Optimism in Palm Springs
Now though, I have many things that I want to write about. I’m getting ready to install 1000 watts of solar panels in order to power a chest freezer. I’m building a micro-root cellar to protect homemade wine and canned goods from both the summer heat and the winter freeze. And I’m building out a grid of self-watering garden beds. This summer I’ll be experimenting with cob and building a 1/6th scale model of a wood-fired, five-person hot tub. I’m looking forward to sharing all of it here on the blog.
But what I want to write about today are my experiences and reflections during my recent trip down to Palm Springs, California in order to visit my parents. I try very hard not to travel long distances these days. As a young adult I spent a fair amount of time traveling in Europe, Canada, and Mexico. While each place was beautiful in its own way, compared to the San Juan Islands, none of them could temp me to live there. California was no exception. But the experiences I had and reflections I came away with are worth sharing.As a sailor in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve learned that November 1st through December 15th, and the entire month of March, are the worst times of year to live here. These time frames herald the changing of the seasons. The weather gets wet, windy, violent, and unpredictable. My parents offered to buy me a plane ticket to visit them as a Christmas present. So of course, I used the opportunity to abstain from the worst weather of the year.
Thanks to my career as a web developer, which I’ve been building over the last two years, I was able to continue working during the two weeks I was visiting the desert. I’d spend two to four hours a day catching up on work, in between excursions to local parks and tourist destinations.
This vacation helped me to realize that an optimal life is one that is balanced between vacation and productivity. We all want to achieve the relaxed, contented state of existence we associate with vacation. Too much or too long though, and it begins to feel like I’m trapped in paradise. I love the rush of satisfaction I feel when I’ve wrapped up a productive and lucrative morning of work. Too much though, and it begins to feel like a ‘job’. Zen is found in the middle. Where vacation and productivity meet is where my happiness and contentment lie. That is where I find my contours of enough.
As I mentioned, I’ve been researching the basics of building with cob. Cob is a type of mortar made from carefully proportioned amounts of sand, clay, and straw. One of the first places I visited was the Cabot Museum in Palm Desert. It was the home of Cabot Yerxa, one of the very first homesteaders to the area. He single handedly discovered several hot springs and fresh water springs in that area of the desert. He built a 5000 square foot, 35 room pueblo using natural materials and any building materials he could find. Everything is still standing. His use of concrete and desert sand to build the bricks of the pueblo gave me much to think about.Cabot was an industrious pioneer who worked closely with the earth and learned a great deal from the Native Americans. He travelled into a barren land and used the natural resources at his disposal to construct an oasis for all sorts of people.
I also got to visit several of the parks in the area like the San Jacinto State Park and Joshua Tree National Park. I viewed much of the trip as a scouting mission, taking notes of all the free camp sites and resources in the area. I’m toying with the idea of heading south in my camper van come November and returning back to the northwest around December 15th. When the weather is nice, there is no place I’d rather be than on my boat. But in the future, I want to use those nasty weather-transition periods as an excuse to travel inexpensively to warmer climates.
As great as the site seeing was, there were really two mind-blowing revelations that I experienced:The first was a tour we took to the local wind farm. There are over 2200 wind turbines and dozens if not hundreds of acres of solar panel arrays in the area around Palm Springs. I learned most of the technical details about these systems in college, but it was revealing to see the ‘rubber meet the road’, as they say. I saw huge 200 foot wind turbines costing millions of dollars. I learned that it takes 5 acres of solar panels to produce a megawatt of capacity, whereas one of the newer wind turbines can produce 2 megawatts in a footprint less than an acre. These industrial energy generation plants were not constructed by ‘bleeding heart liberals’. They were constructed and financed by no-nonsense investors who expect to make money… and they are.
I also learned that there were no battery-storage experiments taking place. Being located so close to Silicon Valley and Tesla, I was surprised no pilot programs had been started yet. With the official opening of the Tesla Gigafactory in nearby Nevada, I expect that to change soon.
It was incredible how much hot, sunny, windy space there was in the area. As a society, we’ve hardly begun to tap into the pollution-free, natural resources at our disposal. It makes me feel optimistic to see the alternative energy sector growing so rapidly and knowing that the resources are there for future pioneers to tap into. As I’ve heard it echoed by others: our environmental problems are purely cultural, not technical. The technology exists to solve all of our world environmental issues. All we lack is the collective and political will to make it happen.The second revelation was even bigger than the first, though it was more subtle. I was blown away by the huge gated communities of retirees living in motor homes. Packed in like sardines, these high-end parks still managed to retain a sense of privacy and luxury. The shared resources and focus on community made it a pleasant and efficient place to live. I had never seen anything like it.
The deep irony, as I saw it, was that these elderly people were all living a minimalist, nomad lifestyle…. just like the youth of today. Whereas millennials idolize living in camper vans and traveling around instead of pursuing careers, and are often criticized for it; here were huge communities of retired people doing exactly the same thing!
Despite political views, despite generational stereotypes, despite views on the environment or economy, the fact is that massive numbers of people, of all ages, are adopting simpler, more efficient, mobile lifestyles. Small is beautiful. Weather it’s a boat, a van, an RV, or a tiny home. People are awakening to the simple realization that downsizing allows them to focus on the quality of their life, and it is preferable to accumulating possessions.
It filled my heart with hope. Here was concrete evidence of a grass-roots movement that spanned generations. Hard fact. Self-evident existence. No one is doing it because they are told to, or a ‘supposed to’. They are doing it because it makes sense to them on an individual level. Each life is unique, but the answer is the same: small is beautiful. It’s exactly what our world and our society needs.