Earthships: Recycled Houses Made of Dirt

Just 15 minutes from Taos is the world’s Earthship headquarters—and my New Mexico trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at these odd, but imminently practical, houses.

A unique and eco friendly earthship near Taos, New Mexico © Laurel Kallenbach

A unique and eco friendly earthship near Taos, New Mexico © Laurel Kallenbach

What’s an Earthship? It’s an ultra-sustainable home built from recycled tires, aluminum cans and bottles packed with dirt, then plastered over with natural mud.

That’s right: no brick and mortar, no wooden studs. Just junk and soil.

In fact, one of these buildings diverts 500 to 5,000 tires away from the landfill.

Because Earthships are banked into the earth—with a southern exposure for maximum sunlight—they’re extremely energy efficient. Their earthen properties keep them cool in summer and warm in winter.

A peek at what's inside the walls of an earthship © Laurel Kallenbach

A peek at what’s inside the walls of an earthship: old tires, beer cans, and mud. © Laurel Kallenbach

Earthships are designed with all the rooms open along a corridor with a huge bank of windows. This way, natural daylight eliminates the need for electrical lighting as long as the sun shines.

A lot of these New-Age structures on the sage- and rabbitbrush-covered land around Taos use solar panels or small wind turbines to create electricity from renewable resources.

There must be almost 50 Earthships dotting the northern New Mexico landscape with its dramatic Sangre de Cristo mountain backdrop. Clearly, this form of architecture is here to stay.

Water Harvesting

New Mexico is dry land, so another advantage to Earthships is that their roofs catch water from rain and snow melt. The water is then filtered and used for drinking or bathing. After you take a shower, wash the dishes or do the laundry, the used water is recycled, filtered again, and pumped to gardens. (Used water is called graywater.)

I think Earthships are pretty nifty—and rather unconventionally beautiful—inventions, although I’m a bit skeptical about the used tires outgasing fumes into the air. However, because they’re surrounded by thick layers of dirt and mud, I suppose the earth absorbs the toxins.

Here you can see the bottoms of glass bottles embedded into an earthship in a decorative pattern © Laurel Kallenbach.

Here you can see the bottoms of glass bottles embedded into an earthship in a decorative pattern © Laurel Kallenbach.

Still, to many people, Earthships look like houses on Mars. Over breakfast at our B&B, La Posada de Taos, a woman described them as “weird, but fascinating.”

“They’re actually built into the dirt!” the woman added with a shudder. I suppose Earthships are an acquired taste.

Curious? If you’re in Taos, slap on some sunscreen and stop by the Earthship Visitor’s Center (located on U.S. Highway 64, west of Taos.) At the Visitor’s Center, you’ll see displays that explain the details of Earthship technology.  You can also choose between a self-guided visit through the center ($8 per person) or a guided tour through the center and several of the area’s demo homes ($15 per person).

You can also rent an Earthship (a room or the whole house) by the night or week.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted: September 2008

Updated: August 2019

Patron Saint of the Environment Honored in Santa Fe

Kateri Tekakwitha is the patron saint of Native Americans Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

In front of St. Francis Cathedral in downtown Santa Fe is a luminous bronze statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American woman to be beatified (in 1980) and canonized (on October 21, 2012.)

She’s also the patron of nature and the environment, which makes her pretty important in my book!

The statue is colorful, gorgeous, and full of life. No ramrod-stiff saints here.  In fact, this Tekakwitha has flowing black hair; wears turquoise earrings, necklace, and a bracelet; and she carries eagle feathers in her hand. It’s hard not to feel peaceful and encouraged about the prospect of preserving the planet’s ecosystems while beholding the serene smile of this saint.

This inspiring portrayal of Tekakwitha in her Southwestern aspect was created by Estella Loretto, a Jemez Pueblo sculptor, in 2002.

Kateri Tekakwitha is the patron saint of Native Americans and First Nations people—as well as the patron of ecologists, environmentalists, and of nature. Also known as Catherine Tekakwitha and Lily of the Mohawks, she was born in 1656 of Algonquin and Mohawk (Turtle clan) parents in New York. She died in Quebec in 1680.

The miracle that surrounds Kateri Tekakwitha is that the disfiguring pox scars from her bout with smallpox as a small child disappeared from her face a few minutes after her death. The priests who attended said she was revealed as incredibly beautiful and unblemished in death.

I hope this miracle will extend to all the places on Earth that have been blighted and disfigured by drilling, mining, pesticides, trash dumping, and toxic waste. May they be purified and made beautiful again with her blessing.

St. Francis with a wolf in front of the namesake church in Santa Fe Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

It’s fitting that Tekakwitha is honored at the Saint Francis Cathedral, as St. Francis of Assisi was known for his love and care of animals. In fact, there’s another lovely statue on the plaza in front of the church: one of a smiling bronze St. Francis accompanied by a wolf. This artwork definitely displays the wilder side of the saint.

For 500-plus years, Santa Fe has been a spiritual center of the Southwest. Here, vestiges of native spiritual beliefs coexist with Christianity. (Well, “coexist” is actually too soft a word, as the indigenous people were subjected to forceable conversion by the Spanish. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. government seemed hell-bent on eradicating the language and culture of Native American tribes.)

Yes, there are many ugly things to remember about how we have extinguished indigenous cultures and ravaged the land. But I take heart that there are places in Santa Fe that honor both the Native Americans and nature. It’s refreshing to see the spiritual icons of several cultures converging here beneath the eternally blue sky.

Perhaps I’m too optimistic. On the other hand, miracles do happen.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

Originally posted in February 2012. Updated August 2019.

St. Francis Cathedral was built in Santa Fe by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy between 1869 and 1886. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Soak Up Serenity at Santa Fe’s Ten Thousand Waves Spa

Pagodas blend into the mountainside setting near Santa Fe at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-style bath sanctuary and spa where you can sample treatments seldom found outside of Japan and relax into the Zen of warm water.

The massage pagodas at Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe. © Deborah Fleig

There’s almost nowhere more relaxing—and this beautiful, outdoorsy spa is perfect for slowing down and re-energizing.

Although Ten Thousand Waves is just 10 minutes from downtown Santa Fe, it feels worlds away from city life. I’ve visited three times, and on each, I’ve relished soaking in a hot tub while breathing in the scent of pine trees and listening to the cry of hawks and crows circling over the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Who can help but relax at a place where nobody hurries and where warm water washes your worries away?

 

Baths on a Budget

This lovely retreat has created warm baths and cold plunges for all budgets. Soak in a communal Japanese bath for just $28 per person—there’s no time limit. There’s one co-ed communal bath and another for women only. In the past, the communal tubs allowed bathers to go au natural, but now bathing-suit bottoms are required. If you want to bathe in the buff, you may do so in the women’s-only tub or in a privately rented tub. (Don’t worry about nudity in public places: Everyone wanders through the Shangri-La-like spa in provided kimonos.)

The private Ichiban tub © Deborah Fleig

You can also reserve a private bath (like the Ichiban pictured above) starting at $60 per person for 90 minutes. I’ve tried both public and private options—and they’re equally delightful and stress-banishing.

One other favorite of mine is the foot bath, a communal bench where you can sit and read a book or converse (quietly, of course) with a friend while your eyes drink in the beauty of the Zen Garden. The foot bath is open and free to all visitors—you might just have to wait a few minutes until another happy foot soaker leaves a space on the bench.

Hot Stone Massage from Heaven

For deep immersion, Ten Thousand Waves offers spa treatments. The therapists here specialize in classic treatments done expertly: Swedish or deep-tissue massage, Thai massage and wonderful facials that take beauty more than skin deep.

One of the spa’s most popular treatments is the Nose-to-Toes, an 80-minute sampler that lets you experience Japanese foot massage; gentle Thai stretches; Hawaiian lomi-lomi massage strokes; skin exfoliation; and Yasuragi (Japanese) head, neck, and shoulder massage. Yum!

My hot stone massage at Ten Thousand Waves truly rocked. Therapist Aurora used the warm stones on acupoints on my body. Surprisingly, she also used cool stones from time to the time. I was on Cloud Nine.

In fact, I was so blissed out that I completely lost track of everything. During the treatment, Aurora placed small river stones between the toes of my right foot, but I thought she’d forgotten my left. Just as I was about to remind her, I wiggled my toes and realized the stones were between my left toes too. I had just drifted off for a few minutes.

The beautiful outdoor koi pond. © Deborah Fleig

On my most recent trip to Ten Thousand Waves, I sampled the Japanese Organic Facial Massage—a divine experience that erased all my worry lines. Danyelle alternated stroking, kneading, and a percussive technique that felt like rain falling on my face. She told me this helped increase circulation, muscle tone, and lymphatic drainage for the neck and face. All I have to say is it made me radiant.

The Green Side

New Mexico has a dry landscape, and the folks at Ten Thousand Waves are very water conscious. All water from the tubs is recycled and used to keep the landscaping lush and green. The entire spa is chlorine free: Bathwater is purified with ultraviolet light, hydrogen peroxide, copper/silver ions, and ozone.

Natural building materials keep the location feeling natural and ecofriendly: cork and tile floors, stone, and plenty of sustainable bamboo are used throughout.

Last but not least, Ten Thousand Waves’ signature spa products are all natural and contain no mineral oil, alcohol, artificial colors or animal products. And they’ve been tested on bathing beauties, not animals.

 —Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted in April 2012

Updated August 2019

 

 

Sleep in a Sustainable Hotel in Mesa Verde National Park

From our balcony at the Far View Lodge inside Mesa Verde National Park, Ken and I watched wild horses graze around the clusters of rooms at sunset. It made for a memorable ending to a day of exploring the park’s unparalleled Ancestral Puebloan ruins.

Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde. Photo courtesy Mesa Verde National Park

Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde. Photo courtesy Mesa Verde National Park

Far View Lodge was eco-renovated to be energy- and water-efficient and to reduce waste—and its modest but comfy rooms offer glorious views of the park. In true National Park style, there are no nightclubs or in-room TVs, and outdoor lights are kept to a minimum. I’m happy to report that during our stay, we inhaled cool night air spiced by the scent of sagebrush and gazed at the vast universe of stars while serenaded by a coyote chorus in the distance.

Aramark, the concession company that operates Far View Lodge and Mesa Verde’s infrastructure in general (tours, hospitality services, waste disposal, restrooms, and non-Park Service staff), has a fairly comprehensive enviro-plan, which is necessary to deal with the many thousands of visitors who visit the park annually.

Among Aramark’s initiatives are:

  • recycling program (paper, glass, plastic, metals)
  • waste reduction
  • water and energy conservation
  • ecofriendly cleaning supplies
  • landscape-conscious construction (to reduce damage to the fragile ecosystems, to blend into the natural view, and to minimize light and noise pollution)
  • bi-fuel trucks and electric carts
  • integrated pest management (IPM) with a nontoxic approach to dealing with insects and rodents
  • sustainable and organic foods, including shade-grown Fair Trade-certified coffee.

Metate Room Restaurant

The Far View Lodge has a wonderful, though slightly pricey, restaurant on premises called the Metate Room. (A metate is a stone tool used by native peoples to grind corn.)

The panoramic view of Mesa Verde from the Metate Room restaurant. Photo courtesy Mesa Verde

The panoramic view of Mesa Verde from the Metate Room restaurant. Photo courtesy Mesa Verde

Ancient meets contemporary in the menu of this evening dining venue. The chef has created dishes that blend regional, sustainable, and organic fare with Ancestral Puebloan traditions. The result was a sumptuous dinner that started with a crisp and tangy house salad topped with black beans and corn and a chopotle-maple vinaigrette. My husband sampled the Corn-and-Nut-Crusted Rocky Mountain Trout served with Anasazi beans and sautéed veggies from a local farm. I opted for the Elk Tenderloin with local chokecherry demi-glace.

Fine, Native American-inspired dining is available at the Metate Room in Mesa Verde National Park.

The Metate Room offers a lovely atmosphere decorated with Navajo weaving, pottery and baskets. Native flute music played softly in the background. I know it’s kind of clichéd, but the wooden flute just sounds right in a place like Mesa Verde where you know you’re looking out the window at the same vistas that the Ancestral Puebloans beheld.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published August 2011.

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments: