Terlingua, a Big Bend area ghost town just won’t die.
Like thousands of other little towns in Texas, Terlingua ghost town would have dried up and blown away were it not for Texans’ reverence for chili and the advent of our own brand of outlaw country music.
Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1973 live album “Viva Terlingua” introduced Texas anthems like “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” and “London Homesick Blues” with the unforgettable line about going “home with the armadillos.
Chili and Texas Outlaw Country Music saved Terlingua
I’m not sure Jerry Jeff had actually been to Terlingua at that time of the album’s creation. Walker recorded”Viva Terlingua” live at Luckenbach, another Texas town that owes its continued existence to Willie and Waylon and the Boys. But chili legends Wick Fowler and Frank X Tolbert knew it well when they established their impossibly ambitious Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-off here in 1967.
Getting to Terlingua is a chore
Like Big Bend National Park, there is no easy way to get to Terlingua and still it is a popular destination for a certain kind of tourist. As you read about our stay, you can decide if you are that kind of tourist and whether that propensity is something to you ought to share with friends and family.
As part of our West Texas meander, my son and I took Amtrak’s Sunset Limited to Alpine and rented a car. The 83-mile drive from Alpine to Terlingua is like entering an airlock before you suit up and are pressurized so you can walk on the surface of the moon. In this case, you are decompressing and stripping down.
Leaving Alpine and civilization behind
Outside of Alpine, we passed a few small subdivisions and RV parks but soon it was just a curving two-lane road bordered by mesas and mountains. No paved intersections interrupted the endless white lines heading south, only sporadic dirt driveways up to derelict house trailers or rundown homesteads. The Big Bend area population density of one person per square mile was starkly apparent.
Fifty five miles out of Alpine, we passed a sign for “Jackass Flats – no fighting, whining or thieving”. On down the road, homesteads started to cluster a little closer together. Finally, we passed a few buildings including a convenience store and an actual paved intersection. Big Bend National Park was straight ahead. Terlingua Ghost Town, Lajitas and the Big Hill was to the right.
“Modern” Terlingua vs Terlingua ghost town
“Modern” Terlingua along Tx 118 from Alpine had a few BBQ places and single story motels. Turning right on TX-170 toward the ghost town, we encountered more cars as we passed the location of the Chili Appreciation Society International Cook-off. Hundreds of RV’s crammed together in what my son called “a white people’s refugee camp”. We decided to give this Cowboy Woodstock a pass and keep moving.
Terlingua’s roots are laid bare
Up an ascending road, a shingle sign pointed to “Terlingua Ghost Town”. We missed the turn. But already the feeling of the place had changed. We passed the stranded conning tower of submarine and a partially buried pirate ship called “Passing Winds”. The landscape became scrapped, gouged and treeless. We were at the heart of Terlingua’s past.
Terlingua’s mining boom
“This is not some abandoned movie set or a fabricated tourist trap. This was a real mining town that went bust and the miners walked away, leaving their homes behind,” says Ghosttowntexas.com. In the mid-1880’s, the discovery of cinnabar, which is used to make mercury or quicksilver, brought miners to the area, and created a city of 2,000 people. The scarred and gutted landscape was part of the remains of Howard Perry’s Chisos Mining Company and several nearby capped and abandoned mines
The accidental mine owner
Perry was a Yankee who had no interest in this part of Texas until he received some land around Terlingua as security on an unpaid debt. When Perry was offered more and more money for this raggedy holding, he got an attorney to investigate. Turns out his neighbors’ mining operation had strayed over to Perry’s land. Perry got legal possession and founded the Chisos Mining Company in 1903.
In 1906, he built the Perry Mansion amid the adobe houses of his miners. The mansion was based on the Moorish architecture from his visit to Almadén. It was two-stories tall with nine 10-foot arches, and a 90-foot front porch. The ruins of the mansion sit stranded on a high rise above the 1913 Chisos Store, which is now the Terlingua Trading Post. By 1936, Perry had added the Chisos Theatre and the Oasis Confectionery. A shell of the theater is now the Starlight restaurant with nearby jail functioning as the restrooms.
The mines play out and Terlingua becomes a ghost town
The confectionery didn’t sweeten life much for the mainly Mexican miners. While they were provided rent-free dwellings, accusations were hurled about that the mine was a “death trap, horribly hot with no ventilation.” By 1939 the Chisos Mine was pretty much been worked out. Perry tried to rebound with silver and gold mines elsewhere but he was bankrupt by 1942 and died two years later.
Ghosttowntexas.com sums up old Terlingua pretty succinctly. “Today you’ll find a ghost town made up of decaying buildings, mine shafts, tall tales, ruins, crotchety old-timers, a three-legged dog, too much cactus, and semi-friendly rattlesnakes”. Sounds like our kind of neighborhood!
Funk is elevated here
We retraced our route past the stranded submarine and turned up the dirt road, driving by the El Dorado Hotel and some improbably well maintained muscle cars. Retro Rents was our destination, a spread-out camp of five refurbished Airstream trailers strung along a gutted road. Each trailer was named. There was Rosie, Josephine, Betty, Bachelor and the most recent addition at the top of the hill – a 1977 24 foot Argosy/Airstream named Alice. Sam, the town vet owned the little aluminum herd.
We see our home for two days – Alice the Airstream
We got Alice and loved her from the minute we saw her. The feeling just got stronger over the two days we lived with her. She was set off by herself with the residents of the old Terlingua cemetery as her closest neighbors.
After reviewing Alice’s idiosyncrasies with Sam, Shane and I opened our bottle of wine and got out our treasures from the Ocotillo shop in Alpine. We hung the wind chimes on a struggling sampling, lit the bundle of sage and waved the smoke around Alice to bless our stay. Our little deck faced east to peaks in Big Bend and beyond to mountains in Mexico. We toasted our arrival and watched the changing shadows in front of us.
The cemetery up the hill
There is no better way than walking to get know a place, especially somewhere we would only stay for two days. We hiked across the a patch of uneven desert to get a closer look at the cemetery. Alice’s front door was only two hundred steps as the roadrunner hops to David “Boss Bird” Tinsley’s grave.
Tinsley had joined the quiet ones in November of 2014. In earlier times, he was known for the Tinsley’s Chicken and Rolls franchise he founded in Huntsville and throughout East Texas. His grave was decorated with a metal rooster and other tchotchkes. The grave marker resembled a plane fuselage launching from a mud brick base.
The cemetery was as old as the mining operation so Boss Bird was one of newer kids on the block. We were visiting just a few days after the Day of the Dead celebration. Faded paper flowers, empty whiskey bottles, and burnt out candles littered the graveyard. Family members had put solar light sticks at the graves of some relatives.
Doing business in an ice chest
Past the cemetery, we stopped at Campground Creations. A dark-haired woman was sitting in a rocking chair. She knitted while an exhausted young dog slept at her feet. An older hound slinked around the sides of the shop, if you could call it a shop. It looked like nothing so much as a huge white Igloo cooler with turquoise trim.
The woman told us it was a 1940’s dining car. While it looked like it could have been a train car, it was never meant to ride the rails. Dining cars were a big deal during the depression and were widely found throughout the country. Everything was stripped out of this one and the owner had lined the walls with burlap. Her grandmother had taught her to knit and she sold headbands, bracelets, purses, hats and other woven goods. She was fostering the young dog; the older dog was hers and had come from the same organizations that had dog adoptions posters up all over the Big Bend area.
The defunct Perry Mansion
Leaving the knitter, we climbed up the dirt trail past the old company store building which is now the Terlingua Trading Post. Along the way, we saw more ruins of old mining cabins, rusted cars chassis from the 30’s and 40’s and a simple square chapel. Most dramatic was the crumbling Perry mansion, overlooking the town Perry had built and ruled for a time, though he and his family never lived in the home. Workers were shoring up the porch and arches of what had once been Perry’s Moorish masterpiece. On YouTube, we’d seen an effort to make it an “under the stars” lodging experience. We didn’t see evidence that anyone was staying there now but we found a site that rented out rooms there as part of the Big Bend Holiday Hotel
Terlingua Trading Post and Starlight Restaurant
We walked back downhill to the Trading Post. Locals and duded-up visitors from the chili cook-offs were sitting on the bench that stretched the length of the building, drinking beer. The Trading Post has dozens of brands of bottled and canned beer . We bought a couple cans and found two bar stools on the porch of the adjacent Starlight Theater restaurant. The bar stools were bizarre with a horse’s butt on one and a big female bottom on the other. There were similar to the big-butted mannequins on the San Antonio Street in El Paso.
As more tourists crowded onto the Trading Post porch, we decided to beat the cook-off crowd and have an early dinner at the Starlight. The food was good. The margaritas were a little too sweet but I’ve only found one place in the country that makes them the slightly bitter way I like them, yet I keep searching.
Crushing cans and picking guitar
After dinner, we walked outside have another beer on the Trading Post porch. The sun had set and we found a good people-watching spot next to the lightly used can crusher. My late father-in-law loved his beer can crusher so we took a video of Shane working the contraption to honor Pha-Pha.
A beat up guitar was on the ground next to an elderly cowboy who was sitting in a metal folding chair. The cowboy’s thin legs were crossed tightly at the knee and he had that sucked-in, stooped over way that makes some old people look like they are trying to keep warm. I asked if we could use the guitar. “Not mine,” he answered, “it just sits there all the time.”
The guitar was missing its bottom string but Shane was able to coax a few songs out of it. Together we sang “Angel from Montgomery” and “Wild horses”.
La Kiva after the crime
It was only 9 pm or so, too early to call it a night so we drove down to La Kiva, a cave-like restaurant and bar that had fascinated us on our first visit years ago. La Kiva had been around since the 1980’s but had just recently reopened under a new owner after the previous owner had been murdered in 2014.
The crime tore the town apart because this was not some random drive by. Glen Felts, the owner, was loved by everyone. The accused murder, river guide Tony Flint, was loved by everyone. Felts and Flint loved each other, according to everyone and as evidenced by a video they shot the night of the murder. Flint was acquitted in 2015 after claiming self-defense even though Flint outweighed Felts by 200 pounds. Rachel Monroe of Outside Online has the best story of the murder I’ve read and how it affected Terlinga.
Amid the chaos, the band played on
La Kiva was packed and the waitresses and bar staff were “in the weeds,” trying to accommodate the chili cook-off crowd. While the 2010 official population count of 58 is disputed (a woman collecting census data was bitten by a resident’s pet javelina and reportedly quit on the spot), the hundreds of chili heads who descended on the bar created chaos. Shane and I got our drinks and quickly vacated the bar to sit on a low stonewall and watch the band. Palomino Shakedown was out of Austin with a lead singer named “Howdy” and a traditional country and swing sound.
Viewing the night sky from Alice
After a few songs, we returned to Alice. She had wrap-around windows in the front. We turned off the a/c, opened all the curtains, bumped out the windows over each of our twin beds and in the front facing east.
The night was so dark, you could lie in your bed and watch the starscape changing all night long. I woke up around 3 in the morning and looked up the hill. A few faint solar slights shined in the cemetery.
As with the stars, sunrise over the mountains was perfectly positioned to let me enjoy the spectacle while still in bed and protecting myself from the high desert chill. Today we would start to explore Big Bend National Park
Showering in Alice the Airstream
Returning to Terlingua that second afternoon after lots of walking, climbing and sweating in Big Bend, Shane and I took turns trying out Alice’s shower, roughly the same size as the broom closet. We’d swiped all the Elemis complimentary toiletries from the Holland Hotel in Alpine so the tiny trailer smelled of European gels and lotions mixed with more sage smoke.
Relaxing at the High Sierra Bar and Grill
We were hungry, tired and not up to battling the chili crowds at the Starlight. Shane had had his eye on the High Sierra Bar and Grill at the El Dorado Hotel because he felt like it was more of a local hangout. We walked down Retro Rents’ rutted path, past Alice’s cousins – Betty, Bachelor and Josephine – and out onto the main dirt road that heads down to Highway 170. Just this side of High Sierra was a metal garage and shed. I barely know a Hyundai from a Hummer but Shane marveled at the collection of classic and expensive cars just setting out in the dust. Another random curiosity in this strange little town.
The High Sierra fit the bill. A guitarist named Dr. Fun was singing songs by Neil Young, Bob Seger, CSN. The room was wide open and the bar had some empty stools. The vibe was relaxed and unconcerned. We took a table for four just in back of a big empty round table for six. After we’d gotten our meals and another drink, the round table started to fill with locals and longtime visitors who had competed at the chili cook-off .
Meeting some of the chili champs
The round table had run out of seats and a latecomer asked to borrow one of ours. When we nodded yes, he sat down to talk awhile. His name was Bill Lester and he told us that he’d won showmanship at the cook-off. Bill was exuberant. Like a cruise director, he started introducing us to people around the place, including a guy who wheeled in a large marimba to the little stage and started playing with Dr. Fun.
The marimba player was named Moises “Cinco” Calderon and helped manage the High Sierra for his cousin, the owner. She was married to the car guy next door so it was kind of a family compound.
From serving Heuvos Rancheros to playing the marimba
Cinco had been born into both the restaurant and music business. His family had owned and operated Memo’s in Del Rio, since 1936, making it one of the oldest family Tex Mex restaurants in the state. While Cinco had dark hair and eyes, he was named after his father, Moises “Blondie” Calderon.
Blondie got his nickname as a child for his golden hair. Playing around with the piano in the corner of his family’s restaurant, it was plain from the time Blondie was eight that he had a natural talent. Though Blondie couldn’t read music, he learned by ear from listening to Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. He played in his high school band in Del Rio. When he went away to San Jose State University, he played with local bands on the weekends.
In 1959, Blondie returned to Del Rio to take over Memo’s from his sick father. Unwilling to give up his music dream at only 19 years old, he taught his brothers to play different instruments and formed a band – “Blondie Calderon and the Latin Sextet”.
Ray Price comes calling
In 1966, Ray Price tracked him down. Word of the Blondie’s talent had reached his fellow Texan. Price was about to explode to the top of the country charts with a completely different sound from his earlier honky tonk roots.
Blondie spent the next 34 years backing Price and leading Price’s band, the Cherokee Cowboys. Cinco’s dad, Blondie, was on his way to play a show with Ray in Turkey, Texas when he had a heart attack and died in 2000.
Robert Duvall was a fan
We promised Cinco that we would get to Del Rio to visit Memo’s and see the setup. Robert Duvall was so taken with the restaurant and Cinco’s dad, that the actor hosted parties at the Memo’s during the filming of Lonesome Dove and even invited Blondie and his band to play at the mini-series wrap party in Santa Fe.
Terlingua felt so much like the setting for Lonesome Dove that the whole story almost seemed contrived but it was all true. Check it out on Memo’s website.
Cinco was on the way to helping his cousin create another iconic place here at the High Sierra. I’m glad Shane steered me in this direction. We waved goodbye to Cinco and Bill, put a hefty tip in Dr. Fun’s jar and headed back to Alice.
One more night in our snug little tin trailer. Tomorrow we’d be moving on in search of more West Texas weirdness.