Postcard From Terlingua, Texas

Just south of Alpine on Texas Hwy 118 going to Terlingua is where civilization takes an abrupt vacation.  This seemingly endless highway, devoid of towns, gas stations, motels, stores and most other cars is like a road leading to the end of the world. If you are the kind who likes isolation and simplicity, the 80 miles of desert, ranch land and mountains have the ability to awe you with beauty. A drive through any desert can be very enjoyable if you have a reliable car, but if your car is sickly, this is one of those roads that should only be aspired to rather than attempted.

Man has inhabited the area around Terlingua for at least 10,500 years. The Comanche and Apache Indians controlled the region for many generations. Explorers occasionally came here, but never stayed. The land was too remote, too harsh, and the fierce Indians drove away even the hardiest and most dedicated. In the late nineteenth century, after the Indians had been largely subjugated and removed by the soldiers, a few settlers came to this wild area to try and make a go of it, but the land accepted civilization only reluctantly.

To call the area settled and fully civilized today would be stretching it. It takes a different kind of person to live here year-round. The few ranchers, desert-rats, and other residents are strong-willed, determined, stubborn individualist who protect their way of life and freedom with fierceness not usually seen in "normal" folks. There are few police and the area is large. If people here have a problem, they take care of it themselves. And if one of their own needs help, they're right there to lend a hand. A lot of people would like to live that way, but few actually can.

Once you pass the Longhorn Ranch Motel, you know you are close to the town. There is no town limit sign, no official boundary. Stubbornly remaining unincorporated, you are either in town or you are not. Like most of Texas, being in Terlingua isn't so much a matter of physically being there as it is a state of mind.

Cinnabar in the area was found and used by Native Americans who prized its bright red color for body art and as paint for rock and cave paintings. Mexican miners had discovered the cinnabar deposits by the 1850's, but until the 1890's, the remoteness and hostile Indians prevented wide-scale mining. Since mercury was used in the fuses of bombs and bullets, mining in the area took off in the early 1900's and continued through 1945 until the conclusion of WWII greatly reduced the market. The population plummeted from 3,000 to zero within weeks of the mines closing and Terlingua became a true ghost town with abandoned buildings, mine tailings and discarded cars and wagons rotting away in the desert sun.

Terlingua ruins
Terlingua remained deserted, desolate and lonely until 1967 when Wick Fowler, Frank Tolbert and Carol Shelby organized a chili cook-off to be held in the former town. The whole thing began when H. Allen Smith, a writer from New York, claimed in a magazine article that nobody could make better chili than him. The Texas boys promptly answered, claiming Smith was a "know-nothing maker of vegetable stew" and issued a challenge to pit Wick Fowler's Texas chili against Smith's New York version in what they called "The Great Chili Confrontation." Shelby owned a 220,000 acre ranch outside Terlingua so it was decided to host the competition in the ghost town just to see if they could attract a crowd of people to the middle of nowhere. News of the upcoming contest became widely known when it was written up in numerous national publications, including Sports Illustrated.

More than 1,000 people showed up for that initial contest, all of them sleeping in tents or their cars since there were no lodging facilities. Large quantities of alcohol was imbibed and all sorts of foolishness and nudity was not only tolerated, but encouraged. In the middle of it all, Fowler and Smith managed to cook their chili. 3 judges were tasked with determining a winner. The contest was declared moot when the tie-breaker judge gagged on a spoonful of Smith's chili and fell to the floor in gastric distress. He eventually was able to claim his taste buds had been damaged beyond repair and he had been rendered physically incapable of submitting a vote.

From that debaucherous start, a few hardy individuals began arriving to live in the crumbling buildings. A commune of hippies tried, but failed to create a sustainable desert utopia. Eventually, others came who wanted to settle there because they liked the isolation or needed the remoteness to leave their past behind and get a clean start. Asking a person about their past was considered rude and could even be dangerous.

Terlingua has come a long way since that first chili cook off. Some of the roads are now paved and there are several motels, gas stations, stores and a new post office building.  Business warriors and moneyed elites from Austin and Georgetown have started buying up property and refurbishing structures into weekend retreats. A private airport has been built. The little ghost town far from anywhere even has Wi-Fi. Progress has arrived.


Terlingua Store
Some folks, like myself, would rather civilization and progress not touch this place. I selfishly would like for it to stay the way it is in my memory, the way it was when I first made trips here in the 1970's.  If I could, I'd tie an anvil to the feet of time in Terlingua, causing it to drag forward slowly, ever so slowly. For now, it's still a cool little town, but it ain't what it was. 

Terlingua Cemetery grave



Old abandoned wagon

The Terlingua Cemetery dates from the early 1900's.
Final resting place for miners & residents who
died in mine accidents, gunfights & the
influenza epidemic of 1918. Very few died
of old age.

 
















 
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