Life off the grid in a wild West Texas border town
Words and photos by Daniel Chamberlin
In April of 2009, Arthur contributing editor Daniel Chamberlin got down with the DIY homesteaders and off-the-grid outsiders of Far West Texas at the first annual Terlingua Green Scene.
Part One: No Winners, Only Survivors
The tiny settlement of Terlingua lays in the Big Bend country of Far West Texas, just north of the Rio Grande, a place that remains one of the most remote areas of the continental United States. In the interest of continuing to lessen the town’s ecological impact, in April of 2009 a group of local homesteaders and off-the-grid-types organized the first Terlingua Green Scene, a conference of sustainable living strategies, including demonstrations of cob house construction, solar cooking and desert farming. The events took place in and around the town’s thriving community garden, a refuge for vegetables, sunflowers and other plants that would otherwise quickly expire in the arid Chihuahuan desert climate. A sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi, created by a Vietnam vet named Spider and painted by local folk music icon Collie Ryan, looks on from a small ridge just to the west.
The Green Scene organizers’ aim — at least in part — is to strengthen community ties as well as to establish Terlingua as a hub of homesteading and DIY sustainability, and to give the town’s other legacies a run for their money: Terlingua has been a footnoted way-station in tales of smugglers heading from Mexico into the United States from the days of candellaria wax and sotol cactus moonshine up to the modern era of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and migrant workers. It’s also known for an annual chili cook-off that attracts thousands of Budweiser-swilling “chiliheads;” as a retreat for the Texas country and folk music scene; and of course there’s the world-class river rafting, mountain biking, birding and hiking of Big Bend National Park — over 800,000 acres of mountains, deserts, bears, antelope and alpine forests whose boundary is 10 miles to the east.
Terlingua’s population — somewhere between 200 and 1000 souls, depending on the time of year and who’s asking — is spread out across the surrounding countryside, a harsh but beautiful landscape that has been repelling all but the heartiest of settlers for most of recorded history. As historian Erna Fergusson puts it in Quicksilver: Terlingua and the Chisos Mining Company, “Those who can stand it here have had to learn that man does not modify this country; it transforms him deeply.” Quicksilver author Kenneth Baxter takes a harsher view: “The Big Bend allows no winners, only survivors.” From what I’ve learned in the time I spent with Terlingua’s people, the truth lies somewhere in between and has more to do with transforming one’s conceptions about what it means to win, and how much of a magnificent thing that surviving really is.
Prior to the arrival of Anglo ranchers and the resource extraction technology of mining companies, Terlingua was the domain of Apache and Comanche Indians who successfully resisted colonization for hundreds of years, driving the Spanish out of the Southwest by the early 1800s. The Apaches continued to run the Big Bend throughout the Civil War, but upon the return of Union troops to the cavalry base at Fort Davis, the genocidal war against the native people resumed and by 1881 the cavalry had wiped them out almost entirely — the surviving renegades fled into the Mexican Sierra Madre.
The mineral cinnabar — from which mercury, or quicksilver is produced — was discovered in Terlingua at some point in the 1880s, setting off a mining boom that at its height pushed the town’s population to several thousand workers and their families. The mines thrived until the quicksilver market went into decline in the ’20s. By the end of World War II they had shut down completely and the town was all but abandoned.
Terlingua was gradually resettled in the following decades, though its population remains small and somewhat seasonal, as daytime temperatures touch triple digits from May through September. The Big Bend National Park was established in 1944, and it has since bolstered the population of dropouts, hermits and smugglers that remained after the mines left by attracting a handful of naturalists, hikers and river guides.
So many of the fringe communities I’ve visited in California, from pot farms in Humboldt to the Beyond Thunderdome desert squats of Slab City, are characterized by “black helicopter” conspiracy theory and paranoia amplified by methamphetamines and booze; or alternatively they are places riddled with the sort of self-righteous radicalism that springs from a combination of endless hours of Pacifica radio broadcasts accompanied by unchecked marijuana intake. The crowd representing the Terlingua Green Scene is different. Though they’ve got plenty of sustainability cred, most people are not here living off the grid to make a point of what they’re doing without, or because they’ve listened to too many militia broadcasts on their shortwave radios. They’re here to live slowly and enjoy the mixture of natural beauty, privacy and community, and they’ve found it’s easier to do that when you don’t have a job that you hate, or one that leaves you in constant fear of getting busted by the cops or ripped off by sketched-out neighbors. Plus, no matter how much of a bohemian air the place may have, it’s still Texas, and while the true-to-life cowboys and good ol’ boys have a streak of tolerance and hedonism that is unique to this wild region of the Lone Star state, their presence is enough to ensure that the thick-skinned hippies and outsiders that find their way here are decidedly outlaw in spirit, if not vocation.
Next: A river guide and a hitchhiking painter discuss the perils of “oven season” and the merits of indoor plumbing versus outdoor hot tubs. Click here to continue …
For more information on this year’s Green Scene, happening April 10, 2010 in Terlingua, TX, visit www.terlinguagreenscene.com. For more of Chamberlin’s photography of Texas mountains, the old growth forests of Arkansas and the light-polluted flora of Los Angeles, see intothegreen.wordpress.com.