Off-the-grid sleepovers

In the New Mexico desert, a discovery about sustainability

I have never felt so righteous about flushing.

At most eco-lodgings, I experience a pinch of guilt over pressing the handle, worried that I am loosening the stopper on our finite water reserves. That’s not the case at the Greater World Community near Taos, N.M. The world’s largest off-the-grid subdivision considers the toilet a friend of Mother Earth. The blackwater from the bowl hydrates the yards of its 70 residences, including several rental properties available to overnight visitors. If you see a tropical bloom in the New Mexico desert, you can lay your thank-you flowers before the porcelain throne.

“It’s just simple homesteading stuff,” said Ryan Halpin, who works in Earthship Biotecture’s rental division and is building a Bachelorship for himself. “It’s a conscientious lifestyle.”

Earthship Biotecture is a supermodel of sustainable living. The construction firm’s houses are based on the environmental innovations and Seussian designs of American architect Michael Reynolds. The oft-called Garbage Warrior, who built his first Earthship home in 1988, discovered his calling on the side of the road. A glint of trash led to an of-this-world experience.

“Using the empty beer cans as building materials was a flash of inspiration for everything that later followed,” said Kirsten Jacobsen, Earthship’s education director.

Earthships appear in all 50 states and more than 20 countries. The homes are built for a wide spectrum of individuals and environments, such as a family residence in Guatemala, an emergency shelter in post-earthquake Haiti and a planned resort on an environmentally fragile island in Indonesia. The Taos-area community is the only site in the world that is open for tours and available for sleepovers. In July, I booked an eco-pad for the night out of curiosity — and to be prepared in case Cormac McCarthy’s The Road turns out to be a work of non-fiction.

“These are the ways people are going to have to live in the future,” said Kirsten, who owns an Earthship styled after a Manhattan loft.

The structures embody a string of self-hyphenates: -sufficient, -reliant, -sustaining, -empowering. (The “ship” in the company’s name represents the concept of autonomy.) Reynolds’s blueprints rely heavily on nature’s resources and humankind’s drinking and driving habits. He uses discarded tires packed with dirt for the exterior walls and recycled bottles and cans for the interior structures. Buried cisterns collect melted snow and rain; the filtered water flows through sinks in the bathroom and kitchen. Instead of air-conditioning, the walls absorb the heat, and knee-high vents expel cool air from subterranean depths. In the winter, the structure emits the stored toastiness like a space heater. No doubt, a weatherman reporting from inside the Taos community would grow bored: Today, like yesterday, and tomorrow, will be a pleasant 22 C.

“It has the stability of a cave,” Kirsten said. “You are never going to freeze or die from heat.”

From what had I read and heard, I could survive an apocalypse inside my one-bedroom fortress, which was named Lemuria. (The inventory changes as the homes are sold and built; five houses are available for rent.) In addition to the cord-cutting power and self-sustaining water supply, each abode contains its own greenhouse. I could forage for figs, bananas, pineapple, broccoli, rosemary and chives in my fluffy socks. Or if the zombies weren’t looking, I could dash over to my neighbour’s place for supper. The Phoenix, a three-bedroom that sleeps six, dedicates one-third of its space to food production. Its tropical jungle supports parakeets and cockatiels (not for consumption) and a garden bursting with fruits and vegetables, including grapes, artichokes, lemons, melons, kale, squash, hot peppers and mushrooms that cling to a log. Chickens cluck around the backyard, which features a sunken den with a grill for coop-to-kebob meals. An indoor fishpond once contained a robust stock of tilapia before a group of guests threw a fish fry. Now, the littlest survivors swim laps with koi. For the dairy course, the staff is considering resident goats.

“You are the power company, the water company, the sewage-treatment plant and the food production,” Ryan said. “You control a lot of your life, instead of relying on others.”

From the road, Earthship Biotecture resembles Tatooine, with a few alterations: lizards instead of krayt dragons, for instance, and Priuses in place of Jawa sandcrawlers. Most of the adobe houses are built low and are camouflaged by the 630 acres of khaki-colored terrain. I scanned the sun-baked landscape, wondering which brown lump was mine.

Check-in is between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. I was punctual partly out of frugality: The confirmation letter warns late arrivals of a possible $20 hourly charge. When I drove up, several people were standing on the roof of the visitors’ centre, inspecting the solar panels. I parked by a sign informing guests that the community is drone-free. On my way into the visitors’ centre, I passed tomato and melon plants suspended from buckets. Netting covered several pieces of heavy fruit, protecting guests’ toes. Inside, a gallery with a film, slide show and informational panels explained Earthship’s practices and principles. The lessons don’t stop at the bathroom door; a sign informs loo-goers that the water is reused four times.

The visitors’ centre is part of a complex of buildings that includes an academy for students and the Earthship Village Ecologies project, a sustainable testing site where worker-bee interns live and learn. Drop-in visitors pay $7 for a self-guided tour of the public areas; as a renter, I could come and go for free.

I met the bearded and blue-eyed Ryan inside the centre and followed the Wisconsin native in his car. We passed two entrances to the community before turning onto a bumpy unmarked road. I would need glow-in-the-dark bread crumbs to find my way home again.

The welcome at Earthship is much more elaborate — and academic — than at traditional lodgings. Ryan started his overview by charging up a dirt incline to the roof, where he pointed out the solar panels and water-capturing system. Back on crusty ground, we entered the 1,400-square-foot house through a side door surrounded by the bottoms of beer and wine bottles. The colourful circles shimmered like a sea glass. I stepped into a lush garden lining the windowed hallway and started to sweat in the humidity. Ryan yanked on a rope, opening a skylight and ushering in fresh air.

I trailed Ryan from kitchen to living room to laundry room (off-limits to guests) to bedroom to bathroom. Along the way, he knelt by various mystery boxes and strange cabinets, explaining the operating systems. I tried to grasp the sustainable jargon — greywater planter cell, power-organizing module, thermal mass — but I eventually gave my mind a hall pass to wander. After Ryan left, however, I realized how much I had retained. I remembered which faucets were for drinking and which ones were for washing, and how to turn on the Apple TV. I knew better than to search for the coffeepot, iron and blow dryer, because they didn’t exist: traditional hotel amenities are power hogs. When I turned on the faucet, I recognized the groaning noise as the greywater pump, not the angry remonstrations of the God of Wastefulness.

“We’re trying to show people that they don’t have to majorly change their lifestyle to live like this,” Kirsten said. “It’s like a high-end Taos hotel.”

Before settling in for the night, I made a food run to Taos. (With no walking dead on the horizon, I didn’t want to poach the emergency food supply.) After storing my groceries in the Sun Frost fridge, I set out for a neighbourhood stroll. The residents are a slice of regular life: teachers, architects, IT professionals, businessfolk. Their homes are private and well-spaced, but by craning my neck just so, I could be a bit nosy. I noticed whirring wind generators that resembled outsider-art sculptures and admired entryway mosaics born from the detritus of boozing. One house had a trampoline, a zero-carbon approach to exhausting children. A house in its infancy looked like a landfill, with piles of bottles and tires.

As the sky darkened, my imagination started to light up with the eyes of snakes and coyotes. I hustled back to Lemuria and climbed a small hill overlooking the desert. I watched the split screen of lightning bolts to my right and triple rainbows on my left. A jack rabbit hopped down my driveway and disappeared into the yard. He was still there when I returned to the house, nibbling away at the curious patch of greenery.

The night passed peacefully. I cooked dinner on the propane stovetop, watched Netflix and contemplated a serious life change. According to a notebook on the coffee table, the utility-bill-free life of Lemuria could be mine — for $275,000. (Update: The house sold a few weeks after my visit.) I went to bed and gazed at the silvery stars through the southern-facing wall of slanted windows. I awakened at dawn to watch the sun rise and recharge my ship.

I had to check out by 11 a.m., and the possibility of a dawdler fee pushed me out of bed. However, before leaving, I made sure to water the plants with a flush and a rinse.

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