September 24, 2012
by Joe Pappalardo, American Way magazine
The past is unearthed as our intrepid reporter hunts ruins in Big Bend, America’s largest forgotten national park.
It’s always better to look down instead of up when hiking through the Chihuahuan Desert. Still, my eyes are scanning the terrain 15 feet ahead instead of what’s directly below — and I pay the price by walking into the branches of a desert whitethorn bush. Inch-long needles puncture my jeans and spear my calf.
Such are the perils of hunting ruins at Big Bend National Park, located along the Mexican border in deep Southwest Texas. I’m braving the 101-degree heat in search of a car: a Model T that’s sat neglected in this foreboding land since the 1940s. The location of the vehicle, left behind by the Starr family, is not marked on any park map, and no trail leads to it.
The undulating hills and mottled canvas of brush and rock hamper my view. Continually scanning the desert hoping for a glimpse leaves me unaware of my more immediate surroundings, and I’m constantly dodging cactus, whitethorn, sotol and lechuguilla plants, which have leaves with tips sharp enough to pierce leather and internal fibers strong enough to sew through it.
The Starrs were willful people, just the type to thrive on the land. Family lore states that Solomon Albert Starr and his wife, Mae, married in Palo Pinto County in northern Texas. The family moved to West Texas in 1907, according to park archaeologists. For a time, Solomon worked at a drugstore in the town of Alpine, where he was also a community figure, serving briefly as mayor and becoming involved with the Commercial Club, a forerunner of the town’s chamber of commerce. In 1911, the Starrs moved to Marathon, Texas, where Solomon eventually opened a drugstore. In the 1920s, Solomon tried his hand at ranching, and sometime later sold the ranch for another when he, Mae and their children moved to the Tornillo Flat of Big Bend. But by 1944, the ranch was empty and the land sold. Starr left his dreams of operating a ranch to rot in the desert and returned to working at a drugstore in another Texas city called Sweetwater.
Solomon Starr was not the only one seduced by the promise of Big Bend’s vastness. With so much available land, it seemed the perfect spot for brave entrepreneurs to establish ranches, mines and even a health spa. Now the area is littered with their failed attempts at colonization.
The area’s deep remoteness and extreme environment repelled permanent settlement, but those qualities are what make Big Bend a priceless national park today. The park can be cool during fall and winter, and spring brings blooms of gorgeous flowers. But summer brings only heat and solitude. That’s when I’m here, and the 1,200-square-mile park generates feelings of proprietorship with the uninterrupted isolation.
I know the remains of the Starr family ranch are located somewhere off of U.S. 385, in between the Persimmon Gap entrance and Panther Junction. There is no park plaque or trail, so I start my search to the west of the road.
An hour later, there is still no sign of human habitation. The sun beats down on my neck and head, making sunblock feel more like cooking grease. I crest hill after hill, scanning the desert with binoculars. Nothing. I can’t see the white speck of my rental car from the bottom of the swells, and without that landmark, the desert seems endlessly repeating. I now understand why people who are lost in the desert walk in circles until they expire.
A mania grips me, a distant echo of the stubbornness shared by the Spaniards who crossed here seeking El Dorado. The big discovery may lie over the next hill, so you climb it, swallow your disappointment, harden your resolve and climb the next. Presumed clues conflate into omens: a rusted-thin metal can, a shard of broken glass, a piece of petrified wood, complete with scorch marks from what I assume was a campfire decades ago.
I look up and see the sky bruised by storm clouds, bringing welcome relief from the heat. Curtains of rain in the distance are moving my way fast. A stab of pale white lightning flicks across the sky, surprisingly close. I recall that bolts can stretch more than a mile before striking ground — and it occurs to me that the wood may have been set ablaze by lightning, not Starr family ranch hands.
By the time I make it back to the road, the first drops of ice-cold rain are falling around me and thunder is booming above. The storm arrives with heavy winds and hail that sounds like gravel on the rental car’s roof. Now I need shelter as well as information. I can get both at the Chisos Basin, a cluster of peaks at the heart of the park. Like the earliest humans, I head to the mountains for safe haven.
The rainstorm peters out as I drive up the winding road, climbing 5,400 feet to reach the Chisos Mountains Lodge. The only hotel in the park, the lodge is located in the shadows of several peaks, including the highest in the park, Emory Peak (7,800 feet). I am only half surprised to see a small black bear — a 2-year-old male, hungry from a long hibernation and lean from years of drought — in the parking lot. Two Japanese children pose in front of it for a picture as it sniffs around on the ground, seeking berries and food left by humans.
The trees decorating the Chisos Basin are a welcome change from the desert bushes, knee-high shrubs and cacti. After the last ice age, the area climate changed, resulting in a forested mountain “sky island” in the Chihuahuan Desert. Now the dry land below is dominated by an endless carpet of thorny plants and hardy flowers, interrupted by tall eerie strands of green ocotillo, standing in green tangles like frozen undersea grass.
The area’s deep remoteness and extreme environment repelled permanent settlement, but those qualities are what make Big Bend a priceless national park today.
Park ranger Rob Dean is almost ready to begin his twilight talk, conducted on the lodge’s balcony. About 40 people are gathered to listen to Dean — who has worked as a ranger here on and off since the 1980s — as he spills factoids about the park. Behind him, jagged mountains frame the view of the desert at sunset. The gap between the basin’s mountain peaks, where the sun is slowly sinking, is called the Window.
People have lived in the Chisos a long time. The mountains take their name after the Chizos Indians, as they are known — though they likely called themselves the Taquitatome —who lived in the area in the 16th century. The Chizos continued to live here through the 1700s, when they were displaced by Mescalero Apaches.
This land was more habitable the longer one goes back in history. There are signs of prehistoric settlement all over Big Bend, traces of the small Archaic-era bands who eked out a life despite the heat, aridness and hostile wildlife. Archaeologists have found their campsites all over the park and cave art still decorates canyon walls near the Rio Grande and in the mountains. “This is a landscape that is inhospitable,” Dean says. “It is a place that man, or I should say modern man, avoided for years.”
That changed in the 1800s when Mexicans and Americans tried to tame Big Bend, named after the crook in the Rio Grande where the park is located. “The common motive for people to move here? Profit,” says David Keller, senior project archaeologist at Sul Ross State University’s Center for Big Bend Studies in Alpine. “With cattle and quicksilver, it was a bonanza of an opportunity in the early days.”
Ranchers and storekeepers tried to lay roots here, then mercury (aka quicksilver) miners, cotton farmers and health gurus a short time later. “Once the railroad was established through and Indians were no longer a threat — both of these things occurred in the early 1880s — settlers came for the chance of a new life and economic prosperity,” says Andy Cloud, director of the Center for Big Bend Studies. “The land seemed immense and full of promise. Drought years followed, and that tempered things.”
Along with drought, the land was afflicted with cattle blights, banditry associated with the revolution in Mexico and decreased demand for mercury. By the 1940s, things were so dire that the government was able to close deals to buy land from 3,000 owners in just nine months, paying $2 an acre to each homesteader. (Today you can buy land just outside the park for about $250 an acre.) “I don’t think the National Park Service had any concerns about the local economy,” Keller says, “but certainly a lot of people who were instrumental in getting the park established did.”
Though Big Bend is the same size as Yosemite, it gets fewer than a tenth of the visitors, with 350,000 people visiting Big Bend in a typical year compared to Yosemite’s 4 million.
Indeed, the park is not much of a tourist draw: A three-hour drive south of the Midland International Airport, it is one of the least visited of the continental United States’ megaparks. Though Big Bend is the same size as Yosemite, it gets fewer than a tenth of the visitors, with 350,000 people visiting Big Bend in a typical year compared to Yosemite’s 4 million. “After the government bought the park, tourism was supposed to be the industry that brought people,” Dean says. “We’re still waiting.”
The tattered remnants of human colonization stand in stark contrast to the permanent grandeur of the towering mountains and expansive desert. In an odd way, the park shares a post-mankind feel found in empty places like Tikal or Chernobyl.
Most of Big Bend’s ruins are not hidden. Visitors can spot some of the park’s best-preserved remains from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which extends 43 miles from the Basin to the Santa Elena Canyon. There may not be the same sense of discovery that comes with finding an unmarked site, but these well-tended remnants paint a picture of the community that existed here. Some of the sites still have functioning water-drawing windmills, attracting wildlife and offering a refreshing oasis in a desert setting.
James Sublett came to the area in 1913. He and his business partner, Albert Dorgon, were among the first Big Bend settlers who dared to establish large-scale farms on the Rio Grande flood plain. The Dorgan-Sublett homestead still remains in the form of a ruined complex of adobe buildings, including a fireplace made of petrified wood that, from the road, you can see standing sentinel on a hilltop.
It’s presumed that the Sublett family and their ranch hands got fresh produce from the neighboring Terlingua Abajo farm. Stone foundations and adobe-walled buildings remain at the site, located off the scenic drive. I turn onto the primitive, unpaved Old Maverick Road, closed due to washouts just the day before, to find the site. While passable to most vehicles, this road tends to be rough; the 13 miles usually takes around an hour to drive. Some sections are washed out; others are pitted with holes or disrupted by rocks. The turnoff to Terlingua Abajo itself is much worse.
My rental car — alas, no 4×4 — ambles along until the path becomes too battered to continue. I leave the vehicle behind and continue on foot, following the beaten-up road as it winds between rock-strewn foothills. The silence is interrupted only by birdcalls and the thumping of my own heartbeat.
The coyote sees me before I see it. It’s big and healthy, a natural-born rabbit killer. We scare each other, and the animal scampers to the top of a hill overlooking the trail and pauses to look at me with a green-yellow stare. We lock eyes for a brief moment, and it silently lopes away. I decide to walk on, but with a large rock in my hand.
I reach the Terlingua Abajo campgrounds, and the first of the collection of ruins. The farms here fed miners and ranchers from the 1900s to the 1940s. Terlingua Creek once hosted cottonwood trees, but they have all been lost to the axes of the ranchers.
Wandering through, I recognize a familiar campsite. I camped here for a week, 12 years ago. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the cluster of tents nestled against a gently sloping hill. It’s been a decade since I spoke to the friends who were with me, but all of a sudden they feel close again. Some of the ghosts in Big Bend are the ones you leave behind.
I have a car to find before I leave Big Bend.
Dean gives me more accurate directions off U.S. 385 to help me locate the remains, but even armed with those, I feel a twang of doubt after 30 minutes of searching. At an earlier point in the trip, I had also gone out in search of an unmarked cemetery I’d heard stories about, but my attempt to find it had been stymied by flies and hyperaggressive tiger mosquitoes that rose in thick clouds, and their painful attacks left me once again running for my car. No objective is guaranteed here.
The afternoon heat is rising, and I feel bad for the loafing jackrabbits that I startle into mad dashes. I know coyotes can catch these at a sprint, and when I see the speed of its prey, I’m glad the coyote I encountered decided to ignore me.
There are a handful of hills left to explore. I figure I’ll head in the direction of the last rabbit; it’s as good a guess as any. The wind sighs, waving the branches of the thorn bushes. I make my way up one hillside and down the other, then circle the base toward another slope. Then I see it: a sharp angle of something man-made. It’s the rusted rear of an automobile. The elation is sudden and overwhelming. I fist-bump the sky like a marathon runner at the finish line. The object of a quest is not as important as its successful conclusion.
The Model T’s body is a rusted rectangle. Moving around to the front, I see the metal headlights, their glass long since broken. The tires and engine are gone, but metal wheel wells still curve with rugged stubbornness. The steering column juts proudly from the cab.
Some of the ghosts in Big Bend are the ones you leave behind.
Around the rectangle of stone are signs of an abandoned life. Broken teacups and glass jugs lay scattered in the dry dirt. Curls of barbed wire tangle here and there; tins of food opened and consumed decades ago.
The Starrs left a mess behind, but the garbage is now classified as artifact. I resist the temptation to violate park rules and take anything from the find. Even though I feel like I own a piece of the unmarked site, I didn’t earn the right. These remains belong here. If my time in Big Bend taught me anything, it’s that any such hallmarks should be left alone. They are more than totems to the bravery and resilience of intrepid settlers; they also serve as testimonials to the fierceness of the land that rejected them.
Hunting for History
There are several road-accessible ruins to visit in Big Bend National Park, but their accessibility depends on what kind of vehicle you’re driving — and how ambitious you’re feeling.
Adventure Level: Easy
Homer Wilson Blue Creek Ranch
This well-preserved and easy-to-access ruin sits along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The ranch is positioned at the foot of a dramatic abutment, to the southwest of the Chisos Basin. A quarter-mile east off the road, viewers get a fine view of the spread 90 feet below, including the bunkhouse and foreman’s quarters. A 15-minute hike along an unpaved but well-worn path reveals details of the construction, including reeds used for ceilings and stone from a nearby canyon.
Adventure Level: Moderate
In 1909, J.O. Langford came to the region in poor health and found the dry air and natural hot springs rejuvenated him. He opened a resort along this scenic section of the Rio Grande, a scant few feet from Mexico. Langford left for 14 years because of the revolution, but he returned in 1927 and remained until the 1940s when the state bought the land for the park. Several intact cottages and a store remain. The stone square of a functional, spring-fed bath is also there for those who want to take a dip in 105-degree water and warm mud. The bath is one of the attractions on the mile-long Hot Springs Loop trail — visitors are also treated to Indian paintings on the rock walls, towering reeds and vistas of the Rio Grande. The catch: The area is accessed only by a thin, winding vehicular road that, while not terribly bumpy, has several portions with gut-wrenching 10-foot drops to one side (with no railing) and shards of rocks jutting out on the other.
Adventure Level: Hard
Of all the industries that tried to take hold in Big Bend, mercury mining was among the most profitable, with mines in this area supplying a majority of the U.S. product from 1900 to 1950. Miners — mostly Mexican nationals seeking economic improvement — scraped cinnabar ore in narrow underground mines; the ore was refined on-site to obtain mercury. But be forewarned: The primitive road used to get to the mine is only accessible by a high-clearance vehicle, and the stone walls at the site are lousy with mercury. Remains of furnaces and condensing chambers are spread over 2,560 acres.
Joe Pappalardo is a senior editor at Popular Mechanics and the author of the nonfiction book Sunflowers: The Secret History.