Preparing for the Millennium

Go to the Austin Hill Country and meet some folks who are taking Y2K very seriously

This kind of vision doesn't come to a person overnight. Charles and Laurel are veterans of so-called sustainable living, dating back to the late 1980s when they lived in a large domed tent in a commune --today they're known as "intentional communities" --outside Amarillo.

"I was working for UPS at the time," Charles recalls, "but I was tired of not doing anything. One day I was just watching people drive by mindlessly on the interstate, and I thought, 'I can't do this anymore.' "

After nine months, they left the Panhandle and migrated with their goat and chickens to the Hill Country. By then, the tent had been outfitted with a full kitchen, and Charles and Laurel were sleeping in a queen-size bed. But even those relative creature comforts became untenable when Laurel became pregnant. They found some land about a quarter-mile off a back road outside Dripping Springs and began to create a life that is impervious to technological glitches, an existence that lives and breathes, rather than wheezes and grinds.

Today, to an outsider ignorant of the labor it takes to sustain it, their spread appears almost idyllic. Just about everything they need is right outside the front door of their straw-bale house: fruit, vegetables, an herb garden, chickens and eggs. Beside the house is a large tank that spouts a series of plastic pipes that collect and distribute the rainwater that rolls off their corrugated metal roof.

Though things seem to be functioning smoothly, Charles and Laurel, who were raised in a conventional suburban setting, are naturally aware of how their lifestyle affects their children.

"Children don't really fit in very well with this type of scheme," Charles says. "From that perspective, it's a weird lifestyle. There's not the cohesion of a neighborhood. I think kids have a better time in tract housing, where they can run around with all the other kids. That's how I grew up."

Lynn is a product of the same upbringing, and then some. In her 20s she was a political fund-raiser who traveled around the country rubbing elbows with the kind of powerful men and women who perpetuate the very system she has since rejected. In 1993 she quit and bought a parcel of rugged land surrounded by oak and cedar trees and split by a crystal-clear spring-fed creek.

She and Peter opened a health-food store in Dripping Springs, right around the time she started building a straw-bale house. At first she lived in a tent, then she graduated to a van and finally to the relative luxury of a camper. Because she put in, by her estimate, 70 hours a week at the store, it took her three years before she could move into her home. There's still plenty left to do. There is no trim around the windows, and the floor, little more than a series of plywood planks, is unfinished.

"I stopped making lists of things to do a long time ago," she says. "I realized that I'll just never be finished. It's a lifelong project."

Part of the problem lately has been money. Last August her business failed, and she was forced into bankruptcy. She's able to fend for herself most of the time, though she does receive some financial help, as well as an air-conditioned place to escape the summer heat, from her fiance, a local real estate developer.

But Lynn is determined to keep her life as simple and independent as she can. She has no plans to give up her land and home, even after she's married, which might put some strain on the relationship since there's simply not enough room for her husband, let alone his two teenage sons.

Her resolve is strengthened by occasional trips to Houston, where her sister lives in a master-planned community. Everything about this type of suburban existence -- from the "unconscious competition to have the nicest lawn" to the claustrophobia of living ten feet away from your neighbor -- is an affront to her.

That explains Lynn's aversion to the kind of communal living that's being planned for Ledgestone. She supports the concept of teaching people how to grow their own food, collect and filter rainwater and build a house without tearing down a forest. But, as anyone knows who has tried to accomplish anything through a committee, there's often too much talk and not enough action.

"I was part of a group that tried to make a community," she says. "But now I'm 180 degrees from that. Consensus, in my mind, means nothing gets done. People need to take care of themselves before they can take care of others.

"Where and how I live is no one's business, and the more self-sufficient I am, the less it's their business," she says. "The only way I can change things is to be an example, so I've simply taken greater responsibility for myself."

Speaking to a congressional subcommittee last October, John Koskinen, chairman of The President's Council on Year 2000 Compliance, framed the Y2K issue this way: "Can people wake up on January 1, 2000, and function pretty much the way they always have?"

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