Day Trips

The Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Bar anchors downtown Terlingua

Day Trips
Photo by Gerald E. Mcleod

The Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Bar anchors downtown Terlingua. Not that there is a whole lot to the central business district of this former mining town in the Big Bend region, but looks can be deceiving.

The sign on FM 170, five miles west of Study Butte (pronounced "stud-ee beaut"), points up the mountain to "Terlingua Ghost Town." The cluster of homes, businesses, and the ruins of structures with mud-brick walls blend into the golden rolling terrain covered in desert bushes. It is more of a settlement than a town, and it is anything but a ghost town. Despite the hot, dusty wind, Terlingua is very much alive.

The official population of this legendary town is 250. On any given day, that number can swell to 10 times that amount. On the first weekend of November when two chili cook-offs happen simultaneously, the population increases a hundredfold or more.

It was the chili-heads who discovered Terlingua, more specifically it was discovered by Dallas newspaper columnist Frank X. Tolbert and the owner of 2 Alarm Chili Mix, Wick Fowler. In 1967, the Terlingua International Chili Championship started the trend of cook-offs and put the town back on the map.

Before chili and the tourists came to town, Terlingua was the home of the Chisos Mining Co. For nearly 50 years, miners hauled the red ore called cinnabar out of the ground, heated it, and the condensed vapor became mercury. At one time the Terlingua Quicksilver District produced 40% of the mercury mined in the U.S. Besides thermometers, the mineral was used in munitions. At the end of World War II most of the mining operations ceased. The miners left behind deep scars on the land, rusting equipment, a cemetery, and the decomposing walls of their adobe and rock huts.

For years after the mines closed, the company store survived as the best trading post between El Paso and Del Rio. It is now the Terlingua Trading Company, a gift and art shop with a great selection of books. In the evenings, the front porch becomes a stage for impromptu jam sessions.

Next door at the other half of the Terlingua business district, the line starts early and goes late for a table at the Starlight Theatre. The old vaudeville stage with a painting of cowboys around a campfire fills one end of the restaurant. The food is decent and the beverages are cold and wet, all of which are important in this part of the world.

For breakfast, many of the visitors stumble down the rocky paths from their rock casitas to Espresso y Poco Mas for coffee, free wi-fi, and huge tacos on the patio. The coffee shop also serves as the office for La Posada Milagro, an upscale guest house with a panoramic view of the desert valley and the mountains beyond.

1,027th in a series. Collect them all. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Bar, Terlingua, Frank X. Tolbert, Terlingua International Chili Championship, Terlingua Trading Company, La Posada Milagro, Wick Fowler

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