1.18.2009,10:58 AM
Pieces of Terlingua: Inside
Inside Terlingua

Visitors that drive or ride by the popular ‘ghost town’ of Terlingua see ruins of rock and adobe dotting the hillsides and flats. A cluster of fully or partly renovated structures on the east side of the restored trading post and restaurant serve as permanent or seasonal homes for local residents. The old and dusty appearance of cars and trucks parked next to them suggest residents are not employees and owners of high-dollar businesses. Nor can be seen the usual fare of commercial enterprises that choke larger towns and cities. But then, that’s one of the many reasons people live there.

During the lucrative mining years in Terlingua, small adobe and rock structures dotted hillsides on both sides of the modern highway 170. A large complex of buildings and machinery processed the cinnabar that was removed out of the mines on the backs of Mexican workers. Perry’s large two-story mansion stood above them all like a bloated sentinel, its size and expanse implying authority, power and status in the economical community.

A few structures served a communal purpose: a jail that was full every weekend, school for all children regardless of background, trading post which was the heart beat of the area, and a church to gather in neutral faith and spirit. Some of these building still stand in various stages of disrepair.

The desert is a dictator; you survive with your senses and adapt or you perish. Its climate is unforgiving with the harsh sun, burning heat and stark cold nights. Water and trees are scarce and all living organisms in the desert adapt or die. People are no different. You learn to do without, work with available resources, and become attuned to changes in weather and conditions. And you work together. Nothing is taken for granted here.

People used to build their homes to serve as shelters. Because they spent most of their waking hours pursuing food, making clothing and footwear, or in the service of others to pay for goods and food, most of their time was not spent in their homes. They cooked outside over fires and often slept outside in the cool night breezes. Thus the shelters were small, humbly constructed of materials they found and gathered in the desert.

Adobe is one of the oldest forms of materials in the world to construct buildings. Used from native materials in arid places, the blocks can be a mix of vegetative fiber, animal dung, clay, sand, straw, and gypsum. Add water, pour into a mold and let the blocks dry in the sun. Then stack on top of each other in any shape or form, apply a plaster of mud and water which helps hold them together to form walls. Roofs were made of scrap metal, woven canes or ocotillo, straw and reeds from the river. Windows were small and sometimes absent, glass was rare and a luxury.

Rock is abundant in the Terlingua desert and was often used for walls. Like adobe blocks and bricks, they were stacked but not plastered. Adobe and rock walls were typically thick to insulate more against the sun than cold. Open shelters with roofs made of branches, canes or reeds, called ramadas, provided shade outside the main shelters. Open to daytime and night breezes, these were places where people cooked, ate and relaxed.

Like most towns and communities, when the economic base goes bust, the life leaks out of them. People go elsewhere to find work and often abandon everything behind except what they can carry on mule, horse, ox, or, as in modern times, in their vehicles. Homes, ramadas, stores and other buildings stand empty and silent; the only hint that once life was plentiful around them. Rabbits and snakes, birds and feral animals may temporarily use them for shelter, but the wind, rain, sun and dust eventually wear them down. The desert reclaims her own.

“Today Telingua, or Chisos, is a ghost town. In 1946 it closed down for good. Houses and machinery were torn down and moved away, and today it is a ghost town where the ruins look like they have been atom-bombed. Most of the buildings have been torn down, and those left look rather sad to us who still remember the booming mining camp. Even the post office has moved over on Terlingua Creek where water is more available, for when the mine pumps stopped for the last time, there was no more water. Only two Mexican families live there now. The post office and school (which has only nine pupils) have moved to another site six miles east on Terlingua Creek.” -Walter Fulcher, The Way I Heard It: Tales of Big Bend, 1959.
These structures and all the imprints upon the land made by humans become ghosts. Even the people that lived here become ghosts. These are not supernatural entities, but material and all living things that have nearly reached the vanishing point. Bits and pieces of their presence remain, some intact, some close to disintegrating into the land. They are ghosts that some people can see and feel –in written stories, oral recollections, memories, historical facts, changes in the land, archeological remnants. But most do not.

Terlingua was beginning to vanish and at one time the official population was twenty-five. It was a Ghost Town. Since the late 1960’s it began to crawl back into life. After a brief period of serving as a playground for a few wealthy city-dwellers, it was dropped back into the desert forgotten and neglected. A few individuals that grew up in the vast area of the Big Bend wanted to preserve the way of life they knew and bought the land and embraced the ghosts. Since then, life has begun to take hold and the town now breathes and beats again. It is again a living entity.

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posted by Macrobe
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