Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Mighty Monarch Migration

This last month has been gorgeous and eventful. The monarchs have chosen the Big Bend area as their point of Migration to the south...
view the rest of the album here
I am performing every Friday night at the Chisos Mountain Lodge this month. Last Friday happened to coincide with Yom Kippur. It was a magical night and a good way to start the 24 hour fast:
Panaorama of Casa Grande in the Chisos during a Monkey's Wedding

An above average sunset in the Chisos
more photos here

And last week, I just completed a nice little mini tour of Texas with a great songwriter named David Moss:

Friday, September 2, 2011

Shower House UP dated

After hauling and stacking many locally collected rocks (all within a mile) in the heat of the Texas desert summer, the shower house walls are at a finished level. All in all, I estimate it took between 40 and 50 man and woman hours. Since this wall is a dry stack, it will one day fall down, maybe tomorrow, maybe in 300 years. I just hope it doesn't happen while I am showering. 
The shower now has privacy. The temporary water collection bucket makes it easy to distribute the used greywater to the trees that surround the shower house. 

I spent a day helping a new friend work on a concrete floor in his hand built strawbale house. Greg Donner is here for a year to work on his paintings in an inspiring and distraction free setting. I try to sit in on friends' projects when I can in order to pick up new skills and inspiration. Greg then talked me into going to the hot springs in our national park, which I never would have thought of as a summer option, but any temperature water is a respite in this unrelenting Texas summer . 

Good friends and fellow off gridders Kevin and Zoe stopped by for morning coffee and a tour of Don's Domeland. Kevin and Zoey are also coordinators for our recycling program in town and have been naturally living by example out here for many years.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Texas' Toll on Trees

My fig tree before and after the Texas Summer

I go back and forth on whether to maintain this blog or not. It sometimes seems like a long ramble, and so I am considering a more focused approach, perhaps a short self-published e-book or downloadable PDF, something along those lines sometime in the future.

Anyhow, I am now back in the desert after my tour up the East Coast by train. This last month (after the tour), I have been visiting with friends and family in Houston and Austin, and somewhat dawdling my return to the heat of the desert. Now that I am back, I find the heat quite tolerable. Even though I don't have AC or even a swamp cooler, allowing my body to adjust to the gradual heating and cooling between day and night is easier for me than constantly going back and forth between very cold AC interiors and the scorching outdoor temps that have settled over Texas this Summer.

Sadly, my fruit trees (one plum and one fig) didn't make it through the Summer heat and drought. My water catchment and timer system was foiled. This is because either a good intentioned neighbor or a very evolved rabbit or coyote turned off the faucet that my timer was attached to. I know that I left it in the right position before leaving because I monitored it for the few days leading up to my tour. Perhaps someone was just thirsty and needed water. Who knows? But I've realized that an automated system is far inferior to a manned system when it comes to being a caretaker of life, or of anything for that matter. It is OK. I feel fortunate that everything else is intact. Many people around here lost homes, property and livestock from fires caused by the drought. I may try to plant new trees this Fall. Or just focus on harvesting what this area provides naturally, i.e. mesquite.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


The Solar House in Montreal with the Biodome in the background. 

I have spent the last week in Quebec, in the middle of the the old European settlements of Montreal and Quebec City. They are perfect models of integration between the old and the new. I asked a few people what the catch was to living here. The answer was unanimous. The Winter. I think this is an area that I would consider moving to if it weren't for the winters being brutal and long. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Independence in Canada

I am a free man in Canada. The train tour has come to an end, after the border agents required that I cancel the Canadian leg (3 shows). And now I am on a Canadian vacation, after leaving my guitar in Buffalo, New York with a friend of a friend. The border agents let me into their country on my 4th attempt under the condition that I didn't bring my "tools of trade" into their country. We were each triumphant in our own eyes. They feel that they prevented me from working illegally in their country, and I successfully got across the border when it was seeming less and less likely. I didn't come all this way from Texas just to go home. It is all an absurd display of protocol, because a guitar is not hard to find in Canada.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Entering Canada with a Guitar is a Red Flag

Stuck in Niagara Falls after being denied entry into Canada
Being declined crossing a border is like being declined for credit. Once you are declined, you keep getting declined. In fact, one of the standard questions at the border is "Have you even been denied entry into Canada before?". Like with bad credit, the gatekeeper doesn't view your circumstance from a fresh perspective but rather, from a lens that is tainted.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


photo by Stephany Yantorn
After being denied entry into Canada, which I'll expand on in the next post, I find myself back in NYC. I am at Penn Station waiting for my final train in about 4 hours. Sleeping is not allowed in Penn Station but using the internet is. And so, I'll take this time to share s photo journal of the past week.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Philadelphia, Jersey Shore, and the Milkboy

Jersey Shore
I reunited with about 20 of my South African cousins in Philadelphia. From when we grew up in Johannesburg together to present day, we went from visiting each other every few days to seeing each other every few years. The addition of a last minute show at the Milkboy in Philadelphia was mostly an excuse for a stop in Philly for a little reunion. The Milkboy is a cool little joint in the suburbs, but it is also one of those venues that feels it's being generous by giving a performer one free beverage and letting them put out a tip jar. Almost the entire audience were relatives of mine, which makes a tip jar somewhat awkward, but I've learned to adjust to many different situations and be flexible.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


It is hard to imagine a place as lush as Virginia after leaving a desert that is
going on 10 months without a drop of rain

Playcation is the word I am using for a leisurely music tour routed to places and people I want to see. I may not earn very much, but I have a perpetually paid vacation, with a healthy amount of hard work mixed in.

The last couple of days, I stayed with my friends Keleigh and Thomas, who live part time in Terlingua Texas.

The secret hot springs in Big Bend with Keleigh and Thomas.
Niko and Jana Laven sit in at
Oddfella's in Floyd, Virginia.
Serendipidly, mutual musical mates, Niko and Jana Laven (Mother/Son duo) were touring through at the same time. And so we all became the house band for a house concert in Roanoke, Virginia on Thursday where the entire staff of the Roanoke Food Coop were present and contributed gourmet delights. Friday found us all in Floyd Virginia, where the Texas troubadours helped me fill my 4.5 hour set.  The tiny town of Floyd has more going on per capita than any place I've ever rolled through. Our Friday night show was a full house, in spite of the famous Country Store Friday night concert  down the road.  And I had the best Chimichangas I've ever eaten...in Virginia.

Back on the train, I tried to convince the snack dealer to let me use my own coffee mug, but he explained that Amtrak verifies the amount of coffee beverages sold from the amount of disposable cups missing from their inventory at the end of a shift. This protocol doesn't fit with their campaign to use the train as a greener form of travel. It is also incongruent with their their substantial efforts to provide recycling bins on board. But I needed the coffee. 

The Floyd pickers
And now my playcation takes me to Philadelphia, after 6.5 hours on the train, where I will reunite with 20+ South African cousins. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

the susTRAINable Tour is Launched

I am a couple of days into my train journey. I have 12 shows in 15 days, and the Amtrak is my portal to the shows. These first train segments are the long ones, but there is no hurry. It is not time lost, like when driving. On board there is a restaurant, a lounge, and plenty of space to walk around while the world streams by outside the windows. It is a good time to relax or be productive. With a 15 day train pass, each day on the train costs me $26, not bad considering the distance traveled. And I don't have to worry about unexpected car troubles. 

My first exit off the train was in New Orleans. I walked a mile to Canal Street to catch the streetcar. And this is when I realized that I may be carrying too much stuff. Besides my guitar, I am also equipped with a small amplifier, a mic stand, a sleeping bag, music cables, food, and clothes. I'll have to play around with redistributing the weight, or consider unloading a few things. I dropped my things off at Chickie Wah Wah and then took the streetcar to the French Quarter, a nice glimpse of how American cities could be if character and architecture were emphasized instead of speed and efficiency.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Food from the Desert

Every year, it seems that I am gone while the Mesquites are podding. Usually I return from the road and they have fallen from the trees and are rotting on the ground. There is such an abundance of Mesquite pods, not even all the birds and hungry desert critters awaking from hibernation can make a dent in the supply. Ever since I have moved out here, I have wanted to harvest the plethora of mesquite pods and make mesquite flour, which is very high in protein and minerals. It is also gluten free and has a very desirable sweet and nutty taste. Yesterday, when I should have been indoors instead of outside in 108 degree weather, I harvested a few gallons of pods in town. I have read that the ones to pick are the ones that snap off the tree easily and taste sweet. This is the easy part, unless it is 108 outside. The hard part is grinding them down into flour. It would help to have the right tools. I'd like to harvest enough to be able to at least sell some mesquite flour at the Farmer's market when the season starts again. And in the future, sell it here on the interweb. But I only have a few days in town in between tours, so I may lose the opportunity once again.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tour Summary: Through Deserts, Mountains, and Forests

the cost of touring and cashflow over 3 weeks
Another tour has come to an end. Or I suppose a tour never ends. It just pauses on this perpetual road. Of 22 booked shows, 18 actually panned out. I had to cancel two shows due to being sick and losing my voice. A Saturday night in Denver never manifested. And I was double booked in Las Cruces on the way home, but still paid. 18 shows in three weeks is still a rather dense schedule. And while I don't feel road fatigue, I would take a few more days off next time in order to better experience these incredible far away places that took a lot of driving to get to. 

The price of gas was a real killer this tour. I was expecting that though. Car expenses accounted for about half of my touring costs. It was mostly from gas, but also a $200 starter replacement and an oil change along the way. Other than that, Ruby is a true road dog, just hitting 260,000 miles upon returning. She even starting pumping out arctic air again, which she hasn't done in a year. Getting sick was also an unexpected cost, from lost revenue from canceled gigs, having to quarantine myself in a hotel for couple of nights,  and also from prescribed medication which I pay for out of pocket since I don't have health insurance.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House

This middle of nowhere venue in Pinos Altos, NM is tied for first place for my favorite venue this tour.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Colorado & Isakov

I've been hanging out with my friend and songwriter, Gregory Alan Isakov for a few days. Out of anyone I know, we have the most parallel lives. Besides being a jewish South African born songwriter, we have also been vegetarian for about the same length of time (over 15 years). And we also have some uncanny details in common, such a the fact that we both have broken speedometers and position our gps devices on our dashboard so that we know how fast we are going. I convinced him last minute to play a show with me at the Jamestown Mercantile. It was a much smaller venue then he usually plays in Colorado, but this tiny mountain community  houses some avid fans of his and when word got out, there was a nice turnout.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Ruby's alter ego, "Pearl" this morning in front of the Speedtrap in Palmer Lake. 
The first precipitation I have seen in over 7 months is in the form of snow. Last week in Terlingua it was 105 degrees. And 800 miles North it is snowing. It's incredible what a little distance and elevation can do.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No Paid Sick Days

There are no paid sick days while on tour. In fact, being sick is costly and I figure that the flu has cost me several hundred dollars on this tour.
Rio Grande Gorge in Toas, NM. 
Though this tour has been my best planned and routed tour to date, one can't plan around the potential of getting sick. In a typical job, there is the security that if you get sick that you'll be able to rest and recover at home, while still being able to maintain your budget. This is not the case for a touring musician. The show must go on unless it is absolutely not physically possible, for instance, if their primary instrument is lost. In my case, it is my voice.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


This is Eliphante. Perhaps the most unique space I have ever performed in. 

The chapel of Eliphante. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ruby gets a Starter Transplant in Tucson

Ruby in Tucson with Terlingua dust. She could sure use a shower.

Ruby received a starter transplant in Tucson. She has had a worsening condition for over two months now and yesterday morning after 10 tries to get her started, I finally got her some medical attention. She only has catastrophic coverage, so this preventative procedure was out of pocket. Luckily, I found a place in Tucson that only works on Volvos and did the job for half of what everyone else quoted me. That is because they use salvaged authentic Volvo parts rather than new junky versions. She has been given new life and is now much more excited to get started in the mornings. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ruby Goes Solar

Ruby gets a solar panel
It was one of the things I wrote off getting done before I left on tour this week. But then my neighbor Rusty popped by (out here, anyone within 20 miles or so is a neighbor). Rusty salvaged my pipe dream about hooking up a solar panel to the roof of my Volvo in time for my tour through some very sunny areas.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

McMercy Family's Annual Pilgrimage to Far West Texas

The McMercy Family Band returns to Far West Texas for their annual pilgrimage. 

The themes this week have been trains and music, a great combination I think. Of course, there was the well publicized and well attended Ralroad Revival Concert that passed through Marfa this weekend. But there was also my lesser known train trip back from a short Passover trip to Houston to play a weekend warm up show at Padres in Marfa with my friend, Jack Wilson.

AND, The McMercy Family Band's annual pilgrimage out to Far West Texas for Easter Weekend. This group of unique personalities perform eccentric versions of traditional and not so traditional gospel tunes. It was the usual... nonstop jams, soaking in the hot springs, energized perfomances, large feasts for 20+ musicians, no sleep, a large suspicious convoy driving late at night down the heavily patrolled West Texas Highways (we didn't get stopped this time), and a couple of car breakdowns. 

Here are some pictures from the weekend:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Build Some and They Will Come

Ike and Wendy perform a desert ballad on mouth harps

Well I haven't even finished building and they are coming. Since early February, most days I have had friends or strangers camping on my land, from anywhere from one night to two weeks. This seems to be a popular getaway for Canadians. I have had 3 sets of guests from Quebec. Two from New York. Many from Austin. And from a few other places with cold winters.  It has been enjoyable. I seem to do more hiking and see more sights when I am showing visitors around. I also learn a lot from watching the way that others live off-grid, what they cook, etc. Hopefully, they learn something too. 

Ike and Wendy, who I know from the Kerrville Folk festival camped out here last week. Ike is more of a dome enthusiast than anyone I know, other than Don Bryant. He ogled over Don's work and I could see his head spinning with ideas. Same thing happened to me when I first saw Don's buildings. 

Derek masters the Cram-Alot
My current guest is Derek Hansen, a cyclist who is prepping for a short little bicycle ride to Montana. We are linked by mutual friends in Austin. We put him to work this week in our volunteer recycling crew in Terlingua. And of course, I coerced him to mix a few batches of stucco after I showed him how, while I stuccoed the last piece of the exterior perimeter. Now all that is left of the outer cover coat is the very top. 

On Tuesday night we had a dinner in the shade of the dome. Eight friends and neighbors came by for a big pot of pesto pasta and some jalapeno and onion mashed potatoes.  

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Blackened Fields of Far West Texas

photo by John Schwerdtfeger

As I headed home from weekend gigs in the Big Bend and Marathon, along the same highway I have driven many times, it was unfamiliar. Unrecognizable.The vast West Texas fields that alternate between green and yellow have turned black in an instant.
After more than 6 months without any rain, the aggressive and unrelenting winds are taking this opportunity to escort the blaze through unconvincing obstacles, such as hilltops, meadows, and houses of convention. While there have been no human casualties, many other mammals have perished after being trapped inside barbed wire boundaries. As hydrants run dry, firefighters are combating the flames with a resource we'll never have a shortage of here in the desert...dirt.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Big Bend Getaway

Lost Mine Trail overlooking Mexico
The last few days I've taken a much needed break from routine and spent some time in our National Park. No gigs, no booking, no building, no dishes or laundry, just convening with one of the greatest national parks in the country. There is a rumor that Big Bend National Park could shut down this weekend indefinitely along with all the other national parks in the country because Congress members are using public programs and workers as pawns in their game of chess. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ocotillo Tea, Ferrocement, and Tour plans...

Ocotillo in bloom
Today, Don Bryant and I started prepping for the ferrocement demonstration at the Green Scene in Terlingua this weekend. Our one hour workshop is one of many on the subject of off grid living and sustainability. Ferrocement is the binding of sand, metal, and cement. It is the material that the dome studio is being built with. We stopped by Bonnie Hill, a friend of Don's, who he built a ferrocement cistern for about a decade ago. They last forever, unlike the plastic cisterns that are expensive and allow algae to grow. Bonnie has a thick Ocotillo orchard that is in bloom. She told me that she makes a tea out of the blossoms and she let me pick some to take home to try. It is good! Fruity!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Signs of Spring

Even though it hasn't rained in over 6 months, the Mesquites are tapped into the source with roots that can  transport ground water from up to 100 feet away. The very dry desert is suddenly green as these trees come back to life, signaling without a doubt, the end of winter.

Monday, March 21, 2011


So, like last year, and the year before, I chose SWTX over SXSW (the much hyped annual music fest in Austin, TX). And glad I did. It is not only a magnificent time of year for Spring weather here in the Big Bend, but there is also heavy tourism, and thus, a built in audience for a songwriter like me. They are the right kind of crowd, one that listens and buys records. Over the last week, mostly from record sales, tips, and the guarantees from the venues, I have raised enough money to pay for my Amtrak pass for my tour by train this Summer. Not a cheap ticket.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


plum tree roars to life with the first sounds of thunder this year
The plum tree that I planted last fall loves it here and apparently also loves my dish and shower water. The roughly 8 foot tree is the greenest thing around and survived well through the deep freeze that we had last month. We'll see how it likes the heat. There are about 50 flowers or so on the tree. I have received varied advice about picking off the flowers the first couple of years so that the energy is sent towards making the tree bigger instead of making fruit the first few years. I think that I want to keep this tree small though, so that it won't have the water needs of a very large tree. And I'm hungry for plums.

I also planted a new tree today...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Solar Cooling

I am no longer living out of a cooler, as I have done for the last couple of years.  Gone are the times where I purchase a big block of ice and watch it melt over the course of a few days as delicate food items drown in the glacier melt. 

When my new refrigerator arrived via Fedex, I was still skeptical. I wondered if my minimal solar system would hack it. Can the sun really power a refrigerator? The idea seems like a conundrum. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spring Visitors

Pretzel Cigars
Michelle's Kitchen

My new friends Michelle and Jim, from Canada, have taken over the place...  cooking nutritious meals, helping with the building, and driving us all to Mexico to stock up with groceries. Jim and Michelle are a very enlightening duo. They travel for most of the year and garden at their off grid Canadian home for the remainder.  They are also avid sailors and are currently planning a year long expedition. And they do this all on $12,000 a year, combined. Even while on the road, they cook almost all of their meals, and practice grocery management without a refrigerator. They were here to witness the only sign of spring on my property. The plum tree that I planted last fall, the one I have been giving all of my grey water to, is flowering.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Afterlife of an Ice Block

Being off grid in the desert, with no access to city water or unlimited electricity, we have to come up with ways to stretch out the lifespan of our resources. 
I have been keeping my food refrigerated with an ice box. It is actually a broken mini fridge that I keep cold by replacing a block of ice every few days. This is easy in the winter. I just stick a tub of water outside on a freezing night, let it freeze, and then switch it out with the melting block inside the ice box. It is rare that I have to purchase ice in the winter months.

Now that we are getting into the warm months, I have to buy a block of ice every few days. Luckily, the Grub Shack down the road sells blocks of ice. It is a nice 7 mile round trip bike ride, and I can strap my cooler to the back of my bicycle to keep the block from melting in the hot desert sun. I can also get a Trevor sandwich while I am there (the veggie version of their breakfast sandwich, but with grilled onions instead of bacon).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sunrise Mountain Scramble in the Neighborhood

It has been a very social week, with guests visiting and camping here on my land. We took turns improvising some gourmet home cooked meals and sharing ideas about living off grid. My favorite event of the week was a pre-dawn hike up the mountain behind my house.

We woke up at 5:30 in the morning to catch this view of the sun rising over Mexico.
This is from the mountain right behind my land

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Our Week of Winter

This supercooled bottle of water was just waiting for a disturbance to change properties from water to ice in seconds. This happened to me last week and took me by surprise. The next day when I found my water bottle in liquid form again while it was 15 degrees outside, I grabbed my video camera and hoped it would give a repeat performance. It did!

Other winter images...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lennon's Ghost in Marfa

Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl
(photo by Lacey Jones)
It was a surreal evening and the product of a fluke happenstance. Last month, my good friend and gifted songwriter, Laura Gibson, informed me that she was going to be the opening act on tour for Sean Lennon's new project, the Ghost of a Sabertooth Tiger, a duo with himself and his partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Since Laura had a break in the tour in between Austin and Tucson, she asked me if I wanted to put together a show for her and I. As a joke, sort of, I suggested that if Sean Lennon wanted to play on the bill, we could make room. She called me back a few days later and said, "Well actually..."

And so that is how I ended up on a bill with the son of John and Yoko, the beautiful boy himself. While Sean does not lean on his heritage, he doesn't reject it either. He is the incarnate image of his 60s era father and doesn't try very hard to sound or look very different. Why should he? He seems comfortable with his inherited talent, but not necessarily the legacy. His tiny band travels with one extra trumpet player and a sound man in a modest van that they load and unload themselves.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Slinging Mud with Emilie, Jason, and Dinozard

Emilie Clepper fashions a prehistoric lizard sculpture, which we named Dinozard