“Ter… what??!! Terlingua? Is that a place or a disease? It’s not even on the map! What is there to do for 6 days in a place that’s not even on the map?!!!!!”
These words eminently spoken by my dear husband and travel partner on the eve of our departure for Terlingua, TX. It was indeed hard to find on the map. Its proximity to Big Bend National Park is its star attraction and the reason why we drove miles and miles of West Texas to this remote, dry and dusty area. Big Bend had been on my bucket list for a long while.
However, clearly, Mark needed some convincing. And I get it. He’s not as obsessed as I am with sights of big rocks!… He’s more of an urban lad—and (horror!) Terlingua is not only devoid of Starbucks but adding insult to injury, the area has no Verizon cellular coverage (only the dreaded Extended 3G which means where Verizon has no cell towers it ‘piggybacks’ onto another service providers to provide minimal coverage).
What indeed was there to do for 6 days in this desolate terrain? Plenty as it turned out!
As there is a lot of stuff to unpack, not just about Big Bend but also about noteworthy “points of interest”, I thought a good way to describe and relate our experiences was to put these into small vignettes that best illustrate our week here. Each vignette, I hope, will do a good job at depicting the intensively beautiful part of the world that is Big Bend and West Texas along with the no-nonsense friendliness of the locals we met who somehow have embraced this windy and devilishly eccentric region.
#1 – BIG BEND
While it may be customary to reserve the best for last, I’m going to start with the best… Big Bend is vast, diverse and remote and is one of the ‘least’ visited of all National Parks. That’s easy to understand as no one can go there ‘on a whim’… Big Bend is on the way to nowhere else. Its sheer size, almost the same as Rhode Island, is overwhelming. More than 1200 sq miles of western Texas, the park is located where the Rio Grande makes a ‘big bend’ southward and back north again. The river forms the U.S.-Mexico border for no less than 118 miles (190 km)! (That’d be a lot of ‘wall’ don’t you think?!) Most of Big Bend is Chihuahuan Desert, a rugged but beautiful terrain, that when juxtaposed with river and mountains—gives Big Bend its broad diversity.
At the time of our visit (early April), the park was in full spring mode, with blooming wildflowers everywhere, some I had never seen before (several species of plants and animals in Big Bend are totally unique and not seen elsewhere in the US). In our 5 days there, we visited the park every day. At first we thought, well, “a mountain is a mountain is a mountain”. But not here. Every day at Big Bend is a different experience, a different ‘show’.
Mark and I spent entire evenings compiling and comparing our pictures, which turned out to be a lot more fun that watching the news on TV!
A few words about border patrol at Big Bend.
Border Patrol roadside checks and cruisers are everywhere inside and outside of the park. However, that doesn’t stop people south of the border from crossing the Rio Grande–quite narrow at bottom of the Boquillas canyon where we hiked–to come on over to the US side–not to stay or ask for asylum but to sell their wares (mostly small artisanal craft objects) which are left here and there on the trail (with a bottle or pain can to collect money from tourist ‘buyers’. Signs are posted at Visitor Centres warning tourists not to buy these…, considered ‘contraband material’ if found in our possession. It seemed to me quite harmless – just the good old bartering economy at work, wall or no wall (btw, Mother Nature has installed gigantic canyon walls in Big Bend). I’m not saying that drug trafficking isn’t happening in the region, but it was interesting to note that no matter the political climate of the day, life at the border adapts and goes on.
#2 – The towns
Ghost town Terlingua and its sister-hamlet, Study Butte (pronounce ‘stoo-dee byoot’) are former mining boomtowns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They went bust when the cinnabar mines closed down in the 1940’s. The sister towns dried up and literally blew away like tumbleweed, earning Terlingua its ghost-town status. The area has since slowly repopulated, thanks in large part to its proximity to Big Bend and visitors of all ages in search of adventure. The adobe style houses and shacks (a few of the former and a lot of the latter) are found here and there in a pêle-mêle fashion. There are remnants of stone ruins from boomtown days and a rather fascinating cemetery. No manicured lawns or headstones here: these graves are piled high with local rocks that reflect the style of the nearby ruins.
Locals—ranchers, hotel workers and Big Bend workers alike—and tourists meet at Terlingua Trading Co and enjoy a draught beer at the Starlight Restaurant & Theatre (yes, a theater, originally constructed as a cinema until the roof blew off, hence Starlight Theater) and go sit outside to shoot the breeze.
The area does have ‘sports’ activities such as mountain biking as well as raft or canoe tours off the River Road beside the Rio Grande, that attracts young people—including hordes of college and high school kids during Spring break throughout March.
# 3 – La Posada Milagro
There are clearly efforts to attract the urban crowd and La Posada Milagro is a great example of this trend. Built on top of and even incorporating some of the adobe ruins in the historic ghost town, this guest house turned boutique hotel pulls off the amazing feat of providing stylish rooms that blend in with the surroundings.
At the hotel’s small café, Espresso…Y Poco Mas which Mark adopted as his second home away from Starbucks, we met and chatted with the hotel owner, Mimi Webb Miller, and Astro, her cute pooch.
A Los Angeles casting director by profession, Mimi told us that she fell in love with a Mexican in Terlingua forty years ago, bought a ranch in Mexico and pretty much never left the region. We said goodbye to Mimi – but I remained curious about this amiable 70 year old woman who had mentioned that she was shopping a script of her life story. A quick search on Google had several hits regarding Mimi, and led to a 2014 New York Times article, “Tours take border guide back to an earlier life” (by Rachel Moore), that reveals Mimi’s paramour was Pablo Acosta, one of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords who was killed by Mexican federal police in 1987! Take a few minutes to read about Mimi here. No wonder she’s thinks her life could be turned into a movie!
#4 – A little bit about Marfa and the McDonald Observatory/Mt. Davis
Speaking of movies… On our way to Terlingua, on Highway 67 is Marfa. So tiny, you can truly miss it if you blink. This is where New York art scene collides with west Texas cowboy culture. It’s a pilgrimage destination for art lovers thanks to its many galleries and international (yes, international) annual film festival.
A visit to any gift store in the area showcases several books about Marfa’s architecture and minimalist art. But perhaps this infatuation started with Marfa serving as Hollywood movie locations for such classic films as 1956 “Giant” (with James Dean), and more recently, “There will be Blood”, “No Country for Old Men”, as well as the Amazon cult hit series, “I love Dick”. All had exteriors shots done in this quaint little town. Which explains the airfield nearby where I notices a couple of very fine private jets!
We didn’t have time to give Marfa more than a quick glance. But perhaps we should have!
On the way back from Terlinga, we stopped in Alpine for a couple of nights. Two reasons for this stopover. The first one was to find suitable shelter from one of the wind storms befalling West Texas at this time of year. It’s no fun and a bit scary to be on the road in a motorhome with gusts of 40-50 mph winds! Not to mention the dusty sand storm they create as they roll through the open fields (much like snow whiteouts back home).
The other reason was to visit the McDonald Observatory, located atop Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains (approx.. 6,000 feet/1,828 meters). The high and dry peaks of the Davis Mountains make for some of the darkest and clearest night skies in the region. NPR listeners might remember the daily mini-podcasts called “StarDate”, which has been broadcast from the McDonald Observatory for 40 years! Unable to attend one of the Observatory’s famed nightly ‘Star Parties’, we booked a general tour of the three giant telescopes. Moneypenny (our trusted KIA Soul) braved the winds and off we went.
It was well worth facing the elements! Here are some of the things we learned…
Unlike the ‘old’ days, astronomers no longer need to peer into telescopes to do their work. All of this is done with computers of course; as a result, astronomers from around can analyze raw data without actually set foot in an observatory (which is sort of a pity really). Still, there are about 25 astronomers on duty at the Observatory at any given time, and most of them work at night for obvious reasons, calibrating the instruments to satisfy their university projects and world clients. In fact, our guide mentioned that some of the data collected in recent years is so ahead of current theories that it is still waiting for some Einstein astronomer to figure out the meaning of the results! There was whispers of ‘dark energy’… whoah!
Not bad for a place that was originally endowed in 1926 with a Texas banker, William Johnson McDonald, donated all of his fortune—close to $1 million at the time—to the University of Texas with specific instructions to endow an astronomy observatory. The only problem was that such a program didn’t exist at UT at the time! So they teamed up with the University of Chicago who helped develop the Observatory project for the first 30 years. The rest is, as they say, history! It is one of the leading Observatories in the world today
Well, there is it. Apology for the long-ish blog. Hope you enjoyed it. And do let me know if you did (or didn’t). Life on the blog can be a bit lonely ya know… 🙂