“Well, you know we’re probably too old for this
Maybe the rest of the world is too young
We drive five hundred miles to get loose and get wild
And stay up ‘till the last song is done.”
– Gary P. Nunn, Terlingua Sky
There is a time in Texas when the weight of the sun lifts slightly and dry, western air eases eastward against the muggy gulf flow. We call this autumn. Northerners have no ability to notice the subtle change when they visit because the day time temperature continues to hold around 80 and fair skin still burns when exposed.
At a certain point in everyone’s life, the changing of these seasons quickens with each passing year. No prevention exists for this particular affliction. The only way to drag time’s heels in the dirt is to gather with friends and contemporaries. The minutes will still rush past but they will shine more brightly and burn into sun-lit memories.
My friend Greg beats back the years and the beers with a fall congregation in Terlingua, the mercury-mining ghost town just west of Big Bend National Park and north of the Rio Grande in West Texas. Retired as a peripatetic photo-journalist, he sends out an email to his similarly restless and disturbed cohorts and we make our way to a remote spot in the Chihuahuan Desert in view of the Chisos Range for what Greg calls “The Porch Series.” This is an artistic name for an eating and drinking assembly of gray-haired and balding characters that are all trying to age with grace by generally avoiding the burden of maturity.
I invited Ken from Washington to join me on the trip to Terlingua. An unfaltering friend of three decades, he was raised in Texas and had never seen a Comanche Moon over the Trans-Pecos and had not once entered the boundaries of the national park. Ken had also become disconcertingly normal and predictable as an adult and no one would have described him that way as a young man. I might say I made an effective argument that we needed to have a little fun as old pals but I think he was more convinced by the stents placed around his heart over the past five years.
Ken seemed not to expect such a treeless terrain as the truck rolled down the hill into Study Butte. People who love the desert find the topography and vegetation around Terlingua and nearby Study Butte to be uniquely beautiful and riven with light from other worlds and ancient lives. The architecture is mud, rock, and mobile home but neither fresco nor Athenian marble columns were likely to take the eye from the landscape. We followed Greg’s directions to the first porch and rattled miles down a gravel road.
“You’ll see a Texas flag,” he had written. “And underneath it you’ll see Texans drinking and eating.”
There were no other houses within sight and the only other indication of humankind’s endeavors was the bladed road we had just ridden through the desert. On the porch, though, there were ice chests and a table laden with food Greg had prepared. A young dog, crazed by the aromas, jumped at arriving strangers and demanded attention.
“’Bout time you got here,” Greg said. “There’s the food. There’s the beer. There’s the people.”
Almost everyone I met had a camera either in their hand or hanging on a strap around their neck. Greg, who was now rounded where he used to be angular, had made a long and accomplished career of taking pictures while doing adventurous things like chasing the Shining Path communists through Peru; he appeared to have summoned every one of his photography friends to this stone porch with the low roof. Each had remarkable stories, though one of them had been a part of a moment that serves as an icon for our country’s passage through the Vietnam Era. John had taken the famous picture of the Kent State shootings on the morning of May 4, 1970 and his camera captured the nation’s angst with a solitary frame of a grieving student, head tilted skyward in agony, crying out over her fallen friend.
“I was a student, too,” John told me. “I was just there and had a camera.”
No one talks much about their past in Terlingua. The future is not of any interest, either. The present, though, has appeal. I heard a story of a newcomer that was asking questions to a stranger about a local resident and was getting not much more than grunts for answers. His persistence ended with the interviewee telling the interviewer, bluntly, “Look, there’s a phone book over there. I know his number is in it. Go call him and ask him yourself.” No ethic prevails in Terlingua more than privacy. The romantic notion is that half the town is populated by people on the run from creditors, spouses, and the law but my sense is they are just trying to escape the grind and the expectations of American life. Terlingua offers simplicity.
I have never been, however, able to overcome my curiosity. Our host, Clyde, struck me as an intriguing individual. His hair and beard hung long and white beneath his cowboy hat and he had set his house so far into the desert the nearest neighbor was not visible. In his early 70s, Clyde and his dog sought the quiet but how was I supposed to not be interested in what delivered him to this place?
“What did you do before you got here, Clyde?” I asked.
“Military. Air Force. 37 years.”
“Oh yeah? What did you do?”
Generally, when this word is spoken by a retired service member it tends to be understood that no further details will be solicited. We moved on to talking about his new dog.
Lines of light set out by the lowering sun were now hitting the Chisos Mountains to the southeast of our porch. In less than a quarter hour, the range faded from red to orange and then darkened to purple with flecks of yellow. The talkative Blair had been silenced by what he was observing. He, too, had been an expert photographer for a major Texas newspaper and had run to a desert adobe to enjoy his winding down. At the precise moment of perfect illumination by a declining sun on the Chisos, Blair got everyone’s attention by pointing at the mountains.
“Not too shabby a light, that, eh?” he said.
Artists and photographers spend their lives searching for the kind of light that spills hourly across the desert in Terlingua. When they finally discover it, they find it impossible to capture or forget and they want to stay in constant repose and wait for the next circling of the sun.
The following day I drove Ken along the river road and took him on a short walk to show him The Window in Big Bend National Park and we ended up on the porch of the Terlingua General Store. We sipped Mexican beers, listened to the out-of-towners and the locals talking, and stared off across the desert to where the walls of Santa Elena Canyon rose over the big river. Staying a beer too long on the porch we later found ourselves climbing a different gravel road to Cynta’s house for more food and drink. She was another one of Greg’s friends who had agreed to host his collection of eccentric associates. A bonfire flew at the night in a courtyard below her porch and we ate vegetarian food and bread cooked in a solar oven. Guitar music came out of the surrounding darkness.
Although I did not meet him at the time, I later learned that Ara had come in out of the desert. A master chef and brilliant photographer, Ara wanders the American Southwest on a motorcycle with a sidecar for his dog “Spirit.” He writes the dreamy prose of a child of the 60s and posts stunning photographs as he searches for peace six years after losing his son. The colors of the world he sees give him hope.
Ken and I eventually leave, reluctantly and late, bound for Austin. I am never confident I can actually depart Terlingua and the Big Bend and think that some day a kind of paralysis will conquer me and I will not be able to turn the key to start my truck. As we roll eastward toward the Permian Basin, Ken begins to feel dizziness and we find ourselves searching for a doctor or a hospital. Altitude sickness and the lingering effects of beer are potential causes but Ken worries about the accumulated years of indiscrete behavior and those stents in his heart require caution. We find a Sunday country doctor and Ken’s blood tests look normal. His spinning head stabilizes and we turn toward the city.
And all our minutes keep rushing past.