¡Verde Terlingua! part four: Life off the grid in a wild West Texas border town

¡Verde Terlingua!
Life off the grid in a wild West Texas border town
Words and photos by Daniel Chamberlin

In April 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 Four: The Good Dirt

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Collie Ryan: “You’ve got to build your dirt here.”


Collie Ryan is another Big Bend resident who has reached a degree of fame, at least among the small group of music collectors that have sought out her 1973 private press folk music recordings. She was first exposed to a wider audience on Numero Group’s 2006 compilation Wayfaring Stranger: Ladies of the Canyon. And though her music has the delicate quality that characterizes so much of the Topanga Canyon scene after which the comp is named, Collie’s tune “Cricket” stands out with her reverberating voice and the naturalistic imagery of her lyrics. Collie is a folksinger of the highest accord, but she’s also been living the sort of life that inspired the denizens of California bohemia: an embodiment of the spirit that drives their music.

Collie is about to enjoy a second round of exposure, as Yoga Records, a Los Angeles-based label, is set to re-issue her ’70s recordings as The Rainbow Records. This will eventually lead to a series of shows in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the first Collie has played outside of West Texas in almost three decades.

In addition to her music, Collie renders the Big Bend country in psychedelic hubcap mandalas. Swirling colors radiate out from the tiny landscapes that occupy the heart of her paintings: the Rio Grande flows through stark canyon walls; cacti spread across dusty brown earth; Mexican peasants hold hands, wandering through the towering rocks.

Right now, Collie is going through an eviction process. The owners of the golf course adjacent to the school bus where she’s been squatting for the last 25 years have finally chosen to put her land to their own uses. It’s all happening in the town of Lajitas, a would-be resort destination some 20 miles down the road, a villa subject to much derision here in Terlingua as it represents the antithesis of their rural DIY lifestyle. The golf course there runs right up against the river and before it was washed out in a flood, it was frequented by the very Republican elites that are so despised here due to their insistence on crushing cross-border traffic—friends, relatives, grocery shoppers and schoolchildren from the neighboring Mexican towns—that has characterized this region for centuries.

“I spent 22 years on la frontera,” she says, “which was really an experience. The flood took the golf course out and they had to put it up higher, and it just happened to involve the space I was in.” There was some possibility of fighting their repossession of the land, but Collie didn’t want to stay there if it wasn’t on good terms. “They could’ve made my life miserable,” she says.

Collie moved down here in 1980, after meeting some Terlinguans in Tucson who struck her as being “so goddamn healthy.” After years of traveling the California folk and hippie circuit, she was eager to find a place to settle down. So she parted with several thousand dollars worth of the Huichol Indian art that she’d been collecting for about $400, which would just about pay for the gas to get her bus down to South Brewster County.

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¡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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¡Verde Terlingua! part two

¡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 Two: Hot Tubs and Poop Buckets

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Shannon Carter and her sunflower hat.


Green Scene organizers Shannon Carter and Mark Kneeskern—both somewhere in their 30s—met in Terlingua seven years ago. Carter grew up in Baytown, a city located on the humid coastal plains east of Houston, home to several massive petrochemical industrial complexes. She recalls the year that the river behind her house caught on fire and their family had to be evacuated. In high school she got involved with Future Farmers of America, where she worked with calves, pigs, chickens, turkeys and lambs.

After two years at the community college in Baytown, Shannon moved to Alpine, one of the two small towns north of Terlingua—Marathon being the other one—that offer the last chance for ranchers, hunters and hikers to patronize anything resembling fast-food franchises or fully-stocked grocery stores before heading out into the West Texas wilderness. She tells me she wanted to get as far from Houston as she could while still paying in-state tuition, and Alpine’s Sul Ross University satisfied those requirements. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Animal Health Management and Wildlife Biology. She tried grad school for a minute, but soon dropped out and moved to Terlingua in the spring of 1999.

“I’ve lived lots of beautiful places,” Shannon says, and happily recounts an adventure-job-circuit C.V. that includes six seasons of sea kayaking in the Virgin Islands, four seasons as a river guide in Colorado and a year in Moab.

“But none of those places compare to the solitude and vastness of this desert,” she says.

Mark Kneeskern hails from Audubon, Iowa where he had what sounds like a fairly idyllic childhood, adventuring on the East Nishnabotna River and roaming the pastures around his parent’s farm. He got a BFA from a state university that he decries as “worthless.”

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Mark Kneeskern handles Green Scene traffic control.


Mark first came to Terlingua to visit a friend who was working in the Chisos Mountains, the high country of Big Bend National Park. They hiked and camped and Mark got to see a bear. His friend took him on a tour of the local drinking holes and they had what he describes as “crazy times” that left him “shook up.” He moved to Terlingua three years later to become a river guide.

“Terlingua is a hard place to live,” says Mark. “No running water or electricity on most properties. Flush toilets are rare. At first, these factors seem like obstacles, but when you get used to things, you realize that ‘simple’ is the best and happiest way to live. You learn to make it work if you have the will. When it’s nice, it’s paradise. When it’s not nice, it really is a living hell.”

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¡VERDE TERLINGUA! part one by DANIEL CHAMBERLIN

¡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.

Part One: No Winners, Only Survivors

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The entrance to Terlingua’s community garden.


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.

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The beneficent gaze of Spider and Collie Ryan’s St. Francis.


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.

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