Sand Trap

In the desert hideout of Lajitas, a wealthy developer is spending more than $80 million to build a luxury golf course|resort. That may not be enough to protect him from the elements.

May 2002By Comments

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.’”

“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 talking about?” she asked. “Lajitas mud packs made with real Rio Grande mud? Are they absolutely nuts?”

“Careful, Taz,” I said. “McClure’s in love with this project. He said, ‘If I had the money, I’d go out there and buy Terling-you-a.’”

She looked like she was going to come over the seat and get me. “He called it ‘Terling-you-a’?”

“SOME PEOPLE SAY THIS IS JUST going to be a second ghost town,” Smith said the previous afternoon on the patio of his home. “They say, ‘Smith’s going to build this party, and nobody’s going to come.’ What will happen if they’re right? I kind of tongue-in-cheek tell them, ‘Well, at least me and my friends will have a really nice golf course to play.’”

He was overlooking the resort, watching his dream come together, the grass trying to green on the course, the bulldozers and the backhoes making room for the spa and clubhouse. Here stood Smith as plaid-and-khaki land baron, short and stout, with a patrón’s gray mustache and a dream to turn the desert into a billionaire’s playground. But as he lazily pulled a mouthful of vodka from a tall glass of Grey Goose and ice, he gazed out over his empire with a distinct, look-where-I’ve-landed wonderment.

The Legend of Steve Smith has him selling strings of dried chile peppers by the highway outside Austin in the mid-eighties. During the months when profits didn’t keep pace with bills, his wife, Sarah, would sneak their two kids into public swimming pools at night to bathe them. By the mid-nineties he’d amassed a fortune of nearly $1 billion, all by dint of a winning personality and a multilevel marketing plan. The company he helped build, Excel Communications, sold long-distance service, but the moneymaker was Smith’s Amway-style sales model, a pyramid and a product. It was one of the fastest companies ever to reach $1 billion in annual sales, and at its peak, the top sales rep made more than $1.5 million a month. Smith got a cut of every transaction.

He purchased Lajitas on a whim in February 2000. He had seen an ad for the auction of the resort—a nine-hole golf course, hotel, Old West boardwalk, and RV park on 22,000 acres—in Millionaire magazine and decided on the morning of the sale to make an appearance. Forty-five minutes before the auction opened in the Lajitas saloon, he arrived by helicopter and took a seat in a tall wing chair at the front of the room that prevented the spectators from seeing his face. He outbid a San Francisco hotel magnate for a sale price of $4.25 million and, to the further relief of the locals, promised that very little would change.

Sometime thereafter he developed his vision. “When I bought this place, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do,” he said. “I thought I’d dress the existing nine-hole course up a bit, so I got a golf course designer out here. By the time he was through working me over, we had a whole new championship course with wall-to-wall Bermuda and then a whole other course to go with it.”

Later that summer, he decided he needed another attraction. “I thought that if we built a little spa here, it could be a family affair,” he said. “There’d be a spa for the ladies and a pool for the kids, while the guys all played golf.” Again, consultants reimagined his modest spa and clubhouse as the palaces now under construction.

Then the scale had to explode. “There’s no place in the U.S. that’s as hard to get to as Lajitas,” he said. “We were driven to attract people who had the means to come to a very private place, meaning they had to own or have access to their own aircraft.” Meaning also $1 million lots, $175,000 RV slips, $250-a-night hotel rooms, an equestrian center, a hunting lodge, and whatever Smith thinks of next. The big lure for those who could afford it would be that no one else could. The ball was rolling on what Smith now called the Ultimate Hideout.

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG FOR A homemade koozie reading “The Ultimate High Doubt” to appear, but that was no surprise. Terlinguans had derided “Lahideous” for years, two communities distinguishable not so much as the haves and the have-nots but as the resourced and the resourceful. Thirty years ago it was common to see desert rat foursomes walking improvised links just off Texas Highway 118 near Study Butte, each duffer with a couple of clubs and a sheet of AstroTurf. Drop the Turf, place the ball, give it a ride, track it down, repeat. Desert golf.

Country club golf, complete with real country club grass, came to the region in 1978, not long after Houston real estate mogul and kingmaker Walter Mischer purchased a vast stretch of land around the little U.S. cavalry outpost known as Lajitas. Back then, the area contained little more than barrack ruins, an old church, and a trading post. Mischer dreamed of Palm Springs, Texas, but he never figured out how to sell golfers on a course where it was too hot to play five months out of the year. By the nineties he had turned management over to his kids and grandkids. The desert had all but reclaimed Lajitas by the time Smith rode into town.

Terlingua’s cynics watched him with a wary eye, keeping score on the porch while the desert punished his early missteps. More than one hundred trees transplanted last April didn’t make it through summer. Bermuda sprigs planted in October and again in February—read: the golf course—browned twice with winter freezes. They complained that Smith would close the traditional, unofficial border crossing from his land over to Paso Lajitas, preventing some fifteen kids living in Paso from legally attending school in Study Butte. (Smith says he will close the crossing only to vehicular traffic; the $2 boat ride that tourists take across and the “school boat” that ferries the kids each day will continue.)

What seldom got mentioned were things Smith did right, like the way he relocated his new runway because flight patterns could have threatened the peregrine falcon habitat in Santa Elena Canyon. Little was made too of all the people he was employing from both sides of the border, the baseball field for kids he’s building near Study Butte, and the $34,000 check he wrote to the Terlingua school-library fund. Of course, many of his moves were to protect his investment, like securing a medical clinic and an EMS service he’ll need to get rich folks to visit him, but he promised to keep them affordable to the community.

Nothing, though, could have split open the cultural divide like the issue of water. Since last Thanksgiving Smith has sprayed 750,000 gallons of it a day on his golf course. For people who rely on water-catchment systems on their roof, that may sound obnoxious, but for people with wells connected to the same water supply, it’s downright scary.

Smith is not worried. “We had a lot of hydrogeological work done, and it in effect says that we’re sitting over our own aquifer,” he said. His reports project that annual rainfall will return 6,400 acre-feet of water to the aquifer Smith shares with Terlingua and northern Mexico. Smith’s most liberal estimates for a full seven-hundred-home development require around 3,400 acre-feet.

Brewster County officials, however, are not convinced. They say that rainfall during the current ten-year drought has been half of what Smith projects. Furthermore, they think only 1 percent of that—not Smith’s 10 percent—will recharge the aquifer, producing just 320 acre-feet a year. Both the county and the national park are looking for money to conduct full studies of their own.

In the meantime, there are checks on what Smith can do. County judge Val Beard says Smith will need to show proof of a thirty-year water supply before the county commissioners’ court will say grace over his first subdivision plats, and her husband, Tom, will want similar assurances as the head of the county’s new water conservation district. Under rules adopted in March, the district will determine if Lajitas’ usage leaves enough water to sustain the rest of the area. To Smith’s credit, his right-hand man, Richard Hubble, put meters on the Lajitas wells to gauge depletion long before the district required them, and Smith offered to pay for the same on the Terlingua municipal well to ensure that Lajitas isn’t draining Terlingua’s supply.

But the critics keep coming. Tony Fallin, a lifelong visitor to the area, is the hydrogeologist Smith gives primary credit for finding his water, but Fallin has jumped ship. After quitting Smith a year ago, he took up residence near the ghost town in a cinderblock structure with “Passing Wind” written on a sign over the gate, from where he mailed out two- and three-thousand-word handwritten diatribes to Hubble, government officials, and the press at least once a week. The letters typically began with declarations like “The pigs are coming home to roost!” Although he stands by his estimate that the aquifer is the size of “a small Lake Erie,” he has halved his recharge projections to reflect the current drought. More to the point, he can’t abide Lajitas’ taking such a disproportionate share of the water—least of all for something with as little place in the desert as an oasis golf course.

One of Smith’s measures that has actually been applauded in the community is the creation of a 64-acre bird sanctuary on and around an island in the river. To fashion it he cleared thousands of the dreaded salt cedar trees, the non-native scourge of the park that sucks nearly three hundred gallons of river water a day per tree. Smith estimates that the salt cedar removal has returned a million gallons of water to the river daily, and the mature cottonwoods he planted in their place have already attracted a whole bunch of birds, quietly pleasing area birders.

But what the desert taketh away, it can give back in a hurry. Locals say violent flash floods rage down the Rio Grande every ten years or so, and without the salt cedar to hold down the island or sufficient time for the cottonwoods to root, one such storm could carry the bird sanctuary and a large section of golf course all the way to Boquillas Canyon. If that happens, park officials worry not only that the course’s structures and trees will collect in tight spots on the river but also that fertilizer and exotic plants will affect the ecological balance in the park. The cottonwoods will root in two to five years. The next ten-year flood was due last year. Smith has no answer for that scenario but to pick up the mess and rebuild.

SMITH GAVE NO REAL TIMETABLE for moving people in, which may indicate he’s becoming aware of the desert’s limitations. A golf event to be televised nationally in June has been pushed back, hopefully no further than to the fall. The grass should be in by then. He has taken “reservations” on just one slip in Maverick Ranch and four of the smaller lots across the highway from where he’d put Tiger and Tom, but sales can’t be finalized until the plats for those areas are approved by the county. The Maverick Ranch plat was approved in late March, but Smith won’t even apply for the subdivision plats until this summer.

Smith does talk about an overall eight-to-ten-year process, after which he hopes to step down and play golf while the community runs itself. And if his billionaires decide 100 degrees is not a bearable, dry heat? “We’re not really anticipating what’ll happen if this doesn’t work,” he said. “We’re focusing on what we have planned. That’s the only way I know how to do things.”

“It’s weird that such nice people have created such dissonance,” said a neighbor of Smith’s, Collie Ryan. She has been a squatter in Lajitas for twenty years, living without electricity or water in a gutted school bus near what is now Smith’s spa site. She supports herself by selling hubcaps that she paints with intricate Native American designs and works on a patio she created with rocks she carried to her little oasis. It’s a quirky, beautiful spot, typical of the whole of Big Bend: You either feel immediately at home or you miss your air conditioning. Smith told her last year that she could stay on his property as long as she wanted, so she has positioned herself as a go-between for the developer and the desert. On the one hand, she says she can hear the salt cedar cry when they are ripped from the earth, and on the other, she looks forward to selling a couple extra $125 hubcaps a month to Smith’s high-rolling friends once the construction is done.

“Right now, it’s two camps: the quote ‘nature lovers’ and the quote ‘nature haters,’ us ‘poor folks’ and them ‘rich boogers,’” she said. “The water process with the county should awaken the ‘we.’ It’ll increase Smith’s understanding of our resources, limit his ability to act, and force him to communicate. Maybe then some of us who love nature so much can teach them to appreciate it too, which will be good. The richer you are, the more you need this place.”

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