4.04.2009,8:04 AM
Big Bend Again: Views from the Porch

"Terlingua was rough and rugged, almost no streets, very little water, not too good food....." -Drury Phillips, Chisos Mining employee, 1904.

Things had changed when Drury returned to Terlingua in 1906. No longer were there tents, huts and scuffed living. Instead, adobe houses scattered the hillside with flower pots and clothes lines in the backyards, rock-lined walls and walkways, and even a nice store where "prices were marked in pesos and dollars - you had no parking troubles."

When journalist W. Hornaday visited Terlingua in 1910, he found a "picturesque mining camp" with about 700 villagers, nearly all Mexicans. Perry's mansion overlooking the camp must have been formidable back then, but the hub of the Chisos Mining Company and the village was the Chisos Store.

The Store was the heart of the community. It was the center of their Universe. There could be found the general office where the mine manager huddled surrounded by papers and scribblings, the only phone in the village, a well-stocked commissary, and the center of social life for mine workers and their families.

Perry was successful at forming a monopoly on merchandising in the area, especially the mining camp. The only competitors were the small store near the Study mine (a town now called Study Butte) and run by locally respected Senor Villalba with his sons, and another store on the Johnson ranch many miles away near what is now known as the River Road in the national park. All the mine workers were coerced into buying their necessities at the Chisos Store and peddlers were threatened or warned away when they approached the camp.

Regardless, the store served as a social center; one of the favorite activities of Mexicans and whites alike -adults and children- was to congregate at the store's porch. Even after the mine closed, the store (as well as the Chisos Hotel) managed to stay afloat for a short time. And it remains, today known as the Terlingua Trading Post and Starlight Theater, as well as the Study Butte Store.

Both stores are testament to a long history of locals and visitors. Even when both towns dwindled to a dozen or so occupants, the buildings stood. Waiting for people to congregate again. Like snail shells waiting for another owner to breathe life into them. They've come full circle.

The Trading Post is a magnet for locals and tourists. I stifle a smirk when I hear the locals complain about the tourists. I've heard it all before; in fact, I've added my quota, too, in the past. But tourists are the bread and butter in Terlingua and Study Butte. Without the tourism, there would be no incomes. And there would be fewer locals. It's always a Catch-22 and the key is finding a balance between human presence and the fragile unforgiving environment.

I recounted to a few locals what the old timers in Maine used to do to the tourists: give them wrong directions to places, relate stories to scare them, or just tell them "Well, ya can't get theyah from heyah." Their inevitable response was a raised eyebrow, lifting one corner of the mouth, maybe blow out a puff of pipe smoke and ask, "You're not from around heyah, are ya?" I've watched them run French Canadian tourists in circles. Then smirk as they leave town more confused than when they pulled in.

The population of Terlingua area is probably well over a hundred in the winter, spring and fall. Then drops to a few dozen in the summer. Everyone thinks it's hotter than Hell there in the summer, and it is hot. But, well, it's a dry heat. Knowing well what humid heat is, I'll take that any day. On the other hand, the rains come in during two of those summer months. It rains, sun shines, and you'd never knew it had rained. But those brief rains provide a respite from the heat. And the tourists.

The Porch of the Terlingua store still provides that Center of the Terlingua Universe. Locals and tourists alike gather and socialize. Or just sit with a cold beer or soda and gaze at the view as thoughts jumble around in their heads and their bodies relax in the shade. It's a good place, the best place there, to people-watch. Come sit a spell, rest your back against the hard but cool thickness of rock and plaster walls and relax.

Meet some of the locals, one in the foreground is the famous "Uncle". I prefer to call him Roger, but he goes by many names and doesn't care. A good friend, his hospitality to travelers is well known. He knows the best riding roads, both pavement and back country, and he's usually open to invitations to ride.

Then there's Darin, a long-time river guide. I've watched him quite a bit and he's an interesting character. I still don't put it past him to be living in a cave as he claimed to me once.

Almost always, there are visitors and tourists. I can sometimes differentiate the two. Tourists are there to see the novelty first-hand. They are usually sight-seers looking for souvenirs, wondering about the eclectic mix of people sitting on the benches with beers in their hands, laughing and chatting.

Then there are the visitors. Not really sight-seeing or hunting for souvenirs. They harbor a genuine interest in the place, people, history, both natural and cultural. I even suspect some of them had ancestors, old family members that may have lived in the area, perhaps worked the mines, or cowhands on the nearby ranches.

Sometimes I wish I were a fly so that I could land nearby and listen. Not because I'm nosy, but because I am interested in the stories they may be telling. Because there are many people that lived there with many wonderful stories and no one hears them. Except for a chosen few. And when they die, those stories and the legacies are gone. Forever.

And, of course, one of the most wonderful sights and views from the Porch is that Fairy Ring of mountains: the Chisos. Where else can one watch the sun set in the East? Or watch a blood orange full moon rise? I've heard many "ooohs" and "Awwws" during sunsets. One might even catch a storm cell forming. As always, we look for those mythical ears.

Then there's the occasional surprise. One evening this pulled in front of the Porch:

A young fella from Austin first saw one of these in Colorado. It was love at first sight. After some research, he contacted the outfit in CO that imports these from Austria and had one shipped down to him. He and three other passengers had spent the last day or so driving this in the state park. Apparently it will go anywhere. (he also commented that the back country roads in the state park are way more primitive than in the national park). It reminds me of a Kawasaki Mule on steroids. I bet those tires are expensive!

A group exited the Starlight and headed towards a gaggle of parked BMWs. The fleeting red bike immediately identified the rider as Voni. Looks like Paul's leading the group. That weekend three bike gatherings were in the area: San Antonio BMW group, Dust Bowl BMW club, and Texas ADV gathering. Big Bend is a favorite riding ground for bikes of all sizes and colors, on road, off-road, and even motorless ones: mountain bikes.

It wasn't long into the evening when the last few days on the road hit me and all I wanted was a bed to crawl into and some shuteye. The strong winds and cold rain the day before fatigued me more than normal. Roger had also retired early and I was glad we were able to have a relaxing and fun dinner of pizza and toddies together at Nancy's Long Draw Pizza. I excused myself to walk up the gravel drive to the Mansion before darkness settled in.

It was nice to be home again. And the room upstairs at the Mansion was cozy and simply elegant.

Goodnight, Chisos.

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posted by Macrobe
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