Karen lives on the Mesa, just outside Taos, NM. The property is surrounded by wild sagebrush, which is harvested into our New Mexican Sagebrush Hydrosol. We are so excited to interview her today.
1. Hi Karen, Thank you for sharing your story with us today. Can you tell us a bit about you and how life is on the Mesa?
I actually came out here to die. I probably picked up Lyme disease when I lived in the northeast which caused something vague, long, and painful. It's hard to catch. Things have gotten better since then. Taos is known for healing.
"The Mesa" is an area north of Taos vaguely defined by the Rio Grande Gorge and the Colorado state line. Parts of it look like Slab City, but with land ownership. We proudly say it is the world's largest voluntary outdoor insane asylum. There's some folks I know for a fact would be incarcerated elsewhere who are saving the taxpayers bundles of money by living here.
The terrain is high elevation sagebrush plateau, more dry Rockies than true desert. Because of the elevation and wind exposure, our growing season is only about 90 days and doesn't start until June. Sturdy greenhouses and earthship style builds are worth the investment if you are thinking about coming out here. We've seen a lot of new folks moving in over the pandemic. You'll know if you're going to stay after your first winter. There's a lot of folks who don't make it because they thought it was going to be easy desert living. They leave huge piles of trash and debris on the landscape when they leave.
2. Your property is surrounded by sagebrush, it was so beautiful to wake up with the greenery and the heat of the desert sun! Why did you decide to distill sagebrush?
I was surprised there was so much demand for sagebrush. People who know where I live would ask me to bring fresh sagebrush for smudge sticks when I travelled to shows with my publishing business. Fresh sticks are nothing at all like the dried out ones you get in the stores. I also seem to know a lot of soap makers, and the distilling equipment was visually interesting. I guess my answer is I was curious. I was a STEM kid. There's something about running hoses and collection flasks around the kitchen like you're a mad scientist, ya know?
The hydrosol does wonders for your feet and gym shoes after workouts. I'll be experimenting with broom Snakeweed and Chamisa (rabbitbrush) when those come into bloom this August.
3. Can you share a little about how the distillation process works?
I'm using a stovetop copper distiller that came from Kiev. It's basically a cylinder full of fresh chopped plant material clamped over a pot of double-filtered rainwater. As the bottom kettle comes to a boil, the steam rises through the column of plant matter, carrying out the volatile compounds. The steam is directed through internal passages to a water-cooled condenser to convert the steam back to liquid distillates: hydrosol and essential oil. For cooling water I use two 5 gallon buckets of tap water and an aquarium pump and switch the buckets out as the water gets too hot, rather than running the tap, which saves water.
I want to upgrade to an electric model in the near future so I can use solar electric rather than propane for the heat source. You need to use common sense about how and when you use your electricity out here. There's always someone who just moved in that can't figure out why they can't run the clothes dryer in the evening without the house batteries draining overnight. Anything with an internal heater is hard to manage when you are 100% solar with no grid-tie. I won't even let my brother use the heater on his CPAP if he visits in winter. I think I can manage an electric distiller in summer as long as it is done early in the day, as the model I am using doesn't take as long as an alembic would, though I might have to install a beefier circuit breaker for it.
4. What recommendations do you have for friends visiting the Mesa?
The Chili Line Depot on HWY 285 is our local social hub. The best (and only) food for miles around! The ingredients are largely farm-to-table, though I do warn people that it is not vegan friendly. If you are the sort of vegetarian that has a once a year cheeseburger craving, you won't be disappointed here. It's become quite the road trip destination just for the green chili apple pinion pie, and before legalization, watching the fancy Santa Fe ladies scoop up all the baked goods on the return leg of their Colorado day-trip was hilarious. You could also go visit the stupa at the monastery in Three Peaks if you are brave enough to drive the mesa backroads.
Thank you so much for sharing your hydrosol with Circular Bodies!
We won't be sharing any pictures of Karen or her property in this post, but if you want to learn more about the area, you can research the Mesa, in between Taos and Tres Piedras, in New Mexico. Pictures in this post: 1. Rio Grande Gorge 2. Inside an Earthship on the Mesa 3. Sagebrush field on the Mesa 4. Our Hydrosol, distilled by Karen and now available at Circular Bodies!