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.

who come here with their crystals and leave with a whopping sunburn.” Terlingua’s version of a yuppie is Mimi Webb-Miller, the late John Tower’s niece and a casting director for prime-time national television commercials, whose newly built faux ruin in the ghost town would not look out of place in Santa Fe. Mimi spent most of the previous decade as legendary Ojinaga drug lord Pablo Acosta’s publicist and confidante. Her Toyota 4-Runner looks a little bit out of place among the town’s shabby buses and pickups, but she does one hell of a job plowing it across the Rio Grande into Mexico. “Mimi,” chuckles one longtime Terlinguan, “is a master of versatility.” She can stay.

There’s gonna be more humans—it’s a reality and I’m resigned to it,” says Paul Wiggins as he sits in the workshop where he makes belts, six miles north of the ghost town. “I’m sure there were Indians living peacefully in the Chisos who looked down one day and said, ‘Oh, shit, here come the Comanches.’ I don’t like whiners. There’s still a kind of halo around Terlingua. I was driving with my two boys the other night, and you could see all these campfires in the distance. I told my sons, ‘Take note: What you’re seeing all around you is pretty unique.’”

According to Paul, “The grace of Terlingua is that in this whole soup no one is dominant.” But particular respect is reserved for a few—among them Collie and Paul, who share a survivor’s pride that is refreshingly devoid of sanctimony. Like the hubcap artist, Paul is an American original, which cuts both ways: His place in a cookie-cutter world is not so easily found. With a sharp chin and nose, skinny legs tucked into black stretch pants, and a voice that seems never far from laughter, Paul Wiggins could be a leprechaun exiled to the desert. He grew up in Chicago, where the sixties counterculture got him only so far. “The hippies protested against the war and did drugs, neither of which I did very effectively,” he says. “But the third thing they did, which I did find attractive, was get back to the land.”

Before doing so, he worked for Brown and Root—“Which was this great masculine company,” Paul says—in the architecture and engineering department. In the seventies he brought his skills to the desert and found construction work wherever he could. He was back to the land, all right, and, he recalls, “I wasn’t making enough money to start my car. Now with more people moving here, there’s more building to be done, more people to buy my belts. I’m not struggling anymore.”

By that, he means struggling financially. Paul is no longer married, but asceticism doesn’t suit him. As he talks about loneliness, he finds himself suddenly talking about the Unabomber suspect. “The whole thing with Ted Kaczynski,” Paul says, “has reminded me that human hearts have a hard time growing when we’re alone.” Last year, I’m told, Paul left Terlingua to be with a woman in Houston. It is painful to contemplate the image of this gentle soul trying to hack it in the big city, but Paul wanted his heart to grow and so he gave it his best shot. It wasn’t long before he returned. One is better for trying, perhaps—though I’m reminded of the haunting words of another desert veteran: “You live in Terlingua and you become unrehabilitatable.”

PAUL WIGGINS NEEDS THE COMMUNITY. he needs the Starlight Theatre, the ghost town’s dazzling food and beverage oasis; he needs the dances and the campfire parties. But the Terlingua area has its genuine recluses, like Judy, also known as Suitcase Sally, the middle-aged and deeply tanned woman in sunglasses who rides with her few worldly possessions on the back of a burro and sleeps at night on the side of the road. She is “like art,” says Paul with admiration, a desert apparition who says nothing when I greet her in Study Butte and nothing when I greet her two days later and fifty miles west on RR 170, in Redford. Whatever churns within her, Suitcase Sally keeps utterly to herself.

But the Terlingua desert has seen its sad disasters, like Emil, the polite but fatally conflicted nuclear physicist who drank himself to death in his trailer. It has seen Howard, who shot at passing aircraft and claimed a kinship to Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, and it still sees an individual who once served time for a sex offense and now sits by the roadside claiming he is God. Even in Terlingua, not every misfit can be made to fit. All the same, says Paul Wiggins, “It amused me to hear a reporter on the BBC shortwave making such a point about the Unabomber living without electricity or running water and connecting that to his eccentric, violent nature. I can’t speak for Ted Kaczynski’s neck of the woods. But my experience is that the desert eats violent people.”

Between the sad cases and the romanticized Suitcase Sallys, there are the unclassifiables, anomalous desert species like the Rabbit Lady, who lived in a car and herded her rabbits with a stick before relocating, incredibly, to comparatively yuppified Alpine. No one knew what to make of the Rabbit Lady, and in a different way, ambivalence seems 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

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