high desert sketches
Don’t let the tourists get your goat
By GEORGE A. COVINGTON
Trying to explain the Big Bend to tourists is as difficult as trying to explain tourists to the Big Bend. Using satire and co-mingling, real and “alternative facts” in satire makes the job a little easier. Terlingua is my best example. I have discussed this misbegotten and scattered hamlet in south Brewster County in many ways and for more than a decade. In my annual column explaining satire to my less informed readers, I have described the denizens of Terlingua as, “mostly old hippies, parole violators, and Satan worshipers.” I have used this example to explain how exaggeration can encapsulate bits and pieces of reality. In fact, some of the nicest people I know in Brewster County live in Terlingua. They are a tight knit community because so many of them share the same parole officer and like to hang out on the front porch of the Terlingua Trading Company (TTC) drinking beer and singing Rock-n-Roll from the 1960s.
The TTC is home to the earthly remains of a former local mayor. Terlingua and the villages of Study (pronounced Stew-dee) Butte and Lajitas are co-mingled in both spirit and proximity, and bound by the legend of the vicious murder of Mayor Clay Henry III. His manhood was maliciously cut away by a knife wielding Houston tourist. The historic trial that resulted ended in a hung jury (I can’t make this stuff up) because one juror insisted that it wasn’t that big a deal to kill a goat. More discerning and less intoxicated tourists can visit Clay Henry at the TTC. He was the only goat known at the time to drink beer from a bottle and win an election for public office in West Texas.
At the opposite end of the porch from TTC is the Starlight, so named because for many years it had no roof and the only entertainment was celestial and alcoholic. Bill Ivey, custodian of Clay Henry III’s stuffed remains and owner and benevolent overlord of the Terlingua Ghost Town and its assorted buildings, is now having a total restoration job done on the Howard Perry Mansion, which was built in 1909 and was never occupied, but probably haunted. He also restored the nearby small Catholic Church, which I rented for the marriage of my column illustrator, Valerie Howard and her hubby David.
The Terlingua Graveyard is one of the most photographed sites in the Big Bend, and it surpasses the more famous Tombstone’s Boot Hill Graveyard in eccentricities.
The other notable communities in the Big Bend include Alpine, Fort Davis, Marathon, and Marfa. Each of these clusters of population has its own uniqueness.
If you enter the Big Bend from the east, you should come through Marathon, population 430. Don’t blink or you would have missed everything between its two city limit signs. It does have the Gage Hotel, the finest hotel and eateries between Austin and El Paso. The little village has a comfortable and relaxed attitude about the passing world.
If you enter from the north, you will find historic Fort Davis, population 1,201. Don’t expect to find one of those western forts from a John Wayne movie. Fort Davis National Historic Site has no walls because the Indians never considered the town exciting enough to attack. If your granny has a life insurance policy in your name, take her by the Rattlesnake Museum. Explain that if she is a real religious person, she can pet the rattlesnakes without fear.
Marfa, population 1,819, is the gateway from the west. For its first 100 years, the most exciting thing in town was the filming of “Giant,” starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. Marfa began to change when one of America’s premiere conceptual artists moved to town. His “concept” was anything he said was art was art. It has been said (mostly by me) that Marfa put the “con” in conceptual art. Historians have recently proved that when Gertrud Stein said, “There is no there, there,” she was not talking about her hometown of Oakland, California but was speaking a prophecy about Marfa. There are only four real institutions in Marfa, the churches, the schools, the award-winning Big Bend Sentinel newspaper, and KRTS, one of the best small national public radio stations in America.
Alpine, population 6,054, is the heart of the Big Bend. It is also the only city. We have more bail bondsmen than barbers. It is also home for Sul Ross State University (SRSU), which has an outstanding Student Financial Aid Office. SRSU has been designated a Hispanic Serving Institution, and its students come from throughout West Texas. We boast the largest fleet of food trucks in the Big Bend. Cuban, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, the Tri-Lo Bite which has a more extensive menu than the restaurants, and the ever-popular Cow Dog.
The heart of the Big Bend is 150 miles from the Midland-Odessa Petroplex, 220 miles to El Paso, and 6,071 to Moscow, if you are a Trump supporter.
George A. Covington has worked in the fields of law, education, journalism and disability rights. He considers himself retired from every one of them with the possible exception of journalism. He is a graduate of the University of Texas schools of journalism and law. He moved to West Texas – Alpine – in 1997 after a 20-year career in Washington, D.C. where he once served on the staff of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (Democrat) and shortly thereafter served as Special Assistant to the Vice President of the United States (Republican) 1989-93.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk