Big Bend in Texas is not one of our most visited national parks but it’s certainly not off the beaten path.
Even though this area of the southwest is extraordinarily dry and rocky, it’s not without its rewards for the sharp-eyed and patient traveler. Half an hour west of the park you’ll find a ghost town called Lajitas (see interactive map below). During its heyday it was home to many of the miners that worked the cinnabar mines in the area. This town, however, is known for its most famous resident, Clay Henry, who was elected mayor in 1986.
Clay Henry grew up at the Lajitas trading post while the town was a bit more lively than it is today. In his youth he developed a taste for beer, and by the time of his election often drank more than a case a day. When he disagreed with a constituent he was more likely to knock the person down than engage in conversation, and he was notoriously silent on the issues of the day. NAFTA? Who cares? Immigration reform? Not my problem. Whatever the problem, the solution was always another beer. Clay Henry was a wildly popular mayor, re-elected six times. Clay Henry was also a goat. A billy goat. Horns and all.
At the ripe old age of 23, Clay Henry was killed by his son in what many call a battle for political succession, but like another famous Texas family, the son could not quite match the father in matters of state or (in this case) beer consumption. Lajitas today is no more than a cemetery filled with unmarked graves, but Clay Henry lives on.
Ride a few miles down the road to the ghost town of Terlingua (host to the world famous chili cookoff) and look for the Starlight Theater Restaurant. This old building was once the entertainment center for the mining crews. Now it’s a rollicking Western bar and restaurant with local entertainment and local food. On weekend nights it’s probably not all that different than it was in mining days. When we were there it was full of mountain bikers who were fully enjoying a night off the trail.
But back to Clay Henry. In the far end of the restaurant is a stage, and both walls are covered with the work of local artists, for sale a reasonable prices. The works range from predictable to startling, and the proceeds are often going to support a good local cause, like restoring the Terlingua church or running a summer art camp for local kids. Tucked up in a corner of the stage, wearing his signature top hat, longneck in mouth, is the legendary goat. Some kind local craftsperson has rendered him timeless.
Terlingua is an interesting town. Though it’s called a ghost town, and there are many abandoned structures, there are also several thriving businesses and more than a few new homes with more being built. If the history interests you, the book Terlingua Teacher tells a lively and personable tale. The town is also a photographer’s dream, both before and after dark.
If two ghost towns aren’t enough, nearby you can visit Big Bend State Park (not the national park) and see the abandoned set where seven Western films and a number of music videos have been filmed. Only the cantina remains, but it’s a beautiful drive to a beautiful setting. And if you want a little late night excitement, drive to Marfa and look for the Marfa mystery lights.
For more on ghost towns in Texas, click here.