Desert Blooms

Jetports and elite resorts may do what border bandits and blistering heat couldn't: rob Big Bend of its rugged beauty

You go south from Fort Davis
until you come to the place
where rainbows wait for rain,
and the big river is kept in a stone box,
and water runs uphill.
And the mountains float in the air,
except at night when they go away to play
with other mountains.

-- Old Mexican vaquero, name lost to time

Bill Ivey sits on the rickety wooden bench in front of his Terlingua Trading Co., listening to the grand silence that can be the Big Bend--not even a cicada thrums in this suffocating summer heat. It's before noon, and the mercury is far past 100 degrees.

Lajitas was rebuilt to resemble an Old West town, but the Old West in Big Bend may have to make way for cell phones and golf courses.
Allan C. Kimball
Lajitas was rebuilt to resemble an Old West town, but the Old West in Big Bend may have to make way for cell phones and golf courses.

Here is where the Rio Grande makes its big bend before heading straight downhill to the Gulf of Mexico. Here is where, thanks to an international border more imaginary than real, Tex meets Mex in a blend of language, culture and heritage unlike anywhere else in either country.

The conquistadors called Big Bend el despoblado, the deserted wilderness. Not many have ever wanted to live in this brutally harsh desert, not soldiers, not settlers, not smugglers. Even Apaches and Comanches were just passing through.

Until now.

Ivey has lived here his entire life and owns most of the Terlingua Ghost Town, population about 60. On his Chihuahuan Desert land or adjacent to it is a ramshackle collection of cinnabar mining ruins, renovated shacks, a couple of shops, two restaurants and a river rafting company. He has a spectacular view of the Chisos Mountains and the Sierra Quemada (the Burned Mountains) 30 miles to the east, but today they're shrouded in a purple veil.

"You know," Ivey muses in a slow, thoughtful voice that's reminiscent of Gary Cooper, "this is probably the only place in the world where people sit facing east to watch the sunset."

Locals sitting on this bench at the end of the day, beer bottles in hand, are common sights in the ghost town. They gather to watch the setting sun light up the Window and Casa Grande formations in the west face of the Chisos with brilliant golds and reds; and they gather to watch the sightseers who wander around the stacked-rock and adobe ruins and bleak graveyard.

Tourists travel great distances to get to Big Bend, the most remote and primitive location in the United States south of Alaska.

The main attraction here is Big Bend National Park, seven miles east of Terlingua. The 800,000-acre preserve has 200 miles of hiking trails and teems with rare and unusual plants, animals and birds.

Along its 118 miles of shared international border with the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua, the park has three spectacular river canyons: Boquillas at 33 miles long, 20-mile-long Santa Eleña and 10-mile-long Mariscal.

Most of the Chisos range is more than 7,000 feet high, offering a respite from the desert heat and amazing views when the wind blows the haze away.

Tourists come here to hike across the desert and mountains and to enjoy a night sky ablaze with stars. They paddle the Rio Grande through those dramatic canyons. They spot rare birds, some of which can be found in the United States only right here. They enjoy the silence and gaze at the awesome vistas.

Today, all that is threatened because, unlike the conquistadors or the Comanches, people are finding reasons to develop a desert that has endured for millions of years.


The mighty Big Bend already suffers from rapid growing pains in this remote region of southern Brewster County, an area larger than Rhode Island.

"Change is inevitable, but what's different is the pace of change that's happening now," says Dave Simon, southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association in Albuquerque. This year the NPCA named Big Bend as one of the 10 most endangered parks in the United States.

"Things now change overnight, and we have less time to prepare. The consequences and short-term impacts are greater now, and there's more at stake because what we do now has far more impact than what we did 100 years ago," says Simon.

Ivey grew up in the western Brewster County town of Lajitas before it became a resort, when it was just the Trading Post and his family's house and farm. He's seen the area change drastically.

"We got electricity in the '60s, phones in the '70s and television in the '90s. The dirt road from Alpine crossed Terlingua Creek five times to get to Lajitas. It's almost unbelievable now from my childhood."

Houston millionaire Walter Mischer bought Lajitas from Rex Ivey Jr., Bill's father, in the late '70s. Mischer built hotels, a restaurant and bar, shops, a nine-hole desert golf course, tennis courts and a swimming pool. And Steve Smith, an Austin millionaire, is developing the town on a level no one ever thought possible.

Although Lajitas is often the hottest place in the States, Ivey never noticed the heat he was born into until night when he had trouble getting to sleep. His mother would advise him to lie still and be quiet, and that usually worked. Today he says that the smell of kerosene and that nighttime heat are his earliest memories.

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