South Valley Sweat

Terry Mulcahy

© Copyright 2023 by Terry Mulcahy

Photo courtesy of the author.
Terry working on Mark's house  in 1983.  Photo courtesy of the author.

It started out as a hole in the ground - a mud pit. Mark used it to mix mud for his adobes. It was about two feet deep and five feet across. Next to it was a pile of lumber scraps. For nearly two years, Mark had been building his house, mostly on weekends, and now was the final push to finish it. He had taken the summer off from teaching at TVI. I was out of work, and figured I might as well do something, so I was down in the South Valley, near the railroad tracks, occasionally downwind of the sewage treatment plant, helping out. We dug the foundations for the perimeter walls, and added steel rebar, both to reinforce the concrete we poured into the foundation trench, and to stabilize the concrete blocks of a stem wall that we built just below and above ground level, as a foundation for the adobe bricks to come. Inside the stem wall blocks are many empty bottles of the beer we drank in that grueling hot summer. Later on, I worked with Mark to begin the process of laying the adobes. We also poured a concrete subfloor for the kitchen and living room, when we had help. Mark sealed the concrete subfloor with tar, wooden runners, and plastic sheeting as a vapor barrier.

Before Mark started on his house, he lived in a trailer on the property. He bought window frames, flooring lumber, and wooden beams - logs called vigas in Spanish, that would support the roof. One time, Mark left town for few days. The wood for the floor was stored right there under a tarp. Mark had bought it as salvage. A truck had overturned with the wood, and it had been stored at a gas station. Mark saw it and bought it. Thatís how he built his house, accumulating things a bit at a time, as seconds or salvage. Mark showed me how he wanted to build the main room floor. I agreed to start on it while he was gone. The flooring planks were tongue-and-grove made of pine. The wood had been in the rain.

I like working alone. I am a solitary type. If I concentrate on my job to the exclusion of all else, I can do almost anything. I had never installed a floor before. It canít be that hard, I thought. As it was, many of the wood planks had warped, but I did have pipe clamps. What I had to do was attach a straight plank first. Then I nailed wood runners in place. I attached one end of the pipe clamps to the runners, and the other to the opposite side of a warped plank, and tightened those clamps down until the planks met flush with each other. I did that over and over, and over for the entire floor. I stayed in the unfinished house, working almost nonstop. I had brought my sleeping bag and food. When I got to the walls, I was stymied for a bit. The walls were of stucco, a plaster mix that Mark had created by driving along the Jemez mountain roads collecting the red or yellow clay silt from those hills. Mark had done all of that plastering himself, and the rough walls were beautiful, but very uneven.

I ripped narrower planks from the wood I had, using a jigsaw when I needed to match sections that curved in and out. However, I still had to deal with slim gaps between the planks and the wall. Iím no expert with a hand-held jigsaw. Looking around, I realized I had small hills of sawdust from the sawing I had been doing. I mixed the sawdust with wood glue, and used a masonís trowel to seal the entire interface between floor and walls, and a few places in the floor that werenít entirely flush. Mark had inspired me to think on my feet, and try things new to me. When Mark returned, the floor was done. He was amazed. He hadnít been gone long enough for anyone to do something like that all alone. It was something like the so-called miracle of the spiral staircase in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe. No one knew exactly how it was built, with a huge sheet of wood spiraling from the church floor to the choir loft. In 1878, the physics of it baffled people. Despite appearances, it was solid and strong. Iím no miracle worker, but I can laser-focus on things as if I have high-functioning autism. Perhaps I do. I donít care. It works for   me in such matters, although I often have trouble in social situations. The floor in Markís house, to his consternation, has received praise for its beauty, but he says, regretfully, that he didnít install it. Thatís not entirely true, considering the work he did on the hidden subfloor, and that Mark used a floor sander to polish the wood Iíd installed. He then applied countless coats of polyurethane. It may be pine, but that floor is solid as marble now, and gorgeous with the highlighted grains of the soft pine.

I mentioned Mark having had other help besides me. Mark, a.k.a. Tom Sawyer, as I call him, organized work parties. These parties went on entire weekends. There was plenty of food, plenty of beer, and plenty of work. In one furious weekend we made every adobe brick Mark needed for his entire house. Some of that was hilarious. Mud with a high clay content had to be mixed with straw to a certain consistency, then wheelbarrowed to fill open forms, and the forms had to be troweled level. The forms were simply parallel two-by-fours fitted with crossbeams to delineate multiple adobe blocks. Students and teachers from TVI (the Technical Vocational Institute where Mark worked) came by on and off all day. The ones without adobe-making or hod-carrying experience mixed mud, under supervision, for the adobes. I worked mainly on the forms, scraping them level with my trowel, or taking a turn filling them with the wheelbarrow. Grabbing the wheelbarrow one time, I went over to get some mud. I couldn't even recognize those mud babies from TVI. They were covered in mud from their hair to their toes, wearing little clothing. Theyíd regressed to their childhoods.

When the work was done, we sat on milk cartons at crude makeshift tables to stuff ourselves with all the food people had brought with them. A fire crackled all evening. Then we all went home - tired, sore, and baked by the sun. After the adobe bricks cured in the sun, even with help, it still took two years to build Markís house, since Mark worked on it primarily on weekends.

Finally, Mark took some time off of his teaching job to finish the house, but few people could work weekdays, so Mark worked alone, and I came nearly every day that summer, since I wasn't having any luck finding a job. The walls were done, the roof was begun, and it looked like a house. One really hot day, Mark and I had been sawing vigas, getting them ready to lift to the roof. When I took a break, I sat down in the shade of an apple tree to suck down a beer. Next to me was that pit where Mark had mixed mud for the adobe blocks and mortar. It was about two feet deep in the center and five feet across. "What are you going to do with this hole?" I asked him. "Oh, I don't know," he said, "Although, I was thinking about a sweat lodge." Mark is a smart guy, but that was inspirational. "That's a great idea, Mark," I said, excitement building in me.
I really wanted to bathe my stiff muscles in clouds of warm, penetrating steam. "I'm going to do it," I told him.

I was tired of working on the house. I wanted a change. "You can use any of this scrap lumber you want," Mark said. Immediately, I set to work, squaring the sides of the pit and leveling the bottom, cleaning it like the community acequias, those irrigation canals found all over New Mexico. I ended up with a neat hole, 2 Ĺ feet deep and 7 feet in diameter, roughly octagonal.

A typical Indian sweat lodge consists of a small space created with curved saplings and poles, covered with tarps and blankets. In the center is a small hole about a foot round and one to two feet deep. A large fire is built next to the structure, and smooth dry stones are placed in the fire until they glow. Everyone crowds into the sweat lodge, shoulder to shoulder, and nude, except for the fire tender. As the rocks are ready, the volunteer outside brings a shovel load of glowing hot stones into the sweat lodge, and dumps 'em in the small center hole, closing a flap behind him as he goes out. The glowing stones provide the only light in the small enclosure, and you can briefly see your neighbors and friends squatting around the lodge. If it is a ceremonial sweat,
various herbs will be placed on the stones - exploding their healing aromas to every person. Water is poured onto the stones, extinguishing the glow, as clouds of intense steam embrace the inhabitants inside this now pitch-dark space. The experience can last an hour or two. No one leaves or enters during this time, except the fireman.

Sometimes, new stones can be brought in to keep the pit hot enough to make steam for longer periods of time. There is only a brief stab of light from the blazing fire as the door flap is shoved aside for a shovelful of glowing stones, and the flap is quickly closed. After a good cleansing sweat, there are fresh buckets of cold water to rinse your body off, or an icy stream to plunge into, or, sometimes, a snowbank to roll in. Filled with heat, you barely notice the cold.

Sweat lodges are not always temporary structures. Many of the Pueblos in New Mexico use a ceremonial kiva, or another underground room, for spiritual and physical cleansing. Mark was going to have a permanent sweat lodge, or more accurately, an outdoor sauna with wooden floors instead of slippery mud, wooden walls instead of cloth, and a permanent wood-burning stove instead of just heated rocks.

The following weekend, I started work on the walls. Mark wanted an octagonal structure, like a Navajo hogan, and he showed me how to make sections of wall that were angled to fit together. I put the wall sections up and bolted them together. A nice octagon. We connected them with a shallow-pitched roof of thick plywood with room for a stove pipe protruding through the center. The entire structure extended above ground level about two feet. Later on, we used the leftover tin to cover the roof. Mark sealed it around the stove pipe. I made a bench that several people could sit on, or one person could lie on. I cleared dirt away from the doorway entrance, embedding a piece of wood to avoid mud. I also cut a stair to the immediate right of the doorway. I placed a flat stone on it to protect it from rain. That way, people could step down into the space Iíd cleared, and pull open the heavy canvas tarp weíd attached to the lintel. Being partially underground, the lodge held heat well.

Alan Cooper, a friend of Mark's, halved a thirty-gallon oil drum lengthwise, and cut out a piece of a trash bin lid which he welded on to make the top of the "stove". It had a little hinged feeder door too. Mark collected lava rocks to cover the top of the flat surface of this makeshift stove. We could sprinkle water on those. We collected firewood leftover from the apple trees that had been cut down, then quartered the sections, and halved them again to fit inside the makeshift stove. We were ready for some serious sweating.

Any work done on Markís house after that always ended in a muscle-relaxing steam bath. Over the years it was used a lot. Mark would invite me to join his special friends, and he or I would fire up the sweat-lodge/sauna, sometimes adding sage or mint to the glowing rocks. We brought fresh water in to sprinkle on the hot rocks with a dipper, said dipper also being used to drink from or pour over your head if you got too hot. Clothing was optional, since anything left on: jewelry, bracelets, or synthetic clothing, would become too hot to wear, even to the point of burning your skin. Safety first. Haha. And, the nudity in that dark hole in the ground, coupled with the clouds of steam, seemed to help people relax around friends and strangers alike.

That was the last work I did on Markís house. I found part-time work at a printed circuit board manufacturing plant to pay for University classes. Mark and I were close friends for decades. Since then, he has remodeled and expanded his house several times. I think heís done working on it now, because he is nearly finished building a cabin way off in a southern range of the mountains that surround Grants, New Mexico.

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