Driving in the City Different

Santa Fe prides itself on being unique, different, and well after twenty years here, I have to say it is. Driving alone will wake you up, but no, you don’t need a passport as some from the Midwest think. I do recommend a good defensive driving class though.

“Slow down, there’s a town just around the corner.” Karen lit a cigarette and calmly opened the side window in the little green Toyota truck.
I clumsily down-shifted to third. “Oh shit, you weren’t joking!” I braked, crunched gears again, and slowly we drove through Madrid, New Mexico. “I had no idea. This is cool!” My head swung from side to side, taking in the run down wooden structures, a few businesses open, and swerving around the wandering lone dogs. Karen gave me the history, a short version, it only takes a few minutes to drive from one end to another, and then we hit the open road, heading for Albuquerque. “Change gears, you should be in third up this hill.”

Such was my learning to drive in Santa Fe County in 1993. Yes, I was in my twenties and didn’t know how to drive a car, stick or automatic. I’d been a biker since sixteen, and living in Europe, you didn’t need to drive. It was too expensive anyway. A bike fit my needs just right. Here I was though, living in a cabin in the Sangre De Christo Mountains, with winter around the corner, thick snow threatening to trap me up alone. It was time to learn. Karen, my sweet friend, a calm (mostly) presence, unflustered by the crunching of gears, the panic in my eyes, she explained a few basics, put her sunglasses on, and we drove to Albuquerque on highway 14. Now, I love to drive, constantly taking huge roadtrips.


The driving test then and now is a bit of a joke too, I have to admit that I’m glad. Well, I was glad at the time. Now though, having seen so many accidents and read of so many wrong -way drivers crashing and killing others, perhaps it’s time to revisit and strengthen the standards for all drivers? Defensive driving 101?

Yes, people drive the wrong way on highways and interstates in the City Different. A plea bargain was just accepted by one such drunken driver, dating back to a crash caused in 2013. This last month alone, there were three arrests for wrong-way driving on the interstate and two deaths. Seriously?

The history of wrong-way drivers is linked to the high DWI rate in New Mexico. Put it this way, when the courts decided it was no longer a good idea to have drive-through Liquor Stores, the state was in an uproar. Not that long ago, either folks. In the last ten years, we’ve had about two serious accidents each year, all caused by those ‘buzzed’ drivers heading south in the northbound lanes, or vice versa, even one in 2009 when a driver decided to do a u-turn on the interstate. Most of these crashes have lead to aggravated DWI charges, rarely manslaughter even though so many have died as a result. Crazy isn’t it? In 2007, within a couple of months of each incident, there were two DWI wrong-way crashes. In 2008, a two car crash, one DWI charge. In June 2009, a driver with twice the legal blood alcohol limit, crashed into a car of five teenagers, killing four of them, and yes, on the wrong side of the road. In 2010, two were killed in another such crash, the driver was five times the legal limit. In 2013, a three vehicle crash occurred on the interstate after the driver had been drinking, she got confused and took the wrong lane.

The wrong lane. The left, the right, the southbound, the northbound. You’d think it’s easy to remember where to place your car, right? It’s not. Not for me anyway, my body memory fights my mind as to which side of the road I should drive on. Growing up in the UK, I learned by osmosis. Now as an adult in New Mexico, I still get confused. My 1972 Land Rover doesn’t help: it’s a right-hand drive one, that is the steering wheel is on the right. Weird to say the least when driving an empty backroad into the middle of nowhere. It’s not too bad if other traffic is around, I follow their lead. When it’s empty, I just hope I got it right.

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Now though, Santa Fe County has gone beyond itself in being ‘different’. Earlier this year, the powers that be decided to work on the I25 and Hwy 14 exits. Citing concerns over potential accidents, they’ve spent 19 million revamping the area. I asked a few local EMTs and Paramedics, and no, that junction was never a problem for crashes, fatal or not. So 19 million was spent. I thought they were joking, that it was just a phase of construction, but no, they have really done it now. Oh so “City Different” they are, now we drive down Hwy 14, stop at a traffic light, cross onto the southbound left lane for 1/4 mile, then we stop at another traffic light and revert to the correct side of the road.


I’m sure it looked pretty on paper, but what were they thinking? Seriously? After all the deaths, accidents, wrong-way drivers and drunk drivers in the area? You seriously think it’s a good idea to make drivers go against their instincts and drive in the left hand lane?


It’ll be interesting to count the number of accidents bound to happen, at a junction that had not been an accident zone until now. On a snowy night? Fog? Dark sky and no street lights? Seriously? It’s bad enough for me, one who’s easily confused by right and left, I imagine other visitors coming to that junction at night, unprepared to enjoy the lovely sweeping curves and gentle landscape, and fight the urge to stay in the correct lane. Me too, what if I’m tired? I can’t see the road ahead?


On another note, I thought I’d take the Land Rover down to town and grab some groceries before nightfall. Although, the turn signals died last week. It’s okay though, this is New Mexico, right? Anything goes as far as driving in the City Different. Or am I then part of the problem?

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What kind of toilet do you have?

Susan stood in front of me as hundreds of women surged past us on their way to hear Ani DeFranco on stage. “Well?”

I took a moment, searching for the best euphemism but gave up. “I shit in a bucket.”

It’s a nice bucket. It sits in a nice wooden box with a lid. I shit in a bucket. A honey box. Outhouse. Compost toilet. Humanure. There are so many ways to speak nicely of my toilet.  The question is asked often though, more than I’d expected after living off grid most of my adult life. Curious as to how I live, these strangers and friends wonder about my ablutions.

Let me explain. Life off grid, my style, is to keep it simple. Rain-catchment into 800 gallon tanks that feed the kitchen and one for the bathroom. Solar electric power, a small system of 150 watts, which is enough for this computer, the lights, water pumps, and internet. I don’t need a hairdryer, this in New Mexico, everything dries within minutes.

There’s a woodstove in the living room and a small propane one in the kitchen. The fridge and stove are propane too and they deliver out here as needed, about twice a year on average. Not bad. Not expensive. And after many a year without a fridge, I love having cream for the coffee and a cold beer waiting at the end of the day.

That’s your introduction. Back to my buckets. Yep, you know what I do in them but why? and how do you deal with it afterwards?

Yes, I have choices, a bucket, a compost toilet, or an outhouse. I don’t have enough water or funds for a traditional septic system, and why bother when these other methods work pretty well. It’s much more hands on though, and not everyone who visits  me likes that aspect.

When you do what you do in the clean green bucket, cover everything with sawdust or peatmoss. This is to contain smells, visuals, and helps decompose your shit. When the bucket’s close to full, then bring it out to the compost pile…but make sure your pups aren’t anywhere near. Dogs are nasty critters, well, Rosie is. So I made the compost pile with four pallets tied together, then fenced off to keep her little white nose from browning. I keep a bale of straw near by, again, to cover the layers of poop and sawdust, to help decompose and smother the smell.

It’s not bad, I like having the indoor bucket toilet but I am thinking of changing it up. That’s where this essay comes in. I’m thinking outloud. You see, I’m tired of emptying buckets when people stay up here. I’m tired of buying the straw, the sawdust, the cleaning supplies to bleach and scrub the buckets. It’s time for a change. The question is, do I go back to an outhouse?

I do love my outhouse, but it’s filling fast. I need to pay someone with a small backhoe to dig another deep hole, one to last a few years at a time. The cost to dig, and rebuild is close to $300.

So I started thinking of getting an actual premade compost toilet. Those plastic kinds you see in Backwoods Magazine and the such. The pros? Once every few weeks or even a month before cleaning out the tray underneath. The seat is clean and professional looking these days, nice and traditional in shape more often than not. The cons? Cost. The cheapest I’ve found is a Biolet non-electric for $1200. The need for fans. The fact that if you don’t quite keep the balance of peatmoss and ‘presents’, then the cleaning tray isn’t quite so nice to empty. It’s work if you mess it up…I’m also not sure of the smell. Some reviews say you’d need an electric fan to keep the outside not smelling of urine. Other people say it depends on the temperatures. The reviews are mixed.

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I’m confused. Does it make sense to keep doing what I’m doing with the buckets? Throw down a few hundred for each new outhouse? Or use my savings on a plastic pre-made compost toilet that might smell?

So I ask you. What kind of toilet do you have?

Where next?

Trundling around Europe in the back of a Land Rover, it was never a question of ‘are we there yet?’ but more of ‘where next?’

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Decades pass and the restlessness rarely leaves me. I crave another trip, another adventure, something new please. Engaged by curiosity, I lose interest in the familiar. I’ve read enough books about how that’s a lack of contentment, spirituality, blah blah blah but this world is made up of the curious. New inventions, new paths, new works of art, and yes, new books all come from a curious mind. Curiosity killed the cat is one of the most annoying and limiting phrases thrown at me over the years. Familiarity kills the spirit. My spirit that is. I’m not saying one way to live is better than another, just that for me, it’s different.

A map, a road unknown, a small town cafe, a bookshop, an empty beach, a mountain path, that appeals. The sense of what next? Where next?

This last year has been one of readying myself for the next phase in life. At thirty, I was deported, sent back to England with a hefty slap on the wrists and nine months in limbo. At forty, I graduated from professional clown school in San Francisco. Now at forty-nine, I wonder. I don’t know.

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In preparation though, I sort through another drawer, pulling out old photos, cuttings from newspapers, ideas scribbled on paper as my mind whirled late at night with stories and events worth remembering. A basket for paper to be burned. A lockable truck for the goodies I still care for. It’s about half and half it seems, which fills fastest. One drawer down. Two.

I turn to the closet, well, cupboard and pull out all my clothes one by one. It’s a compulsion. A need to lessen the load. To look at what I own, and to question why. I find it releasing, a lessening of the the claustrophobia that lingers in my mind, threatening to make me hit the road and leave it all behind. I’ve done that once before. Walked away with only a backpack. Claire was left with it all. I’m sorry Claire, I didn’t think of how it would affect you when I left London like that.

After clearing out my parent’s home, I understand how hard it is decide what stays and what goes. How was I meant to pay respect to their belongings when Peter and I weren’t able to house all this stuff. A minimalist most of my life, it overwhelmed me. I refuse now to do that to my family and friends. Being a morbid bugger, knowing too well that lives have to end and usually surprisingly suddenly, I throw out old letters, old clothes, anything that weighs me down. I dread for my anyone to have to sort through my belongings because I can’t. That’s one reason I’m such a minimalist.

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The other reason? A vagabond perambulator I am. Happiest wandering around, watching, chatting, reading and writing. Then setting up a temporary home in some simple cabin, here in New Mexico, in Guatemala, in Wales, in North Carolina and even Tennessee. It doesn’t take much for this scruffy english woman to relax and make a home base.

Perhaps then, this current discarding of belongings is to set me free once more? To allow me to take trips whenever I feel the urge, to rent out my own cabin in the mountains near Santa Fe, New Mexico? I don’t know. I really don’t know what’s next. I’m throwing out so many ideas into the world, acting as if each and everyone will happen, I keep moving forward. The freebox in Madrid takes my clothes, tools, furniture and books. I sell what I can, give away others, and burn the paperwork that holds me down.

Too many hats. I have too many hats. They’re my parents. I can’t give them away so I bring them with me. Yes, I do keep some things, a table from my great-grandfather, paintings from my gran, books of my dads, hats and photos from Mum. Peter’s cast-off clothes, the benefit of having a big brother.

But what is next? Where is next? West or Mid-west? North or south? I pick at my belongings, less and less is kept, and my closet is bare. The sentimental stuff of childhood in England is boxed and under the bed. The paintings hang on the wall above my bed, and the hats are above the front door.

Where next? Do we ever know? I’d say no but I’m ready for upheaval. For big changes. Hopefully that is. And yes, all the critters are coming with me.

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