Quitters’ Paradise

If you’re ready to bail out of America, the best little ghost town in Texas is waiting for you

| September-October 1996

They’re a motley collection of loners, back-to-the-landers, artists, and eccentrics, scattered around the Texas desert, dozens of miles in every direction—as far north as the upper boundaries of the Terlingua Ranch (a 200,000-acre rough-and-tumble development south of Alpine) and as far south as Redford. What holds them together as an unstructured but otherwise meaningful community is the capital of this misfit mecca, the town of Terlingua, once the most famous ghost town in the state. Terlingua was a hotbed of quicksilver mining until carpetbagging profiteers gave up the ghost in 1942. The rubble-strewn village now stoops drowsily upon a couple of square miles just to the north of Ranch Road 170, the thoroughfare to Mexico.

Terlingua is Texas’ last outpost for outcasts, for those maligned loners who fashion their own crude American dream in the anonymity of the desert. As one longtime Terlinguan, Paul Wiggins, puts it, “A lot of who and what we are can’t be explained by American mores. We’re just a neglected corner of America, outside of its infrastructure.” David Kaczynski, brother of Unabomber suspect Ted, lived here in the early ‘80s, in a pink shack a little bigger than an outhouse.

Here in Terlingua country, less is more. A one-room cabin without water and electricity fits right in, in a region where census takers have discovered people living in cars, caves, and shacks made of automobile tires. The only unwelcome guest is progress, though its trespasses are becoming more noticeable.

It was 10 years ago when I first got a glimpse of the leathery faces, snarled hair, and raggedy clothes of the fixtures who perched themselves on the porches of the Terlingua Trading Company and the Study Butte Store. They looked incalculable to a yuppie tourist passing through, though the very fact of their existence in the West Texas wasteland seemed ominous. As my appreciation for the desert’s brutal majesty grew, my fear of its inhabitants diminished, but only so much. The questions kept coming back: Why would people choose to live here? And what would happen to them if they did?

The answers, if they can be found anywhere, lie in the weird communal fabric of Terlingua, where solitude is not solitary and the shared struggle for survival achieves the motley grace of a desert parade.