Texas Traveler: Casa Mesa

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Ed. Note: This is the third part in a series about traveling to Big Bend. Part one and part two covered heading west and the sublimely bizarre towns like Marfa along the way.

Part of what started Texas Traveler's obsession with Big Bend was a chance encounter with my former next-door neighbor. Jan, a flight attendant, used to live in the house next door until she met another Montrose neighbor, fell in love, got married and moved into his house a few blocks away. We didn't see much of her after that except at neighborhood gatherings, but one evening we ran into the two of them eating dinner at Ziggy's Bar and Grill. They told us they'd bought some land and a house in west Texas and were spending a week every other month out there. Did we want to come for a visit?

I have wanted to explore West Texas since moving to the state six years ago. It just seems SO FAR AWAY. But knowing we had a place to stay and someone familiar with the area made my travel companion and I even more eager to head west. Still, it took us two years after the encounter to actually make good on our threat to visit them.

After leaving Marfa we went back through Alpine where I stopped at Front Street Books to get some reading material for the rest of the trip. In about an hour our cell phones will stop working and we won't have internet access, television or any other electronic diversions once we get to our friends'. Once we hit Big Bend we won't have any electricity at all.

From Alpine we head south to 118, straight towards Big Bend National Park. I am keeping a close eye on our MAPSCO map, trying to match up the elevation markers on the map to the mountains all around us. They get taller the farther south we go.

I see a place on the map called Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area and at first I'm confused by the name. Are there really elephants on a rpeservation in the Chihuahuan desert? I mean, I know there are all kinds of exotic ranches in the Hill Country, but elephants. When I see the mountain, though I understand the name.

We had some vague, tentative plans to meet our friends at 2 p.m. on an unmarked road 40 miles south of a certain landmark denoted only by another landmark, a closed-up ranch store. From their we'll have to follow them along several twisting, rough gravel roads to their neighbor Hat's house (neighbor in the most liberal sense of the word here, more on that later) where we'll park our car. We have a CR-V with all-wheel drive but it's not made for roads like this, so from the neighbor's house we'll ride with them in their 4x4 to their house, crossing over creeks and along the rims of small canyons. The roads are so rough that from 118 it takes about 2 hours to get to their house, which is probably only about 20 miles.

In the '60s years ago, Carroll Shelby, Texas-born race car driver and rare car designer, owned much of the land in this area. He even named one of his cars, a modified Mustang, the Shelby Terlingua. Not long ago, his 220,000 acre ranch was divided up into 20-acre parcels and sold, and my friends are the current owners of one of those parcels.

They call their home Casa Mesa, thanks to the hundreds of mesas, including parts of the Chisos and Rosillos Mountains, in the near vicinity. Sometimes after dark they like to call the place Mesa Cerveza. The house is on a cliff overlooking Cedar Creek, and they tell us the names of all the natural landmarks on the drive. Their just on the north border of Big Bend park. At one point we pass an old barb-wire fence that was the park's border in the 1950s.

They've put a lot of work into their house to make it as sustainable as possible. When they first purchased the place there was no insulation, only a few cisterns and little upkeep had been done. They've added several cisterns and they recycle all of their grey water to feed the local plants they've cultivated. They installed a composting toilet, insulated all the walls, built a loft in the top of the building's a-frame where there is a second queen-sized bed (it's like sleeping in a treehouse), and are currently building a greenhouse and a contained pond where they'll raise their own tilapia. Living off the land is a necessity here -- the closest grocery store is Alpine, but they bring whatever they need from Houston on their trips out here. Living off the grid is another thing. Several of their neighbors are totally without what little municipal services exist in out here. Hat, our car-sitter, has built his own windmill for water and solar panels for electricity. On another parcel of land known affectionately as Hippie Hill, a man lived in an unhooked trailer overlooking a cliff for several years until a dirt devil tore the thing to shreds.

Hat's home-built house.jpg
Hat's hand-built house
About the neighbors -- there are a few hunting sheds scattered here and there that can be seen from the land our friends own, but other than that, in the 24 hours or so we spent with them we didn't see a single other person. This is remote living at its essence, which is strange to me because my two friends have always been city slickers to the core. I'm impressed they made a life for themselves in the country without any outside help.

After we drop off our things we are treated to a tour of their land via 4-wheeler. I cannot believe how stark and beautiful this place is. Hippie Hill, for example, towers about a cliff of several hundred feet, at the bottom of which is Chalk Draw, a flat basin. In the distance are the Corazones Peaks, shaped like two hearts side-by-side. When we return to the house, we sit out by the fire pit, eat a little food and marvel at the stars. After dinner, two foxes wander right up to the house to eat the sunflower seeds out of the bird feeders. They're not afraid of us at all, and our wildlife count is now up to two species -- we saw some javelina on the side of Highway 118 south of Apline.

The next morning we take a hike through the canyons of Cedar Creek, which is dry this time of year. The creek is lines with cliffs and in the bed everywhere you look are the fossilized remains of sea creatures. The terrain here will be vastly different, geologically, than the terrain in the park, 30 miles to the south.

We take another ride in the 4-wheeler to Tea Canyon, where it is so windy I have to lay down on my stomach in order to take pictures from the edge of the cliff. Chalk Draw is probably 1,000 below us, at a shear drop-off. During all of our hikes I have learned the names of the native plants that permeate the mesas. My friend learned to recognize herself from dozens of books.

After lunch our friends drive us back to our car at Hat's place and we say our goodbyes, but having only spent one night, I don't want to leave. I want to live there, to buy some land and do what they've done. I tell them the next time we come out they can put us to work. Finishing the greenhouse, helping in the garden, whatever we can do to be invited back again.

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