Terry working on Mark's house in 1983. Photo courtesy of the author.
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
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.
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.
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 canlaser-focus on
things as if I have
high-functioning autism. Perhaps I do. I donít care. It works
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 didnítinstall
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.
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.
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
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
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
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 glowinghot
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 theinhabitants
inside this now pitch-dark space. The experience can last an hour or
two. No oneleaves
or enters during this time, except the fireman.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the last work I did on
Markís house. I found part-time work at a printed circuitboard
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.
Contact Terry (Unless
author's name in
of the message we
won't know where to send it.)