by Byron Browne
is a town resolutely opposed to any inclination towards modernization.
It is a place that offers few outward indications of its reluctant
progression into the 21st century: the post office, with its dark
brick walls and smoked glass, is clearly a recent addition to the
landscape; the gas stations advertise $2.20 a gallon prices. Wait,
I have that wrong. Suggesting that Terlingua has more then one gas
station is incorrect. There is another however, it is 5 miles down
the highway, 5 miles closer to the dark silhouettes of Mexico's mountains,
in Terlingua's sister village, Study
Butte. The only other stations are either 80 miles north in Alpine
or 95 miles northwest in Marathon.
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006
wife and I left Austin
for Terlingua the first weekend of November,
the same weekend as the International Chili Cook-Off. Leaving
Travis county and work behind, we made Interstate 10 by suppertime.
Somehow, I am always amazed at the beauty of the countryside between
the Hill Country
and the Big
Bend. You would think I might be used to it by now, having driven
the route several times in the last few years. You also might think
that I'd remember never seeing a bit of it driving I-10 west by night.
The highway has no lights and indeed, seems, at times, to roll out
only directly in front as you approach any particular stretch. Only
the oases of Sonora and
Ozona present any illumination.
Not until Fort Stockton
is found, around eight black hours and two red eyes later, are there
direct roads extending to the Big Bend. These are a couple of two-lane,
Texas blacktops that reach Terlingua and, not too much further, the
Mexican border. However, they stretch through a desolate and untamed
countryside that intimidates with its enormity and silence. Still,
it is a comfort to nestle into this pocket where Texas rests its giant
elbow on the Sierra Madres.
Ten miles north of Terlingua is a weathered motel named the Longhorn
Ranch. Each room has two bottles of spring water on the table when
you arrive. The water is left not as an amenity, but as a necessity.
A sign on the bathroom mirror warns (in both English and Spanish)
that the tap water is not potable and should not be consumed. Alongside
this sign, another warns against "prolonged showers" or allowing "children
[to play] in the tub" because the water supply is a "precious commodity."
I can only guess at the glee some children would take in these signs,
finally having the verification that baths are inherently wrong and
a tooth brushing might be, in fact, hurting someone somewhere. Nevertheless,
the motel is clean, comfortable, and has a built in restaurant. Your
only obligation as a guest, aside from paying the bill promptly, is
to throw the ball a few times for the property's dog, a black and
white collie. The dog is tireless but harmless, and even his owner
describes him as a "perro loco."
This year, the 40th anniversary of the chili cook-off, my wife and
I decided to travel a little further west in an attempt to find the
Terlingua that draws only the soft-spoken
and reclusive. It was a short drive, somewhere between the two chili
events (Yes, there are TWO cook-offs. Evidently, some time ago, a
schism occurred that would make even the Lutherans nod with understanding)
to the ghost town of Terlingua.
Area Hotels - Book Here & Save
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006
is divided into three parts which can all be seen from the junction
of Texas Highways 118 and 170. The demi-modern gas station/convenience
store and hotel stand at the intersection. Across from these lie the
single-story, sun-toasted buildings that comprise the majority of
the town. These structures, which appear to have been fashioned from
the same materials and hand, are dispersed around the landscape in
a schizoid manner; each seeming to understand the need for neighborhood
while simultaneously holding each other at arm's length. At a distance
from this, the "ghost-town" sleeps on a small hill, an archaeological
site in appearance. It is an odd assortment of homes built around,
or sometimes inside of, the shells of stone houses dating to
the early twentieth century, when the mercury mines were functional
and the workers lived where they worked. Ominously, the cemetery for
these same workers and their families lies at the entrance to this
section of town, a morbid reminder of the fetid conditions of life
in Terlingua at the turn of the twentieth century. Although still
used by the residents today, the cemetery is crowded with stones and
crosses recalling the dangers of quicksilver mining and the influenza
epidemic of 1918.
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006
2nd is the "Dia de los Muertos," or Day of the Dead, commemoration
and we had arrived on November 3rd. The cemetery was ornate with wilted
flowers, charred candles of Saints, Mexican and Texan flags, and Mary
icons. A decorated graveyard seemed an appropriate marker for the
homes resting behind it.
Once inside the chili cook-off (The smaller one, "behind the store."
The other, the "cutthroat" competition down highway 170 a couple of
miles, is larger but less colorful) my wife and I wandered from RV
to RV sampling chili and drinking tepid diet coke and beer, respectively.
We found a vendor selling pocket purses, machined stones, and other
trinkets who said he lived just, "about a mile over there," although
he never indicated which direction "there" might be. I asked how long
he had lived in Terlingua. He answered
that he had been there about a decade but seemed unsure about an exact
number. I then asked what he thought of the stampede of people every
year. He replied, with a shrug and grin that belied his response,
that it was "good for business." I wondered out loud whether the locals
attended the cook-off or, if not, what became of them while their
town was overwhelmed by the crowds. His answer was that most residents
"hole up in their houses" and, because the DPS is absolutely everywhere
looking for DWI victims, most stay home "because their cars and trucks
aren't exactly legal anyways." We left the event for the quieter parts
of the country early in the afternoon to look for others wise enough
to avoid the din of the "chili heads" and responsible enough to stay
Texas Highway 118 south towards Terlingua
from the Longhorn Ranch Motel exposes an extraordinary landscape.
The Chalk and Christmas mountains hem in the road between them and
the base of the closer mountains sparkle white in the sunlight. They
gleam as if dusted in snow. Every time we have driven this stretch
of highway, I have marveled at the sight but never taken the time
to discover the reason for what I presumed was an incongruity in the
geology. This time, we drove further down 118 and found, at the very
end of town, the rock shop of one Hans Luett. The sign in the window
proclaimed that the store was open but, judging by the lack of cars
and activity outside, maybe the notice was yesterday's forgotten chore.
It seemed a distinct possibility. We left the car and tried the door.
We were a bit surprised and apprehensive to find the door unlocked.
As we entered, Mr. Luett stood behind the counter smiling broadly,
and greeted us with a warm, "Good afternoon". He seemed to have been
expecting us. His store was dusty, stockpiled with fragments of petrified
wood, indigenous rocks, and crystals removed from their element but
after so many years in this store they seemed at rest. After wandering
around his shop for a few minutes, I finally asked Mr. Luett how long
he had been a Terlingua resident. Evidently pleased at the prospect
of conversation, he answered, "Twenty-eight years." He offered no
more information. Intrigued by his accent, which seemed Scottish,
I asked him where he was from. Mr. Luett responded that he had come
from Nebraska, and when the look on my face displayed the proper amount
of disbelief, he added "by way of Germany." I supposed that Herr Luett
got a lot of mileage out of that one over his 28 years in Texas.
I bought a brilliant chunk of petrified wood for my son and asked,
finally, what caused the white sparkle in the mountains outside of
town. Mr. Luett replied pithily, like a science teacher, "Calcite,"
then added, with a wink towards my wife, "Texas diamonds."
The storefront of Ring Huggins lies about two hundred yards north
of Luett's establishment. Every Terlinguan and every chili cook-off
regular knows Mr. Huggins. Stopping by his store to purchase a potted
cactus or piece of jewelry created from some local stone is as necessary
when visiting Terlingua as queuing up at the sole gas pump when heading
out. Sitting in a green metal chair outside his business among the
cacti and other potted plants Mr. Huggins typified the attitude of
many Terlinguans. He recounted, with a degree of loss and anger, how
the world, even in the remote village of Terlingua had been affected
by 9-11. He stated how this year he "had not made a single sale the
entire month of September." Further, the Europeans who Mr. Huggins
claims would spend a great deal of money on Texas stones and Mexican
wares, have ceased traveling so far from home due to the "post 9-11
restrictions and high air fares."
Additionally, Mr. Huggins recalled how, for generations, the Mexican
villages that had existed just beyond sight on the other side of the
river and sustained by their fraternal relationships with Terlingua,
Study Butte and
Lajitas have disappeared completely. Mexican workers who would walk
over to work and then walk their wages back home have eloped to more
accessible fields. He pointed down the highway and commented on how
the one school in town has all but closed. The Mexican children who
used to trudge across the border to attend school at first had trouble
reaching their classes due to the new border restrictions then stopped
the attempt altogether. Their families moved either deeper into Mexico
or up to Midland /Odessa
to become, in Mr. Huggin's words "real wetbacks" working the onion
and melon fields of West Texas. The small community that had existed
for years in an unofficial symbiotic relationship simply vanished.
If you ever walked over to Paso Lajitas to have a beer or buy some
hand-made souvenirs, you will notice that there is, literally, no
sign of it today. Gone too are the Mexican vendors who would work
their crafts at home and bring them to Terlingua to sell along the
highway. Again, Mr. Huggins states that "The sense of community that
existed for generations has been halted completely." An invisible
enemy has changed the local standards forever.
| The Starlight
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006
| Cut off from
their familial ties with Mexico, the residents of Terlingua are isolated
today in a way that they have not been since the 1970's when the mercury
mines were abandoned. Although you may see a FedEx truck making a
delivery to the famous Starlight Café where the mineworkers used to
enjoy cabaret shows, or you may run into Nathan Stevens who serves
an unusually refreshing Thai meal at his Phat Café, the town is still
a solitary fixture on the Texas landscape. However, The residents
prefer the seclusion. In fact, that is the very reason most are there.
Only during the annual chili cook-off does the area willingly accept
any intrusion and even then it does so with not a little reluctance.
However, the town seems to handle their annual invasion with aplomb.
Mr. Huggins recounted how each year the local business journal prints
an editorial about the chili cook-off. This editorial, in turn, lists
the most outrageous reasons that the Department of Public Safety pulled
someone over, presumably, to check for intoxication. Last year's winner
was the man who was stopped for too many bugs on his windshield.
To suggest that this part of Texas has avoided progress is a gross
understatement. Signs of technological advancement are as scarce as
ice. Modernity holds little truck here. Mr. Huggins's web-site is
down and he is not sure what to do about it-he doesn't remember who
is hosting the site. Mr. Steven's restaurant is open only a few days
a week and Sunday is not one of them because " that would cut into
[his] bloody Mary time." Terlingua has refused social and economic
advancement as one would a flat beer. Nevertheless, it is exactly
this insistence on isolation that is endearing to those of us who
crave it yet, are too timid to endure it.
Copyright Byron Browne
December 8, 2006