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
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.