© Ayash Basu | November 2016 (Revised November 2017)
Day of the Dead, Terlingua edition
Deep into the southern edge of Texas almost to the border of Mexico, lies Terlingua - a small community of desert dwellers, artists, and retirees, who romanticize this long-gone mining town from the early 1900s. A hundred years ago, this was the headquarters of the "mercury" rush, much like the gold rush in California and Alaska. The mines went bust by the 40s, the community abandoned ship, and Terlingua soon entered "ghost town" territory. The town got its second wave in the 60s, thanks to the allegedly legendary "International chili cook-off," that takes place on the first Saturday of November and draws over ten thousand chili heads. Some locals describe it as the "Burning Man of chili," stressing on the "burn," while others "couldn't be paid enough to attend it." For much of the rest of winter, Terlingua is a routine stopover point for visitors to the Big Bend National Park, who come to the Trading Company (for sunset at the porch over beers), the Starlight Theater (for dinner) and to browse the healthy scattering of art installations and galleries in town.
The original residents never came back to Terlingua, having long abandoned the cinnabar-infused American dream. Over the decades, Terlingua has become a magnet for creatives, artists, drifters, loners and eccentrics - individualists who seek solace, no attention, almost to the point of hiding in anonymity. It's a tough life out here in the desert with the high sun and its 100-plus degree shroud being the primary visitor in town for much of summer. However, the very individualist nature of its residents, along with a predominantly brutal climate and marginal economy have made this a tight community. Members hold on to each other dearly, and firmly believe they are in paradise. For visitors, this close community bond is out on full view on Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos), held every November 2nd at the cemetery with over 400 graves - mostly of old-time miners, but some of recently departed souls.
The Terlingua Trading Company porch is the social hub every afternoon. Its daily tradition of "come grab a beer, find a spot on the bench, start a conversation, play or listen to music, make friends and watch the sun go down" is synonymous to the porch. Even on November 2nd, people first commune here over a few brews, get their face painted and sing some songs before going down to the cemetery. Local artist Molly Finnerty paints many a Catrina at the porch. Catrina face makeups are a tradition on Day of the Dead, not as a mark of haunting, rather a joyous acceptance of death. Face painting starts in the afternoon, with children and grown-ups alike lining up as musicians let loose. Beers flow freely, children dance around in hoops, visitors mingle with locals and even the pets walk the porch for treats and affection from everybody. The porch is almost like a control tower of sorts for social and community events. Local residents describe Terlingua as "a town of misfits that fit in, all of 'em misfits but not in the same way."
One of the regulars at the porch, Dr. Doug (or the Doc as he was known here) offered several hours of group therapy on living free, being happy and not worrying too much in life. His medicines came in ice cold bottles - usually in packs of six - for anybody who wanted to join him. On my three visits to Terlingua, I saw the legendary Doc sitting at his "clinic." By 3pm, the medicines were out in full flow, sometimes even earlier and then the others joined in. On my fourth visit, I learnt that Dr. Dough had passed away in an unfortunate fire accident. Rest in peace Doc (Douglas Paul Blackmon, 1954 - 2017).
One of the early visitors to the cemetery, other than the organizing family, and their local friends are the King and Queen (Catrin and Catrina). Randy McLaughlin, the "King (Catrin)” for the last many years, and Grace Sullivan, the “Queen (Catrina)" for the last three years do the rounds of the graves as a mark of respect and deliberate reflection. Women adorned in red roses is a common sight, the roses signifying that memories of the lost will not be eroded by death. The local community and visitors gather at the cemetery before sundown to acknowledge and pray for the spiritual journey of those that have departed.
Sundown is eagerly awaited in order to get the evening activities going. Stunning sunsets are sort of a given in this part of Texas, but the setting and occasion make it even more special. Each of the over 400 graves are lit, decorated and remembered at sunset. It's a surreal scene in the heart of the Chihuahua desert. For Terlingua and its residents, Nov 2nd is not a day of mourning. In fact far from it. It is a time of paying respect, sharing and feeding each other. This is not a community that exchanges gifts - even in Christmas! They feed, support and hold on to each other. They purposefully reflect on the lives of those that have been lost and introduce them to their children. And everyone is welcome to join them. The three altars at the cemetery are decorated with flowers, candles, and offerings in memory of those lost. The lights keep burning late into the night, even after most have left. It's a surreal sight to be in the cemetery with hundreds of candles below and millions of stars above. Dia de Los Muertos indeed makes one appreciate what and who they have with them.
The action moves back to the Starlight Theater after dark with music, drinks, food and dancing continuing late into the night. Old stories are shared, new friends made and common ones remembered. This is a great occasion to mingle with locals and learn about the mining days, as well as what's bringing new members to the community. Most are artists, travelers, adventure enthusiasts, outdoor lovers and solace seekers, all of whom call this ghost town "paradise."
With Day of the Dead over until next year, it's business as usual the next morning. Candles still burn in some of the graves and a handful of people come early to take in the morning view. The bonfire from the previous night still has a dying spark left in it. I take a few more shots and head over to La Posada Milagro for a delicious breakfast and an aromatic espresso.
This work is part of my series on Day of the Dead in Terlingua over the past two years. I've found this to be an incredible community of creative souls and warm people. While Day of the Day is a Mexican tradition and is celebrated in various parts of the United States, Terlingua's edition is special with its community bond, old stories and genuine acknowledgement of its residents. I hope to document more Day of the Dead celebrations in this ghost town in the coming years. Please do not use, reproduce or manipulate these images in anyway for commercial or other uses. If you'd like to get in touch regarding these images, please use the Contact form.