Desert Blooms

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

"They did this in an attempt to crack down on drugs, but when they stopped people from dealing in candelilla, some had no alternative but to turn to drugs to make a living," Ivey says. "So, the policy obviously isn't working."

He sold his final load of wax last year but hopes to revive the operation at his refinery in Alpine. Along with the shifting ways of doing business, Ivey has had to wrestle with more personal changes.

After college, he was lured back to run the Trading Post as Lajitas was beginning to expand under Mischer. But the town once owned by the Iveys had become a different place.

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.

"It was real hard for me to deal with," Ivey says. "It was the only life I ever knew, and my whole world was taken away. Lajitas had changed a lot, and it wasn't like I expected it to be anymore. It wasn't fun anymore, so I left."

In 1982 Ivey moved east a few miles and bought Terlingua Ghost Town.

"Terlingua was being broken up into half-acre tracts and sold, and I could see what was inevitable if things kept going that way," Ivey says. "I wanted to preserve the structures and the history and the culture."

He also wants to attract tourists. Smith shares that goal, but their visions are very much apart.

Smith wants people who can fly their own private jets in and stay in vacation homes that will cost as much as any 10 homes in the Terlingua/Study Butte area.

Although Smith will remodel and upgrade several rooms in Lajitas, he's determined to keep the total number of rooms the same--about 120--and to limit the number of new houses to around 550. If that number sounds small, consider that there are no more than about 30 homes in Lajitas now.

Smith's expansion is seriously upscale, though he has approved designs that fit in with the landscape and use as many local materials as possible.

Ivey ensures historic preservation at Terlingua by simply refusing to sell off any of it. He will lease an old ruin, but only if the lessee preserves the exterior and makes no additions that wouldn't be correct to the time and place of the old mining community. Tenants can fix up the inside as elaborately as they want, creating what Ivey calls "upscale ruins."

"We've tried to preserve that image of ruins on the outside, and in doing so we've been able to build a residency of very creative people who've put a lot back into the community. They appreciate the opportunity to be here and appreciate the ghost town for what it is," Ivey says. "It's created a community we never had before. Lajitas and Terlingua were always one-man towns, but we're entering that community phase now."

Ivey plans to make a bed-and-breakfast out of the 1906 Perry Mansion that overlooks the town. Chisos Mining Co. owner Howard Perry built the Spanish-style home for his wife, but when she arrived in Terlingua, she stayed one night in the house, packed her bags and went home.

Although the church and school remain in ruins, Ivey did restore the town jail. It's now a pair of rest rooms. And he put a roof on the old movie house, which became the Starlight Theatre restaurant, one of the best for hundreds of miles around.

A few years ago, the area from Terlingua to Study Butte had only a gas station and a restaurant or two, depending on the season. It now has several restaurants and four motels, three RV parks, a rock shop, a health food store, an auto repair shop, a massage therapist, a couple of art galleries, gift shops, a medical clinic, the funky but popular Study Butte Store and the funkier La Kiva underground bar and restaurant. Even designer java can be had at the Terlingua Springs Coffee House.

A 16-mile road into Terlingua Ranch paves the way, at least partially, toward an uncertain future. When the county completes the roadwork in a couple of years, residents debate what kind of growth it will bring.

The 32-room lodge and restaurant at Terlingua Ranch once catered mostly to landowners but is now trying to draw tourists to an area that prides itself on an ecology-friendly existence.

"Most of the people who have moved into the area, mainly the Terlingua Ranch area, are people that live fairly lightly on the land. They like the harsh environment, and they're doing innovative things so as not to be a problem," says Don Dowdy, chair of the Big Bend Region of the Sierra Club in Alpine.

Many of the newer homes use cisterns for water, solar power for electricity, and composting toilets.

Tom and Betty Alex, for example, are constructing a straw-bale home that looks much like a big rock so they don't pollute the view from the adjacent national park. The Alexes are park employees who have lived in the area for 20 years.

"I have no problem with people coming in and building on 40 acres like we have, but I have a problem with five-acre tracts," says Betty Alex. "There's development, and there's bad development."

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