The tattered remnants of human colonization stand in stark contrast to the permanent grandeur of the towering mountains and expansive desert. In an odd way, the park shares a post-mankind feel found in empty places like Tikal or Chernobyl.
Most of Big Bend’s ruins are not hidden. Visitors can spot some of the park’s best-preserved remains from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which extends 43 miles from the Basin to the Santa Elena Canyon. There may not be the same sense of discovery that comes with finding an unmarked site, but these well-tended remnants paint a picture of the community that existed here. Some of the sites still have functioning water-drawing windmills, attracting wildlife and offering a refreshing oasis in a desert setting.
James Sublett came to the area in 1913. He and his business partner, Albert Dorgon, were among the first Big Bend settlers who dared to establish large-scale farms on the Rio Grande flood plain. The Dorgan-Sublett homestead still remains in the form of a ruined complex of adobe buildings, including a fireplace made of petrified wood that, from the road, you can see standing sentinel on a hilltop.
It’s presumed that the Sublett family and their ranch hands got fresh produce from the neighboring Terlingua? Abajo farm. Stone foundations and adobe-walled buildings remain at the site, located off the scenic drive. I turn onto the primitive, unpaved Old Maverick Road, closed due to washouts just the day before, to find the site. While passable to most vehicles, this road tends to be rough; the 13 miles usually takes around an hour to drive. Some sections are washed out; others are pitted with holes or disrupted by rocks. The turnoff to ?Terlingua Abajo itself is much worse.
My rental car — alas, no 4x4 — ambles along until the path becomes too battered to continue. I leave the vehicle behind and continue on foot, following the beaten-up road as it winds between rock-strewn foothills. The silence is interrupted only by birdcalls and the thumping of my own heartbeat.
The coyote sees me before I see it. It’s big and healthy, a natural-born rabbit killer. We scare each other, and the animal scampers to the top of a hill overlooking the trail and pauses to look at me with a green-yellow stare. We lock eyes for a brief moment, and it silently lopes away. I decide to walk on, but with a large rock in my hand.
I reach the Terlingua Abajo campgrounds, and the first of the collection of ruins. The farms here fed miners and ranchers from the 1900s to the 1940s. Terlingua Creek once hosted cottonwood trees, but they have all been lost to the axes of the ranchers.
Wandering through, I recognize a familiar campsite. I camped here for a week, 12 years ago. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the cluster of tents nestled against a gently sloping hill. It’s been a decade since I spoke to the friends who were with me, but all of a sudden they feel close again. Some of the ghosts in Big Bend are the ones you leave behind.
I have a car to find before I leave Big Bend.