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.