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.

to be the consensus appraisal of David Sleeper, the fortyish owner of a ranch less than ten miles west of Lajitas. He has been a desert presence for two decades, leading spiritual canyoneering expeditions, raising cattle on the other side of the river, and more recently, breeding mules on his solar-powered ranch. His independent life commands a certain respect from Terlinguans, but a shared history is no guarantee of affection, and somewhere along the way, the locals found themselves withholding their embrace of David Sleeper.

It works both ways. “I’ve had my hermit’s license for years,” he tells me with a quiet grin. David has no use for the Terlingua porch life; only on occasion does he make the trek into the ghost town. Though he strikes me as bright and even charming in a bashful way, it is clear that he feels most comfortable around his twenty beasts. “Give them a lot of respect, and they’ll give it back,” he says as his fingers caress the neck of one of his mules. “But they won’t give a stupid person the time of day.”

There’s no contempt in David Sleeper’s voice. He has the low-tech life he wants. Before I leave, David tells me that I’m welcome to stay over anytime I like. It’s the fifth or sixth such invitation I’ve received during my weeklong stay in Terlingua, despite the prevailing sentiment that my article cannot possibly do the town any good. A cynic might regard Terlingua’s spirit of communal generosity as a practical matter of desert survival. But they damn sure don’t have to extend it to outsiders.

We don’t have much, but if you ever stay with us, you’ll never go hungry,” says Janelle as she offers me a peanut butter and jelly tortilla. Her offer is particularly moving because she, her husband, Jeff, and their three children live significantly below the poverty line. Their furniture consists largely of wooden slabs set on top of buckets filled with dry food. They drink what little caught rainwater is left from last September’s brief downpour. Their do-it-yourself Terlingua Ranch residence, though clean and orderly, has the appearance of a wooden cave. Paul Wiggins calls them homesteaders.

Jeff dropped out of the Army just after the tragic Kent State shooting in 1970 and wandered all the way to Terlingua. Back then, the ghost town was an abandoned pile of rubble. Fourteen years later, he and Janelle became the parents of the first child born in the ghost town since 1943. Jeff has been here longer than almost anyone and freely exercises his right to de nounce what has become of the town. “The people who move here today say they’re sick of the corporate world,” he drawls, “but it’s already in their system. They can’t live back-to-nature the way we do. They come for the scene and not for the scenery. And now they’re turning it into Terlingua Fe.”

Then his words grow harsher, more sweeping. The skinny man with the handlebar mustache leans forward in his chair and says emphatically, “The way this country is now, if you’re not a part of yuppie culture, you’re either in poverty or you’re a criminal. And mark my words, this country will pay.” A darkness seems to leak into the unelectrified, unmechanized home. “The Unabomber tried to make the country pay,” I begin, but Jeff cuts me off, snapping, “How many of their agents have murdered innocents as business-as-usual?”

Janelle, who still carries the figure of the ballerina she once was but whose dark and wind-creased face personifies the desert life, chimes in, “I teach our children that they, the government, are the dangerous ones. They bred the Unabomber. He’s like the counter- CIA. What he fought against is still the governing force. And everyone who came to Terlingua is at least subconsciously trying to escape that beast.”

That applied to David Kaczynski, who was content with escape, rather than retaliation; it applied, at least until 1978, to his brother. How much bitterness and despair did it take to turn an escapist into a Unabomber? Jeff and Janelle have each other, and they have the Terlingua community, but something else diffuses their hostility toward the outside world, and Jeff volunteers what it is: “I still have hope,” he says calmly. “I still have faith that we’ll work things out on this planet. Otherwise I wouldn’t have brought three kids into the world.”

The youngest of the three is asleep on the family bed. The other two are in school. The eldest son, says Janelle, wants to study rocket aviation. Eventually he’ll be leaving the desert, going off to a university. The homesteaders tell me they’re okay with that. I notice the mandala on their wall. The little home is buttressed with hope.

PROPRIETOR ANGIE DEAN OPENS THE doors to the Starlight at five every afternoon, and one by one the Terlinguans shuffle in. Ken Barnes, the town’s venerated self-taught paleontologist, strides up to the bar in his straw hat and holds out the day’s find of dinosaur bones, which are passed around the bar to grunts of admiration. Laurie arrives fresh from the Chihuahuan town of Creel, her truck loaded with Mexican craftwork that she will sell to the trading company. One of the evening’s musicians begins tuning his mandolin. By ten after five, every barstool is taken.

One of the occupants is Spider, who must have just gotten paid, since Angie doesn’t give him a line of credit—unlike the trading company, where Spider owes $36, and the Study Butte Store, where he is $125 in arrears. “The way I see it,” he tells me, “I’ve got to get paid two or three hundred dollars every week, because I like to drink a lot of beer and dip a lot of snuff.”

When I carefully ask him if he thinks he’s an alcoholic, Spider doesn’t miss a beat. “I know I am! Hell. Four DWIs, disorderly conduct. I don’t deny it.”

He laughs and returns to his Budweiser. The talkative, compact-looking man in

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