Yesterday was so interesting! We visited some new friends who have lived up above 8,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains west of here for the past few years. Loved hearing their stories about living up high.
I know many have romantic visions of life up in those beautiful mountains, but remember this too:
The approach to their house is a windy, dirt road off of a major highway, a road they and their few neighbors must maintain, unlike the county road we live off of, 15 miles west of Walsenburg. Once they came home a few years ago and there was 6 feet of snow on this road. They couldn’t go home!
We heard stories about when the deep snows come, and the big state highway snowplows plow their road closed! That’s why they need to maintain snow-moving equipment themselves….imagine that!
I asked them how deep the snow gets up there, and they decided one picture was worth a thousand words!
WOW! We have had a few snows of a foot or so, but nothing like this! They told us stories of a few snowstorms where they shoveled for eight hours straight. If they didn’t have heavy equipment they wouldn’t be able to get out for weeks!
Their property includes an old straw-bale cabin on a mine site plus 100 acres. Their water comes from a spring nearby, and what delicious water it is! They heat with a large wood stove, which requires a great amount of log splitting to prepare for the winter cold. They have electric service, mainly because the costs of returning renewal energy back to the grid here requires outrageous fees and insurance requirements, and going off grid presents other problems with reliability and initial installation costs. We are stuck here until better energy storage solutions are developed worldwide.
The natural beauty of their landscape is beyond words and, did I mention, they have no water or heating bills… They maintain a number of wildlife cameras and see so many different animals around their home. Bears are so commonplace that they have named a few of them! It’s a wonderful place that requires a lot of work to maintain.
Postscript: This home was lost in the Spring Creek Fire , July 2019.
We recently built a passive solar home right at 7,000 feet and are told by our new friends that we are really saving a lot of money in the winter by absorbing the sun’s heat directly into our insulated slab, which helps to hold the daily sun’s heat within our home overnight.
We hope to add a few of these solar thermal water tubes to our home soon to increase our thermal mass and help to moderate temperature swings both in the winter and summer. Beyond solar, we depend on Cadet forced-air electric wall heaters on thermostats for all of our winter heating needs. They usual turn themselves on during the night and turn off soon after the sun comes up most days. In the summer, the positioning and excellent insulation in our new home keeps us cooler than most without the need for air conditioning. We have ceiling fans in every room.
We have rarely been “snowed in” this past winter, but we did purchase a Subaru and love how well it works on steep snowy roads. Overall, we’re glad we chose a lower elevation, especially since our home survived the Spring Creek Fire in 2018!
“Even in seemingly dormant times, we are in transition. Losses and gains are in constant play. We are the change-agent, and we are changed. Even without toil, we transform. So, wisdom advises us to open our hearts to transition; to honor fully what is passing, to learn from all that unfolds, and to welcome what arrives at our door each day with courage and curiosity.”
As all who have been reading this blog for the past year or so know, I have had many doubts about this big, dramatic move Mike and I started on two years ago. Especially when we first moved to Walsenburg, and I basically hated it.
But then if you took anyone from a beautiful, suburban home in Fort Collins, and moved them into a tiny, dirty 100-year-old house in a sad, rundown town an hour away from any decent sized city, the shock would be total, and it was!
The challenges we have faced in the past two years have been daunting for both of us. For me the biggest challenge was simply adjusting to such a different world than I was used to. For Mike it was the many extra expenses, frustrations, and delays in building a passive solar home in a rural environment.
I am now quite happy that we made this choice, while Mike says he wouldn’t have done it if he had known how unhappy I would be in the process of adjusting to something so different.
In retrospect I wish I had not worried so much about everything and trusted more in Mike’s vision for us, because this place is heaven. I fully appreciate how much courage and vision it took for Mike to push this whole project through to completion.
Now we live in a beautiful home that is supremely quiet, with fantastic views in every direction, and our direct-gain passive solar is working great! Plus I now feel like I’m making a few friends and slowly starting to feel like I belong here.
In summary: This place is perfect, but change can still be hell!
Ancient pueblo-style homes faced south for the best winter exposure to the warmth of the sun, and had thick adobe walls to help maintain indoor temperatures year round. This design provided much needed warmth in the winter, and cooler temperatures in the summer months.
Then I learned about the Glidehouse, which I had never heard of before. This is now built prefab in a factory, but was originally the architect Michelle Kaufmann’s attempt at creating a reasonably priced green home.
What did that mean to her? She wished to create an energy efficient home that maintained its indoor temperature through its unique design. With excellent insulation and many south-facing doors and windows to add solar heat in the winter, the overhanging roof on the south helps to keep the sun out in the summer. With lots of windows facing south, very little indoor lighting is needed during the day. She also installed a low-flow water system. Kaufmann’s main idea was to conserve natural resources, collaborate with nature, and create a healthier, more comfortable way to live.
Unlike our own custom-built passive solar home, the Glidehouse does not include a specially-designed direct-gain slab that collects heat during the winter months, and then releases it at night, greatly decreasing the need for additional heat. We also spent the extra dollars for spray, polyurethane foam to insulate our outside walls, providing the best R-value for both winter and summer.
I am happy to see more Americans who are concerned about energy efficiency in their living situation, not just to save money, but to live more in harmony with the earth. I love living so close to nature, and waking up to see bunnies coming up to my sliding door to look in in the morning.
We’ve been sitting in a snowstorm here at 7,000 feet in southern Colorado for the past four days. I loved it! I wrote about this and it seemed like everyone responded with, “That sounds horrible to me!”
This is exactly how horrible it is. When the snow clears and the Sangre de Cristo peaks emerge from the clouds, we are surrounded by incredible beauty. This is our view to the south today.
This is our view to the west as Mount Mestas emerges from the storm.
Besides the stunning views following a storm, we have now received two and a half inches of precipitation, about one-sixth of our total annual rainfall, leading to fields of spring flowers like Indian paintbrush, lupines, penstemon, or these lovely wild iris:
I took these photos last June, west of here in a high mountain meadow. The same can be said of the photo in the header of this blog, an amazing spread of spring flowers which only appear when we get some hardy spring snowstorms!
In conclusion: If you want the rainbow, you must have the rain…
For example, today the sun is out, but we had a high of 46 degrees outside. Inside we are toasty warm in the low 70s with no forms of heat needed.
To build a direct gain solar home you must first properly position it with almost all your windows and sliding doors facing directly south. And the windows and doors must be made of the proper kind of glass.
In addition, your roof needs just the right amount of overhang on the south side to keep the sun overhead and not shining into the house until around September 1st.
You must also start out with the right kind of insulated slab to hold the heat in the floor, instead of it leaking out into the ground. This is essential!
The walls must be well insulated, and then we chose dark gray tile throughout the house to absorb the heat as it enters the house from our south-facing doors and windows. Right now the sun is shining about 10 feet into our home!
You also need ceiling fans if you want to keep the heat down off the ceiling in winter.
At the time of building this house, I understood why we made these specific choices, but only now do I see the great advantages to living in a home that holds its temperature so well.
Yes, our home does cool down at night, but very slowly. The low temperature outside last night was around 20 degrees. With no inside heat on, the outdoors got down to 64 degrees. Then as the sun starts coming in to the house the morning, our home warms up very quickly.
Sometimes before I leave the house I think, “Should I turn down the thermostat?” But we have none…old ways die hard.
Fortunately we were able to find the perfect passive solar perch for our new home, one that faces south and also offers us a 180 degree view of the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.
Now that I understand all of this, I am mystified why everyone doesn’t use the free solar heat of winter! Of course I never would have understood all of this without Mike’s expertise and education.
Mission Accomplished! And, BTW, the passive solar is keeping us toasty warm this fall! More often than not we have to open a window to cool down our home. So far, so good. We have only needed to use our supplemental heaters on the coldest and cloudest days.
The sunrises up here are GLORIOUS!
And all in all, I would say we are a good example of:
“Don’t give up in midlife when things feel hopeless!”
Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. If you can change your mind and change your priorities like I did, there are do-overs before it’s all over! That is the message of my books and blogs.
And, finally, the rat is dead! Mike found it in his car and killed it! He was so happy! We still have our new cat Charlie. He’s not so good with rats, but he’s great at finding bugs, and re-defines playfulness for us!
Rasta and Charlie are still not the best of friends, but we’re getting there…
I’ll bet you didn’t know the second thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up, after Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke! was a psychobiologist.
Yes, I wanted to study animal behavior.
So when we added a kitten to our household this week, with a well established puppy named Rasta, it only took us a day or two to realize that neither one of us had ever had a cat AND a dog at the same time in the same house. We kept looking at each other as if one of us would know how this works.
Well, this is how it works from my perspective. The dog keeps expecting the cat to act more like a dog, and the cat keeps expecting the dog to act like a cat.
For example, they play in very different ways. The cat loves to chase everything around, although he hasn’t killed our car motor rat just yet as far as we can tell. The dog only wants to fetch his toys for us.
I will say our dog seems more territorial and loyal. He keeps trying to defend me against the cat!
They observe each other more with curiosity than disdain, and I can tell they basically enjoy each other, although Rasta has his moments:
They are both equally “lap happy.” Both love a good lap, and even more so as the weather gets colder. Rasta is only eleven pounds, so I’m curious which one will end up weighing more.
All in all we are quite pleased with our new addition and we’re hoping Rasta will feel the same soon.
Now that our home is finished, I thought I might share the names of the best companies we have worked with down here.
My first caution is to not just go with the companies the local builders use in Huerfano county. We had to remove contracting responsibilities from our builder eventually, when it became clear that he had absolutely no incentive to save us money. He just went with the good old boys down here to line his and their pockets, since he got 15% on top of the subs he brought in to do the dirt work, etc.
It seems they like to convince you that the companies in Pueblo won’t come down here to work. We have found this to be absolutely false. In fact the best companies we worked with were located in Pueblo. Companies like Pueblo Electrics, who did all of our wiring, Prutch’s Garage Door and J & J Stucco. These companies worked with us for a reasonable price on a much more professional level than the locals who don’t necessarily want to work.
We cannot recommend Cornerstone Roofing, who put on our steel roof. Parts of it blew off a year later and they would NOT even come out and take a look at it! Don’t believe their “integrity” crap!
As expensive and inconvenient as it was for us to move here before starting construction, we highly recommend it while having your home constructed. If we had not been here checking in each and every day, our builder would have made a few MAJOR mistakes in our passive solar construction project.
We weren’t able to find a satisfactory contractor/builder in Huerfano county, and in the end were disappointed with ours. GOOD LUCK!
The culture-shock continues at this end. I remember daily my surprise when we first moved here from busy, expensive Fort Collins last summer. Walsenburg is very small, quiet and poor. Back then, every time I went out to my car to go somewhere I would think, “Where the hell am I?” Ours was a move from one of the richest cities in Colorado to the absolute poorest. Yes, this was a challenge to the way I saw myself.
About once a month we would go eat breakfast at the local greasy spoon, that cafe that has been on Main Street for a hundred years. Phyllis, the owner, cook, and waitress would always ask, “Where are you from?” We would always answer, “Here.” It took her a few months to accept the fact that we would be coming back monthly.
Last time I was there, I asked her to sit down for a minute and tell me about Walsenburg. She said it used to be a nice little town, back when there were still some good jobs left. She said downtown was buzzing back then, but since the mid-1980s it’s been going downhill. Now some believe the influx of people and dollars for cultivating marijuana will save the town. She’s not so sure, but hopes for the best.
Now, after one of the most stressful years of my life because of the major challenges of moving into a very old house in a sad little town, and then completing a home in the foothills west of here, I again feel culture shock.
After a lifetime of living mostly single, extensive world travel, constant change, and relentless uncertainty, I live now in an amazingly peaceful place with my loving husband and great puppy. Sometimes this feels like a dream. I’m staying at a quiet, beautiful mountain resort, and I begin to wonder when the management is going to kick me out!