by Bob Skolnick Ventanas del Valle Winter 2002
Mike and Ruth Hand were on a mission. They were in Kansas and Mike was about to retire. Nothing against Kansas you understand, but there was really nothing there to hold them. They weren’t from Kansas and had no family in Kansas and they were looking to relocate. They wanted a dry climate, a little warmer than the Midwest and close to the mountains. They wanted to live in a university town, not overly large but close to some of the amenities of larger metropolitan areas such as an airport. With all those requirements the list was rather small. They were familiar with Colorado and Wyoming and had traveled all over Utah and parts of New Mexico. They had actually been to this area a couple of times but on a return trip they discovered Mesilla.
They looked for an existing home in Mesilla with a view of the Organ Mountains but that turned out to be short list as well. A tour of the Showcase of Homes exposed them to the work of two builders that they felt did a “spectacular” job. One was a traditional “stick-built” home and the other was a rammed earth home by Mario and Pat Bellestri of Soledad Canyon Earth Builders. Ruth says she was definitely hooked at that point even though Mike wasn’t entirely sold on the rammed-earth “thing.”
To backtrack just a bit, Ruth had researched techniques, particularly rammed-earth. She had originally wanted an adobe home but neither of them felt comfortable enough about the “technology” involved. But rammed earth was something different; it appealed to her from an energy conservation standpoint as well as the feeling of the heavy, thick walls. She ordered a book on the subject and her Internet searches revealed Soledad Canyon’s website. Mike was not an easy convert. Even though he also wanted a “traditional” home for this area, he thought rammed earth was a new technique. He didn’t realize how long the process had been around. The more they learned, the more they realized what a superior building material it was.
Any doubts about the strength of rammed earth were laid to rest by a story told to them by a friend who was working on a Habitat for Humanity home. There was a sway in one of the walls and they were going to tear the wall down. They ran a chain through two window openings and hooked it to a Bobcat (a small earth-moving vehicle). The wall wouldn’t come down until they hooked it to a large truck that had been unloading building supplies.
They had already purchased a five-acre lot near Mesilla with a great view of the Organ Mountains. Their parcel has a much smaller feeling that the four hundred acres they had in Kansas, but there are strict covenants in this development that is a mix of agricultural and residential. There are guarantees that other houses won’t be built right on the property line so the area won’t seem so much like five acres The land is also farmed by a local farmer and is currently planted in alfalfa.
The Hands rented while the house was being constructed and the design was influenced somewhat by a local bed and breakfast which takes advantage of the same views.
The Bellestri’s involved them on a daily basis throughout the design and building process. It turned out to be a fascinating and exciting experience. The end result meets not only their energy efficiency concerns with rammed earth’s superior insulation qualities and an in-floor heating system but also their aesthetic requirements with tile floors, wooden beams and a “gallery” atmosphere. The house almost seems to grow out of the earth and fields that surround it rather than being imposed upon them.
They have wasted little time in taking advantage of the offerings of their new locale by traveling and exploring the region as well as becoming involved in many community activities. Both being outdoor loving types, they have experienced the Gila Wilderness, Cloudcroft, Elephant Butte, Carlsbad, Silver City, Taos, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe. Not bad considering they have been here less than a year and a half.
Mike a retired veterinarian, who worked with mostly large animals for ten years. He went back to school for a Ph.D. and met Ruth who was working in a research laboratory. She later got a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Nursing and became a Nurse Practitioner. Mike moved into the corporate executive management world, “where they overpaid me for several years, but it allowed us to retire and move out here.” Ruth volunteers at the Community of Hope’s St. Luke’s clinic one day a week and also at Jardin de los Ninos (for indigent children), helps out at their church, St. James Episcopal, works part-time as a Nurse Practitioner at Prompt Care and has taken a Master Gardening class. Mike also does a great deal of work at Jardin (“more than I ever thought – but it’s been very rewarding”) and still does some consulting work for his former company.
They have seemingly assimilated very quickly making many good friends and, Mike at least, developed quite a green chile habit. “People in small towns are very friendly,” says Ruth. “But I’ve been impressed with the way the locals welcomed us into the community,” Mike added. “We wanted a real place, a real New Mexico place, and this is.”
They definitely have a real place in which to live, and not just their lovely home but the locale. Mike concluded, “Mesilla is such a gem. In fact, if you go anywhere in the state – if you’re up Santa Fe looking at artwork and they ask you where you live and you say Mesilla – they know where that is. It’s been a good move.”
It sounds like Mike and Ruth Hand definitely know and love the fact that they “aren’t in Kansas anymore.”