Dean gives me more accurate directions off U.S. 385 to help me locate the remains, but even armed with those, I feel a twang of doubt after 30 minutes of searching. At an earlier point in the trip, I had also gone out in search of an unmarked cemetery I’d heard stories about, but my attempt to find it had been stymied by flies and ?hyper?aggressive tiger mosquitoes that rose in thick clouds, and their painful attacks left me once again running for my car. No objective is guaranteed here.
The afternoon heat is rising, and I feel bad for the loafing jackrabbits that I startle into mad dashes. I know coyotes can catch these at a sprint, and when I see the speed of its prey, I’m glad the coyote I encountered decided to ignore me.
There are a handful of hills left to explore. I figure I’ll head in the direction of the last rabbit; it’s as good a guess as any. The wind sighs, waving the branches of the thorn bushes. I make my way up one hillside and down the other, then circle the base toward another slope. Then I see it: a sharp angle of something man-made. It’s the rusted rear of an automobile. The elation is sudden and overwhelming. I fist-bump the sky like a marathon runner at the finish line. The object of a quest is not as important as its successful conclusion.
The Model T’s body is a rusted rectangle. Moving around to the front, I see the metal headlights, their glass long since broken. The tires and engine are gone, but metal wheel wells still curve with rugged stubbornness. The steering column juts proudly from the cab.
Some of the ghosts in Big Bend are the ones you leave behind.
Around the rectangle of stone are signs of an abandoned life. Broken teacups and glass jugs lay scattered in the dry dirt. Curls of barbed wire tangle here and there; tins of food opened and consumed decades ago.
The Starrs left a mess behind, but the garbage is now classified as artifact. I resist the temptation to violate park rules and take anything from the find. Even though I feel like I own a piece of the unmarked site, I didn’t earn the right. These remains belong here. If my time in Big Bend taught me anything, it’s that any such hallmarks should be left alone. They are more than totems to the bravery and resilience of intrepid settlers; they also serve as testimonials to the fierceness of the land that rejected them.
Hunting for HistoryThere are several road-accessible ruins to visit in Big Bend National Park, but their accessibility depends on what kind of vehicle you’re driving — and how ambitious you’re feeling.
Adventure Level: Easy
Homer Wilson Blue Creek Ranch
This well-preserved and easy-to-access ruin sits along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The ranch is positioned at the foot of a dramatic abutment, to the southwest of the Chisos Basin. A quarter-mile east off the road, viewers get a fine view of the spread 90 feet below, including the bunkhouse and foreman’s quarters. A 15-minute hike along an unpaved but well-worn path reveals details of the construction, including reeds used for ceilings and stone from a nearby canyon.
Adventure Level: Moderate
In 1909, J.O. Langford came to the region in poor health and found the dry air and natural hot springs rejuvenated him. He opened a resort along this scenic section of the Rio Grande, a scant few feet from Mexico. Langford left for 14 years because of the revolution, but he returned in 1927 and remained until the 1940s when the state bought the land for the park. Several intact cottages and a store remain. The stone square of a functional, spring-fed bath is also there for those who want to take a dip in 105-degree water and warm mud. The bath is one of the attractions on the mile-long Hot Springs Loop trail — visitors are also treated to Indian paintings on the rock walls, towering reeds and vistas of the Rio Grande. The catch: The area is accessed only by a thin, winding vehicular road that, while not terribly bumpy, has several portions with gut-wrenching 10-foot drops to one side (with no railing) and shards of rocks jutting out on the other.
Adventure Level: Hard
Of all the industries that tried to take hold in Big Bend, mercury mining was among the most profitable, with mines in this area supplying a majority of the U.S. product from 1900 to 1950. Miners — mostly Mexican nationals seeking economic improvement — scraped cinnabar ore in narrow underground mines; the ore was refined on-site to obtain mercury. But be forewarned: The primitive road used to get to the mine is only accessible by a high-clearance vehicle, and the stone walls at the site are lousy with mercury. Remains of furnaces and condensing chambers are spread over 2,560 acres.
Joe Pappalardo is a senior editor at Popular Mechanics and the author of the nonfiction book Sunflowers: The Secret History.