High Spoons

Bare breasts, a bowl of red, and bad blood among the chili brethren in the Big Bend. Texas doesn't get any better.

"Frank was a little hard to get along with sometimes, but he was a good man. He didn't deserve all of this. I truly think this is what killed him. He was an old man and I know it upset him badly. It got real ugly," said one Tolbert loyalist who asked not to be named.

"The first year we had the cook-off behind the store, I saw a sign that said, 'Frank, when you have a heart attack in Terlingua, how are you going to get to the hospital before you die? We're going to buy the ambulance for Terlingua.'"

The other faction later sued the Tolbert group in federal court and won the rights to the name Chili Appreciation Society International, and have grown and prospered ever since.

A beer fisherman reels in his 

catch at the Terlingua chili cook-off in the mid-1980s. Today his catch might be a tad more risqué.
A beer fisherman reels in his

catch at the Terlingua chili cook-off in the mid-1980s. Today his catch might be a tad more risqué.

Above: They come in campers from across the country to celebrate chili in the Big Bend, among other things, below.
Chris Regas
Above: They come in campers from across the country to celebrate chili in the Big Bend, among other things, below.

All three organizations now hold the world championship event. "As Hondo Crouch once put it, there are now more world chili championships than there are worlds," recalled one old-timer.

The annual invasion of RV's, pickups, and Harley Davidsons into Terlingua each fall begins about a week before the first full weekend in November.

At the entrance to the CASI event off the state highway, the caliche road forks just past a small rise, and much like the moral path in Christian parable, it presents the arriving pilgrim with a fateful choice.

To the left is the "Old 320," the official chili cook-off area, and therein lies charity, virtue, industry, and moderation. Down the slope to the right is "Crazy Flats," of which the "white-trash overflow"' is a mere subdivision.

This is the low road to ruin, because herein thrive most of the seven deadly sins. And this is precisely what a whole bunch of people is looking for in Terlingua. "Shit, we come because it's fun. The beer, the titties, and the chili, and we could do without the chili," said Charlie Hullis, 38, of Marlette, Michigan.

"We don't cook no chili, but we make a mean breakfast burrito," he joked as a parade of heavily loaded vehicles, including one with "Tittie Wagon," spray-painted across the front, rolled past. A sign nearby read, "Mardi Gras in the Desert," a comparison that does not flatter New Orleans. In Crazy Flats, people drink heavily, take their clothes off, and do things their children might find curious. The drill is fairly basic: The men along the roadside, beers and cameras in hand, shout, "Show us your titties," to the women riding or walking past. When obliged, the men swoop in to take photographs and donate beaded necklaces or a cold beer to the lucky lady.

Vacation shots, one man called them. Stress relief said another. "On my job, I basically baby-sit 750 people every day," said Hullis, 38, an employee of Lear Corp. and formerly of Midland. "The main thing is, it's a stress reliever. No phones, no problems, no nothing. My wife told me, 'You've got to go to Telingua this year.' It's like spring break for adults."

Like modern cave glyphs, the T-shirts and stickers tell the story. "Instant Asshole, Just Add Alcohol," read one shirt. "Moody Bastard, Seeks Kind, Considerate Woman for Love Hate Relationship," another. A third read simply "Nookie Patrol." The most popular sticker read: "I got laid in Terlingua."

"The real truth is the men don't have to deal with reality. They can chill out and pretend for three days," said Christie Trower, 35, who left two children and reality behind in Odessa. "I just love it because it's a kickback."

The showstopper each year in Crazy Flats is the motorized penis created and driven by Wayne Rogers of El Paso. The papier-mché phallus, 3 feet long and about 18 inches thick, is built over a riding lawnmower and ejaculates water on command.

"All the women want to sit on it, get their picture taken, and sign it. They can even ride on it, it's got foot pegs, and actually the men like it too," Rogers said. Almost all the men, that is. "An older gentleman walked up to me today and said I'd be arrested in his community. But if you're a prude, you shouldn't be here. It's not for children."

Late on a Saturday morning, as the action in Crazy Flats started to pick up, a group of girls, recent graduates of Madison High School in San Antonio, made the rounds wearing T-shirts advertising something called the "Heath Massey Challenge."

"It's a boobie contest at 3 o'clock down by the creek, that away," chirped one, pointing to a site across an arroyo, adding that Heath Massey was a recent inspired graduate of Sul Ross University in Alpine. Taking it all in from her roadside perch on a Kawasaki four-wheeler was a fully clothed Crystal Hammock, 36, of Austin.

"This is worse than any Harley Davidson biker party I've been. God, no wonder we don't try to reproduce. You look at this crowd, and you think about babies growing up to be these kinds of children," she said of the Madison girls. "My dad would kick my ass if I showed my titties, even at 36."

Which statement prompted a question from the Oklahoma gent sitting next to her that, given the spirit of the moment, seemed almost appropriate.

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