The Dorgan-Sublett homestead
The past is unearthed as our intrepid reporter hunts ruins in Big Bend, America’s largest forgotten national park.
It’s always better to look down instead of up when hiking through the Chihuahuan Desert. Still, my eyes are scanning the terrain 15 feet ahead instead of what’s directly below — and I pay the price by walking into the branches of a desert whitethorn bush. Inch-long needles puncture my jeans and spear my calf.
Such are the perils of hunting ruins at Big Bend National Park, located along the Mexican border in deep Southwest Texas. I’m braving the 101-degree heat in search of a car: a Model T that’s sat neglected in this foreboding land since the 1940s. The location of the vehicle, left behind by the Starr family, is not marked on any park map, and no trail leads to it.
The undulating hills and mottled canvas of brush and rock hamper my view. Continually scanning the desert hoping for a glimpse leaves me unaware of my more immediate surroundings, and I’m constantly dodging cactus, whitethorn, sotol and lechuguilla plants, which have leaves with tips sharp enough to pierce leather and internal fibers strong enough to sew through it.
The Starrs were willful people, just the type to thrive on the land. Family lore states that Solomon Albert Starr and his wife, Mae, married in Palo Pinto County in northern Texas. The family moved to West Texas in 1907, according to park archaeologists. For a time, Solomon worked at a drugstore in the town of Alpine, where he was also a community figure, serving briefly as mayor and becoming involved with the Commercial Club, a forerunner of the town’s chamber of
Remains of the Starr family ranch, including the Model T
commerce. In 1911, the Starrs moved to Marathon, Texas, where Solomon eventually opened a drugstore. In the 1920s, Solomon tried his hand at ranching, and sometime later sold the ranch for another when he, Mae and their children moved to the Tornillo Flat of Big Bend. But by 1944, the ranch was empty and the land sold. Starr left his dreams of operating a ranch to rot in the desert and returned to working at a drugstore in another Texas city called Sweetwater.
Solomon Starr was not the only one seduced by the promise of Big Bend’s vastness. With so much available land, it seemed the perfect spot for brave entrepreneurs to establish ranches, mines and even a health spa. Now the area is littered with their failed attempts at colonization.
The area’s deep remoteness and extreme environment repelled permanent settlement, but those qualities are what make Big Bend a priceless national park today. The park can be cool during fall and winter, and spring brings blooms of gorgeous flowers. But summer brings only heat and solitude. That’s when I’m here, and the 1,200-square-mile park generates feelings of proprietorship with the uninterrupted isolation.
I know the remains of the Starr family ranch are located somewhere off of U.S. 385, in between the Persimmon Gap entrance and Panther Junction. There is no park plaque or trail, so I start my search to the west of the road.