Terlingua is located in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert.
It is approximately twenty five miles from Big Bend National Park which stretches for a thousand miles along the southwest border between Texas and Old Mexico. In the late 1800s, it was discovered that a red- mercury sulfide, cinnabar, was plentiful in Terlingua and a mining community sprang up.
Mercury, also referred to as quicksilver, can be extracted from cinnabar and was used by the United States Army in its ignition switches. So when the cinnabar mines in Terlingua proved to be the richest in North America and even second largest in the world, the community thrived. But when the US Army converted its arsenal to electronic switches in the 1940s and the quicksilver mines in Terlingua became depleted, the mining community vamoosed and Terlingua expired. It became a ghost town in essence, in the center of a pitiless desert at the far edge of the middle of nowhere, haunted by the husks of old rusted cars and crumbling haciendas with jagged window glass and... disremembered mines that were never sealed off.
There is a bit more to the rise and fall of Terlingua, Texas, especially the fall, but that is the basic, functional history of the town.
Now, the history of the World Champion Chili Cook-off in Terlingua, probably the largest chili cook-off in the entire world, is a different deal altogether. Suffice it to say that the cook-off got started in 1967 as a means of settling a dispute between two journalists who each claimed to know more about chili than the other. And even though the event was only half a dozen years old, it was already legendary when Ellie and I would, more or less agree to meet there.
Perhaps it would’ve been best (I don’t know for who) had we traveled together... but we didn’t.
At last count, and who knows what it was then, in 1972, the population of Terlingua, Texas was only twelve obdurate souls, and around 10,000 more were about to rush in for an event, something akin to Woodstock with chili, or perhaps Heaven after Cyclone Winnie hit East Pakistan in 1961.
A question can be raised... was Terlingua safe? With its dilapidated houses and forsaken storefronts and implacable cinnabar pits? According to Wikipedia, Terlingua is safer now than 98% of the cities in the United States. But perhaps it wasn’t then, at least for Ellie anyway and as it turned out, not for me so much either.
The most direct route to Terlingua, Texas from Odessa, Texas is about 250 miles if you travel the interstate and state highways- maybe a bit less as the crow flies. It is about a four hour trip, taking occasional bathroom breaks and not exceeding the speed limit enough to get noticed and stopped by the Texas Highway Patrol.
We went in Scotty Bob’s car; a 1950 Ford Custom that he’d souped-up with a rebuilt engine and new carburetors. He had jacked up the rear-end and put in a floor shift. It was basically a street-rod. He liked to say: “It will blow the doors off any stock Mustang with a 289!” It was dark green and reminded me of a racing turtle.
For some reason, Scotty Bob had jiggered the backseat so that it would roll forward and you could climb into the trunk and then the seat would close back again. And the trunk of course, could be opened from the inside as well as the outside. I never really understood why he was so intent on rigging it that way; i.e. we never used it for anything significant or hid any bodies back there. We did keep a cooler of beer back there and food for the trip. We also carried along a large matchbox half full of weed and several hits of LSD for the trip and were stoned as hell by the time we got there.
Ellie had already disappeared into thin air, upon our arrival, but I did not know that.
The cook-off was already in the 3rd day by the time we arrived. We had started out in the eleventh hour anyway and then Scotty Bob insisted that we make a slight detour and stop off at the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool in Balmorhea State Park. He wanted to go swimming on acid before the cook-off because he reasoned that we surely wouldn’t have any leftover on the trip back... which we didn’t. He even brought his snorkel and fins. Scotty Bob got speared once, in the leg, on dryland by an errant spear from an underwater spear gun. But that is another story and not really intended for this tome.
The ground in that part of Texas is covered mostly with dirt composed of fine chunks of caliche or chert, which is similar to flint like the Native Americans used to make their arrow and spearheads. There are occasional bits of limestone with small pieces of fossilized sea creatures. And there is an abundance of scrub brush and various types of cacti and bottle grass and sedge as well as mesquite and tumbleweed.
I started looking around for Ellie the minute we got there.
The entire area where the attendees had camped and mingled and patrolled was potted and pock marked with the charcoal remains of small or large campfires that had been simply constructed in shallow, bowl shaped indentations in the ground, or inside circles of rocks. Of course there were still a number residual campsites where the hangers-on had wrapped themselves in their blankets or sleeping bags or buttoned or zipped themselves into their coats or jackets. It was November after all, and nights in the desert get pretty chilly- even in fall. There was the sound of voices and occasionally a few notes from a lone guitar. A coyote howled in the distance. It sounded like someone was having sex... somewhere- loud- or masturbating perhaps with a handful of cactus that they cleaned off the ground before unfurling their bedroll.
Scotty Bob and I were both extremely intoxicated on LSD; seeing double and triple and rainbows off everything. The smoke rising from one of the campfires actually appeared to me to be descending like a tiny tornado from a small cloud above the fire and returning to the flames. There was a portly woman in the shadows who looked like the subject of a Picasso painting, naked against an iridescent mural of the mountains behind the desert.
A bolt of purple lightning streaked across the entire sky from left to right and the total deafening silence was thunderous.
It was then that I saw her rise up from the ground... oddly and almost like smoke.
“Ellie?” I said.
Because she’d told me she wanted to explore the Devil’s sinkhole, I immediately figured she was coming up out of the entrance to one of the open mines. Had I known then that Terlingua is reputed to host one of the creepiest cemeteries in Texas, I might not have been so eager to traipse after Ellie; the ramshackle, haphazard boneyard, no doubt nestles more dead folks in its dirt bosom than the little town boasts living folk above ground still shuffling around and breathing its parched air. And supposedly, amongst the crumbled bones of miners who died of suffocation on a bad day of excavating and a blacksmith or two and a saloon owner here and there, there is rumored to be the mortal remains of a witch. I suspect she was probably more of a curandera than a bruja. She probably rode in the back of a covered wagon or an old pickup truck with some of her people from across the border who’d come desperate and determined to find a way to scratch an existence out of the desert. Her name is mostly forgotten- although there was a stone that still articulated when I was there last- MAR... CA... it read. The elements have gnawed it away by now I’m certain. She was certainly no Ozymandias or Marie Laveau.
I tripped over someone in a sleeping bag as I made my way toward Ellie.
“Hey!” the person said indignant and rightfully so. He... or she... didn’t have a fire or dog or radio or anything just a small bag of what seemed to be food and a canteen next to... them.
“Sorry...” I said and looked down into a face, that on first glance; I thought was a pig, with whiskers but a hairless conical shaped head. “Jesus!” I snapped before I could think
“You got a problem?!” the critter said, his... or her, voice deepening like it was being modulated on one of those voice changer gadgets.
“No. No!” I said as what seemed like a snake or hairless tail or big worm quickly sprouted out of the point atop the pig/man/creature’s head.
“Then go oink about your business.” The thing grunted.
“Oink?!” I said. “Did you say oink?” I muttered.
“Oink!” The thing shouted. “Oink the fuck oinka oink!”
“Okay! Okay!” I said. “Sorry! Sorry” Tendrils had begun to shoot out of the swine person’s sleeping bag... green hairy... tendrils... curling...
“JT...” I heard Ellie say, or what I thought was Ellie anyway.
I turned back to her, not knowing that she had been seen last, the day before, climbing onto the back of a Honda 350 driven by some guy with long blond hair.
It was the last account anyone would ever give of her.
I had a flashlight.
Scotty Bob had met up with a girl he knew, Sandi I think, a blond woman with smallish breasts but large-esque butt, and was unaware that I had wandered off. He had no idea of course, that when I got to the edge of the open mine where I saw Ellie emerge and then vanish again, that I had stepped into loose gravel and tripped and tumbled some ten or fifteen feet and then rolled another twenty or thirty before coming to a hard stop on the floor of an abandoned shaft.
I must’ve lost conscious for a few seconds or maybe minutes because when I came to... or perhaps realized what had just happened... and begun to form a mental picture of my situation... I had that feeling of just experiencing a lapse in time... without experiencing it... lost time or whatever they call it.... dissociation maybe... like my father sometimes experienced or what is commonly associated with folks who exhibit Borderline Personality Disorder.
It was weird because I wasn’t aware at first that I was immersed in total complete and abject darkness. It was so dark that I actually didn’t recognize it as darkness- probably because I had never been anywhere so dark... and also probably because I was still tripping on LSD.
I remembered that I had a flashlight, or that I had had one anyway before my tumble and descent, but I no longer had it in my hand.
I must’ve dropped it when I fell, I said to myself. The words were probably in my head only but seemed to echo throughout the shaft. It must be here. It must be here... here... here... here... Wherever here is... is... is... somewhere...
Without thinking, I began to feel around on the floor. It was hard and cool to the touch. There were bits and chips and chunks of what could only be rock... I assumed. I patted the ground carefully as I searched for my flashlight so I didn’t poke something sharp edged or pointed into my palm or the underside of my fingers The weight of the darkness seemed to diminish slightly but I was still completely without the ability to see. I felt something soft and warm... or perhaps it felt me. The image of a hand screamed into my mind... literally. I envisioned a hand with a mouth that was open in a primal yawl. And of course, I screamed... like an electric eel had just swum up my ass and discharged.
“Ahhh.... ahhhh!” I jerked my hand back and my elbow struck what immediately appeared in my mind as the shin of someone standing behind me. I heard what sounded like the scuttling small feet of rats... or maybe crabs. Were there crabs in Cinnabar mines? And voices, whispering several yards away from me and then directly next to me and behind me.
I balanced my weight on my right hand swung my legs around to sweep the feet out from under anyone who might standing near me. I heard the flashlight scoot across the stone floor.
“Chin...ga tu ma dre!.” I heard someone or something mutter... almost in anger.
Fuck your mother? I whispered as quietly as possible in my mind. I didn’t really know much Spanish but I knew what Ching tu madre meant.
My flashlight suddenly flipped on, facing away from me. I must’ve hit the thumb switch when I kicked it. I didn’t even get to my feet- I just crawled on my hands and knees as quickly as I could toward the light.
“Chinga tu madre!” I heard again... louder this time and more vehement. “Chinga tu madre, hijo de puta!”
Okay, I knew what hijo de puta meant too... ‘pigfucker’. I was beginning to see a pattern here... from my LSD soaked brain; and feet- there was a pair of feet standing in the cone of light that my flashlight had cast across the floor and up the wall . They were bloody feet and gnarled with huge toe knuckles and long nails that looked more like claws than toe nails.
I grabbed the flashlight and panned it up the body quickly to the face. It was not a fully formed, substantial body. There were chunks missing like a statue that someone had a taken a sledge hammer to or maybe like a carcass that a bear had bitten out mouthfuls. The face of the man, if that is an apt description, was cadaverous, skeletal. Bone squinted through patches of sour looking meat on its cheeks. There were dim pinpricks of light set in dark holes where eyes were supposed to be, and when the thing opened its mouth to speak, the appearance of its broken teeth and gangrenous tongue was so vile I could almost smell the stink.
“Pendejo...” the thing grunted.... another Mexican word that I understood. It literally means “pubic hair” but is used as a slur, like calling someone a shit or an asshole.
I am manifesting these things... I thought. It is like dark things in my imagination are commingling with the residue of the past... the slag of former times... and then I laughed.
It was like... when you smoke pot and have an idea that you think is brilliant and you write it down and wake up the next morning and immediately read what you scribbled the night before, and instead of: “Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared...” it says, “My flatulence smells like turnips boiled in seawater...”
I watched hard as the foul mouthed apparition dissipated before my eyes like multicolored drops of dew vaporized by a uranium powered hairdryer. I was starting to come down from the LSD; I could tell by the way my hallucinations, or whatever, were beginning to decay. That did not mean, however; that the acid trip was done- just that it was in free fall.
There were sniggers and barely audible innuendos a short distance and behind me so I whipped my flashlight around like Buck Roger’s ray gun and slammed its plank of light down the throat of the mineshaft like a laser beam. Taupe colored shadows raced across the floor faster than cockroaches on adrenalin to escape the glare- for fear of burning and being evaporated like their profane soul mate.
“JT...” they whispered. “JT...’ they sighed. “This way...” they enticed.
“JT...” a strong, corporeal sounding female voice said.
“Ellie?” I said and raised my flashlight.
There was in fact a female figure before me, perhaps a few yards. She- it- raised its hand to shield its face from my light. Still somehow, despite being awash in illumination, it seemed like the substance of shadow.
“This way... this way..” she, it, said and turned and disappeared down the shaft.
I started to follow. Ever fiber in my body was like felt like metal being drawn to a magnet. I wanted to follow, but like I said, fortunately for me the LSD was losing its power over my reason- ergo my cognitive ability. I knew that the batteries in my flashlight would not hold out much longer and when they went I would be swallowed in and by darkness.... perhaps forever. Whether these phantoms and specters I had encountered were merely creations and figments of my intoxicated and compromised imagination or real. I did not want to join them.
“This is not a place that I want to die” I said aloud.
I think I had to say it aloud to hear it and make sure I was still flesh and blood: this seemed to be a cavern of so many souls, real or imagined, that did not want to be here, but nor did it seem, that they wanted to leave.
I put by back against the stone of one of the walls and let myself settle on my butt and I turned off my flashlight to conserve the waning energy still left in the batteries. I reasoned that I was still not far from the entrance to the mine shaft and when the sun rose, perhaps some its light would wander into the entrance of the cave and I would be able to find my way out. I did not know how long that would be, as I had lost all sense of time... a thing that I felt that I had already begun to share with those denizens from the depths of days gone by.
I heard music at times and voices and soft parades that sounded like they were coming from the megaphone of an old wind-up Victrola- and that song that everybody sings on New Year’s Eve without know the true meaning. We two have run about the slopes and picked the daises fine... And here’s my hand my trusty friend! And give me o’ hand of thine... I don’t remember ever hearing the lyrics to those stanzas before that night.
They, whoever they were, were trying to lure me- indestructible fragments of the past embossed onto some kind of spiritual Möbius strip- back to antiquity with them or to an eternal forever- right there and right then! Why? Because misery loves company or... because... they just didn’t know they were dead and had nothing better to do? Or because my mind was still casting out disintegrating lysergic acid diethylamide shadow puppets?
I turned my flashlight on for a few seconds. I could see footprints leading away from me toward the apparitions/hallucinations... manifestations... whatever they were. One after another they appeared... footprints of a ghost... but I was alive and chose to remain that way.
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