In the heart of Texas’s Chihuahuan Desert, Terlingua is a wilderness paradise for cosmic cowboys and outdoor adventurers alike—but you’d be forgiven for having never heard of it.
My arms throb and my shoulders burn as I push the blade of my paddle into the depths of the Rio Grande, begging my canoe to lurch forward. Try as I might, I know I can’t keep pace with Austin Alvardo, my guide. I’m struggling and he knows it. “You’re not already tired, are you?” he laughs. “We’re not even halfway done!”
Austin glides out in front of me, his voice echoing off the walls of the Santa Elena Canyon, whose 1500-foot limestone rock faces yawn skywards either side of us. As he rattles off fact after fact about Big Bend National Park—the 800,000-acre arid expanse along the US-Mexico border known for its towering red mountains, vistas, and extreme conditions—I can’t help but gawk at the immensity of the scene. It’s hard to imagine an easier place to get lost—for better or for worse.
Craning my neck to catch the sliver of sky visible beyond the canyon walls, I bump into Austin’s boat, which has stalled in the middle of the river. He’s staring at a jagged peak downstream that’s catching the sun’s reflection.
As rays of light shoot down from the cliff, a hawk circles nearby, slicing through the cool canyon air before ascending the ridge and disappearing from sight. “Man, I just wish everyone could visit this place at least once,” he says, pulling his cap off and wiping his brow. “It’s as wild as it gets and will fight you every step of the way, but it’ll reward with you some of the most beautiful scenery and unforgettable experiences.”
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An hour later, we stop for lunch on a nearby bank. As we munch a couple of sandwiches, Austin describes what it’s like to live in Terlingua, the windswept outpost we embarked from earlier that morning.
“The town was established as an old mining community in the late 1800s,” he tells me. “In fact, it was the richest mercury-mining area in North America and second-largest in the world at its peak in the 1930s, when it provided material for US Army ignition switches.” But after the army converted its arsenal to electronic switches and the mine’s quicksilver reserves ran dry, the entire town upped and left, leaving behind a smattering of rock and adobe houses scattered across its sun-seared hills.
Austin explains how Terlingua remained abandoned for roughly 30 years until, little by little, a motley crew of hippies, outdoorsmen and eccentrics looking to get off the grid resettled its ruins. After reclaiming the abandoned homes in what locals refer to as “the ghost town,” they fixed up spots like the local trading post and converted the miners’ movie theater, the Starlight, into a restaurant and watering hole. “Living in the ghost town takes some getting used to,” Austin admits. “It’s not accommodating in even the most basic ways … Things like consistent electricity and running water are luxuries out here.”
As the gateway to the Rio Grande and Big Bend, Terlingua’s the perfect base for outdoor activities like canoeing, whitewater rafting, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping.
Don’t let Terlingua’s tiny population (58, according to the 2010 US census) and rugged exterior fool you. People flock here every year for adventures and festivals, including its annual chili cook-off. Revered as “the granddaddy of all chili cook-offs”, the event was started in 1967 to settle a dispute about whether Texans or New Yorkers knew more about chili. It now draws thousands of people from across the world every fall.
As the gateway to the Rio Grande and Big Bend, Terlingua is the perfect base for outdoor activities like canoeing, whitewater rafting, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping. Despite its arid climate and harsh terrain—summer temperatures regularly exceed 37 degrees Celsius—the area’s also home to a thriving wildlife population that includes Mexican black bears, bighorn sheep, roadrunners, coyotes, and over 450 species of birds. It’s the definition of a desert oasis.
And yet, all of this could be under attack. If President Trump gets his wish to construct a wall along the border, the American borderlands’ most sensitive ecosystems (including the Big Bend area) will be directly impacted.
To expose more people to this remarkable but fragile region, Austin is starring as a main character in the highly anticipated documentary The River and The Wall, which follows a crew of conservationists on a nearly 1,900-kilometer journey along the Texas border by horse, bike and boat. “This place is full of secrets and every adventure through it is a chance to uncover a new experience,” he says during our lunch. “We need to appreciate it, to protect it.”
After packing up our canoes, Austin suggests we turn back downstream. If we hurry, he says, we’ll have time to knock out a hike to ‘The Window’, perhaps the most renowned spot to see a sunset in all of Big Bend. Having seen pictures of the awe-striking view in magazines and on friends’ Instagrams, I readily hop into my boat to begin the journey.
A couple of hours later, we’ve begun our initial ascent up The Window Trail. Although the hike’s only a little more than eight kilometers in total, the sizzling West Texas summer heat adds to its degree of difficulty. While we grab a momentary breather in the scant shade we can find, I brush some rusty desert dust from my shorts and startle a lizard, which scampers off beneath a row of cacti across the trail. After gulping down a few much-needed mouthfuls of water, we press on.
“You can blaze through a riverbed and up a hill to the most gorgeous desert scenery you’ve ever seen. This place is just unbelievably vast, so full of extremes.”
Suddenly, we arrive at our final destination: A narrow pour-off (a usually dry waterfall) that overlooks the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. For what seemed like an eternity (but was likely only an hour), we sit and watch the sun slowly set over the area’s tumbling red hills and sheer rock walls, its waning light leaving behind a cotton candy sky of bright pink and deep blue. Not keen for hiking in the dark, I suggest we head back in town to grab a beer at the Starlight before night falls.
The whole town seems to be out when we arrive at the bar. A honky-tonk band belts out country tunes as denim-clad patrons clink their beers together after another long day in the desert. Several sport weather-beaten cowboy hats, adding to the Wild West aesthetic.
Stepping out onto the Starlight’s front stoop, I end up talking with Will Mederski. He’s visited Terlingua religiously since he moved to Texas in 2011. “I come out here for the space, the solitude,” he says, explaining that he especially loves riding motorcycles along the area’s remote paths. “You can blaze through a riverbed and up a hill to the most gorgeous desert scenery you’ve ever seen. This place is just unbelievably vast, so full of extremes.”
Nodding slowly, I take a gulp of my beer, my eyes fixed on the cosmic carpet rolled out across the night sky. Before I can slip too far into my thoughts, I feel Austin’s hand on my shoulder. “You ready for tomorrow, buddy?” he grins.
I laugh, remembering we’ve got a full day of hiking, swimming and camping ahead, and prepare in the best way I know how: By grabbing another round of drinks for my newfound friends.
David Leffler is a Texas-based journalist and travel writer focused on environmental, political and social issues. His work has been featured in Texas Monthly, Pacific Standard, Task & Purpose, and more. He'll go anywhere there's a mountain to climb or a river to canoe.