, living on the road for a year in a bus does a lot to scramble your filing system, I have no idea where that phone number is! However, if you scroll back up and click the link to the pictures, and watch for the pics of the kids building the tire house, you should be able to find the house and ask the fella who owns it if his girlfriend fro two years ago can give you the number! Best of luck ;^)

  3. Hey Roy, glad you experienced the mesa. You really should consider coming out and spending a little time and see what its really about out here. The roads are awful, I fear one day I will get my motor home stuck, lol. I will be back on the mesa this spring, I wintered this year near Douglas, Az. There are a lot of beautiful people and you might find it a place you'd like to be. Dave