Monday, January 7, 2008

How I Found Terlingua Ranch

Note: This is a repost, all in one chunk, with a couple of updates and without the photos, of my original multi-part article. So without further ado...

I love deserts. Especially, I love off-the-beaten-path desert areas that have neither a lot of visitors, nor much government intrusion. I have been to southeastern Utah several times, and I love it there, but the area has more and more of both of the above problems.

For years I have heard and read the occasional reference or article about the Big Bend area of Texas and how remote and relatively unvisited it is, but I had never managed to make the time to go there; for the same reason so few other people visit: it is not on the way to anywhere. Actually I did once find myself within a couple hundred miles of the area, but I was on my way to Mexico and my time was too limited to make any side trips.

Last summer I saw a reference to a huge old ranch called Terlingua Ranch that is in the area, and I guess it came at just the right time because I decided to look into it further. What I found was a loose-knit libertarian community of folks ranging from the left to the right, politically speaking, but united by a love of freedom and of the beautiful Chihuahua Desert, and by a dislike of crowds and of heavy-handed government.

I had to go there.

I started searching the Internet, looking for photos, comments, forums, anything about the area in general and the Ranch in particular. I found quite a few photos, member pages of off-road motorcyclists who ride there, and forums of people who own land on the Ranch.
And politics, egads. Anytime you have such a diverse group of individualistic characters communicating about the subject that ties them together, a subject dear to all their hearts, you’re GONNA have some heated political discussions. IMHO, the thing to do on that subject is to develop some skin thickness and realize we’re all allies in preserving the things we love about the area, so I try to ignore the politics and focus on the important part (I said TRY. I’ve occasionally jumped in with flames too. I’m no angel).

While I was doing all this, I was also developing a travel plan to visit the Ranch. I settled on New Year’s. I had about a week and a half off work then anyway, and I had a week of vacation time remaining. Also the rattlesnakes, scorpions, killer bees etcetera would be snoozing then. New Year’s it was.

I shopped online and found a good deal on a canvas wall tent. Terlingua Ranch has a lodge, and the prices are reasonable, but there was no WAY I was gonna do such a trip and not camp; and my old nylon tent (or a new nylon tent, for that matter) would not suffice. It had to be a canvas tent that I could stand up in, and heat with a woodstove. I knew of course that I would have to bring my own wood, and that would consume space. Propane would be a lot easier, but a wood fire has certain aesthetic qualities that propane just can’t touch.

So I searched for a tent-sized woodstove. I found several, but most were costly. I almost decided to buy a surplus Army M1941 tent woodstove, but being a poor boy and an adherent to the Possum Living, diy philosophy I decided to make my own stove. So I went to the steelyard and bought a scrap piece of 8?x8? thickwall square tube and other assorted scrap pieces, then went to a surplus building supply store and bought three 2' sections of 4? double wall, galvanized steel flue pipe to use for a stovepipe. I was in a quandary about using galvanized material because the zinc coating releases a toxic gas if it gets hot enough to break down, but I was thinking that any gas released from the inside of the pipe would exhaust out the top, safely away from the interior of the tent; and the double-wall construction should insulate the exterior of the pipe enough to prevent its becoming hot enough to break down the plating. Then I saw a modern commercially-produced tent stove being sold with an included, galvanized stovepipe, and I quit worrying about it.

After the Christmas festivities were over, I loaded my Jeep for the trip. Actually I overloaded, this being my first visit to the ranch and not really knowing what to expect. For one thing, I hauled more firewood than necessary. For another, not being 100% sure of the water situation, I erred on the side of caution and brought two full 15 gallon water jugs. Now, these supplies would not have been a bad idea had I had a trailer or at least a hitch-haul, but I found myself temporarily without such equipment and no money left over from the travel budget to purchase same. That meant everything had to go inside, leaving just enough room for me to drive.

It also took more time to pack than I anticipated, and I had procrastinated the night before; so that instead of the planned departure at the crack of dawn, I rolled out at about 3 PM, already tired. It was gonna be a long drive.

Well, the first day was long. I drove until I got to Texas, then drove until I found a suitable (as in, “with vacancy”) motel. By then it was 3 AM. I slept 5 hours, which was a balance between the minimum I felt would allow me to function properly, while still getting on the road early enough to pull down some serious miles. And I did. I stopped for the night in Midland, just as it was starting to rain. It was early evening, and I could have continued to Alpine, but didn’t want to head into the mountains at night, in the rain, with unseen 3000 foot drops just off the edge of the road (I know now that the drive is NOTHING like that, but I would have missed some beautiful scenery).

It rained all night, and was still raining when I headed out the next morning. The rain stopped about an hour out of town, and it cleared into a nice, but chilly day. Finally, I arrived in Alpine!

Alpine is the seat of Brewster County, which is the county Terlingua Ranch is in, and is the only town of any size in the county. I guess you could say it is the cultural center of the area. I arrived late morning and, after ‘cruising the town” and gassing up the Jeep, headed to the public
library to get online and send email. Afterwards, feeling some hunger pangs, I wandered over to the Edelweiss Brewery for a wonderful lunch of a huge hamburger and fries, washed down with some of their primary product (you won’t catch me delicately sampling fancy French cuisine!). When I left, I bought a growler of their Pale Ale to enjoy later at the ranch. Next I went in search of the realtor (OK, I admit it; I bought a tract of land on the ranch sight unseen, on Ebay) but he was out of town so I decided to head south towards the ranch whilst the weather was nice and I had plenty of daylight left.

I stopped on the way a few times to snap photos of snow, mountains etc. and, about an hour and a half later, arrived at the ranch itself!

When I saw Santiago Peak off in the distance to my left, I knew I was getting close. I was driving south from Alpine on 118, and I was watching for this 6500' peak as a landmark, because I knew from the topo maps that it could be seen from my tract on the northern border of the ranch. It looked just as awesome as I expected, too; with a low cloud shrouding its summit.

About 25 miles farther, I reached the first paved road I had seen (other than the one I was on), intersecting from the left, along with a sign displaying the Bad Rabbit brand and the words, “Terlingua Ranch”. I had arrived! I turned in, noting the ranch store on the corner with water tanks for sale outside, and drove slowly so as not to miss any of the impressive scenery.

The terrain is fairly flat desert interspersed with numerous hills and a few larger mountains. Small dirt roads, some well-graded, others faint two-tracks, intersect the main ranch road. You can see an occasional structure, ranging from modern homes to shacks. Travel trailers are common, too. The pavement ends after about 13 miles, and the road is graded dirt/gravel for the last 3 miles before the ranch headquarters.

Headquarters is a cluster of buildings surrounded by small mountains.There are several dirt roads heading into the mountains and out into the desert. One of the roads winds around the base of the nearest mountain, and has pullouts for RV camping. There are a few duplexes which comprise the motel, and there is a restaurant, swimming pool, bathhouse, campground, an open area for tent camping, a landing strip, a rifle range and separate pistol range, a chapel, etc. In the center is the ranch office, and most of the other buildings are within walking distance. Two water wells are located behind the office.

Let me digress here for a minute, to discuss the water situation at the ranch. Most people who live here fulltime have a large storage tank and a roofed area that is usually larger than the dwelling, to not only provide lots of shade in the daytime but also lots of rainwater collection area. The area receives, on average, 9 inches of rain per year. I won’t go into a detailed discussion of the math, but 1 cubic foot of water is approximately 7.5 gallons; that is how much
water 12 square feet of roof area will gather, per inch of rain. Working from that, assuming a large enough tank, and that the tank is well-designed to prevent evaporation, 100 square feet of roof area should gather a conservative minimum of 1 gallon per day, averaged over the year.
That means 1000 square feet, which is by most people’s standards a small house, will gather an average of at least 10 gallons per day. Build a small house with large overhangs, a covered patio and carport for 2000 square feet (and a 10,000 gallon tank to match) and you’ve got 20 gallons per day, fulltime. A couple or small family who can’t make it on that, has no business living in the desert.
Wells are not out of the question, either. I’ve been told that water
is about 300 feet down in most areas of the ranch. That’s not bad. I don’t know how much a drilling company charges in the area, but I think $10 per foot is an average rate in most areas. That would make your well $3000. The downside is if the driller doesn’t find water, you still
have to pay him.
*Update: I have since received better data from what I consider a very reliable source, to the effect that the average well is between 600 and 1000 feet deep; and that drilling costs $20 per foot. Also that a large percentage of attempts come up dry.
Now I don't know about you, but that takes it out of the realm of being an option for me. I can haul an awful lot of 3 cents per gallon water for that $20,000. In fact, I can haul water for years before finally building a catchment system, without spending 20 grand.*

But what if you just bought 5 acres to camp on, don’t intend to live there, and it’s gonna be awhile, if ever, before you you can even think seriously about buying a big water tank or anything else permanent? Do you have to haul 50 gallons from home for a camping trip? No. You’re not gonna have to travel with 500 lbs of water sloshing in the back of your vehicle, like I did. The two wells I mentioned earlier behind the ranch office are for landowners to purchase water. One of the wells is certified potable, the other is not. They are right next to each other. The certified water is, I think, 15 cents per gallon; and last I checked the uncertified water
was 3 cents per gallon. 100 gallons for $3. For short-term use that’s not bad at all. Heck, you could even live that way indefinitely, although you will eventually want to scrimp and save for a better solution. One thing, though. The water you purchase from the ranch is slightly sulphurous, so it doesn’t taste very good. You can get used to it, and I hear it’s actually good for you, but I still think I would use a charcoal filter for my drinking water.
*Another water update: I read in a news article that you can buy certified potable water in Study Butte, about 35 miles south of the Ranch, for one cent per gallon, limited to 25 gallons per month. This would be a good option for campers, because you're gonna want to visit Study Butte and the Terlingua ghost town anyway*

OK, back to the ranch office. The ladies who work there are beginning to wonder if we’re ever gonna come in. Inside, there is a counter where you can get the help and/or answers you need. There are also seats, to take a load off, and magazines to read and buy. The front room to your left is a store for all kinds of souvenirs, and behind that is another room with maps of the ranch all around the walls, more maps in a rack for sale, a computer, a coffeemaker (always full), and
a central table surrounded by chairs. This room always has at least a few landowners and potential landowners hanging around, drinking coffee, perusing maps, and carrying on several conversations at once.

We’ll be revisiting this room later.

I met the ranch manager, whom I had been warned was an ogre; but I found her to be a very gracious, friendly, and helpful hostess. In fact, everyone there welcomes landowners like family, and they go out of their way to accommodate you. Of course they are welcoming to non-landowners too; but if you own land they know they’ll be seeing you again.

I was glad to be off the road, and on the ranch. Although it was still daylight and would be for a few more hours, I was too tired from the trip to set up camp, so I got one of the rooms at the lodge for the night. After unloading some stuff, I went for a drive around the near perimeter of the headquarters, visited the rifle range and fired a box or so of .45 Long Colt from my Ruger single-action revolver, then went beyond the range a mile or so until the road started climbing. I actually climbed about halfway up the hill in my Cherokee, but the road was gumbo mud from
the earlier rainstorm, and I chickened out when I imagined sliding off the edge. So I backed down gingerly, got out and climbed the hill on foot. It was a beautiful view from up there, but it was getting pretty close to sundown so I snapped a few photos and headed back to headquarters for a good meal and some shut-eye.

Next morning, I got up at the crack of noon (just kidding! It wasn’t that late), ate breakfast and drank coffee, then wandered on foot down to the office. There were a couple of landowners already there, so I drank more coffee while socializing. There is a room at the office with topo maps nearly floor to ceiling on three walls denoting all the areas of the ranch, and with all tracts marked. The 4th wall has bulletin boards covered with memos about tracts for sale and other things of interest to current and potential landowners. In the center of the room is a long table
so you can sit, drink coffee, shoot the breeze, and peruse maps and such. Topo maps are for sale in a rack on a table against the fourth wall, and there is also a computer on that table. Loaded on the computer is an up-to-date, searchable database of all the tracts and their owners; so if for example you bought some land from this particular land company, liked dealing with them and wanted to see exactly what else they had available as of today, you could search under those parameters, write down the tract numbers that looked promising and find them on the maps.

That’s exactly what lots of people were doing, myself included. By this time I had decided that I definitely wanted to buy a second tract; a smaller one, closer to the main road for easy access.

About noon I headed out to find my land. I arrived there about 2 hours and 30 miles later, just north of the middle of nowhere. Beautiful, but chilly and breezy. I definitely plan to keep it, but I knew that it was a place to trek to from the main camp, perhaps camp there on occasion but the main camp needed to be more sheltered and easier to get in and out of.
I spent the rest of the day leisurely wandering around the ranch, getting a feel for some of the different areas to help me decide exactly where to buy my “base camp” tract. The next several days were the same; make a list of a few promising tracts for sale, then head out to find them. That’s not all I did, of course: I was there to have a good time and decompress from what is euphemistically referred to as the “real world”; so I spent lots of time just going to interesting areas, getting out and exploring on foot. I even explored a few canyons; something I definitely wouldn’t want to do during the summer due to the proliferation of rattlesnakes, killer bees and other such nasties. As it was, I kept an eye peeled for mountain lions and bears. I know bears are supposed to be in hibernation during the winter, but it wasn’t very cold and I’m not sure if they really hibernate when it isn’t cold.
During these outings, when my stomach let me know it was lunchtime I would dig a can of something out of my food box, heat it on my old Optimus 8R Hiker stove and eat lunch wherever I happened to be, then continue exploring. That way I could stay out there all day. Besides, there’s just something about eating in some lonely canyon far into the outback that really improves the flavor of Beanie-Weenies and saltines.
Even back at camp, most of my meals were canned goods and a few perishables, including a large chunk of leftover Christmas ham, that I kept in a cooler. I only ate one restaurant meal during my entire stay on the ranch, and that was at the ranch restaurant. I heard lots of good things about a particular restaurant in Study Butte, but never got around to checking it out this trip.

I did go to Study Butte once, and on to Lajitas, where I stood on the bank of the Rio Grande and looked across at Paso Lajitas. I enjoyed the visit and will probably spend more time there next trip, but I spent most of this trip getting to know the ranch. Didn’t see all of it either, not by a long shot.
I ended up camping in the primitive-camping area at the edge of the HQ compound. It was out of the way, yet very close to the bathhouse, office, restaurant etc. It was also very cheap. I won’t say how cheap, because landowners get a break in the price, but suffice to say that even a cheapskate like me didn’t mind at all paying for several nights. Let me put it another way: had I camped on my tract, the gas expenditure would have exceeded what I paid in camping fees. Of course, I did visit my tract a couple more times, but most days I didn’t drive all the way to that
corner of the ranch.

Camping where I did, I was able to watch the comings and goings at the ranch HQ, while still getting the flavor of camping in the wild. For example, one night about midnight I was awakened by what sounded like a bunch of orcs coming towards my camp from a small draw about 100 yards south of me. I grabbed my .45 Blackhawk and lay still, listening to the rapidly approaching grunts and squeals. By the time they arrived, I knew what they were. Javelina. I lay there grinning and stifling laughter as they poked around my campsite, occasionally bumping my tent in their search for food.
For the most part the weather was very mild. It was early January, but the temperature reached the 50s most days, even occasionally climbing into the 60s. Nights, however, were cold; and I was glad I had brought a 0 degree mummy bag. Not that it got that cold, but it did drop well below freezing. The woodstove made for comfortable evenings, but once I let the fire die down at bedtime, it would get almost as cold inside as out. Tent canvas just doesn’t insulate very well.


Anonymous said...

I too have been captured by the beauty and remoteness of the Terlingua Ranch area. Not on the way to anything, so not too many visitors. I've got 20 acres there and am in the process of building a nice cabin on a high bluff overlooking a wide flat area with mountains in the distance. Will be 100% off-grid.

I love it there, but the 8 hour drive from Dallas/Fort Worth only allows me to go every few weeks during holiday wknds when I tag a couple vacation day on it and make a 4-5 day trip out of it. Hope you enjoy your place and visits there as much as I do.

Tracy said...

Sounds like the northern Cedar Springs area, overlooking Chalk Draw, with the Santiago Mountains in the distance. That is a beautiful view.