At first blush, it’s almost impossible to tell the age of a resident of south Brewster County, and there are two good reasons for that. The first is the effect of the arid Big Bend environs, of the baking sun, beating winds, and unrelenting dust. Faces age faster in the desert, the skin browning and creasing and toughening up in ways that city and suburban dwellers don’t have to worry about. But the other reason for the difficulty in determining someone’s age out there cuts the other way. There’s a light in people’s eyes in far West Texas, a joy that comes with living exactly where and how a person wants. Make no mistake, desert life is hard, and the sacrifices required are made hourly. Nearly every living thing a desert dweller encounters—be it plant, bug, or beast—is capable of drawing blood. The round-trip drive to Alpine for big groceries is 190 miles. During droughts, people will live on water saved in rooftop rain-catchment systems, showering and flushing the toilet once a week. During sudden storms, their power will go out, and they’ll be trapped wherever they are, the roads made impassable by flashing creeks trying to find the Rio Grande. And the heat beats anything foretold in Revelation.
Still, when the sun sets each night, when the dry desert air turns gold and the clouds go from white to purple to orange to gone and a desert rat can put himself to sleep by counting stars, that hard life is worth it. It brings a satisfaction, not of beating the desert but of surviving it. The soul stays young, and that youth glows in the eyes, as lined as they may be. So when you meet someone who lives in Terlingua or Study Butte or Lajitas—that area known in local shorthand as South County—you might not be able to tell if he’s thirty or sixty. And at that point, reconciling the desert’s harshness and beauty is your problem.
It became Steve Smith’s problem when he bought the town of Lajitas at a public auction in February 2000. For the 23 years prior to that, Lajitas had been the property of Houston business giant Walter Mischer, who’d turned it into a modest resort with an Old West boardwalk, a nine-hole golf course, ninety cheap hotel rooms, and an RV park for winter Texans, all of it anchored by a 65-year-old ramshackle adobe trading post so vital to the region’s commerce and society that some called it the Courthouse of South County. Mischer never made much money off the place and held onto it mostly out of love. When he decided to sell, Smith, a 54-year-old Austin-based telecommunications tycoon, showed up unannounced and unknown, stepping out of his helicopter just before the auction began to buy Lajitas on a whim for $4.25 million. “My first thought was, I’d spend a million to spruce it up a little bit,” he told the San Antonio Express-News shortly thereafter. But he insisted that his intention was little substantive change.
When I met him nearly two years later, he was thinking differently. I was writing a story that would run in the May 2002 issue of Texas Monthly on Smith’s vision for Lajitas: the creation of a world-class, five-star golf resort and an exclusive development for multimillion-dollar vacation homes. By then, consultants and friends had convinced Smith that the dream could be real, and toward that end he had already spent $40 million, which he estimated would be half of his ultimate outlay. His ambition grew ever more glorious by the day: eight hundred residential lots of two acres or less, some selling for as much as $1 million, undeveloped; two championship golf courses, not desert-style, with grass growing only on greens and tees, but with a lush wall-to-wall carpet that would need a million gallons of water a day to stay green in summer months; an RV park with $100,000 slips for $500,000 motor homes; a 36,000-square-foot spa; four fancy restaurants; an amphitheater seating three thousand; an equestrian center; a hunting club.
Twelve miles east, on the Terlingua Ghost Town porch—the stretch of cement in front of the come-and-go storefronts where locals gather each evening to watch the Chisos Mountains change colors in the sunset—Smith’s Ultimate Hideout, as his marketers called Lajitas, was already being derided as the “Ultimate High Doubt.” But unlike their city friends who made annual pilgrimages to Big Bend and worried that the new Lajitas would ruin the area, the beer drinkers on the porch watched Smith spend and felt a surprising amount of concern for him. Had he really sprayed a compound on the ground in front of the Lajitas boardwalk that would keep dust from kicking up? Was he actually planning on repopulating Big Bend with the superrich dust-averse? When Lajitas’s marketing team suggested that all the resort needed to take off was a visitor with A-list celebrity credentials, one Tom Cruise or Tiger Woods, Terlingua just laughed. There was a reason Big Bend hadn’t already been overrun by the wealthy: the Chihuahuan Desert.
While few doubted that Smith genuinely loved the area, they saw no signs that he knew how hard it was to live there. His whole model was based on the idea that he could somehow tame the desert, refashion it to suit his plan, and it was just a matter of time before his vision became known as Smith’s Folly. Sure enough, the hotel struggled to maintain even 50 percent occupancy, and a mere five private homes went up in his subdivisions. Then, this summer the Lajitas resort declared bankruptcy, announcing some $15 million in debts and $500,000 a month in operating losses, and went on the auction block. Though it was appraised on the Brewster County tax rolls at $16 million, Smith’s own investment in the place has reportedly been more than $100 million. “I’ve heard he spent between $80 million and $100 million, but I don’t know,” said one of the creditors’