The desert sports logo on the river guides’ truck was scarcely visible through the gathering dust as we crawled to the ghost town at Terlingua after a day trip to Mariscal Canyon. It’s a long drive even by Big Bend standards: two hours creeping over bone-dry washes, past ruins of sunbaked adobes that never had a chance, through a sea of scattered cactus, creosote bushes, and endless, merciless Texas. And that’s just to get to the paved road that is itself another hour from Terlingua. It’s a measure of the people who choose to live out here—and it is always a conscious choice—that not once on such a drive will you hear anyone ask, “Are we there yet?”
The three Desert Sports guides in the truck that January afternoon shared that mind-set. The de facto honcho was Jim Carrico, the former superintendent of Big Bend National Park generally regarded as having made the destination great. Jack Kinslow was along too, an Austin retailer who had decided to retire early and refuel in the ghost town instead of having a midlife crisis. Driving the truck was a small, wiry woman with a been-there, made-do-with-that manner who was identified only as Taz.
These folks don’t mind a three-hour drive because frequently enough it’s a trip like this one, from Mariscal’s sheer 1,500-foot limestone walls to the porch outside the storefronts of the ghost town, where each afternoon the community’s more refined element gathers to drink a cold beer and watch the sunset soak the western face of the Chisos. For locals, a long drive is like the months with no rain or the summer days when the thermometer hits 100 well before the clock strikes noon. It’s simply what a West Texas sunset costs.
But while peace of mind might shoo away such pedestrian concerns as the time of day, that security is suddenly looking tenuous. Part of the desert rat’s repose is knowing that people who don’t love the desert don’t come out here, but the real world is creeping closer than was ever thought possible. So the discussion in the truck turned, as does every conversation in West Texas these days, to Steve Smith and his plan to create the Southwest’s most exclusive golf resort twelve miles west, in Lajitas.
Smith might be one of the few people ever to visit Big Bend and think it did not look enough like Lakeway. He was a savior when he bought the ramshackle resort two years ago, keeping the third leg of the Study Butte-Terlingua-Lajitas puebloplex (population: 300) from falling into the hands of a California hotelier. But then his construction site grew to look like war-torn Afghanistan, with great plumes of dust rising over the desolate hills. Rumors reached Final Conflict proportions: He was building a new runway for Southwest Airlines, a casino across the river, and horror of horrors, cell phone towers. When the unofficial mayor of Lajitas, a beer-drinking goat named Clay Henry, became the unlucky recipient of a back-alley castration last November, the scuttlebutt was that an irate local had nailed the bloody cojones to the clubhouse door at the golf course as a message to Smith. An alternative explanation had Smith emasculating the goat to send out a message of his own. None of these stories were true, but Smith was moving too fast to dispel them. Since the Desert Sports folks knew I’d spent the previous day with Smith, they wanted to hear the truth. It was just as amazing.
Smith and company are spending like the Clampetts: $40 million to date, $40 million more this year, all in cash dollars. They are building two eighteen-hole golf courses, a 25,000-square-foot clubhouse, and a 32,000-square-foot spa. An outdoor amphitheater that can seat three thousand people is already finished, and a world-class restaurant that will spotlight desert game is almost done. Smith plans seven hundred homes, the high end on two-acre lots that will sell for $1 million a piece.
“Who’s going to spend all that money to build in the desert?” asked Carrico.
“I asked Smith’s adman that,” I replied. “He’s Tim McClure, the M in GSD&M. He says, ‘All it’s going to take is one person with major league Hollywood credentials or major league sports credentials, and it’ll all be over. If Tom Cruise or Tiger Woods goes out there and plays golf, he’ll fall in love with the place, and it’ll all be over.’”
Taz shook her head as the truck pitched forward. Carrico kept firing away like he was working on a bucket of range balls, something he admittedly had never felt the urge to do. “Did he say whether people with major league credentials would mind living across the highway from an RV park?”
“He says there is no more RV park. The first thing he told Smith was, ‘Steve, you don’t have an RV park. You have Maverick Ranch.’”
“Yeah. He says the people who will buy slips in that park aren’t like the rest of us. They’re ‘mavericks,’ spending their twilight years crisscrossing the country in half-a-million-dollar motor homes, just playing golf and living.”
“And the slips are supposed to cost $100,000 a piece?”
“To start. They’ll end up as high as $175,000.”
And that’s just the beginning. Maverick Ranch will have a pond stocked for fishing. There’s talk of a small recording studio and plans to honor the mayor—who recovered from his unelective surgery, by the way—by selling Clay Henry Bock beer. The restaurant will sell a line of sauces and dressings, and the spa will market its own beauty and skin-care products made from native plants.
That was all Taz could take. Keeping one hand on the wheel and one foot on the gas, she turned all the way around to face me. It was of no concern that she wasn’t watching the road; there’s not much to run into in the desert. But there was a crazed look in her eyes.
“What the hell are you