The alarm clock dutifully exploded with noise in our darkened bedroom at the preselected time of 1:30 a.m. The adventure we had been planning for more than two months was officially underway, and we sprang to our feet like kids on Christmas morning. The truck was packed for the most part so the only thing that separated us from our long-awaited journey was a quick shower, a pot of coffee and the donning of our traveling pants.
After a thorough walk-through of the house to ensure everything was off that needed to be and everything was on that needed to be, we checked our packing list and satisfied ourselves that all was in order. Shortly, we were loaded and rolling. Our destination lay a solid day of driving to the South and West of us, and excited chatter of what we would see and do filled the cab of our truck.
The Journey Commences
It was now 3 a.m., and with stops for fuel, snacks and meals, we expected to arrive around 4 o’clock that afternoon. Our destination was a tiny desert mining town on the Texas/Mexico border. The question on everyone’s mind, including our own, was why the hey-hey-hey were two water souls like us driving 500 miles to hang out in the vast wasteland that is Terlingua, Texas.
The short answer was a well-placed Facebook ad that appealed to our sense of adventure and curiosity. It started when my partner in crime sent me a PM of an old school bus that had been converted into an Airbnb. It was in the middle of the desert we were now heading towards, and the scene elicited a response in both of us that screamed, “you gotta see this for yourself.”
So, we started investigating the area and the Airbnb company via Google and YouTube and grew increasingly interested. Turns out, this same company also had an old cabin cruiser they had converted, and with our interest in all things boating, the decision to switch was a no-brainer.
By 7 o’clock, the excited chatter that once filled the air had been replaced by the sound of Roger snoring in the back seat and a deafening silence from the passenger’s seat. And since we had forgone breakfast in order to escape the rush-hour traffic in Ft. Worth, and I needed to stretch, we pulled into Cracker Barrel in Abilene, Texas for the kind of breakfast that only this fine chain can provide. After getting our fill of sodium and caffeine and giving Roger a much needed walk around the parking lot, we were off again.
The End of Civilization
Several hours and a few more stops later, we pulled into Alpine, Texas. From here, we were less than two hours from ‘Shangri-La’ and quite possibly the last time we would experience civilization for the next three days. We made our way to a quaint looking diner that promised a unique atmosphere and some good ol’ homestyle cooking. After all, when in Rome and all that.
The converted rail car was drenched in stainless steel inside and out. Once inside, the stainless steel offered a sterile feel to the narrow cafe as we made our way to the small counter and hoisted ourselves onto red vinyl covered stools. The food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the homestyle fare we had hoped for.
Little did we know, this was only the first of the disappointments we would encounter over the next few days. After a quick stop to top off the fuel tank and add a few more bags of ice to our three coolers, we headed South.
From here, we would be following the directions we printed off from the Airbnb website. According to the site, GPS would be of no use once we were just a little ways out of Alpine. So as per the directions, we watched the odometer until we had travelled 60 miles. At the 60-mile mark, we would turn east at the row of metal storage buildings on the left. From there, we would drive 13 miles on a small blacktop road until it turned into gravel.
The instructions for driving along the gravel portion included a note to keep your speed below 20 mph in order to help maintain the surface of the road. We laughed as soon as we entered this part of the adventure, as 20 mph would have only been attainable if one desired to completely destroy the undercarriage of their vehicle while risking dislocation of every joint in your body.
Shangri-La? Fantasy Meets Reality
We opted for a top speed of 5 mph, as we needed the truck to remain intact for at least the remainder of this trip. After about 2 miles, a welcome sign assured us we had made it to our destination.
An eclectic array of converted school buses, old Airstream trailers decorated with unusual murals, primitive tent sites and even an old Volkswagen perched atop blocks of wood and painted in bright colors littered the brush strewn landscape. Just past this collection of odd rentals, an old pirate skull and crossbones flag flapping in the breeze caught our attention, heralding our arrival.
Our accommodations for the next three nights were suddenly before us. The idea of hanging out on an old boat in the middle of the desert had much more appeal as a fantasy than the reality of the 1972 model 26-foot Sea Ray we were now parked next to. My lovely bride uttered the only words that could possibly come to mind at a time like this, “Oh, my.” If you know anyone who uses this phrase, then you know that it rarely denotes a positive connotation and in this case, I couldn’t have agreed more. Oh, my indeed.
A forced smile came over my face as I suggested we walk down and get a closer look. The three of us made our way down the 25-foot wooden gangway which led from the parking area to the boat (probably the coolest part of the whole set up) slowly, soaking it all in. It terminated at a crude opening that had been cut into the port side of the aft deck about two-foot wide.
Opposite this opening was another cut-out that led you off the boat and to a rock campfire ring next to a plastic picnic table. The hum of a window unit air conditioner was the only sound we heard and promised a cool interior of our temporary abode. We lingered on this deck area for a moment, taking in the vastness of the desert wilderness, the interesting rocky mountains that surrounded us and the faint smell of a nearby septic tank.
Making the Best of It
“Well, enough of that,” I said, still maintaining the air that this was the best decision ever, “let’s take a look inside.” And with that, I swung open wide the aged aluminum sliding glass door and followed my traveling partners into the stateroom. In 1972, boatbuilders used a lot of dark paneling and shag carpet. This boat still sported her original wardrobe and as charming as that may sound, her nearly 50 years of wear and tear were sadly obvious.
To starboard, the helm station remained relatively intact including the wheel, switches and gauges. To port, a solitary oversized wooden chair with two orange cushions offered the only seating option other than the small dinette in the galley area. The decks were now devoid of any floor covering that may have once adorned her and simple pieces of well-past-their-use-by-date plywood made up what constituted the sole. Heading forward, we stepped down into the galley area.
To port, a simple dinette with a pair of settees faced a rickety old table top. To starboard, the galley area sported a not-original-equipment propane powered grill, a small sink with hot and cold running water (which was a pleasant surprise) and the hatchway to a small head compartment (bathroom to you landlubbers) that housed another small sink, a toilet and a showerhead hanging from a hose. Forward of the galley area was a small berthing compartment.
On a boat, these are v-shaped in order to accommodate the shape of the bow. At the longest point on this boat, it was about 6 foot 3 inches long. When you’re 6 foot and 2 inches long, it doesn’t leave much room to stretch out.
Suddenly, our mini vacation was beginning to feel more like a sentence, instead.
“I’ll go get the luggage, honey,” I heard myself saying. She answered with that high-pitched voice she uses that reeks of insincerity, but means well, “Sounds good, Sweetheart.” And with that, I made my way to the truck with Roger at my heels.
The food box was first, then I went back for the suitcases while Jac began dutifully storing what would be our meals for the next few days.
Once the truck was empty and things were settled inside the boat, we broke into our suitcases for more fitting attire. Two minutes later, I was sitting on the back deck in shorts, flip-flops and my desert hat with a cold Corona in hand, a less than happy dog at my feet and huge raindrops hitting the …WAIT!!! WHAT??!! RAINDROPS??!! Are you kidding me?? This is the freaking desert, and it’s raining!! Come on, man!
Undeterred by the sudden deluge, I moved to the center of the deck where only every other raindrop could hit me as Roger scurried back inside.
Once the weather gods were certain I was wet enough, the rain halted and the afternoon sun returned. Two beers or about 30 minutes later, my traveling companions joined me on the deck. Jac took a seat next to me and Roger plopped down on the deck, tummy first staring straight at me, accusingly.
We grabbed a couple of cold ones from the cooler and wandered down from the deck and over to the fire pit. Along the way, we read the various messages that had been painted on rocks around the site. The rocks were painted by previous guests that were invited to do so by the owners of this property.
In fact, the paint and brushes were placed prominently inside each camper with a note to leave a message in the desert. Some rocks were simply painted with the first names of the current occupant or occupants, some were elaborately decorated with pictures of various desert scenes or animals or designs that definitely emanated from drug and/or alcohol addled brains.
One particularly unsettling message read, ‘Welcome to Terlingua. Try not to get murdered.’ We found out later this probably referred to an as-of-yet unsolved murder that took place nearby a few years back.
Soon enough, the sun began to set over the austere landscape, and we found ourselves seated on opposite sides of the plastic picnic table trying to come up with reasons to even spend the night here, much less the next three nights. The dinner of chili dogs we had planned for was replaced by a few shots and a six-pack. It was closing in on 9 o’clock, and the last sleep I had was interrupted by the 1:30 a.m. alarm.
We talked for a bit longer and chalked our mutual disenchantment up to the long road trip and lack of sleep. With that, we headed inside for some much needed rest and agreed to revisit our feelings with clearer heads the next morning.
Shortly after 9 p.m., we had secured our things, attempted to lock the door (surprise, there was no lock), brushed our teeth and attempted to get comfortable in our cocoon. Roger found his spot, while Jac and I adjusted, then readjusted, then readjusted again until at last we fell into a position that wasn’t entirely comfortable but would allow us to fall asleep with a minimal amount of pain.
As we began to doze off, I muttered the fact that somewhere out there was a Bangladeshi prisoner that felt sorry for us given our current situation. For some reason, this struck Jac as particularly funny and her laughter got me laughing and soon enough we both had tears in our eyes as the laughter filled the desert.
Once the laughter died down, we readjusted one last time and fell asleep to the hum of the air conditioner.
New Day, Fresh Perspective
Old boat smells filled my nostrils as I slowly woke to the sound of the still humming window unit. Unfolding myself like an accordion, I exited the berth and attempted to stretch out only to bump my head on the doorframe.
“Damn it,” I muttered, as I squeezed myself into the head compartment to wash my face.
The coffee maker was conveniently stashed behind the settee, and try as I might to keep things quiet so as not to disturb Jac and Roger, every move I made resulted in a clang, clunk or creak.
Before long, I headed outside with my coffee, Roger at my heels, and sat on the back deck. The steam from my coffee cup rose in my line-of-sight as I purveyed my surroundings and took my first sip. Roger busied himself looking for just the right bush to relieve himself on nearby as I tried to look at things through fresh eyes and a rested mind.
It took a few more minutes to really soak it all in, but once I did, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt and without any hesitation of thought …
I hated it, and I know now that I am most assuredly, not a desert person.
The Last Straw
Jac continued to sleep as Roger and I wandered aimlessly about. As we walked, I happened on a box about 3 feet x 3 feet. Affixed to the top of this box was a toilet seat and lid. This was the outdoor restroom talked about in the instructions on the website.
The toilet inside was to be used strictly for liquids, while this was the toilet for solids. It was supposed to be a composting toilet, but when I lifted the lid I found inside a small trash can with a plastic bag pulled over the edges. There were no walls or privacy of any kind other than the fact that the surrounding desert was, in fact, deserted.
Just a box surrounded by scrub brush where one could do their business with unobstructed views of the mountains in the distance while hoping that none of the desert wildlife decide to pay you a visit during your vulnerable state.
A voice behind me said, “What’s this?”
An explanation wasn’t needed as I stepped aside to give Jac a full view of our outdoor facilities.
Memories in Hand, We Cut Our Losses + Headed Home
After an initial chuckle, she sighed and said, “Had enough?”
To which I answered, “Yes.”
Jac wheeled around and headed for the boat. Roger stood up, looked me up and down, and hurried to catch up with her. I stood in silence and watched them disappear over a small rise.
Two hours later we were showered, packed and heading back to civilization.
All in all, we had spent less time at our camp then it took us to drive there and back.
We made a few tourist stops on the way out but found nothing we desired to take home with us to remember our fateful trip.
I suppose the three pictures we took and the handful of gas receipts will have to suffice.
Some day, this trip may go down in our personal history as a fond memory.
Today is not that day.
Scroll down for a few more pictures of our un-adventure.