Desert Blooms

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

"Our nature is not to like change, especially if you're a happy person," he says. "My attitude is that, for the Lajitas changes in particular, as it becomes more modern, as it removes itself from the past, that makes the experience I have and my memories that much more precious."

The changes are coming more rapidly now, though, and no one knows what the ramifications will be.

"No one would've thought it would change so much so quickly at this point," Ivey says. "So much of the new interest in the area was unexpected. I think we are all in for some big surprises. And I think they'll be good. Instead of just sitting back and criticizing, people should try to get involved in the change, so it changes in ways that benefit us.

Bill Ivey, owner of Terlingua, says many may pine for the old days, but few could really tolerate them in the desert.
Allan C. Kimball
Bill Ivey, owner of Terlingua, says many may pine for the old days, but few could really tolerate them in the desert.
Terlingua's Starlight Theater, like most of the town, is built on ruins.
Allan C. Kimball
Terlingua's Starlight Theater, like most of the town, is built on ruins.

"We can't ever go back to the way it was, and most people probably couldn't handle it if it did. They may talk about good old days, but lots couldn't hack it. It's not ever going to go back, so enjoy what it is."

When such an expansive area has such a small population, changes that people in cities would consider insignificant can seem enormous.

Ten years ago, around 650 people lived in the south county area. Many of them were seasonal guides for the river companies and living in converted ruins in Terlingua Ghost Town without water or electricity. Today the population is around 1,800, and those Terlingua jacals (shacks) now have water and power.

The newly formed Study Butte Water Corp. provides that water. It has connected 102 meters so far, but the demand far exceeds the new utility's ability to supply water, according to County Judge Val Beard.

Retail sales have nearly doubled in Brewster County over the past decade, jumping from $44 million in 1990 to $75 million in 2000. The student population in the Terlingua Consolidated School District went from 88 in 1990 to 183 in 2001.

Just 10 years ago, law enforcement was seldom seen in Big Bend. The lone Texas Ranger in the area roamed over several counties. The few state troopers spent most of their time in the more heavily populated areas to the north. Brewster County was so poor it couldn't afford to have its only south county deputy regularly patrol the roads, so he just sat at home waiting for calls.

Today the county has two deputies in the south who are ever present between Lajitas and Study Butte.

All the growth, though, is tempered by the fact that Big Bend remains a very remote area.

To understand just how isolated this place is, consider that the nearest commercial airport is 300 miles away, the nearest Wal-Mart is 160 miles away, the nearest hospital is 100 miles away. This is an area where it's common to have to drive more than 50 miles one way over dirt roads just to get a loaf of bread.

Just a couple of years ago, south county kids had the longest bus ride in the nation--two hours each way--to attend high school in Alpine. They would have to get up at 4:30 a.m. and wouldn't return home until after 6 p.m. Sports and other extracurricular activities were nearly impossible. Now they attend a new high school in Study Butte, where the first graduating class in 1997 totaled two students. The 2001 class had 23 graduates.

"We estimate that 60 percent of students dropped out of high school before they graduated because of that bus trip," says Kathy Killingsworth, principal of Big Bend School and superintendent of the Terlingua school district.

Building the high school was a remarkable achievement. It went up quickly and with no county or state money. The county did help with moving dirt and building the foundation of the modest building, but the school's cost of $650,000 came from other sources. The San Vicente school district, which teaches children in the national park, and the Terlingua district kicked in $100,000 each; the remainder came from grants and private donations from across the country, some as far away as Maine.

"We were good at begging, and everyone pitched in," Killingsworth says. The district is $100,000 away from the $725,000 needed to build a library for the community and school.

Lajitas' owner Steve Smith wants to lure more visitors--many more--to Big Bend year-round, and he's betting $50 million he can. And the changes that $50 million can buy in a delicate environment like the Big Bend have many people concerned.

Smith sits in the air-conditioned comfort of his Badlands Restaurant eating lunch. Construction dust can be seen through the windows. On a corner of the patio, workers are building a large stone tower to overlook the new amphitheater, the new 18-hole golf course, the new spa and the Mexican town of Paso Lajitas, just a goat-chip toss across a very narrow Rio Grande. Smith doesn't know what the tower is for, only that his architect told him he needed it. Muffled noise from earth-moving machines seeps through the stucco-covered walls.

Before the 20th century, Lajitas--Spanish for the flat rocks that line the riverbed here--was best known as the San Carlos Crossing on the Rio Grande. It was one of two fords Comanches used in their raids from North Texas and Oklahoma into Mexico to bring back cattle, captives and whatever loot they could find. It wasn't a place anyone wanted to live near.

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