A Rich Life

How I Bought 22 Acres for $5000, Part 1

There’s still affordable land out there, my friend. It depends on what you want. You probably won’t find Malibu beachfront real estate for much of a bargain. But rough land in remote places is available, sometimes for $200-300 per acre. So who would want “rough land in remote places?” I did, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Here’s the story:

Several years ago Sandy was invited to enter into an art exhibit in Phoenix a sculpture she had carved from a large log from an ash tree—a life-sized carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She drove to Phoenix to deliver the sculpture, and I decided to fly to Phoenix to help her drive home to Iowa.

On the way back we drove through and hiked in the Superstition Mountains, and camped west of there near a canyon with a huge dam and reservoir, Roosevelt, I believe it is called. Camping there, waking up in the midst of giant saguaros, and spending the day hiking in the desert mountains was a life-changing experience. It rekindled in me a love of the desert I had acquired when I was 10, on a family trip “out West.”

We left Arizona kicking and screaming, and when we got back to Iowa I began a search to see if there was affordable land around the Southwest. I went to several sites, and settled in on Landwatch.com. The site is well organized. You can search by state and by county and filter in various ways, by price, acreage, improvements, etc. I looked quite a bit in Arizona and New Mexico. Several times I thought I’d found what I was looking for—20+ remote acres with interesting geology and terrain. One property in NM looked especially promising. It had hoodoos! These were red stone pillars “growing” out of gorgeous cliffs and grasslands. I was set to jump in the car and try to make a deal. But then I searched on Google Earth and found……….a friggin’ coal-fired power plant just two miles UPWIND (tracing the prevailing winds) of the plot. Crap! Lesson here: never by sight-unseen. Always do your homework.

I spent a few months searching, mostly on Landwatch.com, but on other sites, too. At some point I started stumbling across listings from a place called Terlingua, in Texas. Texas? I don’t want to have property there! Don’t they electrocute minors there, just for stealing candy!? Don’t they give you a semiautomatic pistol there when you open a new checking account? Have you read the Texas GOP Platform? (This was a few years ago, when they came out openly against teaching critical thinking in public schools. They got slammed for that one, and have since retracted). Anyway, I found about a place called Big Bend, something to do with a meander of the Rio Grande. Land there was cheap. It was high mountain desert, the Chihuahuan Desert, a different desert than what we loved in AZ, no saguaros, but, OK, worth a look. Sandy and I jumped in the Jeep in late April and headed there.

OMG, Texas is huge! Driving from Iowa to Big Bend. When we hit the Texas border after driving 12 hours we found out we were only a bit more than halfway there! The next shock was Midland and other cities along Route 20. Talk about shit towns! Oil wells everywhere, refinery after refinery, [I should mention here that we were pulling a trailer and in it were two 55-gallon drum of home-brewed bio-diesel made from recycled sesame oil used for massage treatments, so we were not as hypocritical as it might seem when we rail against oil wells while driving by them!]—awful air—breathing methane, sulfur-dioxide and Lord-knows-what—plastic litter like you wouldn’t believe, plastered by the relentless wind against buildings and fences and shrubs and what few trees there were. By the time we got through it we were already pretty freaked out.

After that nightmare, getting into Big Bend country is a magical thing. You see in the distance the outlines of desert mountains. The air quality improves as the oil wells fall away. The flora changes, going from rough bare creosote rangeland into the Chihuahuan: lovely Spanish daggers blooming pearly white, the prickly pear, mesquite, grasses, and countless (nameless to us) flowering ground plants. After stocking up in Alpine we arrived at the Terlingua Ranch in late afternoon and set up camp just off the roadside. In the distance were the Chisos Mountains, and close by we saw other peaks, the names of which we did not know, but are as familiar to us now as old friends.

Camping in the desert is a very special thing—not for the faint of heart, mind you, but with a quality that is hard to describe. First and foremost is the silence. Have you ever been to a place, anywhere, where you can stand outdoors at night and not hear a thing? Not a thing! For some this might be freaky; I’ve heard it can drive some folks mad. But for me it was pure magic! More on this later…

We camped. The next day we set out to explore the Terlingua back country. Sandy and I are each in our own way an experienced outdoorsman/woman. Sandy has hiked a good part of the Appalachian Trail. I have camped out in winter, once at 30 below. In Terlingua we were babes in the woods. Let me explain: within the ranch at Terlingus there are 1100 miles of unpaved roads. Think of it—1100 miles of roads within the Ranch! By comparison, it was 1300 miles to get to Terlingua from our home in Iowa. Many of those 1100 miles are rough 4X4 tracks with steep hills, washouts and sharp turns a twitch away from jawdropping cliffs. There are places where the road rock is like razors. We found out later that people on the Ranch routinely carry TWO spare tires, plus a tire pump and a patch kit, plus spare coolant, plus lots of potable water, plus a military-style first aid kit, plus…. You get the picture. Sandy and I were, quite frankly, unprepared, despite thinking we were well prepared.Lesson: find out as much as you can before you leap.
To be continued…

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