Slow Living in the White Mountain Wilderness

Eight years ago, my husband and I decided to purchase a recreational home, i.e., a cabin, in Ruidoso, New Mexico, almost ten hours from our primary home in Dripping Springs, Texas. We first met on Sierra Blanca’s ski slopes in 1976, so the location had a romantic appeal for our newly retired lives. Besides, our youngest son and daughter-in-law, who recently completed post graduate degrees from Colorado State University, had selected the resort village to begin their professional lives—veterinary medicine and ecological work. Ruidoso was a midway point between Texas and Wyoming where both sets of parents lived. Our other son and his family resided in Central Texas. Exciting, right? The best of both worlds. Then Covid hit.

Our hometown in Central Texas soon drew a disaffected group of Americans from all over the States, but especially from California. These newcomers brought money, traffic congestion, and a subtle change to the culture of our area. I’m not saying that we dislike Californians, so don’t get me wrong. But we had built our home in a rural area, and our children had attended a rural school under the moniker, “Dripping Springs, just west of weird!” Austin bled into a bloating Dripping Springs and, many might say, brought some of its weirdness with it. Property values skyrocketed in an area where old-timer residents lived.

Soon, we could hear big rigs and sirens on highway 290 plus other sounds common to city life. New construction to accommodate the sudden population growth sent filth into a verdant creek behind our house, and industrial noise drowned out our waterfall’s soothing sounds. We reluctantly forbade our grandchildren to swim in a pond where their fathers once cannonballed from a limestone ledge into cool summer waters.

So, we sold our home of thirty-four years—a home we had built and perfected—to a Californian with deep pockets.

We purged almost forty-five years of possessions, packed what was left in five storage lockers, said goodbye to dear friends and family, and headed to New Mexico. A small elk-hunting cabin set on twenty-acres and isolated on a mountain slope awaited us in the White Mountain Wilderness, so named for its once perpetually white snow-covered peaks.

Slow Living, an Oxymoron?

I first heard of the term “slow living” in an interview-article with Little House on the Prairie’s Melissa Gilbert several years ago. She had called quits in Hollywood and, along with her husband, purchased a New England farm to begin slow living. You know—grow your own vegetables and fruits, gather fresh eggs, cut flowers, and raise various pet farm animals—but in surroundings where Nature cooperates.

My husband and I soon realized that this concept near described what we wanted in our lives. He could work in a new workshop on projects, and I could write. He could hunt, and we could hike and camp where no commercial lights would dim our starry night skies.

We desired the isolation that living below Nogal Peak afforded. Who cares if we were snowed in! Sure enough, my husband soon had to purchase snowshoes. We loved the four seasons that living in the White Mountain Wilderness affords!

We understood that an 847 square foot cabin would not do. Construction soon began around the cabin. During the process, we realized that nothing would be “slow” about living in a wilderness area. Danger is inherent. And, I admit, it was thrilling.

We’ve had mountain lions, peccaries, and one old bear. Wicked 90 mph winds, hail, and blizzards. I’ll write about these events later, most absolutely fun stories as opposed to the tornado and flood scares we endured in Texas. Yet, an unfamiliar element of our new lives, an aspect that races one’s heart instead of slowing it down, was wildfire. It, too, is a living, breathing entity, certainly not what we expected.


Unlike Central Texas when the bluebonnets are in bloom on cool, April mornings, New Mexico’s fire season encompasses the entire spring when the atmosphere and ground is generally thirsty. Red flag winds, like devil breaths, contribute to the danger, spreading or even causing wildfires.

For most wilderness residents, June arrives inconveniently, dressed in an assortment of tourists—mainly campers—who must be reminded of safe fire practices. Travel trailers, campers, ATVs, and cyclists pour into the White Mountain Wilderness late spring and summer.

Doesn’t matter that about twenty miles away, Capitan’s Smokey the Bear Museum features the icon’s story of being discovered while clinging to a pine branch during a Capitan Mountain fire. The bear’s message, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” seems to have been buried along with him on the museum’s grounds.

When monsoon season finally arrives in late July, everyone breathes a small sigh of relief. Rain is a cure-all.

We’ve been evacuated three times since we made our move in 2021. Though after each fire evacuation we’ve become better with the process, one thing we have learned is that it isn’t necessarily the fire that causes destruction. Human error is what makes for a disaster. The first time we were affected by New Mexican wildfire was in April 2021. I was not even home but researching for my Mary Ann Goodnight biography in the Texas Panhandle. My husband called me.

“Janie, we’ve been evacuated,” he calmly said.

 “What about Axel?” My response was more frantic. Our dog was more precious than anything in our house. This was a dumb question. Of course, he had Axel.

“I’ve got him.”

“What else did you get?” I asked.

“My hunting stuff—and dog food.”


“Did you happen to get any of my clothes?” I asked.

“Janie, we weren’t given much time. I grabbed what I could.” I could tell my husband regretted even telling me. He had his clothes.

In honesty, if the house burned, I could purchase new things. I had clothing in my suitcase. Why was I being so trivial? But all my book research? I thought about my library and became sickened. What about the 1845 family Bible wrapped in my armoire? Fire makes you contemplate what’s most important—if you have time for such consideration. My husband and dog. Definitely. Nothing else should matter.

“Don’t hurry home. There’s no place to stay.”

That night, my husband and Axel slept in his pickup truck at a rest stop where they could watch what would be called the Three Rivers Fire. The fire, ignited on the other side of a mountain overlooking our cabin, tried to roll over into our wilderness area and Nogal Canyon.

Mercifully for man and dog, the evacuation was brief. The fire burned only 5,854 acres and was contained within two months. Arson.

Afterward, we began clearing beetle-infested pinons, pines, and junipers (also known as gasoline trees for their propensity to ignite). Trees twenty feet apart, limbed to at least twelve feet, etc. I raked old pine needles, bagging them and piling the black bags for my husband to put in our construction dumpster.

Such difficult decisions! Our forest is old. It hasn’t had a fire in at least a hundred years, much likely longer, judging from the diameters of some of our trees. Lush ponderosas, many over hundred feet tall with 24 plus-inch diameters, cover the slope where we live. One aged tree we named “Old Man” had a diameter almost four feet when it finally fell. Ancient Junipers, some with five foot diameters also illustrate a narrative of little wildfire and explain a heavy fuel-laden ground. Our mountain should have burned years ago to cleanse it and restore a healthy forest.

We previously experienced fire in the Ruidoso area much earlier. In 2012, we helped move our son and his wife from Fort Collins during the High Park Fire, one of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history. It began in June, a product of lightning and drought, burning 87,415 acres along the Cache La Poudre River in the mountains west of the city. As we loaded the kids’ U-Haul truck and other vehicles, ash fell on our heads, while helicopters labored overhead, their bags full of Horsetooth Reservoir water.

When we arrived in Ruidoso, one of New Mexico’s largest wildfires ever was in progress—the Little Bear Fire—still the most destructive to date at 44,350 acres. We unloaded belongings under another rain of ash. The cause? A small fire caused by lightning, mismanaged when a bureaucrat decided to let it burn itself out despite dry and windy conditions.

Our second evacuation was the Nogal Canyon Fire in April 2022. Again, I was not home but researching in Pueblo, Colorado, when my husband got the call. And again, he took the same items plus Axel.

“No need to rush,” my husband said when he called me. “Finish what you are doing there. There is nothing you can do here.”

Then he added, “Besides, we have another fire in Ruidoso and the kids have been evacuated too.” Of course, I immediately left for home, noticing what I thought was a dust storm to the west near Las Vegas, New Mexico. I later learned it was the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire that had started several days earlier from a prescribed burn. New Mexico firefighting resources would be strained. The Hermits Peak Fire was a monster and, to date, is the largest New Mexico wildfire in history at 341,735 acres.

Within a couple of hours of each other, two Lincoln County fires had started—both due to high winds downing power lines. The McBride Fire burned 6,157 acres during its five-week life and killed two elderly residents. The Nogal Canyon Fire burned 412 acres up to within 700 yards of our home. The entire family spent evacuation together in a rental in Capitan. Though family time was rewarding, I decided I hated April.

During the fire, we worried about our ancient pines. What if our forest burned around us? Would we want to live in the same place if it was a moonscape? The Little Bear Fire scar was not pretty, and certainly no pine trees had reappeared in the ten years since the fire. Nature takes her time. In the end, we decided that we wanted to stay in our home no matter the environment.

So, we reevaluated our setting. Was our house fire ready? Can anyone truly be fire ready?

We ripped off the new cedar siding from our home, ordering a material called Everlog out of Missoula, Montana. I won’t lie. It was expensive, and our contractor cursed as he learned to install the heavy new material on our home, the second structure in all of New Mexico to use it. A concrete siding that looks like real logs, one that will survive a three-hour forest fire’s direct heat. Best, you must touch the material to see it is not wood. We used other non-flammables for decks and trim. We replaced wood posts with iron. We carpeted gravel under all decks, extending rip rock ten feet from the house. We installed a new metal roof. We used foam insulation so that attic vents wouldn’t be needed.

Now we have a new fire, the Blue 2 Fire. A two-acre lightning fire two weeks ago, another forestry bureaucrat decided to let it burn itself out, despite the red-flag warnings. Go figure. The fire is currently almost 7,500 acres and approaching our precious Nogal Canyon in the White Mountain Wilderness. Our beautiful Bonito Lake, cleansed of ash and chemicals and restocked with fish after the Little Bear Fire’s damage twelve years ago, burned for a second time on the very day it was to reopen.

And, again, we find ourselves evacuated.

If we get another reprieve and our home still stands in the weeks to come, I’ll first thank God and then the firefighters who worked so selflessly to save our forest, home, and lives. Because of them, we’ll be able to return to our notion of slow living.

Full-moon night skies that illuminate an entire mountain one week a month; clouds of green and russet hummingbirds that find my flowers and fuss at my feeders; Edgar and Ginny, a pair of ravens that claim our trees too; a resident elk herd that climbs over our mountain crest at 8 AM each morning on its way to forage; turkeys abundant; richly colored autumn leaves from native maples, oaks, ash, and apple trees; wildflowers too numerous to identify; ATV trips into the national forest that borders our property; snow covered peaks; and a forest silence that is impossible to describe. You get the picture. Slow living.

As for the other idiots—the ones who put firefighting men and women in danger because of flawed decisions; the ones who waste taxpayer money to fight fires that never should have developed; the ones with blinders who follow governmental policy demanding Nature take her course when other factors say otherwise, the ones without common sense—all I can say is shame on them. Fire cleanses for certain—a necessity to restore Nature’s balance—but black-and-white decision-making is wrong and and can be disastrous.

As for me, I’ll continue spreading seed each morning for “my blue chickens,” the Stellar jays that enrich my life too. One thing for sure, while slow living is not for the weak, it is surely worth it.

Jane Little Botkin


  1. Teddy Jones on May 31, 2024 at 1:23 pm

    Your vivid prose conveys beautifully the hazards inherent in the choice of mountain living. Your resilience is admirable.

    • pwsadmin on May 31, 2024 at 9:23 pm

      Teddy, where you live is not without its drama too. I appreciate your kind words.

  2. Debbie Font on May 31, 2024 at 4:22 pm

    A crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…the prophet Isiah also had a way with words, as do you especially under such trying circumstances.

    Those jays and ravens will be waiting for you when you get back to your beautiful cabin in the woods.

    • pwsadmin on May 31, 2024 at 9:22 pm

      Thank you, Debbie. We are one with our setting. It can be painful, but if we don’t look for hope, the silver lining as it were, we would be defeated. And you know I am no quitter.

  3. Nancie Laird Young on May 31, 2024 at 8:26 pm

    Beautiful piece, Jane. Felt every word.

    • pwsadmin on May 31, 2024 at 9:20 pm

      Nancie, thank you. I guess if I didn’t get so attached to the trees.

  4. Alice Trego on June 1, 2024 at 12:27 am

    A lovely narrative expressing your love for your new slow-living life despite being up against the dangerous foe of fire many times. I also live a slow life where I am now, but rain and intense windstorms are more the folly than wildfires – knock on wood. I love my trees, too, the swallows, the red-winged blackbirds, the hummingbirds, the geese, the ducks, the eagles, even an occasional bear and the sometimes lamenting yip of the coyote. A sky full of stars at night and the moon bright with silver. I’ll be glad to share these with you when you’re able to return home.

    • pwsadmin on June 1, 2024 at 5:52 pm

      Allice, beautifully written too. I know you live in a heavenly location. And you also have the ocean. Sigh. Yes, we will compare later. Thank you for responding to my blog.


  5. kevin corkery on June 1, 2024 at 1:23 pm

    your first words reminded me of our exile from houston…swamp that it is …both naturely…poluticaly…i had been coming to nm since hippie years…my bf retired to doso….and in 2017 i bought my piece of enchantment off juniper springs..i too expierenced the 3 events you all did ..the 3 rivers being the one that ” woke” me up to the seriousness of fire dont mess around…as i saw my neighbors team together to make sure all the horses were gotten to safety then …most stayed to protect ..what they loved…leaving abandonment as a last resort…that event made me speed up my fire prevention tacticts much like u did….this time we had left an the 17th…heard there was a lightning fire ….small ….thought that shouldnt b a problem…..and then…you know the rest……and ive been in houston getting treatment for pc…..and my heart just slowly being pulled out of me….ill stop….the beauty that keeps us there youve expounded….but we have to get involved and i will to stop the foolishness of forest mngmnt…that exist in lincoln county….google the 10 a.m. rule that existed from 1937- 78…….we need it back…..your neighbor kevin / ana

    • pwsadmin on June 1, 2024 at 5:50 pm

      Well, hello neighbor! From the report this morn, your area near or in Loma Grande is surrounded by bulldozer lines and other contingency plans. I feel certain that we will be evacuated until the end of next week due to upcoming winds and dry conditions.

      I researched the 10 AM rule. Fascinating. I do understand why it was changed to let some forests burn to clear fuel and prevent beetle kill. But the key word is “some”. One size fits all policy does not work. My son, (who is not a tree hugger by any stretch of the imagination) and who is an ecologist with a master’s degree in rangeland management from CSU, believes that the feds should let certain states manage their own forests as a result. In doing my research, I discovered that there may be different mitigation practices for National forests compared to designated “wilderness” areas. So confusing.

      One thing we have noticed is that our Sacramento mountains appear to have been neglected. Except for the Mescalero. They have maintained their part of the Sacramentos beautifully, thinning and clearing fuel.

      When the McBride and Nogal Canyon fires happened, I had another opinion. Why in the world couldn’t the federal government earmark monies to bury power lines across the country instead of wasting the money elsewhere! Think of the cost saving – property, insurance, and lives. Not only here, but places like California. Course that makes too much sense, and I guess my opinion hasn’t changed on that.

      At any rate, we are stuck. But stuck in a gorgeous environment. Hope your health improves. So glad to meet you via a blog.

      Best, Janie

  6. Preston Lewis on June 1, 2024 at 1:28 pm

    Beautifully and movingly written, Janie. We’ve spent a lot of time around Ruidoso. As a boy growing up in Midland, I thought the White Mountains were like the Swiss Alps and we took multiple vacations there. One of the early trips carried us to Lincoln, N.M., and walking where Billy the Kid once trod instilled in me a love of Old West history. As young parents raising a son and daughter in Lubbock, we camped in South Park campground just past Bonito Lake many summers. We loved hiking in the mountains and walking in the streams. Some of our fondest memories of family life are tied to Ruidoso and Bonito Lake. Thanks for sharing this–Preston

    • pwsadmin on June 1, 2024 at 5:35 pm

      Preston! Thank you for reading my blog. I had no idea you had lived in Lubbock. My husband is from there (attended Texas Tech) and my eldest son graduated from Tech as well.

      I grew up in El Paso and, like you, Ruidoso and Cloudcroft were our summer hangouts. I never came up here during the winter until I was thirteen years old. Then I crushed my ankle on hole 1 of the Cloudcroft golf course while sledding. When I was 21, I met my husband on the ski slopes. Texas Tech boys and UTEP girls. A dress shop on the corner of Main and Sudderth was a dance hall (the Buckaroo) where I had my first date with my husband over fifty years ago.

      The area is rich with western history for certain, a huge draw for me in particular. Oddly, despite my family being avid fishermen, we never fished Bonita before the big fire. I was so looking forward to it. We can leave our house and use the forest trail over the mountain to get to Bonita and back to fry up fish. At least that had been the plan until this newest fire.

      Again, thank you for your comment. Janie