Travelogue 01: Road Trip to West Texas and New Mexico
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
In December 2020, I went on a surreal two-week road trip to West Texas, New Mexico and Utah. We encountered wild pumas, breath-taking rock formations, desert fossil grounds, sand dunes, canyons formed by thousands of years of weathering, and stunning ruins of Native American life and culture. In this post, I will focus on the architecture encountered and history discovered throughout our trip mostly in West Texas and New Mexico.
We started off on a long six-hour drive from Austin to Marfa, Texas. The town was founded in the 1880s as a railway water stop and grew significantly in the 1920s when its population peaked at 3,553 and has since been steadily dwindling. In 2019, the population was estimated to be 1,625. Today, Marfa is known to be a popular contemporary art hub, attracting visitors from all over the country thanks to the minimalist artist Donald Judd who moved to Marfa in 1971. Since the founding of the Chinati Foundation and Judd Foundation following the death of Donald Judd in 1994, the organisations have attracted a new wave of artists to work and live.
The architecture of the city center is a mixture of Art Deco, Second Empire, and Spanish Revival from mostly the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the heart of the historic town is the Presidio County Courthouse (1887) which stands proudly within a greenspace at the end of the Highland Street, the main thoroughfare. Adjacent the court house is the Presidio County Jail house which is speculated to be built around the same time. However, most Texas jailhouses were typically built before the courthouse so it may be possible that the jailhouse was built slightly earlier. Rumor has it that the upstairs hanging room of this jailhouse still contains the last noose used to execute prisoners. Unfortunately, it is not possible to visit the inside of this building today.
Nearby buildings of interest include El Paisano Hotel (1930), The Palace Theatre (1930) which is now an illustrator's studio, the Brite Building (1931), Central Fire Station (1938), the Sentinel - the local paper/coffee shop/cocktail bar, Building 98 (1920), and an incredibly charming house next door to this which I was unfortunately unable to find any information on.
A map of the attractions can be found here.
We then headed to our next destination, an old mining town and self-proclaimed 'ghost town' on the outside edge of the Big Bend National Park in the Chihuahuan Desert. From the outside, there doesn't seem much to it. To reach the town, you simply veer off the main road onto a short dirt path which is fronted by a cluster of two restaurants, two art galleries, a few modest hotels, the Starlight Theatre, and a very impressively large tourist shop.
It is very difficult to find the history about the place by just walking around so understanding the area's culture can be easily missed. However, if you stay long enough by the Starlight Theatre, you'll surely get to know some interesting local characters here. Luckily, I was able to find a few books to help me fill some gaps in the local history.
For a start, go to the tourist shop and pick up a small Terlingua tourist map ($1) which will help you see more of town than you thought existed including the abandoned school, St. Agnes Church (1914), the old Howard Perry mansion, the existing mine shaft elevator, the community centre, the Terlingua Cemetery, and the area's vast collection abandoned dry stonewalled houses.
Terlingua's name originally derives from the Spanish words tres and lenguas, meaning 'three tongues'. It is still debated today what three languages the name refers to but historically the area was home to Native Americans, Spanish colonials/Mexicans, and Americans.
The town formed as part of the cinnabar mining boom which started in the early 1900s and lasted for roughly 50 years. Cinnabar is a rich crimson-colored mineral from which mercury, or quicksilver, and is extracted by heating ore in a furnace and condensing the liquid metal from hot vapor. Since mercury was used in the production of explosives in the two world wars, cinnabar mining became a lucrative business in the early 20th century.
Terlingua was more specifically home to the Chisos Mining Company owned by Howard Perry which was one of several quicksilver mining companies in the area. Most workers in the mines came from northern Mexico and, unlike other areas, families in Terlingua had access to a doctor, a school, and the best store in the area. To this day, you can see some of the names of the early mining families in the Terlingua Cemetery where the deceased are still celebrated on Día de los Muertos, or 'The Day of the Dead', which is a Mexican holiday in November.
In more recent news, Terlingua is home to the Terlingua International Chili Championship. If you aren't in town on this day, head over to the Starlight Theatre and order the house chili there. You can thank me later. If you're not in the mood for chili, I'd highly recommend the pork medallions or anything with antelope. The margaritas are a must-have as well.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Following our time at Terlingua and Big Ben National Park, we headed to New Mexico where we visited the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park protects the most important collection of ancient Pre-Columbia ruins north of Mexico dating from the 9th to 13th centuries AD. For most Americans, seeing structures from this period is unheard of. The Chaco Canyon was the main cultural center to Chacoans, who were Ancestral Puebloans, an ancient Native American culture.
The national park comprises an impressive collection of pueblos or dwellings which were multi-storied and multi-family complexes built to an impressively high standard with strikingly similar building techniques from the ones I observed in the Incan structures during my visit to South America. The joints between the drystone walling were impressively tight with varied masonry patterns, adding a beautiful texture to the buildings. The masonry walls often tapered as they were built upwards and, in a similar way, the window and door openings were also tapered, a technique which offers the building more structural stability from gravity and lateral wind forces. It was, therefore, no surprise to see that so many of these complexes were generally in good condition today considering their age. Curiously, many of the corners also had openings which provided an unusual effect to the inside of the structures. A series of holes were made in the wall to take in timber beams which would form the roof or intermediate floor structures, and I was impressed to find that one such example of this was still intact.
Visiting the area left me curious on how the Chacoans lived and worshipped in these spaces, much of which can only be left to the imagination. I would recommend spending one or two days here to explore the entire area fully and be sure to stop by the visitor's center to pick up one of their many free brochures on the history, geography, and wildlife of the area.
Bandelier National Monument
Our final stop on our trip was the Bandelier National Monument which was enroute from our ride from Utah back to Texas. It was a much smaller area to visit compared to the Chaco Culture National Historic Park and can easily be seen within a few hours. The park is named after Adolph Bandelier, Swiss-American self-made anthropologist who researched the culture of the area extensively in the early 20th century and raised support for the formation of the monument to protect the settlement remains.
A semi-nomadic Ancestral Puebloan group occupied the settlement in two periods, starting in the 12th and 14th centuries. Like the Chacoans, the dwellings were multi-storied and included round kivas or religious structures for worship and group gatherings.
Many of the dwellings were partially built into the volcanic tuff rockface on the side of the Frijoles Canyon. You can see the beam holes which originally supported timber beams to form a roof or floor structure which would have been part of an external structure built against the rockface. A false replica of what kind of dwelling this may have looked like has been built for visitors to see, but mostly the original extensions have been lost. Today the park has installed ladders for visitors to climb into the cavates, or man-made alcoves, where you will usually find ceilings which have been charred black from fire pits in the past and a hole made in the upper section to ventilate smoke. This reminded me of my travels to Cappadocia in Turkey where the rock-formed dwellings have been similarly carved and used, albeit a bit more elaborately.
The flora and fauna of the area was very rich as well. We saw many deer in the area and heard pleasant sounds of birdsong and running water from a nearby stream - a stark contrast from the dryness and silence in the Chaco Canyon.