Desertion & The Supernatural in the Desert

Cloudy sky at sunset over a desert with scrub and mountain range in the distance.

The Rio Grande River runs 1,254 miles along the Texas border where it forms a portion of the US-Mexico international boundary. Surrounded by a highly biodiverse desert ecosystem, the river creates a desert oasis. Yet the land around it is dry and vast, nationally contested and controlled, and scattered with ruins that span centuries and tell stories of the past. Despite the seemingly static nature of the Desert, socio-natures of this region have been in flux for centuries. While on a tour of southwestern Texas in early 2019 with my mom, we both noticed multiple desertions as we moved from Big Bend National Park to the town of Terlingua and finally to Marfa overlapping simultaneously with local stories of the supernatural. I want to take you on that trip with me beginning near Del Rio.

Increased militarization of the border over the past few decades has resulted in a fight for control over land and subsequent desertion of businesses. Once border security stations started popping up frequently along I-90, we noticed many towns with boarded up restaurants and businesses. During the pandemic and with increasing border security, workers who normally cross the border from Mexico into towns such as Del Rio have not been able to do so anymore. This halting of daily migration has impacted local economies on top of border politics. South Texas was particularly hit hard by the pandemic and the recession, and local residents often feel that their needs are ignored in lieu of expanding border security development by the state’s government.  

This contemporary political displacement occurs on top of multiple waves of historical depopulation. Drivers along this South Texas corridor from Del Rio to the Chihuahuan Desert observe ghost town after ghost town. These ghost towns are remnants from the contemporary political desertion around the border described above combined with economic displacement after steam engines stopped running in 1868 leaving abandoned buildings all the way to Big Bend National Park. And after you reach the park boundaries, ruins are left from other eras as well. Located in the Chihuahuan desert and comprising the entirety of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park is one of the biggest and most remote national parks in the country. Early Spanish settlers called the desert “El Despoblado, a desolate and uninhabited land.

As written on the national park’s website, “the Historic Era (1535 A.D. – Present) details a period of growth in populations and settlements in the Big Bend region, a period also significantly marked by conquest and displacement.” Chisos Indians moved throughout the region from the early 1500s through 1850. In the 1700s, the Chisos began to be displaced by the Mescalero Apaches; around the same time that Comanche appeared in the area as well. Ongoing conflict between the Apaches and Comanches continued until the US government colonized the area in the late 1800s to begin ranching, mining, and farming and, in the process, violently pushed the Comanche tribe to a reservation in Oklahoma. The government of Texas has actively attempted extermination of Indigenous people in the past—work that is ongoing through erasure-centered rhetoric of Native people in the Big Bend region, and thus, a lack of text around contemporary Indigenous presence.

Today, occasional ruins from the area’s border history are scattered around the National Park. At Boquillas Hot Springs, park visitors can see the settler colonial Hot Springs Store & Post Office. Even further off the paved road is an abandoned mercury mine (listed in the National Register of Historic Places), the Mariscal Quicksilver Mine & Reduction Works, which ran from 1900-1943 and was operated primarily by Mexican citizens fleeing the Mexican Revolution. Touting species ranging from black bear, beavers, and elk to 3,600 species of insects and 450 species of birds, this park has been the site of border tensions for centuries. These tensions around a contested political boundary continue while historic clashes remain memorialized through the physical ruins across the landscape. 

The Post Office at Boquillas Hot Springs
The Post Office at Boquillas Hot Springs. Photo by author. 
[Image description: a stone building in the desert with palms and scrub surrounding it.]
The Mariscal Quicksilver Mine & Reduction Works in Big Bend National Park. Photo from the U.S. National Park Service.
[Image description: An abandoned mine that blends into the desert surrounding it.]

Following World War I, people left the areas within and outside Big Bend National Park after a mercury mining bust turned formerly bustling towns into ghost towns, such as the popular tourist destination Terilingua that sits just outside of the park. Scattered with ruins from World War I mercury mining, Terlingua is the site of the Chisos Mining Company, one of the most productive sources of mercury (also known as quicksilver and cinnabar ore) at the time, and the town grew around the mine. After it dissolved in the early 1940s, the miners left, leaving their homes, a cemetery, and retired mine infrastructure behind. Today, with tourism as its largest economy, the town has memorialized the mining ruins for out-of-towners, elevating the supernatural through ghosts as novelty.    

An abandoned home in the ghost town, Terlingua.
An abandoned home in the ghost town, Terlingua. Photo by author. 
[Image description: a stone Terlingua home at sunset with scrub in front of it.]

Turning north to Marfa, we saw the supernatural again through the so-called “alien lights” that blink at night, combined with economic displacement driven by high-end art boutiques. Desertion and modern economies of the west Texas desert region are not one-off. Locals of Marfa have recently experienced processes of rural gentrification due to the development of internationally-renowned art galleries that subsequently priced local residents out. Today Marfa has a (declining) population of under 7,000 year-round residents. Marfa’s claims to fame include a Prada store in the middle of the desert and alien desert lights that blink at night under the right conditions. These oddities are what bring outsiders to the area and are pushing locals out.

The Marfa Prada store, an art installment. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
[Image description: an art installation that looks like a Prada store in the middle of the desert.]

In Terlingua and Marfa, the eeriness of the desert landscape works with development history to leverage economic growth through natural and supernatural tourism. In Terlingua, ghost stories are affective manifestations of the eeriness of communities broken apart by social and economic displacement. And in Marfa, the popularity of the alien lights myth coincided with decreasing local presence.

In desolate southwest Texas, my mom and I couldn’t help but notice how memories of displacement in the region are enmeshed with ghosts and aliens, landscape allegories that emerge after the people are gone. Meanwhile in adjacent border towns, military preparedness has been peaking for the last decade. Town after town presents different causes for displacement, but the effect is often the same: ruins, desertion, boarded up buildings–desertion in the desert.

*Cover image: Photo by author.

[Cover image description: Cloudy sky at sunset over a desert with scrub and mountain range in the distance.]

Edited by Trang Dang, reviewed by Asmae Ourkiya.

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