The Last Refuge

It’s no wonder the brother of the Unabomber suspect came to the desert near Terlingua to disappear; for years renegades and recluses have found their way to this forgotten corner of Texas.

THE CABIN, LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE IN these parts, is out in the middle of nowhere. Getting there requires so many crisscrosses on so many primitive unmapped roads that the visitor’s expectations are scarcely prepared for the meager payoff. Situated on a flat expanse of cactus, greasewood, and curiously colored rocks, the two-room wood cabin resembles a slightly oversized pink outhouse. Aside from the amateurish mural of a coyote and an owl painted on the door, the dwelling is profoundly featureless. The sheer act of building it way out in the desert must have been a labor of love, which is itself odd, since its setting offers no coveted overlook and the mountains of Big Bend National Park are distant black monoliths off to the east. The nearest human neighbor is five miles away; until reporters found out about the cabin in mid-April, its likeliest visitors were coyotes, mule deer, rattlesnakes, and above all, the desert dust and the murderous West Texas heat.

The owner of the cabin, a Schenectady, New York, resident named David Kaczynski, was not the kind to appreciate the breakneck speed with which the national news media discovered his retreat on the Terlingua Ranch. David did not equip his cabin with a telephone or a television; in a sense, he had moved here in the early eighties to hide out from all that. His being here in the desert bespoke an anguished quarrel with the civilized world, which, it now appears, a Kaczynski could resolve one way or quite another. There is no crime in being the kind of loner that David Kaczynski was. He was a loner who could love. He loved nature, so much so that he slept in a hand-dug hole for a couple of years while building his cabin, that he might remain close to the desert. He loved Linda Patrik, the woman whose initials he wrote with his own in the cabin’s concrete foundation—loved her so much, in fact, that in 1990 he moved to Schenectady to be her husband, thereafter returning to the desert only in the winter. And David very much loved his older brother, Ted, who also lived in a remote cabin, some 1,400 miles north of the Terlingua area, near Lincoln, Montana. So much did he love Ted that when he began to suspect that his big brother was the infamous Unabomber—suspected, that is to say, that Ted had spent the past eighteen years sending out letter bombs that had killed 3 people and injured another 23—David agonized for at least four months until his love for humanity prevailed. An intermediary contacted the FBI this past January, and two months later federal agents arrested Ted. A search of the Montana cabin yielded mounds of damning evidence but also a few oddities—among them a stack of letters written to Ted by a laborer at the Terlingua Ranch named Juan Sánchez Arreola, who comes from the border town of Ojinaga, Mexico. Intrepid reporters made haste to Ojinaga and located Sánchez, who explained that he and the suspected Unabomber had been pen pals since 1988 at the suggestion of a man who had befriended Sánchez: David Kaczynski, brother, cabin builder, hole digger, Terlingua desert rat.

David is now gone, but the Chihuahuan desert remains full of kindred spirits. I drove there recently, seeking out those who best understand the call of the wild that beckoned both brothers from the modern world. The hermits I encountered are scattered throughout the desert, dozens of miles in every direction—as far north as the upper boundaries of the Terlingua Ranch (the 200,000-acre rough-and-tumble development south of Alpine populated by some 4,900 landowners) and as far south as Redford. But what holds them together as an unstructured but otherwise meaningful community is the capital of this misfit mecca, the ghost town of Terlingua itself. Once a hotbed of quicksilver mining until carpetbagging profiteers gave up the ghost in 1942, the rubble-strewn village stoops drowsily upon a couple of square miles just to the north of Ranch Road 170, the Big Bend thoroughfare to Mexico. David Kaczynski was no stranger to the town, having spent much of the early eighties house-sitting in the vicinity. More to the point, however, the Terlingua area is where even a bitter recluse like Ted Kaczynski might have had a shot at contentment.

Terlingua is the state’s last outpost for outcasts, for those maligned American loners who fashion their own crude American dream in the anonymity of the desert. As one longtime Terlinguan, Paul Wiggins, puts it, “A lot of who and what we are can’t be explained by American mores. We’re just a neglected corner of America, outside of its infrastructure.” Here in Terlingua Country, less is more: A one-room cabin lacking water and electricity fits right in, and in a region where census takers have discovered people living in cars, caves, and shacks made of hay or automobile tires, no one would think twice about a fellow who sleeps in a hole. The only unwelcome guest is progress, though its trespasses are becoming more noticeable—and when mention is made of this reality, you can hear in the angry rhetoric of the Terlinguans echoes of the resentment that ticked within the Unabomber.

But no one in Terlingua builds bombs or pens 35,000-word polemics decrying the Industrial Revolution. I would have thought differently ten years ago, when I first got a glimpse of the leathery faces, snarled hair, and raggedy clothes of the figures who perched themselves on the porches of the Terlingua Trading Company and the Study Butte Store. They looked incalculable to a yuppie tourist passing through, though the very fact of their existence in the West Texas wasteland seemed om-inous. As my appreciation for the desert’s brutal majesty grew, my fear of its inhabitants diminished, but only so much. The questions kept coming back: Why would people choose to live here? And what would happen to them if they did?

These are the riddles of the brothers Kaczynski. The answers, if they can

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week