It’s a bright and moony night. The landscape is painted the dull gray-blue of night, the jet contrails daubing slow streaks across the star-packed sky. The only sounds are the drone of crickets, the shuffling and snorting of the horses in the corral next to the housetruck, and the conversations of the pair of owls on the hill. A slight breeze chills the air.

I can see the orange glow of streetlights far below me on the valley floor, where rolling hills of field and forest are strung with the beads of the valley towns: the functional market center of Buellton, the quaint Danish-themed hamlet of Solvang, and the chic but simple crossroads of Los Olivos. Wine tasting is big here, and on my jaunts down the mountain I see tourists wearing odd neckstrap contraptions that hold a tasting glass handy on their strolls around the little wineries. It reminds me of the archetypal St. Bernard dog wearing his little barrel of brandy.

But I am high above these little towns, on a 160-acre ranch called Spirit Pine Sanctuary. Most of the land is wild and untouched, spotted with oaks, pine, mesquite, agave, and sage, and populated by coyotes, mountain lions, and the occasional bear. The ranch borders the Los Padres National Forest, and other human settlement is rare up here; in fact, if I didn’t see the lights of the valley, I might think I was far more remote than a mere hour from Santa Barbara.

To get here, you take one of the mountain roads, passing small cattle ranches, high-class rural schools, and, in a surreal celebrity connection, Michael Jackson’s now-abandoned Neverland Ranch. The road rises, twists, rattles over cattle grates, and climbs ever higher. Finally, a small faded sign indicates one’s arrival, and a more recently painted sign reads ‘CLOSED,’ discouraging the unannounced visitor.

When I first arrived here, I felt like I’d entered one of the tiny villages I’d found while driving around the Alentejo area of Portugal: places so small it was hard to tell whether the settlement was a large farm or a microscopic town. And in fact, Spirit Pine is a bit of both. It is private land, with a few permanent residents, but there is also a steady stream of visitors who come for a few days or weeks.

The human settlement here is comparatively tiny — perhaps five acres in total, in a little hollow buffered from the wind. It really does feel like a little village, with a common green space in the center, ringed by a few rough dirt lanes and a shared parking area. A half-dozen little houses and other structures dot the landscape. There is a garden, somewhat wild, and a corral with a few horses. High on the hill, a beautifully-sculpted water tank supplies delicious, cold spring water to the community. A small set of solar panels catches electricity from the sun. There is no grid power, no wired telephone service, no gas line. In its removal from civilization, it is far more connected to the earth.

The focus at Spirit Pine has been natural building: a somewhat vague term, but one that fundamentally implies a conscious and intentional use of native and found materials, and a intuitive, organic, and flexible method of design and construction. No one architecture dominates the field of natural building: in one region it may be cob (a clay-sand-straw mixture), in another it might be straw bales, or wattle and daub, or simple rock and stone. It is not high-tech or high-power building: most construction is done by hand, and it shows in the voluptuous curves of the walls and roofs. Natural buildings are not designed to be separate from the earth, but part of the earth, literally molded from the rocks and soil and plants.

Here at Spirit Pine, cob has been a common material, but the desire to experiment and create runs high and so there is a little bit of everything represented. A tiny one-room house called the ‘fuddy’ (an Australian term for a starter house) is made of surplus shipping pallets, strapped together into a tidy rectangle and packed with a straw-clay mixture. A small barn/toolshed is built the same way. A little shack that houses a generator — used when power tools are necessary — is built of adobe blocks left over from another project. A materials yard contains an array of donated and scavenged materials: huge old beams, red-clay roof tiles, lumber, plywood, conduits, and fencing.

Ten years ago, Betty & Tataucho, and their then-young children Levi, Cassie, and Sam, moved onto the land. There was nothing built, and they had spent their funds on buying the ranch. Instead of houses, they built platforms on which they erected canvas tents, and those were their homes for nearly two years. Although this area tends to have moderate weather, summers can reach well into the hundreds, and winters can rain and occasionally snow; always, there is the wind. Eventually they built a small cob structure for cooking, which then slowly expanded into sleeping and living quarters, abandoning the quirky tents. They learned by doing, and freely admit they would build it differently today. Despite the faults, the building is still in use, and in fact as the Cookshack, it is the center of the community: the kitchen, pantry, dining room, library, guest room, and general gathering place.

In the years since the building of the Cookshack, Betty and Tataucho have hosted workshops for people who wanted to learn how to do natural building. As is traditional in these types of workshops, students build a real, working, complete structure, often in the space of only a few weeks. Living onsite, cooking and eating meals together, they learn not only the technology of natural building, but how to work together cooperatively, brainstorm, create, and laugh. The fees charged for the workshops often covered the small costs of building materials, and within a few more years, the village had expanded to six complete residences, plus the barn, bathhouse, composing toilets, and other outbuildings. The core community expanded, with Candace and her two young children, and Serena. Jen has a house in Venice, but comes up regularly. As I was there, Pablo and Lauren arrived from Oregon for an extended stay, along with their two children, Helen and Andrew made the long journey over from England, and Katy took a break from hitchiking and hoboing to spend some time on the land. One week, a group of high school students drove down from San Luis Obispo to help build the newest structure, Tataucho’s hilltop aikido dojo (studio). And there are the constant canine companions of Tita, Ocho, Chaco, and Weenie, and Bamboo the cat.


I have come to Spirit Pine only to visit, to photograph the buildings and the land. I plan to stay for a couple of nights, then move on, probably head up the coast towards San Francisco. But the land and the people draw me in. Two days become three, then four, then a week, and nearly a month.

More visitors arrive; a few leave. The community changes under me, and yet still, strangely, it lasts, endures.

In the kitchen, I become the preparer of coffee, roasting and grinding my stash of green beans, also secreted away in the stowage of the truck. I learn how to fire the earthen oven, to light a small, hot fire with scrap wood, pushing the heat into the mud walls. I bake bread, four loaves at a time, brown crusts concealing the soft interior of flour and nuts and seeds. I cook meals, not many, but a few, scented with the Indian spices I always travel with.

Projects need an extra hand, or more tools, and I have both. It becomes a running joke that I often have a certain desired tool in the cabinet of my housetruck, and people wonder whether I have an entire hardware store in there. I clamber atop the emerging roof being built over the blacksmith forge, hot sun on aching arms, screwing down plywood and cutting posts, and sleep well that night.

There is no regular internet or phone connection at Spirit Pine, and cell service is sketchy. A particular rise which looked over the Santa Ynez valley I dub “cell phone hill,” as it is the only place I can pull in reliable service. (Ironically, residents will often text each other if not within shouting distance, like a textual walkie-talkie.) For the first couple of weeks, I catch myself wanting to tweet my status — “Baking bread… Lighting oil lamp… Wind is hellacious… Horses just snuffled — cute!” — but resist. Gradually the immediacy of the remote, online world fades away, replaced by the immediacy of the world around me.

Yet this little place is not apart from the larger world, and strange roads connect them. On more than one night I sit under the stars watching the glowing trails of light as Katy & Candace practiced their poi spinning. Although these are LED globes instead of fiery balls doused with kerosene, I am transported back to dark Portland bars where pale, dusky women dance among the smokey flames of ragtag circuses.


The rivers of time are slippery here. Days pass, and pass. I relax into the place, working yet not considering it as work. A rhythm shows itself, a slow and languid beat, a song of smiles and satisfaction, of small groups building something. The rancid smell of money, the terror of the commute, the despotic schedule, all slough off and disappear. The chorus sings of creative cooperation, a carnival of handwork, directness, simplicity. My programming work, on the other hand, seems crazily abstract, complex, disassociative. I start to question the basic purpose, the values of the work I do, or the lack thereof. I think of programming, and realize I would rather bake bread, get my hands dirty in the soot, bask in the sharp prick of a splinter.


Midway through my time at Spirit Pine, I do decide to leave: but only temporarily, to fly across the country to visit family for Thanksgiving in Washington, DC. This was my destination of my original six-month trip, whose goals and dreams seem now so far away. As always, the east coast is a total culture shock; I reconcile my conflicts by pretending I am visiting a strange and foreign country. But even there, Spirit Pine infuses itself: it turns out that Natalie, the woman who built the earthen oven I have learned to love, is temporarily in DC, and we have coffee together in a cafe in downtown Alexandria. It is peculiar yet somehow natural to be meeting 3000 miles away from the mountain, both of us dressed in city clothes, no dirt under our fingernails.


The moonlight is interrupted only by the occasional candle in a window, or the flickering of an oil lamp. Most people here have gone to bed, and will wake early. In the city, I’d feel strange trying to sleep before midnight. But with the lack of light, power, and other distractions, my eyelids grow heavy by ten. I blow out the oil lamp, climb into bed, and the wind pushes me off the shore into the seas of dreams. I will awake in the blue-gold light of dawn.

John Labovitz is an enthusiast of tiny houses, unique vehicles, surreal circuses, ragtag marching bands, and the open road. He is a maker of photographs and of books, and a sometime computer programmer. He spends his time discovering and photographing people and places around the world, but prefers to call it ‘borrowing’ souls rather than stealing. He makes his home where his hat is, although you might often find him in either the lush Willamette Valley of western Oregon or the placid hills of West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. When he grows up, John wants to be a vagabond.

Reach John by email, Facebook, or Twitter. View his photography, his blog of general writings, or his (obsolete) writings on technology.