Monday, 30 November 2009

Day 920 - Terlingua Ghost Town

We left Van Horn on the US90, a road that would see us for most of the journey to San Antonio. Before too long we were ready to stop for lunch so we leant back against the gate of a boarded up house, nobody had been there for years, until we sat down, then the owner arrived and wanted to go though the gate. As the day progressed the mountains faded into the distance, we were cycling through ranch land, dry grasslands as far as the eye could see, fences both sides of the road and all the gates firmly locked. There were no tracks at all leading away from the road, but along our left hand side ran a railway crossing over little bridges, it looked as though this was going to be our only option, still, we hadn’t seen a train all day. With the light fading by the time we were checking the fourth bridge we decided we had better stay and camp there. As we cooked our dinners in the dark a train came thundering past. We settled down for the night and just a few minutes later another train came past (photo). For some reason I felt so much more vulnerable lying in the tent, the whole ground vibrating for what seemed age as an apparently never ending train came past. With a steady flow of trains I was soon getting used to it, then a car pulled up. I heard two men talking then torch light lit the tent as they came across calling out in Spanish. “Hi there” I called back as I was confronted by two border patrol guys “Are you American citizens?” they asked “I am but….er hang on, no I’m not, I am English.” I didn’t get off to a good start being half asleep. “Can I see your ID” they said so I asked for their identification then handed over my passport “You’re Australian” they told me “No I’m not, I’m English” clearly we weren’t being questioned by the smartest of guards. By this time one of them thought it might be a good idea to check Robin’s ID and stood looking at it for ages not really knowing what to do. They decided we were here sort of legally so headed of we a “be careful”, odd that, I thought we were being careful. They left just in time for the arrival of the next train. During the gaps that there were no trains or border patrol I was kept awake be the more subtle sounds of a mouse nibbling at my rubbish. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I have ever had.

In the morning we continued following the railway but never saw another train. We arrived at Marfa, it was 26th November, Thanksgiving Day, a National Holiday when families get together and stuff themselves with food, a sort of Christmas without the pressies. Most places in town were shut. I have asked various people the history of Thanksgiving and I am rather taken with the least likely of the lot. When the early settlers arrived in what is now New England they were a bit short of their crops and were getting a trifle peckish, well, more like rather hungry…actually they were starving. The local Indians took pity on them and saved their lives by giving them food, so the following year they invited the Indians for a Thanksgiving meal and a tradition was started, though by the next year they didn’t bother to invite the Indians, they couldn’t, they had shot them all and pillaged their land. Today I was told a story that was far more likely that even seemed to have documentary evidence, so I won’t bother to tell you that one. We took the 54 south, on the map it looked as though it would be quiet, it headed down to the Mexican border, but being a holiday it was full of traffic heading home for a long weekend. We were heading towards mountains again, the road rolled along nicely towards Presidio. We thought we were in for another night close to the road as everything was fenced in again on both sides, but with about 10 miles to go before the town the fences disappeared. Robin spotted a part built house so we headed across to see if we could camp there for the night. The floor and walls had been built and then it seems to have just been left, so we camped right inside it, it felt luxury to have flat, clean ground and plenty of space around us, no dirt, rocks or spiky things to make life so difficult at times. It was a warm night too, most nights dip below freezing but here is was around a jolly warm 8 degrees c so I slept with the tent open, I didn’t even bother to close it when it started raining.

The rain was drying as soon as it landed, when I got up the ground wasn’t even wet, but by the time we set off I was cycling in the rain for the first since my arrival in the US. By the time we had reached Presidio I was already feeling cold, but after we had stocked up on food for a few days and called into a gas station it had already stopped raining. Presidio wasn’t your typical American small town, being right on the Mexican border it felt just that, Mexican. Spanish seemed to be the main language and with horses and rubbish parked out the back of the gas station and chickens ruling the roost it felt very different. With the bikes feeling much heavier loaded with food we set off along the 170 that hugs the Rio Grande and the border. The first few kilometres were easy going, then we entered a valley and into the Big Bend Ranch State Park, the roads became steep, no great elevation gain but the steep ups and down were in complete contrast to the normal gentle climbs. The scenery was fantastic, most cars were tourists being the holiday weekend, but tourists here are Texans. We talked to some, lovely friendly people that than gave us lovely tasty food. We reached the steepest and longest hill of the day, appropriately named Big Hill (photo). But big hills normally have a downward section too, I whizzed down the hill leaning into the corners, then as I went around the second bend I noticed a wooden cross beside the road, it made me remember that the bends have to taken with at least a little caution, it as only later that I discovered it was the final bend of another cyclist. We stopped for lunch by the river. Here it was narrow and fast running, just a few metres away was Mexico, but in this there was not a single border patrol vehicle, the area far too rugged even for the most determined. At Lajitas we turned away from the river and thankfully left the steep little hills behind as we were tiring, from there on we were faced with the longer gradual hills again, but a faster decent brought us to Terlingua Ghost Town and another Couch Surfing stop only this time I was gate crashing a couch that Robin had arranged before we bumped into each other. The town survived off mercury mining and Mexicans had lived and worked here, but the company went bust so there was nothing for the people here so they moved out, the houses falling in to ruins. People have slowly moved into those ruins and built houses and it now has a flourishing population of 29, though that drops down to just four hardy souls during the summer when it tends to get a tad warm. We made our way down the rough tracks to find Cynta outside on the patio waiting for us, another warm couch surfing welcome was on offer. Before we settled in we were given the basic instructions of the place, which were very basic considering there are no sewers here “Ok, women can use the chemical loo in the bathroom but men have to go to the outhouse over there up the hill, but you only do your poop in there, that’s all it is for”. “Where are you supposed to pee then?” I asked, Cynta held her arms out saying “Anywhere you like. Most men pee in the street, if you do that Doug will probably wave at you when you are going. The only time peeing outside is a problem is if you pee in the same spot for 6 months and it doesn’t rain, then it begins to smell, otherwise it is not a problem”, so that’s what I do, even in the middle of the night I get up and go and pee in the street.

Cynta is an amazing woman. She worked for years as guide on the rivers here and in Latin America and has a wealth of knowledge. She isn’t blessed with the best of health, but you would never really know it, she has a real zest for life and does an incredible amount of work in the community. She bought the land here 10 years ago, just a few crumbling walls and has created a beautiful home (photo, where I am now typing these very words) with fantastic views towards Big Bend National Park. She drove us to the park, high into the mountains and into the basin of the volcanic region, then on to the hot springs by the river near Rio Grande Village. There we relaxed in spring water of 105 degrees f, then dipped in the cool river water, wow! To start with we were on our own, but by the time we left there were about 24 in the small pool, more were on their way. Back home she cooked some dinner then said “Here, put some of this spicy Shit on it” and handed me a bottle labelled “Special Shit”, not her label, this was shop bought. I took a walk around the ghost town, wandering through the cactus, looking at the ruins and artefacts that had been left behind, rusty tins, half buried bottles, old cars known as cartefacts, what a place, I have fallen in love with it, one of the best and most unusual places I have been in a long time. I called in a the “Ghost Town CafĂ©”, I only had a coffee, I was glad that was all I was having I could hear them cooking. Everybody working there was either smoking, coughing or spitting and I couldn’t help but wonder where the phlegm was ending up. We talked about life the universe and everything, we took the four dogs for a walk picking up others along the way. When we go out in the car the doors are left open, the dogs stay there and run around barking excitedly when we return. Life is simple here, but it is a great place to spend a few days but an even better place to live a few years.
This is Robin's blog, she gives a far better and more detailed account of this wonderful place and Cynta our amazing host.

A cold front is forecast, everybody is talking about it, snow is on the way. Cynta has invited us to stay until the front passes over. It’s a tough life!


caff said...

Having reached the end of the current posting I now understand why it is called Ghost Town. You've just described life in the cafe kitchen, coughing, spitting, phlegm. It seems everyone who has eaten at the cafe has died. Hence Ghost Town!!

B orderBob said...

Just curious, how or why did the Border Patrol agents confuse you with being Australian if you showed them your passports?