¡Verde Terlingua! part three

¡Verde Terlingua!
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. Find part one “No Winners, Only Survivors” by clicking here.

Part Three: The Warmth of the Sun

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Now go out and get yourself some thick black frames / With the glass so dark they won’t even know your name


John Wells is a sixtysomething contractor, photographer and sculptor from New York, and a self-described press whore. He’s got a blog, The Field Lab, chronicling the last year and a half of his life, building a compound north of Terlingua on a plot of land surrounded by mountains and canyons. He’s been profiled by Make Magazine and his website’s been BoingBoinged, so he’s a celebrity by Terlingua standards. It doesn’t hurt that he’s remarkably photogenic with an epic beard, and reflective sunglasses under a sun-bleached straw cowboy hat.

He smokes cigarettes while standing around jawing with some portly good ol’ boy-types who are bitching about Obama and what they fear will be an increase in property taxes. Wells’ primary reason for leaving his giant house in upstate New York was an aversion to such expenses. Out here he pays about $100 in property taxes per year for his 128-square-foot hut and 40 acres of pristine Chihuahuan desert.

They’re gathered around Wells’ solar cooker, a giant wooden contraption lined with reflective panels that amplifies solar rays, directing them today onto a chicken sitting in a glass dish. It’ll be ready for sampling in two or three hours at about 210 degrees, though some heavy clouds may delay dinnertime. “Clouds are not your friend when you’re solar cooking,” he says.

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John Wells’ solar-heated chicken shack.


Wells uses the cooker out on his compound—it’s officially known as The Southwest Texas Alternative Energy and Sustainable Living Field Laboratory—for baking most of his meals, which range from heated up cans of vegetables to home-baked bread and lasagna. He invites me to swing by and check it out tomorrow afternoon, and then rejoins the conversation with his buddies, which has turned to aquaponics, or the use of fish tanks to fertilize and irrigate the greenhouse he’s building right now. For the fish in the tanks he’s considering catfish or tilapia, as they’d also make for good eating.

“There’s full systems you can buy for $5000,” he says, “but of course I found a YouTube video, some guy who built one with $20 in materials and his fish are there and his plants are growing. And so I’m gonna try one little setup of that, see how it works.”

He plans to live in the greenhouse once it’s set up. I ask him what he wants to grow and he talks about marijuana and meth. He’s kidding, but I’m also curious about what seems like a lack of meth-heads out here. They’re a staple in the California deserts, half-toothless burnouts in torn-up sleeveless T-shirts, often seen riding to and fro from their toxic trailer labs on ATVs and dirt bikes.

“It’s mostly just drunks down here,” he says. ” I haven’t seen anybody with any really rotten teeth—except for if they’ve never been to a dentist.”

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Friday, May 29, Eagle Rock: BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT (all ages welcome)

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Friday, May 29th
Brightblack Morning Light
Rio En Medio
William Fowler Collins
@ the Center for Arts, Eagle Rock
2225 Colorado Blvd
LA, CA 90041
$12 / 8:00pm / All Ages
Advance ticket link: http://bit.ly/HghCW

Brightblack Morning Light were interviewed by Trinie Dalton in Arthur No. 31 (Oct 2008), with photographs by Lisa Law. The magazine is available for $10 from the Arthur store. The article is available online here.

Brightblack were also interviewed by Daniel Chamberlin in Arthur No. 23 (July 2006), with photography by Eden Batki. Were almost out of copies of that issue, so it’s going for $100 from the Arthur store.

Uncle Skullfucker’s Band: Daniel Chamberlin explains the discreet charm of the Grateful Dead

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Daniel Chamberlin explains the discreet charm of the Grateful Dead. Illustrations by D.C. Berman.

Originally published in the July 2004 issue of Arthur, which is currently available for purchase in our online store. Click here to check it out.

I’M NOT ALLOWED TO WEAR TIE-DYED CLOTHING. My girlfriend and those friends of mine who truly have my best interests at heart forbid it. For most people this is an obvious and easy style rule to adhere to. But during certain times of the year I am overwhelmed by the Grateful Dead. I listen to nothing but live recordings of Dead concerts while immersing myself in books detailing the minutiae of their 30-year career. I search through David Dodd’s “Annotated Grateful Dead Lyric Archive,” reading up on the roots of “Fennario,” a made-up world of timber forests and treacherous marshland mentioned in two of my favorite songs, “Dire Wolf” and “Peggy-O.” Judging from the number of Dead recordings in my collection one can draw an easy conclusion that I am a certifiable Deadhead.

This is a problem because alongside New Age or contemporary country, “Grateful Dead” is a genre of music with acknowledged questionable merits. This has something to do with the schizophrenic quality of said music: the May 14, 1974 “Dark Star” performed in Missoula, Montana sounds like “In A Silent Way” as interpreted by Sonic Youth but nearly every performance of “Lazy Lightnin’” sounds like coke-snorting yuppies getting funky in tie-dyed Izods. The Dead toured with both Love and Waylon Jennings in the ‘70s but were collaborating with Bruce Hornsby and Joan Osborne by the ‘90s. I hear their influence on classic Meat Puppets and latter-day Boredoms albums, but their official inheritors are cornball bands like The String Cheese Incident and Phish. They count among their fans legions of Hell’s Angels as well as Tipper and Al Gore. There are a lot of ways to listen to the Grateful Dead. As legendary concert promoter and longtime Dead booster Bill Graham once put it, “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.”

Mostly though, the Dead’s bad reputation is due to their fans. My latent Deadheadism causes my girlfriend to worry that at a certain point of saturation, she’ll come home from work to find me reeking of patchouli oil, clad in vibrant pajama bottoms and a tank top decorated with capering bears, my dilated pupils being the only reason I haven’t yet found something to juggle. “Fukengrüven, sister!” I’ll say as she comes through the door.

My most recent Grateful Dead binge kicked off when Islamic militants decapitated Nicholas Berg on the Internet. Oh yeah. No more NPR for me. Instead, a free-falling relapse into this December 26, 1969 Dead show at Southern Methodist University. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann is late getting to the venue, so Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir lay down this sublime acoustic set of murder ballads and old Christian folk songs that they refer to as “sacred numbers.” It’s the only known recording of their version of “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet,” which is really something to be excited about for a closet Deadhead like me. The show provides a wonderful escape—the Dead always seem so detached from reality and that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

I was looking for a similar kind of escape in 1991 while en route to my first Grateful Dead show. I wanted to see if the Deadheads might offer a more organic, hedonistic alternative to the existentialist discomfort of my central Indiana high school experience.

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Dread Zeppelins: Letter from West Texas

Q: Where does the Border Patrol’s “drug blimp” go at night?
A: It sleeps in a field outside of Marfa, Texas.

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The Marfa aerostat, aloft in daylight


The so-called “drug blimp” is actually a tethered aerostat — a white helium balloon as big or larger than the portly tire-company-maintained dirigibles that flock to parades and sporting events — operated by the U.S. Air Force, which makes the data it collects available to NORAD and the U.S. Border Patrol. It is by far the most tangible of the lazy clouds floating through the skies of the southern region of Far West Texas, its onboard radar system keeping an eye out for drug smugglers flying or driving loads of cocaine and or marijuana over from the deserts of Northern Mexico. It’s unmanned and controlled from the ground, attached via a tether cable to some kind of rail system. Similar aerostat sites can be found in the Bahamas, Arizona, and broadcasting decadent episodes of “Nanny 911” or whatever via TV Marti into Communist Cuba from Cudjoe Key, Florida. Or at least that’s what the Air Force has to say about it.


The Marfa aerostat, grounded at 2:45am


I came across it moored, at about 3am, in a blazing circle of orange halide security lamps on my way from Los Angeles to visit friends in Marfa and Terlingua. I stopped and started snapping away with my camera, but kept getting that “willies” feeling that goes along with standing on a windy, deserted Texas road in the middle of the night, taking pictures of a government surveillance aircraft that chases narcotraficantes around.


Pinto Canyon Road, West Texas, by moonlight


The Marfa aerostat is part of Far West Texas’ complex system of border monitoring technology that includes triggers on rural routes that insure government agents will be checking up on late night back road cruisers. Or so I was warned by two local joint-passing bros when I inquired as to where my friend Sasha and I might catch a glimpse of the Marfa Lights, or at least document the West Texas hills in the light of the full moon. They pointed us down Pinto Canyon Road, but told us to expect company. No Border Patrol 4x4s were waiting for us though (nor were the mysterious Marfa Lights); there were only a few wary horses on hand to monitor our activity.

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