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¿Viva Terlingua?

The murder of a prominent citizen isn’t the only thing that has locals worried this eccentric desert town is changing too fast.

By April 2014Comments

Photograph by Jessica Lutz

It’s an unseasonably warm February afternoon in Terlingua, and the power of the cloudless sky’s white sun reflected off the pale desert dirt is so overwhelming it bleaches the color out of everything it touches. Everything except the jalapeño-red facade of the Chili Pepper Cafe and Michael Drinkard’s lizard-patterned green shirt. 

Drinkard works with the Terlingua chapter of the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend, a nonprofit that serves as the community’s de facto social services office, handling everything from domestic violence to food shortages. Right now, he says over a Texas-size iced tea, he should be planning the center’s annual Chihuahua run fundraiser. But like all his neighbors, he’s coping with the violent death of Glenn Felts, the fifty-year-old owner of La Kiva, Terlingua’s legendary watering hole.

“It’s affected hundreds of people here,” he says. “A lot of people were at the crime scene. A lot of people saw things that upset their sense of reality.” 

Felts may well have been the most important man in town, and his murder, allegedly at the hands of his friend Tony Flint, has hit people hard. Terlingua, a rocky oddity that sprang up from the remains of a mercury-mining boomtown that went bust in the forties, has always been a haven for weirdos, rogues, and individualists. The area’s small population—in the 2010 census, fewer than a thousand people lived in Terlingua’s zip code—mostly subsists on tourism. Rafting companies that work the Rio Grande provide a major source of employment.

“We have a tolerance for other people’s differences. We’re not cliquey or classy,” says Collie Ryan, an artist who moved from the Bay Area to Terlingua in 1980. La Kiva, the exceedingly off-kilter establishment that opened the same year, was central to that ethos. “It’s where we went to be reminded of our neighbors,” she says.

Almost as shocking as Felts’s death, then, is the prospect that La Kiva might not survive him. The manner of Felts’s demise and the shuttering of his life’s work have locals taking stock of what’s happening to their unusual community. Terlingua is growing and maturing, and some changes have longtimers feeling ill at ease.

La Kiva, founded by Felts’s late uncle, Gilbert, and taken over by Felts, an Odessa native, in 1991, is dug into a lot along the banks of Terlingua Creek. “Kiva” refers to a subterranean ceremonial chamber built by the Pueblo people, and the establishment lives up to its supernatural association. To enter, patrons pass through an old heavy mining door and descend a narrow corridor to a set of inner rooms. The place isn’t all heavy vibes, though. In the dining room patrons sit at tables beneath a large fake fossil skeleton of a “Penisaurus erectus” that Gilbert installed years ago.

On the morning of February 4, Felts’s body was found in La Kiva’s parking lot by an employee who’d come to begin cooking the day’s barbecue. Flint, a local river guide, was arrested the same day. He and Felts had spent much of the previous night together, drinking heavily before things ended badly. Flint reportedly told the police that Felts tripped and fell, but police say the extent of his wounds—he suffered blunt force trauma to the head—belies that. The details of the alleged crime, in its gruesomeness and ineptitude, convulsed a community that thought itself well accustomed to extremes.

In the constellation of little dreamscape towns in the relative vicinity of Big Bend National Park, Terlingua has always stood out for standing out, especially as its neighbors have transformed themselves in recent years. There’s Marfa, now known for its minimalist art and steady stream of vacationing New Yorkers. There’s Marathon, with its newly renovated luxury hotel, the Gage. And there’s Lajitas, where a pricey resort, traded between a string of Texas millionaires, has taken over the town once “run” by Mayor Clay Henry, a beer-drinking goat.

The first wave of outsiders who arrived in Terlingua, in the seventies, resisted such changes. But that generation is now fairly aged, and over the past two decades Terlingua, too, has begun to transform itself. Big Bend High School was built in 1997; before that residents had to send their kids to Alpine, nearly two hours away (or just not send them at all). In 2003 the community began modernizing and expanding its patchy municipal water system, which now connects several hundred people who previously had to meticulously conserve precious well water. And though Felts’s murder necessitated the borrowing of forensic equipment from Waco (nine hours away) and an autopsy in Lubbock (six hours away), the forces of public safety in Terlingua are better equipped than ever before, with a big new EMS center that’s mere yards away from La Kiva.

There’s also a full grocery store with a selection of organic foods and, a few miles away, a brunch nook, Espresso y Poco Mas, that wouldn’t be out of place on Austin’s South Congress Avenue. Wi-Fi networks and satellite dishes, once unheard of, are increasingly common. Many welcome these modern conveniences. Enjoying a mid-morning Lone Star at Espresso, longtime resident Doug Blackmon tells me about his website promoting the virtues of Terlingua, complete with a streaming radio station for local music. “Oh, we like the same things big-city folk do,” he says.

But some have reservations. “Used to be, before satellite TV and stuff like that, every night you’d go to somebody’s property, and there’d be food and music, and people would visit each other,” Drinkard says. “As it got more crowded, as there got to be Internet and TV, it changed. I don’t get out much.” 

Mike Long, a co-owner of local outfitter Desert Sports, who moved to the area in 1986, agrees. “It seems like a lot of people move out here because they love the place, and the first thing they try to do is change it,” he says. “They bring parts of the big city that they wanted to leave so bad out here with them.”

Some feel there are darker elements at work as well. “Early on, people were coming here because they wanted to be here, they were fleeing to this place,” says Drinkard. “Now it seems like a lot of people are fleeing from someplace.”

Terlingua is still an active frontier, and it attracts people for whom the frontier is desirable. That includes freewheeling artists like Ryan and empathetic oddballs like Felts, who often reside in and around Terlingua’s small and tightly connected core, known as the Ghost Town. But there are others who are drawn to the surrounding areas, perhaps for different reasons. Terlingua Ranch, a giant swath of privately owned land, encompasses 220,000 sparsely populated acres; there’s a lot of room for unsavory individuals to lie low. Old-timers’ feeling of insecurity may be more perception than reality, but one hears about it a lot.

In 2009, in an incident that shocked Terlingua almost as much as Felts’s murder, an eighteen-year-old high school student was abducted outside a Ghost Town bar and repeatedly raped by two men who lived at Terlingua Ranch but were strangers in the community. The men set fire to the teenager’s car and took him deep into the desert; eventually, he broke free and ran down dirt roads until he stumbled across a sheriff’s deputy. A month and a half later, a Terlingua man killed his wife, and then shot himself. There are other stories—one resident I spoke with talked of befriending a new bartender in town before discovering he was a convicted child molester. Another described the outlying areas as a hideaway for “tax cheats, secessionists, survivalists, felons, sex offenders, and militiamen.”

“There’s a lot of good people down there, of course, people from all kinds of backgrounds—there’s a guy from the New Yorker,” said Brewster County sheriff Ronny Dodson. “There’ve also been a lot of weirdos down there. Our sheriff’s office has caught a lot of questionable people.” 

Flint, though, is anything but a stranger: originally from Missouri, he joined Terlingua’s close-knit brigade of river guides in 2009. One woman told Marfa Public Radio about the delight with which he would explain to visitors the migration of monarch butterflies. Flint’s arrest deepened some residents’ feeling of shock—and their sense that perhaps they don’t truly know even their closest neighbors. “Tony sat and watched football at my house every Sunday,” says Felts’s longtime bartender and closest friend, Erik “Gumby” Allgood. “The fact that this happened is just insane.”

Felts’s family wants to find a buyer for La Kiva, which has been closed since Felts’s death. But even if they do, hurdles remain. The bar’s licenses are in Felts’s name and could be difficult to resecure. La Kiva had been exempt from current building codes via a grandfather clause—if a new owner were to reopen the bar, it could be costly to bring it up to date. And some say La Kiva just wouldn’t be the same without Felts. 

But then, the desert is a place of heightened ephemerality. And the price of living in a place so small and closely bound is that each loss cuts deeper. But Drinkard sees strength in that—and thinks that the community’s grief may help hold it together.

“Sometimes people here get irritable, and they drift apart. Maybe it’s chronic dehydration, I don’t know,” he says. “But then when somebody dies, they all come together at the Terlingua cemetery. That’s when people remember, we’re here because we like each other. We’re all the same family.”

Austin journalist Christopher Hooks has written for the Texas Tribune, Slate, Politico, and the Texas Observer.

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  • Voni

    I’m really offended that you describe Terlingua this way. You miss the point that murder is so alien to our community. A large city might have this much crime in one night. We’ve been rocked three times in EIGHT years!

  • Debra

    I was actually brought here by Mike Drinkard. I chose to stay here because of the people in the community. The people here are not criminals escaping from unknown lands beyond our little community, but people who find home here, some in tents and ruins of long days past. It is not an easy place to make a life unless you make this place your life. Some of the most awesome people in the world at large live here and most are artist and musicians, but all family by choice. Yes it hurt to lose Mr, Felts and it was a shock that one of our own could have done such a thing but we are getting over it together, although some have decided to support Mr. Flint as a friend those of us who do not still care about them and try hard to understand their loyalty to the killer. I hope Mr. Flint can get the help he needs and never returns here to our little town, but have no ill will towards the man or his deluded supporters. I think of Terlingua as my family and yes we have a a few “poopyheads” but they are part of us as a collective community and we will all feel differently in time.
    But by no means can you judge us by this horrible tragedy. We support each other in times of need and in times of joy. I urge you to visit Terlingua and feel the hugs and enjoy our restaurants and Ghost Town. This place has the best music and the most love of anyplace I have ever been. It is heaven on earth to me.

  • gary schroeder

    from my house to Terlingua is 600 miles of hard dusty driving
    No gasoline for miles on end
    the people are amazingly friendly
    and helpful which ALLOWED me to survive
    my mistakes in one of my mis-edventures
    traveling in an old VW bus !

  • Sian Farris

    Truths that could be told of ANY city or small town… You never truly know someone as well as you would like to think and you never know when or what could make someone *snap*
    This was written, OBVIOUSLY, by someone who doesn’t live here and doesn’t feel the connections we do that time can’t erase…
    Most times, it is healthy to get an outsider perspective… forest for the trees… But in THIS case, there is too much left unsaid… because it would likely fall on deaf ears.
    This IS still Home to me.
    I would buy La Kiva AND Glenn’s home if I could… to keep it “in the family”….
    Seriously though.
    Glad for the local voices being used throughout, but what a cynical perspective…

    Not only that, but it is SO out of the ordinary of local behaviour that we can’t help but feel the aftershocks for a while…
    We tend to work out our differences before things ever get that far…
    We’re still flabbergasted that the reality is, this CAN happen
    & did… to one of the sweetest men I have ever known. He was like an uncle to me and I lived in his house on the other side of the creek around 13 years of age… We still haven’t even gotten any sense of “justice” as things are still held up in the legal arena… but, as “candid” as this article might be, the perspective is still skewed by someone who does NOT know how deeply our roots & true sense of community (WHICH, by the way, spans in the hundreds of miles… HOW many places and people can say that and truly mean it?) run…
    I guess you either “get it” or you don’t…
    Either way, violence and creeps are NOT what make this place what it is. People in love with nature and a slower paced, connected and very musical way of life are what make this place what it is…
    I hope that one day you can experience the beautiful medicine this place offers to those with eyes to see.
    A NATIVE born local (who has traveled around the world and still came back here to call it home)

  • Jan Street

    Jan Worden Street
    Yes, towards the end of the article he makes it sound like an unnatural percentage of the population are criminals or sex-offenders who are just down there hiding out AND that there is a huge acceleration in violent crimes. For violent crimes & criminals, percentage-wise I’ll bet Terlingua is at or more likely below national numbers. He seems to have done his research and interviewed at least 3-4 locals and put down facts but definitely had a dark ‘tone’ & negative perspective in mind while writing the article. The job of most modern-day reporters, so-called journalists and writers for columns pretty much involves dramatizing events & entertaining their readers versus keeping things strictly objective (& factual). As Sian said, he OBVIOUSLY has not spent a lot of time in Terlingua and doesn’t realize how close-knit and family-like the locals are or what it is TRULY like to be a Terlinguan. He pretty much made it sound like most everyone you encounter is likely to be a violent criminal and the area is going to hell in a handbasket. His loss. And if it keeps the population down…so much the better for the locals!! (spoken as a former local!)

  • mdccc

    I know of three murders in Terlingua in the last three years (and others before that). Comparing crime rate to the big city, as commenters here seem to want to do, leads to a very upsetting conclusion. On a per capita basis, Terlingua has a murder rate equivalent to 6000 murders being committed in the Houston metropolitan area in each of the last three years, or 50 students killed at UT Austin each of the last three years. Would you let your kid go to a college like that? Terlingua’s tolerance of eccentricity and individuality is admirable and does not condone violence. It is the misguided acceptance by many of violent criminal behavior without consequences that now allows behavior to escalate to murder. Somewhere along the way there arose confusion on what an “outlaw” to be revered is; an outlaw doesn’t have victims. Willie Nelson is an “outlaw”; a serial bully is a criminal. The community in Terlingua has been locking doors at night for years now. This is a good and accurate article that does not defame Terlingua, it just sheds light on some disturbing trends. Killing the messenger won’t make it go away.

    • Gabriel

      It’s refreshing to see a comment by a numerate person with some understanding of statistics.

  • Mark

    As a frequent visitor, I find the Terlingua General Store one of the most relaxing and peaceful places on earth. The locals are warm and inviting, seldom offensive and always interested in carrying on a good conversation. Each has a story, some more fascinating than others, and some mysteriously sinister, but the mere willingness to share is irresistable. Felt’s murder was most likely an unintended, booze induced accident, (no shortage of booze in Terlingua). It was nonetheless tragic and notably shocking for such a close knit community, but far from the typical brutality that permeates most urban areas. If I had to register a single criticism of the Terlinqua area, it would be the growing loss of innocence that now seems apparent, as more and more people discover one of the last, best kept secrets in all the southwest – attributable in no small part, to the seemingly perpetual attention given by the writers of Texas Monthly. Of course, if given the opportunity to write of intriguing stories related to Texas, what better place than the Big Bend.

  • Mary Paloma Diesel

    While you may have gotten some of the facts correct, the story you have put together will only increase the paranoia and misconceptions about our community in the world at large. This sensationalism is just one example of where “investigative” reporting has gone wrong. Who decides who is a weirdo? That kind of labeling has no place in our grieving hearts. Your article will most certainly get you and your magazine attention. When you document the three crimes committed, you fail to compare it to the number of crimes happening in any Texas city during that same period. Talk about weird.

  • Bryn Moore

    Here we go again. One only has to see it’s copious advertising to understand Texas Monthly is mainstream press, and as such has put a dark slant on this article so as to sell more copies to its mainstream readers as they sit in their mainstream houses wishing they too could live here. And many are finding a way to do just that.
    THAT is what’s changing the texture of our area – people coming here who can’t live without bright yard lights that drown out our incredible stars. People who want instant homes and don’t have the patience to build from native materials such as adobe. Instead they throw up (there’s a double entendre for you) yet another trailer or container that adds to the visual blight in our stunningly gorgeous landscape.
    What happened to Glen is a horrible thing, and has rocked this place BECAUSE OF it’s uncommonness. Texas Monthly makes it seem as though the majority here are all criminals or n’er-do-wells in hiding.
    In 2005, my spouse was badly injured in a climbing accident. We had to leave our home for 4 1/2 months while he recuperated. Our community opened a bank account for us to keep us going, and folks contributed what they could to help. Terlingua Ranch Resort held a fundraiser for us. Friends took in our dog and horses while we were absent. THAT is the norm here – we help those in need in this community. Thank God we lived here when it happened rather than some soulless suburban place where you don’t know your neighbors and at the very most, they would say sorry for your troubles- and then look the other way.
    Texas Monthly has also been guilty in the past of treating the whole border as if it’s the same all along it, lumping our region into the same troubled pot as the Valley, or El Paso/Juarez. If you reported accurately, you would make distinctions and stop scaring people who don’t understand border differences and take YOUR word as truth.
    Glen Felt’s death was a horrendous anomaly, a tragedy so much more likely to occur in an urban area.. Don’t sensationalize Terlingua at our expense.

    • Daynaraek

      May I ask what happened to the couple that owned the Deli across from the supermarket?

  • Ranger Don

    I was a Ranger at Big Bend National Park and spent a lot of time in Terlingua and drinking with Glenn at La Kiva. Wish I had a place in Montana with the same people here. The good times on the store porch, the Star Light… Good times…