How this family of four lives 'off the grid' in the middle of the desert
At a time when we carry computers in our pockets and our cars practically do the driving for us, a certain subset of people have willingly chosen to cut the cord on modern American life — for good.
Off-the-grid living — that is, using natural resources like sun and wind power to provide amenities like heat and electricity — has become commonplace in places like Terlingua, an isolated community in Southwest Texas. What was once a bustling mining town is now a veritable ghost town, tucked into the foothills of Big Bend National Park in the north Chihuahuan desert.
To Abe Connally, 34, it was the perfect place to go off the map. In 2002, Connally moved to Terlingua, leaving behind a lucrative job as a web designer in Austin, Texas in order to try his hand at rural life.
"I’ve always enjoyed rural life, and the thought of sustainability and home-scale energy production intrigued me," says Abe, who grew up in New Mexico and Texas. "On top of that, I wanted to see how integrating systems to reduce waste and improve efficiency would affect the architecture and other components of this lifestyle."
Within a year, he met and married his wife, Josie, a British expat who was raised in Africa, Portugal and England before she finally settled out West. They never questioned whether to build their own home or not. It was only a matter of finding the right land and the right resources.
"When we started building our first home, we figured that if we could build a sustainable homestead from scratch in the desert, then we could do it anywhere," Josie says. "We realized that if we could reduce our needs and resources, our lifestyle would be cheaper to maintain, giving us money to save or invest."
More than a decade, two hand-built homes and a pair of energetic sons later, they've dedicated their lives to maintaining their sustainable home, using their blog VelaCreations to teach others how to follow in their footsteps.
Here's what it’s like to live really off-the-grid:
"When we built our first home, we had almost no money," Josie says. "We bought 20 acres of pristine desert land for $1,000 and moved an old bus onto it. The bus — retrofitted with a bed, small stove, solar panel and batteries, etc. — was our home until we could build a better quality one."
Photo: Abe Connally
Neither Abe nor Josie were particularly experienced home builders — far from it. They relied on books, blogs and online tutorials to learn everything from bricklaying to building solar panels for energy.
Abe: "[Renowned architect] Michael Reynolds introduced us to the concepts of architecture as a group of integrated systems. From passive solar designs to using waste as construction materials, his books showed us that it was possible to live like we wanted to."
Photo: Abe Connally
They built their first sustainable home in 2002 near Terlingua, but they were 30 miles from the closest schools and hospitals — not exactly ideal for raising small children. In 2007, they moved closer to town and started constructing home No. 2.