Friday, December 24, 2021

Get Lost Tours Terlingua

I have mixed feelings about desert environments. I enjoy the open spaces and the mountains, I detest the way sound carries across the open plains, you can hear a duck fart from five hundred paces against the wind. I enjoy walking out into the open spaces but I look at my home, Gannet 2, and discover once again the unvarying truth that dust gets everywhere. I like cool nights for sleeping but my hair turns to straw and my finger nails become brittle from the lack of humidity. I aspire to higher purpose in the desert, I seek meaning in isolation but I am tripped up by my excessive focus on the nuisance factors.

I am not like Chris one bit. If you want to learn to appreciate the deserts and the mountains and the flora and fauna you hire a man like Chris, or preferably Chris himself and get him to drive you around for three hours and listen to him talk. You will be transformed.
Layne found Get Lost Tours on Harvest Host (look them up for enlightenment) and we were quite curious to see what we would get. It was with a certain relief we arrived close to on time at 11:15 and Chris was ready for us. We all three climbed aboard as we had discussed Rusty with Chris and he said as long as he was you can imagine Rusty was so cool Chris fell in love. But he remains my dog.

There are people you will come across in life who know exactly what they want and who they are and where they belong and Terlingua has been Chris' home for twenty years. About the time we settled in Key West he was living in an uncomfortable stationary school bus for no rent with no air conditioning in his first 120 degree summer in Terlingua. He thrived.

The short version is that he is a refugee from the high tech world of being some sort of program tester making so much money he had to get desperate to quit. It took him seven years to escape the boredom and he drifted into Terlingua where that school bus that came with a dish washer's job. 

He learned to guide. "Can you drive a Jeep?" his prospective boss asked a puzzled Chris. His private thought was: Can't anybody? But he did know how to drive a stick shift so he ended up getting the job and learning to wing it.

My thought, upon listening to the story, is that he loved where he was enough to want to learn. His job became his vocation and turned into an obsession. That's what makes him the perfect person to guide ordinary mortals like you and me who don't have the language or erudition to understand a scientist. 

We looked at mountains that rise up out of the valley floor and we learned a truth that had previously escaped me and that is the stuff that appears fixed and immutable is impermanent and suffers changes over time. 

Magma plugs from underground rise up and harden and the soft rocks around them fall away and you see these weird volcano-like pimples all over the place. Chris has his own theory that the volcanic activity in this area is connected to the ring of fire in the Pacific Rim. Take a tour and he'll explain his reasoning better than I can.

Chris put a sheet on the back seat and Rusty sat next to me like a princess staring idly out at the desert as though he too had fallen under Chris' spell. Certainly it worked the other way round and as we stood outside the Hummer Rusty hunkered and looked. The desert is wide open and I have since seen him treat these spaces like his familiar mangroves in the Keys. He loves it.

Chris bought 15 acres of desert and lives off the grid on a dirt road as you might imagine. Usually he picks his clients up at their hotels and on the longer tours takes them around Big Bend. We took the shorter tour and got to see new country, in his back yard, in the hills above Terlingua Ranch which lies a dozen miles north of Terlingua on the road to Alpine.

He drove us up hill and down dale over rocky slippery terrain on a narrow track overhanging deep clefts in the hillside and he was so smooth and practiced he mesmerized even Layne and her fear of heights into hardly noticing.

Terlingua is suffering growing pains apparently as the park (Big Bend) has been discovered and the visitor count is skyrocketing. From 150,000 visitors a few years ago the park now sees 400,000 people which is not huge by the count of the most popular parks but this vast tract of desert next to Mexico is becoming too popular. The Internet is opening up new vistas for us all.

In turn more people want to seek out, they think, desert solitude, and Air BnB is the perfect way to do it. You can imagine my surprise as Chris explained the dynamics of the new Terlingua's demographics...Just like Key West!

These empty spaces are becoming populated by structures and the structures are being rented out for relatively vast sums as absentee landlords manage their Air BnB properties from afar. You can buy a five acre plot (not as massive as it sounds, by the way) and stick a water pump, a water tank and plant an immobile RV or trailer on the lot and call it good. Then you rent it out for $200 to people anxious to visit the park and I've the desert life briefly. 

Guess what this sudden surge of popularity is doing to worker housing? Yup, it's becoming unaffordable and unavailable, doesn't it sound like the broken record played for so long in the Keys?

Terlingua is remote and services are even more hit or miss than in the Keys. Chris has discovered fashionable IPA beer and his only problem is it's the sort of thing visitors love and Terlingua's liquor store can't keep it in stock...Need a plumber? A mechanic? Good luck. On the one hand I detect a certain pride in the ability to live on the edge of civilization while on the other there is the natural frustration in the struggle to get things done.
This picture I made on a whim of mud spatter on the side window of the Hummer:

The other formations we saw were rock falls as cliffs crumble and split. Quite spectacular:

The road we took produced a lot of talk about rocks, people, change, and plants and wandered back and forth and meandered and paused. It was the most perfect way to spend a warm middle of a winter's day in this place:

People known to Chris build homes, second homes and vacation rentals in thus wilderness as this is all private land owned in condominium and he owns his share in the Terlingua Ranch project, one among 5,000 owners who share 200,000 acres. So he pays for access. He is also a National Park concession and pays for the privilege of leading tours in the park.

By the way you can eat fruits and stuff off certain cactuses but these we are advised are the Devil's Tomatoes and they are very poisonous. We kept an eye on Rusty. Lest you fear for snakes the weather was not warm enough for those critters at least!

There used to be a lake here, created by a dam built across the ravine. We contemplated the dry bed filled with buffalo grass and sprouting trees. Shaded picnic tables dotted the hillside as Remi dress of recreation possibilities in years past. The desert isn't always dry.

"That's new," Chris said as we twisted and turned on our dirt track through the pass high above. Half an airplane? Welcome to eccentric Terlingua where quirkiness still abides. No permits needed to stick an off grid habitation on your five acre plot. Solar panels, septic tank and a deep well (or water trucked in to your tank) and you are in business.

Our Promaster van is a form of off-grid living I suppose but mobility gives us a new dimension of freedom. The only time we have plugged in since leaving Key West was in Tennessee when we were moochdocking for a few cold days. If we don't need to heat or cool the van which consumes a lot of energy, our four solar panels in this climate are more than enough to run our daily needs while parked.

Chris has spent the past two decades, the time we lived in the Keys, guiding in the desert while spending summers guiding elsewhere all over the United States. He lived on a beach in Kauai, he talks fluently about guiding in more plans than I can remember, West Virginia rated highly of course, another form of wilderness. Until last year he worked for the same company all that time but was moved finally to set up his own operation.

Lakopi is an amalgam of Lakota and Hopi, two tribes he has spent time with and whose beliefs he admires. At the end of the tour he sinks back into this land and blends in like a chameleon. It was quite extraordinary to meet someone so planted in such an unlikely place.

We sat out, the three of us as Layne made dinner of pasta and sausages and watched the sunset and listened to coyote yipping in the distance. I mean that. Rusty sat up next to me and his ears went up and he listened intently. Chris told us how they entice creatures out by calling and ambush them, everywhere we have gone people worry about their dogs and coyote. Rusty I am glad to say isn't that stupid and got some sausage instead. 

We talked late into the night, and with my bed right there I kept up with Chris and his ghastly IPA, with our own flask of bourbon and Layne served sweet cornbread for dessert and we looked at the stars and none of this would have been possible without Gannet 2. It was an extraordinary evening.

I caught the sunrise a few hours later wandering the neighborhood with Rusty who walked the perimeter first and followed my camera slightly reluctantly. I think he had coyotes on his mind.

I don't think I could live in this wilderness but I can easily spend more time among these desolate places. Mind you Chris wouldn't mind company so if you are a woman with a yen for adventure and would like to try living off grid with a true desert rat who has good taste in music and owns enough land to build a house to your specs look him up. 

In another way Terlingua reminds me of Key West in that living here and being single is hard to overcome. The genetic pool is small so while everyone knows everyone else and pitches in, a town this small has little to offer someone looking for a life partner. It can happen, but I always said it's best to show up in the Keys as a couple rather than single if that is your intent.

He attracts clients who share his values and enjoy the spaces he has made his home. His next client was a repeat customer, a middle aged single Asian visitor who was taking second tour with Chris on her return to Terlingua. I would happily take the six hour tour of Big Bend with Chris next time we are here. Would we come back to this lost corner of Texas? 

It was good to get on the road but this time as Chris's friends we got some advice on the next road to take and he said the river road, along the Rio Grande was spectacular. He wasn't wrong. We skipped Alpine and headed to Presidio on Texas Highway 170.

I was having the time of my life.