Now I might be just a mild mannered, right-leaning, Christian grandma, but in my former life I was a hardcore, back-to-the-land, Rainbow Family hippie. There’s a bunch of us (once young people) who learned survival and community building skills in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and we suspected that someday we might need to be teaching these skills.
The Rainbow Family name came from different native American visions of white people who would adopt Native American styles of life. (This was decades before the LBGTQ+++ crowd appropriated the “rainbow” and half of the English Alphabet.) For example the Hopi Eight Sign says: You will see many youth, who wear their hair long like my people, come and join the tribal nations, to learn their ways and wisdom….”
We Learned From Native Americans
We were Indian wannabees in a white hippie sort of way. We would go to annual gatherings in remote parts of national forests, put up tepees and tents, have huge drum circles, smoke dope, dance, and commune with nature. When we weren’t “gathering” some lived on communes or bought homesteads to build on – many in the Northwest.
One of the first shelters alternative folks tried was tipis. Tipis are a magical place to live in for half of the year. Their diffused light and the ability to move the flaps according to which way the wind was blowing is unique and grounding to nature. Tipis are livable in the cold half of the year. I spend a winter at 9,500 feet in the Sangre De Cristo mountains (of Colorado) in a tipi and was comfortable. However it is hardly energy efficient. We used a very large wood stove, a lot of wood, and hay bales around the perimeter to keep warm. Many of us at that time lived a semi-nomadic life. Some had converted school buses, some tipis, and some yurts. But for people in the mountain West who were looking for a place to live for a few years and perhaps did not have the money or time to build a cabin or house the best option was to build earth lodges.
Earth lodges are semi-subterranean buildings “covered partially or completely with earth, best known from the Native American cultures of the Great Plains and Eastern Woodlands.” They were built by tribes like the Mandan who were not nomadic. Because these shelters are partially underground, they are both cool in summer and warm in winter.
I first came to Washington State and Okanogan County in 1977 after the New Mexico Rainbow Gathering. We came up in a Volkswagen van to work in the apple orchards and ran into other Rainbow family doing the same thing. We made a little bit of money. (Our Mexican co-workers made three times as much as the best of us.) Then at the end of harvest in October there was a gathering of local alternative people (with some ranchers and orchardists thrown into the mix) called the Barter Faire. The early years of the Barter Faires were like mini Rainbow Family gathering, but with winter preparation in mind instead of summer celebrations. The idea was to trade our extra goods like bags of homegrown potatoes, onions, winter squash, horses, sheep, chickens, animal skins, blankets, and tools instead of using money. At the fair I met some Rainbow folks who were living in the area on a commune called Flowering Tree (named for a Chief Black Elk vision). This was the first place where I saw an earth lodge.
Semi-subterranean houses are not rare today, but nobody else was building like this at that time. I have helped to build three different earth lodges that cost anywhere from $70 to $1,200 (in 1980 dollars). Yes, from the outside they look like mud huts, but they are inexpensive to build, and surprisingly comfortable.
Earth lodges are usually eight sided dwellings dug partially into the ground–usually down four feet. (To go deeper than four feet requires more engineering.) The walls are peeled logs and the ceilings can be scrap wood or even metal. The floors in a primitive earth lodge are just hard packed earth with perhaps a third part dug out less for a raised area for beds or sitting. We put large carpets on the floor and used pine needles and animal skins for matresses under our bedding and seating in the raised area. Earth lodges can be anywhere from 12 to 24 feet in diameter. A decently-built one can survive intact for many years.
We dug all our home sites by hand with only strong backs and good shovels. We got the logs in the National Forest. We often used un-aged logs, so shrinkage was expected. We put a water barrier like tarp material or even plastic between the logs and the dirt and used a variety of material to stuff between the logs. Uncombed primitive sheep wool was my favorite: it’s inexpensive, natural, and the lanolin in the wool is also a good moisture barrier. Much of the framing wood and ceiling wood or metal could be found inexpensively – we got a lot of material from dumps. Tarps can be used to cover the earth lodge if folks are in a hurry or for short term living, but traditional asphalt shingles or cedar shingles are used for long term. Because the earth lodges are dug into the earth, they are much more energy efficient than a log cabin.
The first earth lodge that I stayed in, was as a guest. The builder, Heinz, was a tough as nails German immigrant who was experienced in the building trade. I don’t know how much money he and his wife Songbird spent to build their home, but it wasn’t much.
One small wood stove is plenty to provide all the heat, hot water, and cooking surface that a family needs. It’s best to have a stove with a removable metal plate so one can cook on the open heat/flame which is quicker because getting too hot is always more of a problem in a earth lodge than being too cold. When we weren’t cooking we had a large canning kettle on the stove, so hot water was always available. 
The pictured earth lodge belonged to Buffalo and Moonstone Mazzetti. About twenty five years after these photographs were taken, Buffalo (the man in the middle wearing hand tanned buckskins and dreadlocks) ran for Washington’s 7th Legislative District which had been Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ seat. He didn’t win but came in a respectable third place.
A few years after the aforementioned earth lodges were built, Stony, my then-partner, and father of my two daughters and I built a more roomy, comfortable, and permanent earth lodge. Stony was a carpenter by trade and did most of the building himself, but we also got help from our friends. We had a log peeling party where our friends came and peeled logs in competition for prizes. This saved us a couple of weeks work. We had dug four feet into the ground with a 30 foot diameter. In order to support the larger structure, Stony put a large log [center post] in the middle of the structure. Then he used 8 logs that met in the middle – sort of like a tipi. So our house was really half earth lodge and half tipi. We used wood, insulation, tar paper (as I recall), and shakes for the roof.
Friends called it a tipi house or the mushroom house because it also bore similarity to a shaggy mane mushroom with the shake roof. We put unspun lambs wool between the logs as insulation. We bought some boards, windows, and roofing underlayment but only spent $1,200 total (1980 dollars). Stony hand split all of the shakes for the roof. The house had wood floors and a large loft. I thought it was beautiful.
No Permits Were Required
Of course “back in the day” there weren’t government house inspectors everywhere requiring permits. I know this building stood for at least 30 years. The last time I visited it, it was leaning a little, but we didn’t even use any cement to bolster the foundation. Washington state has become very strict with building codes and sending out building inspectors, even in rural areas. I doubt that people could get away with building these kind of shelters today. And the permits alone now cost a lot of money. No wonder there are so many homeless people. Even if somebody wanted to donate 100 acres of land for people to live on, poor people could probably not even afford the permits to build– much less afford to build the houses that the permits required.
We lived without electricity or running water (except for a small creek nearby). I had my first child there and carried water from the creek, heated it on an outdoor woodstove, and washed diapers by hand.  By the time I was pregnant with our second baby, I had had enough and we moved to a hundred year old cabin on a large cattle ranch that had running water, electricity, and a washer and dryer. This experience and being an organic gardener and wild food forager have left me confident that I could survive any type of emergency situation. If SHTF happens, anybody with property is probably going to be visited by family and friends. Knowing how to build emergency structures could come in handy. Then as now a lot of decent building material is hauled off to dumps. However, it wouldn’t hurt to have a supply of logs on hand, tarp paper, and windows. Not to mention wood stoves.
The folks I knew who built earth lodges went in different directions. Some bought property and became very successful organic farmers. A couple became leading environmentalists. A few went into businesses. The best part of those years was how people shared with one another. Nobody ever went without food, blankets, or a place to sleep. I found that communities without electricity become more bonded. When we got together we played music and had pot luck dinners. It is amazing how a world without televisions, phones, radios, (and now computers) builds relationships between people. Electronic entertainment is isolating.
I doubt there will ever be a disaster that requires mass building of short term emergency shelters. In fact, the housing markets should become more affordable in the future with the growth of factory made modular homes and 3D homes built by computers. 3D homes can be built for as little as $4,000 and as quickly as 24 hours. That’s pretty impressive. Modular homes are not inexpensive, and they are 25-50% less expensive than traditionally “stick” built. However, no home is as inexpensive or as warm as a hand-built earth lodge. Options are good when it comes to housing – especially considering the homeless crisis in many cities on the West Coast.
Disclaimer: These are the three Rainbow Gatherings that I attended, the last one in 1981. They were plenty crazy in the 1970s, but I have no idea what they are doing nowadays.
- 1977 – New Mexico
By Burnt Corral Canyon, in Gila National Forest. It’s on the Burnt Corral Canyon quadrangle.
- 1979 – Arizona
In Apache National Forest. It’s rumored to be on one of these quadrangles. Escudilla Mountain, Kuna Lake, Maness Peak, Blue, Alma Mesa.
- 1981 – Washington
Near Usk, in Kanisku National Forest. It’s rumored to be on the Goddards Peak quadrangle.
About The Author:
Valerie is semi-retired and lives in Eastern Washington. She is currently a writer and artist and formerly a school teacher.
 Wikipedia Earth lodge
 These photographs and the story on the Flowering Tree earth lodges appeared in a 1978 issue of The Mother Earth News.
 The outside and inside of what people called our “tipi” or “mushroom” house.
 In Okanogan County, someone donated 500 acres of land for alternative people to build shelters on, back in the 1980s.
 My mom and my sister both came to visit us at our tipi house. Both thought I was pretty nuts.