GENE AUTRY, Okla. - Kathy Dixon was browsing a bookstore in Alabama when she spotted a book about how to build a house with old tires.
"My first thought was, 'What an ugly-looking pile ...," Dixon recalled.
She bought the book anyway. "I couldn't stop reading it."
Today, this "old hippie momma," as Dixon, 54, describes herself, and her husband, Dale Dixon, live in a house they built with 3,000 used tires. The New Mexico architect who wrote that book calls the home design he has spread around the world the Earthship.
An Earthship is a house. Unlike a traditional one, though, an Earthship also is a place to gather water, produce and store energy and raise food. And, oh yeah, get rid of some trash.
Dixon calls hers "Mi Cielo."
"My heaven," she said, translating the Spanish words she immortalized in the native rock patio she built out front.
Raised in the country, Dixon recalls watching in disgust as her father dumped trash in the Washita River. "I just grew up loving the animals and the Earth and wanting to take care of it," she said.
On her travels, including visiting friends in New Zealand and living a year in Mexico, Dixon marveled at how other cultures live efficiently and environmentally. Building an Earthship, she decided, felt right.
"This is what I was born to do," she said.
She convinced Dale, and in 1996, the couple sold their place in town and bought 40 acres south of Gene Autry. They moved into a 30- by 50-foot metal building they built there as a temporary home, and, with Dale working long hours as an executive at an Ardmore tire plant, Kathy took the lead. "I built probably 70 percent of this house myself," she said.
The couple asked locals whether they wanted to help while learning construction techniques, a process used to build many alternative-design homes.
But people just laughed at them, Dixon said. "We were ridiculed," she said. "Oh my God," she quoted critics, "do you want to live in a barn?"
While the traditional tool for pounding dirt into the tires is a sledgehammer, Dixon used a pneumatic packer.
In 2000, the Dixons moved into their Earthship, 2,300 square feet of colorful and artistic living space surrounded on three sides by load-bearing walls 3 feet thick -- the size of the tires stacked like brick and covered with adobe. Exposed beams span ceilings, which contain 18 inches of foam insulation and feature numerous skylights to vent heat. Three sides are buried by earthen berms, so, like a cave, temperatures inside vary little and change slowly. Occasional heat from a small propane stove is all that's needed in winter, and in summer, only minor air conditioning from window units is needed.
Sunlight streams in through a wall of windows, where plants grow in a "water treatment plant," a basin that filters water used in sinks in the home before it is routed outside.
The adjacent metal building has become a posh "cat house" for the Dixons' 10 cats. Numerous wild turkeys wander the property, and the couple also have a rottweiler and a small herd of goats to keep roving feral hogs at bay. There are fruit trees, a gazebo for an above-ground pool and even a large swing set.
But there will always be more to do. Exposed berms will be covered with solar collectors, and the couple are working on a new rooftop greenhouse. A water-storage cistern will come later, and eventually the home will be completely "off the grid."
"It's a work in progress," Dixon said.
It's also a catharsis. Like a "mother's womb," Dixon said, her Cielo surrounds her with the security she missed growing up "very sad and depressed." Her novel, "The Good Mother," about an abused rural child who invents a fantasy mother, is partially autobiographical, she said.
Now that green is in, many people want to see the Dixon Earthship. But all Kathy Dixon ever wanted was her solace. And her Cielo.
"I wanted to have a safe haven where I could be at peace," she said.
"This is what I was born to do."