Terlingua Texas Friday April 21
Hot and Dusty. The schedule for the day was a three-hour Jeep trip into the backcountry. While our Subaru is all wheel drive, it is not high clearance. This is our fourth Jeep ride into backcountry since we began traveling. It provides us with an opportunity to see terrain up close and personal that we would not view or hike to under normal conditions, particularly when the temperature for the day quickly climbed into the 90s.
The Jeep had a canvass top with bench seats that were raised to provide a good view. Unfortunately, I spent part of the time bracing myself since the seats were vinyl. As the Jeep drove into the backcountry, the land traversed was rarely flat. On the vinyl seats, when the Jeep went downhill, I tended to slide forward and down, even wearing a seatbelt to assist in holding one upright. Not exactly the worst problem in the world, but the legs did get a workout stopping my slides. I know, it is a tough life traveling, isn’t it, but what else do I have to complain about?
Randy, our guide, gave us a geology and botany lesson as we drove along the dirt tracks. We gained several thousand feet in elevation between Terlingua and the turn-around point, although the elevation gain was not usually noticeable. There were a few homes out in the desert, trying to live off the grid. There were more “pads”; a clearing with a small cabin or car port where people might spend a weekend or a week away from the city. First requirement, build a shelter device and a water retention system. Almost all water out here is provided by collecting and saving rainwater. Normal rainfall is 10 inches per year.
This area is all part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The Chihuahuan is the largest of four deserts in North America, stretching down well into Mexico. Vegetation changes based on rainfall and elevation, the only wildlife we saw was a jack-rabbit. Evidently most of the wildlife hunts and travels at night. Smart.
Randy mentioned the force generated by the flash floods that occur when it rains. A friend had built a concrete dam along an arroyo, it took the floods only two years to wipe it out. The guides have to monitor the weather and the area. Rains that occur further north can put the road we traveled under water and/or mud even when it is clear and dry around Terlingua. That is similar to the Terlingua Creek rising down by Santa Elena Canyon on our hike Wednesday even though there had not been any rainfall around the canyon.
The Terlingua area had some ranchers trying to make a living here, but the main economic force was the mining of cinnabar to produce mercury. After WWII, the need for mercury in switches and bombs took a nosedive and the population got up and left. It got so bad, the town was classified as a ghost town. Today there is a population of less than a hundred but with the people in nearby Study Butte, the population is over 300.
Terlingua markets itself as one of the gateways to Big Bend and the Terlingua ghost town is a part of the marketing. A couple of bars and gift stores bring in the tourists, along with some RV parks. A Texas Chili Cook-Off in the fall can attract 10,000 people and a hundred state police to patrol and control the drinking. Although limited in number, we found the restaurants to be good. We had dinner at the Starlight twice, with live music. La Kiva, built like a cave, was a second dinner site with good food. Both had their share of characters, whether they were local or tourists was hard to determine. Lunch has been at a gas station cafe and an artsy, artisanal cafe. The cat at the artsy cafe must have been related to the cat at the Far Flung Outdoors center. At Far Flung it sat on the counter where you paid your bill since it was the Queen of the outfit. At the cafe, it was constantly rubbing our legs despite the entreaties of its own.
The ghost town still has remnants of buildings, mine shafts, and machinery from the mining days. The old mining company store made of adobe is still here along with the Catholic Church, jail, theater and cemetery. It survives due to the mix of artists, ex-hippies, and free-thinkers who enjoy life here.
Friday afternoon we drove to Lajitas Texas and visited the Burton Warnock Center of Big Bend Ranch State Park. The state park is east of the Big Bend National Park, the visitor center has an exhibit about the Chihuahuan Desert. The exhibit is nice, the center not terribly busy. We chose not to go hiking in the afternoon heat so our time here was short.
The fire pit was busier tonight than Thursday evening. While the fire creates some glare for Starlight viewing, the stars are still more plentiful and clearer than in cities. We woke at 4 AM and spent some time watching stars from our patio.
Ed and Chris.