A Road Less Traveled
In search of the mesa
Seventy-year-old Mike Mabry sits next to his front door in full reach of the blazing sun’s penetrating rays. The weather challenges the fact that only two nights before, patches of crystalline snow had been surreptitiously deposited throughout the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that stand silently before us. As Mike looks out toward those sentinel peaks standing guard around the mesa, I watch little sweat pearls form above his deeply tanned brow. They bead up and then slowly journey down his intensely focused face, traveling along well-worn lines before disappearing into his scraggly, gray-and-white beard. “Those mountains change every gazilla-second," he says. "They’re either growing or melting; I haven’t figured it out and I’ve been watching them forever.”
I’m grateful for the break in conversation. Mike is ferocious in his recounting of how he came to live on the mesa. And he's raised more questions in his answers than I can handle. This brief lull, as he works up to his next barrage of challenges, gives me a chance to regroup. But it leaves me wondering why I’m out here, sitting with this madman pioneer and sipping coffee laced with vodka at 9:30 in the morning.
In the Beginning ...
Two months before I find myself on the Mabrys’ front porch, I sip wine at another house, at the base of the Organ Mountains in Southern New Mexico, on a mesa nothing like the one I would soon set out for. It’s the home of Lisa Cavallera, a friend with a poetic personality. She’s telling me about a documentary she watched called Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa.
The documentary is about a group of various characters, many who appear to struggle with mental illness, living on a mesa somewhere in New Mexico. They hold little regard for law and other aspects of conventional society and appear to spend their time lighting cars on fire and unloading guns into the air. The film chronicles a conflict that arises between two groups of the mesa dwellers and their subsequent solution—involving methods employed by the very society they seek to escape.
My interest piqued, I set out to find where this mesa was. After a couple hours of detective work on the Internet, I track down a location and a couple websites about neighborhoods on the mesa. One site argues that the film presents a narrow view of the area and its residents, saying it's only “about a few of the people in the neighborhood. It's really not an accurate view of anything. It will be interesting to see the effects of this documentary on the area.”
Indeed. So I pack up my car and head north. I check in to a hostel in Arroyo Seco called The Abominable SnowMansion (see the Food section for more on this place). Arroyo Seco is close enough to the mesa to permit daily excursions while still providing modern comforts like running water, which aren’t as accessible where I'm headed.
The Locals Weigh In
Settling into the hostel, I ask around if anyone knows how to get to the mesa or has had any experiences with the residents. A 32-year-old staffer named Ryan Blakemore, who sold all his belongings and ended up at the hostel by way of Iceland, strums a mandolin and sums up his experience for me. “I went to the mesa, and it was dark and quiet. But then the dogs started barking, and then the people started barking.”
An artist who lives in the SnowMansion’s garden (and carefully maintains a life of anonymity) talks of being chased from the mesa by a man who threw full beer bottles at his quickly departing truck. The artist had brought the beer to share with the man and is still mystified by how a pleasant visit ended so badly. “The guy I went with must have been an asshole or something,” he muses.
Everyone I meet shares cautionary tales that I suspect are meant to scare me a little, or perhaps to entertain me. I'm warned that my shiny SUV won’t fit in; that some might take sport in firing at me as I drive down poorly maintained roads. I'm advised to find a vehicle with four-wheel drive, as the mesa mud is infamous for trapping vehicles as they attempt to navigate the deeply rutted and washed-out alleys. Nobody is very encouraging, but their horror stories only increase my interest in this place that's beginning to take on a sort of mythical status in my mind.
My first two days in Seco are filled with a steady rain that rules out any attempt to visit the mesa. From the highway, I can see glimpses of the mud that's stranded so many before me. So I take a side trip to Manby Hot Springs with a fellow guest at the hostel. Ron Chambless, a fire pilot who flies around the globe depositing firefighters in the midst of scorching infernos, is remarkably well-versed in the area’s history, stopping to point out faded petroglyphs as he leads me and my sister-in-law down an old stagecoach road to the bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge. We soak in the warm, sandy pools separated from the river by large stones, and he fills us in on the dramatic history of the treacherous road and some of the more colorful characters of Arroyo Seco’s past.
There are bathers in the pool adjoining ours—John, his partner Wendy and his brother John (yes, they’re both John). John and Wendy moved to the mesa four years earlier, citing a broken-down van and a desire for a different life. Not about to miss an opportunity to finally start working on my story, I begin interviewing them on the spot. As I float nude in the silt-filled pool, digging deeper and deeper into their lives, I can’t help but wonder if anyone else back at the Alibi ever conducted an interview while baring it all.
We talk about finding the courage to escape from conventional society. John and John describe how their mother, after retiring, found she had little to live on. With few options, she agreed to give mesa life a shot. Wendy marvels at the transformation the woman experienced. She speaks of her mother-in-law's improved health and more optimistic outlook on life, concluding, “She’s a completely different person.”
Before we head back up the gorge, John and Wendy consent—somewhat reluctantly—to talk further at their home. We make plans to meet at the beginning of the week, and they give me directions to their property.
Muck, Mire and Small Comforts
Sunday morning dawns with even more torrential downpour, and every forecast I watch promises continuing rain that won’t let up for several days. I begin to worry that I might never make it out to the mesa. In the meantime, I convince my sister-in-law to try our luck with the roads and get started on taking pictures.
Following John’s directions, or at least what we remember, we drive slowly down the highway searching for a dirt road with a cattle guard. There are several. One looks promising, as we can see scattered shacks in the distance. We make it about 20 feet down the road before getting stuck. In vain, we shove wood scraps and branches under the tires, desperately trying to force a surface the tires can latch onto. After taking turns pushing at the back of her Toyota while we dig ourselves deeper into muck that's hell-bent on sucking us into its depths, my sister-in-law flags down an enormous truck. And wouldn't you know? It proudly displays a winch on its front end.
Finally freed from the sludge, we retreat to the SnowMansion, defeated, exhausted and with bruised egos. Alex Moldavan, who's been at the Mansion for three weeks (and who I've nicknamed “my Russian” in reference to his country of origin), takes one look at my mud-caked clothing and sends me off to the shower. Once I'm hosed off and snugly dressed, he brings me a cup of tea whose radiating warmth is even more delicious than its contents. I spend the evening dining on roasted local lamb heads I’d left in the oven all day, and in between shreds of cheek meat and mouthfuls of creamy brain, my Russian and the SnowMansion’s owner, Mouna, assure me things will improve. Even if they don’t, the heads smothered in red wine and butter certainly topped anything I would find on the mesa, they say.
Finding My Way
To my relief, Monday morning dawns bright and clear, and John calls with good news. The roads are drying out and are drivable. This time I write down the directions and set out to see the mesa for the first time. On my own, I find the dirt road, and I'm surprised to see it's in rather good condition—with the exception of a large puddle that straddles the bumpy, pitted road from one side to the other. And it's deep. I make it to the other side safely, but not without coating my Jeep in a thick fleecing of mud. I switch on the wipers so I can see where I'm going.
The rest of the way is slippery and some parts of the road have large chunks missing, washed out into the desert by a week of storms. I slide around corners, narrowly missing boulders and ditches, but I somehow pull safely up to John and Wendy’s quarter-acre lot.
Their home is small by anyone’s standards. It's pieced together with an array of materials, notably adobe and corrugated metal accented by colorful glass bottles embedded in cement. Their front door has an institutional feel, still bearing a sign reading “Information”—evidence of the portal's purpose before it was salvaged. The blue door opens to a single room divided by a wall that supports a loft, presumably for sleeping.
Seated in the yard, I'm greeted heartily by two dogs of indeterminate pedigree, one missing an eye and a leg. They are friendly and endlessly entertained by a tennis ball thrown into the weeds and sagebrush that dominate the landscape. As John and I take turns tossing the soggy ball, John tells me about life on the mesa.
John and Wendy came four years ago to visit a friend and never left. They bought a small lot for $550 and worked side by side building their home. John describes it as a “labor of love.” “Working all the time together, it took maybe two or three months to put this together. And Wendy, my partner, we both just whipped it out.”
They needed little time to build their home and very little money. They traded work for materials by helping others on the mesa and did their best to use what was available for free—a technique they still use when they’re in need of something. (Most older mesa inhabitants simply live off earned Social Security.) Aside from the land purchase, their total bill came in under $300. John explains that, while money was a factor, they had other reasons for building in the manner they did. “We were trying to see if we could build something without any money, because we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t want to go to work just to make money to build with. We wanted to try and use things like garbage. There’s so much waste here, and we wanted to see, well, what we could do to utilize some of that waste.”
Together, John and Wendy, in their quiet, soft-treading manner, paint a picture of a place that removed the constraints of conventional society and allowed them to choose what direction their lives could go. Without regular jobs and goals rooted in materialism, they’re able to participate in life as they see fit. Wendy describes taking part in a peace walk that lasted six days, and John speaks in wonder of a spirituality that's nearly tangible in the neighborhood.
A Man Called Jaya
They lead me next door to meet their closest neighbor, a man who goes by his Hare Krishna name, Jaya. Wearing a straw cowboy hat that's supported by the furrows on his forehead, Jaya walks me around his land, shooing ducks out of our way while pointing out where drum circles once took place.
He first came to the mesa in 1981 with a pregnant wife and two small children. Having two children in diapers is hard no matter where you live, and, after two years, mama moved to town. Jaya stayed on, and his children were raised both on and off the mesa.
Now 64, Jaya describes his life as “maintenance”—the projects and building of his earlier years have slowed down. Now he says all that’s left to do is “sweeping the floors,” that the time for “finishing up old dreams” has passed.
We stop to rest in a shady, fenced-in yard. “It’s really silent out here," he says, reflecting on a facet that makes the mesa such a unique piece of geography. "There’s really a lot of time for a lot of work on the self because it’s so calm. You don’t have that buzz of vehicles in the background. It’s a great place to grow.”
Inside his home, also constructed with a medley of materials, Jaya gives me the grand tour. He did the tile and cement work himself. The glass bottle detail in the wall, he explains, was hurried due to impending company. He shows me a stone bathtub built atop a fireplace that warms his water and indoor planting beds that are filled with lush greenery, vines spilling upward toward the ceiling.
He says he has “all the electricity I want” from solar panels. No power lines service the mesa, so residents rely on solar and wind or go without. Cell phone service, wireless internet and satellite TV are available here, but utilities are not. In his living room, his granddaughter watches a movie and Jaya sits down at a computer—complete with Internet access—pulling out a cell phone to call a neighbor. It's in direct contrast with the otherwise “unplugged” way of life he leads.
He gives me the name and phone number of Mike Mabry, stands me on a pickup truck and points up the hill at a house hidden by trees. Mike’s a “good talker,” he says, and I should pay him a visit. After I say goodbye and begin to walk toward the Mabrys’, I hear someone suggest they go set some cars on fire—in joking reference, I suspect, to my questions about the documentary.
Mike and Me
I pass little shacks and more substantial homes. There are outhouses, wind turbines, solar panels and propane tanks. Several parked and forgotten cars decorate the roadside, and the road itself begins to blend into the desert with clumps of yellow flowers. A Buddhist stupa rises from the sagebrush, flanked by statues on pedestals and brightly colored banners. It doesn’t seem out of place here.
Peg Mabry greets me when I reach her yard. She has a kind face marked by a youth that betrays the long white ponytail trailing down her back. Telling me I should return when her husband is home, because “he’s the talker,” we exchange phone numbers and I head back to my car. As I’m leaving the mesa, I catch a glimpse of John doing yard work without a stitch of clothing on.
The next morning, I find myself back on that sunny porch receiving a sort of education. Conversation often returns to water. Mesa residents have always struggled with finding enough water to live. Private wells are, for the most part, out of the question. The water table is at least 700 feet down, and digging a hole that deep costs several thousand dollars. A federal grant was secured and a community well dug, but it caused more problems than it solved.
To use the well you must purchase a membership, and there are only so many to go around. Membership holders are forbidden to share water with nonmembers, and members still have to haul water from a well five miles way. It doesn’t end there. Mesa residents have long used nearby Klauer Springs for water, but those with well memberships are being pressured to sign affidavits transferring their water rights from the spring to the well. Once that happens, the pipe will be pulled on the springs, effectively turning off the water flow for those who don’t have a well membership.
Mike is passionate on the subject. He expresses outrage over the very idea that water can be taken from people whom he feels legally have a right to it.
As he leads me down a road that will eventually challenge my ideas on the differences between rich and poor, Peg rounds the corner and begins to scold him for keeping me in the sun too long. We should move to the shade, she says. Mike just laughs. “No special treatment for reporters!” he says.
Mike once worked as a journalist and photographer before he “dropped out.” He considers everything he’s done, is doing or will do just part of his “trip.” And though his vernacular is reminiscent of an aging flower child, he’s adamant he’s no hippie.
Mike continues his discourse, explaining what it really means to be poor in his eyes—that money is only part of the equation. He stresses the importance of owning land. If all you have is “a place that’s yours; a place to camp,” then, he says, you're wealthy. “There is not a bad spot. There are just challenges. Some have rattlesnakes, some have moccasins. Just get a piece of land.”
I’m trying my damnedest to stay with the conversation, but I can’t stop myself from staring out over the mesa, perched as we are above its expanses. The back of my mind is nudging me. It's asking “Why not?” and “What if?” I push it away and get back to work.
I spend several hours questioning Mike about life on the mesa and the difficulties that arise from living in such an unforgiving climate. Mike shrugs them off and always shifts the direction back to owning your own life and calling your own shots.
By the time the interview draws to a close, I'm reluctant to leave. Like so many before me, I can’t help but feel as though something has a hold of me—there’s no reason to hurry home, because I’m already home. Peg furthers that thought when she hugs me goodbye. “You’re adopted now,” she says.
You Can Always Go Home?
I dutifully go back to the SnowMansion and pack up my formally blue Jeep, now caked in mesa mud. I share a pint of ice cream with my Russian and somehow swallow a health shake that tastes like the pulp from lawn mower blades, lovingly made by Hilda. She cleans rooms at the hostel.
I cry when I hit the highway. I'm mad at myself for leaving and for being sad to leave. I came to write a story about a documentary. Or people living off the grid. Or alternative lifestyles. I'm not even sure anymore. I set out to find this wild and crazy mesa—but instead, it feels like I found my mesa. I was supposed to drive around and take some notes, write good copy and move on. But the best-laid plans of mice and men ... well, you know.
As I sit here typing, trying to do justice to these characters in a story that has become as much mine as theirs, I keep replaying my interview with Jaya—just the few seconds when he says he’s looking for someone to take over his property. I press rewind, then play, over and over again. I’ve already convinced my husband to consider the idea of turning our lives upside-down. I start to plan a trip back to the mesa. I’ll take copies of the article to everyone I met, and, maybe, I’ll be going to see a man about a horse.