Robert Earl and his wife Debbie aren't just prepared for the end of the world: they're doing everything in their power to make sure the end is as far away as possible.
For the last six years, Earl has been building what he calls the "Terlingua Bottle House," a self-sustainable eco-home in the middle of the West Texas desert whose walls are built primarily with a mix of glass bottles and concrete.
Earl's home is equipped with 59 solar panels that power the place, a water filtration system that can collect and clean 30,000 gallons of rainwater a year, six wind turbines, a greenhouse, and a smokehouse for local hogs. He owns more than 100 chickens, dozens of ducks, a horse, and has a garden of cacti plants. Everything in the home is recycled, from the bottles they've used to make walls to the trash to the organic breakfast Earl served me, a delicious combination of homegrown eggs, pancakes, and sausage from a local pig he slaughtered himself; after which, the egg shells would be crushed up and fed back to the chickens, the remaining pancake batter served to the dogs, and whatever was left over burned for heat. Nothing goes to waste.
"The idea behind this place is to not come out here and live like a refugee or a spartan," Earl told me. "The idea is to build a place where you could live like you live in a city or nice suburban area, but with no carbon footprint."
Photo: Isaac Saul
It's the bottles that have made Earl's home something of a tourist attraction. He estimates there are 80,000 bottles on his property, many of which are fillers in the mortar mix used to build the walls. He collected them over two years from two of the biggest bars in Terlingua, the nearest town, and likes to joke about how his home is made of all the beer Terlingua drank. If the sun is just right, the bottles become a beautiful kaleidoscope of colors that shine all through the property.
When I visited Earl, he warned me that the place wouldn't show up on my GPS, so he gave me directions over the phone. After driving down about four miles of dirt roads into the beautiful arroyos and mountains outside the small town of Terlingua, Texas, I spotted Earl's roof of solar panels reflecting the sun into the air. At the front of his driveway a cheeky sign warned of farm animals that "make noise, can smell bad, and have sex outdoors."
Photo: Isaac Saul
Not long ago, The West Texas couple were featured in a National Geographic special on “preppers” — paranoid Americans preparing for global catastrophe. Unfortunately, the episode used some behind-the-scenes scripts and editing to make Earl and his wife come off as weirdo social outcasts obsessed with the end of times. The producers even brought in rattlesnakes, which they had the couple hunt and kill on camera, something they'd never done in real life.
The truth of their existence is actually far from that of your stereotypical preppers. If anything, Earl and his wife can most accurately be described as eccentric environmentalists. The only difference between them and your hippie liberal friends is that they live by their word. Their lifestyle is one of substance and action, not merely abstract ideals and dubious fashion choices.
“National Geographic’s purpose wasn't to show this was a viable lifestyle,” Earl said, noticeably embarrassed at the recollection of how he and Debbie were portrayed. “They were trying to show what kind of marginalized people, outcasts, are living this way. But we’re just part of a movement of people that are trying to do the right thing.”
Once the pair gets a small cow or goat for milk, they won’t need anything from outside their home except flour. And Earl is confident that won’t be a problem, as wheat grows fairly well in their climate. He even makes his own alcoholic drinks if he happens to run out of Lone Star.
In other words, they will be totally self-sufficient.
" The idea is to build a place where you could live like you live in a city or nice suburban area, but with no carbon footprint."
When I asked him how he ended up living this kind of life, Earl spoke fondly of his childhood in Gross Point, Michigan and of going to school with Bill Ford.
“He picked on me once at camp and we got into a fight, so these camp counselors put these big 16 ounce gloves on us and put us in the ring,” he remembered with a laugh. “I was a little fat sissy boy but my brothers did teach me one thing: how to box. I beat him silly and we became good friends.”
But Earl knew city life wasn’t for him. His millionaire father died when he was a year old and made Earl’s mother promise to keep traveling with them. That’s how he fell in love with the outdoors, and getting out of the city made him realize there was more to life than competing with your neighbors.
In high school, Earl struggled with behavioral problems that he insists were a result of being bored at school. To help, Earl’s uncle took him to northern Canada and taught him how to fish and camp.
“I don’t mean to camp how a yuppy camps, with thousand dollar gear and fancy tents,” he said. “I mean how my dad camped as a lumberjack in Boyd, Michigan. And that’s what started my love of being off the grid.”
He lived in Houston and Florida, made six figures working as a general manager for several automotive companies, but ultimately couldn’t stand being so close to other people and constantly using so many resources when he knew he didn’t have to. After realizing he could hear his neighbor’s bowel movements from his own back porch, he was pushed over the edge. He left Florida for West Texas and, a few months later, began constructing one of the most unique homes in America.
Thus the Terlingua Bottle House was born.
Photo: Isaac Saul
The house and the movement were inspired by American architect Michael Reynolds, who is most famous for his construction of earth ships, which are essentially futuristic looking sustainable homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But Earl's goal was different: he wanted to show people who have 300 dollars a week, or even 500 dollars a month, that they too can live in a self-sustaining home. In fact, Earl was on a 300-dollar-a-week budget when he built his bottle house. Teaching others to do the same is an important part of his mission, so he maintains an instructional YouTube channel and a Facebook page to share announcements about the home. He's also working with universities in Texas to organize educational walkthroughs. With no children, he plans to bequeath the home to a college that will continue to build it out and maintain it as an example of low-budget sustainable living that others, he hopes, will emulate.
Photo: Isaac Saul
Unfortunately, all over the country, the government isn't making this kind of life easy to maintain.
Though Texas isn't hindered by it, municipalities in many states are passing laws that restrict or completely prohibit towers with wind turbines attached to them, citing aesthetics.
"If you want to see ugly aesthetics, take a look at all electric lines and trolley lines of the 1920s, that's ugly," Earl said.
Even if you get the turbines approved, it's still an uphill climb. In most states, if you want to put up the six wind turbines that Earl has on his property, you need to hire someone who meets a slew of high standards and works with a large crew of workers each making upwards of 150 dollars an hour.
Nationwide, states are creating an environment that is unfavorable to eco-homes. In Florida, people are prohibited from living "off the grid" — that is, unattached to electric and water grids — by law. Several states, including Colorado, have even put restrictions on collecting rainwater, claiming that it's state property.
Even Texas has instituted so-called Farmer's Market laws that restrict people like Earl from selling chicken eggs as food without a license. As a workaround, he advertises them as meant for anything but human consumption.
"You can look at them, throw them at neighbors, feed them to your livestock, but whatever you do, DON'T EAT ANY OF IT!" one of his Facebook pages says.
Photo: Isaac Saul
Though Earl doesn't think of himself as a prepper, one aspect of his worldview that does resemble the prepper mindset is his belief that our country is gobbling up far too many resources. He estimates that in about 15 years there will be a great crash of resources and a spread of desperation all over the country, particularly among those without much money. He cites studies showing that if the whole world lived like the United States, it would take two-and-a-half planets to sustain all of humanity.
"People are not going to be coming down those roads there with guns trying to kill Debbie and I and take it away from us," he said. "They're going to be coming down those roads" — he extends his hands in a begging gesture — "please can you help us? Do you have food? Do you have water?"
"Especially us," Debbie added. "Because we grow our own food."
If the breakfast I had was any indication, they'd be lucky to find them.
Photo: Isaac Saul