by Whitney Arostegui
Terlingua, Texas, is what anyone might call a ghost town—a term particularly apt because of the town’s proximity to the Chisos (Spanish for “ghosts” or “phantoms”) Mountains of Big Bend State Park. In the early 1900s, the town was a quicksilver mining hub and promised steady work to immigrants. Citizens enjoyed regular mail service, an ice cream shop, a theater and the occasional weekend dance. The industry slowed down dramatically after World War I, however, and the mining company eventually went bankrupt. By the 1970s, the population barely topped 20 residents, but the West Texas landscape is both resilient and enchanting, and that number has been steadily on the rise ever since.
When we arrived in Terlingua, feeling languid from the summer sun and dry air, the town certainly seemed eerily desolate. Out of the blanket of desert-tan hues, we could see a few ruins, abandoned cars and only the occasional structurally sound building. On the left, we passed a cemetery of wooden crosses atop piles of stones decorated with colorful beads and flowers; on our right, an abandoned yellow school bus with faded letters reading “Far Flung Adventures.” Behind us, the mountains’ sharp peaks were shrouded by the thick dusty winds, leaving us with the uncanny feeling that we were being watched.
Barely two minutes later, we arrived at the Terlingua Trading Company—that’s where we found almost every person in town. Inside the shop were a number of gifts—from Mexican sugar skulls to a well-curated selection of books—but the focus really seemed to be on a refrigerator full of a variety of cold beers. We were instructed about the procedure: Buy a six-pack at the counter but leave it in the fridge, then write your name on a sheet of paper by the register. Every time you grab one of your brews, add a tally to your name and drink it on the store’s porch. Repeat until you’re out of beer.
The Trading Company porch was bustling with tourists and locals alike, though there was one lone gentleman with a white beard, a cowboy hat, a cigarette in hand and a stern gaze who seemed to be overseeing things from his rocking chair in the corner. We spent an easy few hours on the porch learning about Terlingua and its residents. We met Jaime, who builds geodesic domes. He told us that the town is internationally renowned as a chili destination, and about the famed chili cook-off that split into two rival events (they both occur on the first weekend of November). Delores shared the story of the beer-drinking goat from nearby Lajitas that could toss back a bottle quicker than any of us. The goat’s name was Clay Henry and he was voted mayor of Lajitas in the ’80s but has since passed away—allegedly in a goat brawl over a fine lady goat. Later, Delores introduced us to Paul the silversmith, who told us all about the women who have come through Terlingua and broken his heart over the years.
Eventually, we moved 10 feet down to grab a bite to eat at the packed Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon. After dinner, we returned to the porch to take in the stunningly starry sky and drink a final glass of whiskey with everyone we’d met. It’s easy to understand how so many have stayed in Terlingua, even if the original intention was just to pass through town. And even though Terlingua’s weekly farmers market, art shows and porch gatherings make it clear that the town is very much alive, those ghostly Chisos Mountains still loom in the distance, whispering warnings that the Texas desert is not for the faint of heart.
Editor’s note: Edible Austin would like to extend our condolences to the Terlingua community regarding the recent death of well-known resident and La Kiva owner, Glenn Felts.