Of Chili, Landscapes and Literature
By JOHN DeMERS
I just got back from Marfa in Far West Texas – having trekked down to Terlingua near Big Bend National Park to cover the 43rd annual Frank X. Tolbert World Chili Championship. And while I was in the neighborhood, meaning anyplace within about 200 miles, I took another afternoon to drive far past where the paved road ends to tape a radio interview with landscape artist Wendy Lynn Wright. It figures she’d live way out in the middle of a landscape!
The biggest and happiest surprise in all this – the driving around Marfa, Alpine and Ft. Davis, as well as the day trips to Terlingua and to Wendy’s house in Casa Piedra – was that autumn had arrived. I didn’t even think they’d have such a season in Far West Texas, since so much of the terrain qualifies as dessert, the kind that was called Chihuahuan even before we’d heard of that little dog. But autumn it was, thanks to the explosively yellow cottonwoods that followed anything that ever was a creek and the tangling, sky-reaching fingers of ocotillo. The latter are bright green in the spring but turn a lovely gold in the fall. The scenery was heartbreakingly beautiful, every day and every way.
Terlingua is a funky fork in the road, dusty, deserty and drinky, a kind of badlands of the mind. It’s the only place in Texas, and therefore the only place on earth, where the cowboy, the biker and the hippie are the same guy. It once was a wild (if tiny) border town, with a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy about just about everything, Mexicans and Americans stepping across the unofficial, unpatrolled border all day and all night. That ended with 9/11, of course, and that life went away as quickly as the quicksilver that first put Terlingua on anybody’s map. People do seem to live here, but there are only a handful of actual houses. Most seem to live in campers and lean-to’s, or under rocks. FedEx, I’m told, simply drops packages at Kathy’s Kosmic Kowgirl Kafe – and lets Kathy spread the word of who needs to stop by.
The chili cook-off is amazing, one of two dueling events on the same weekend each November. I opted for the one that traces its heritage back to Texas writer Frank X. Tolbert, whose book A Bowl of Red is the movement’s bible. It says a mouthful about chili culture that my radio interview with the judges was recorded while drinking Republic tequila, Southern Comfort and three brands of beer. And it says a lot about Terlingua that a cowboy who let me take his photo branding a piece of wood and then posing by his chuckwagon with fiddle and bow handed me a card that listed the “Screen Actors Guild.”
I tasted a whole bunch of people’s chili – though nowhere near the 80-plus varieties in competition – and didn’t even stick around to see who won. My heart belongs to Wick Fowler anyway, the late great champion here whose recipe is now sold as a seasoning blend at the supermarket. Wick and I, when it comes to making chili, we’re like this!
The trip to visit Wendy Lynn Wright in Casa Piedra was every bit as memorable. Only the first seven miles were on a real state highway, branching out from there on a semi-paved ranch road that after 25 miles stopped being semi-paved. After that, it was a cleared track that didn’t quite exist to a town that didn’t exist anymore. Between my Jeep’s GPS, which kept telling me to turn where there was only barbed wire, and Wendy’s directions scribbled onto the back of an envelope, l made it. Wendy fixed me hot peppermint tea and we sat outside making radio about the life that brought her from Syracuse, N.Y., to what little remains of Casa Piedra, Texas. To see some of Wendy’s landscapes, go to www.wendylynnwright.com.
Finally, day after day and night after night, staying at a friend’s casita on the northwest corner of Marfa, my mission became clear. I had come west to cover the Terlingua chili cook-off primarily because that’s the opening scene of my third mystery novel. But why, I asked myself repeatedly, should I get all serious about writing Book 3 (Marfa Blues) when Book 1 (Marfa Shadows) won’t be published until April, and Book 2 (Marfa Rocks) is still just a manuscript in my editor’s hands?
The third book, naturally, features my triumvirate of heroes: Chef Brett, owner of the hip Mesquite restaurant in Marfa, his love interest Meridyth (a local knockout who went to Hollywood and became a movie star) and Brett’s oversized, ever-firearmed “Tonto on steroids” Jud. The plot of Blues concerns the gruesome murder of Texas music icon T.J. “Rattlesnake” Garcia, famous for his 1963 hit “Nothin’ ‘Bout Texas,” who lived as a recluse in Terlingua with some dark secrets indeed. There was also an ex-wife spending his royalties in far-off Manhattan, I slowly came to understand, and oh I know, a daughter who’s a landscape artist – at the end of a long, dusty road in, of course, Casa Piedra.
Early one morning, inspired by the warmth, the comfort and the lovely views from my casita, I got up and did the one thing I’d told myself not to do. I started writing Marfa Blues: “Still half-asleep, Meridyth Morgan and I made love just after sunrise in my new house at the northwest corner of town – a low-lying stucco the color of Dijon mustard with a view across rolling ranchlands to the Davis Mountains. And then we ate cornflakes and milk.”
Really, why write fiction at all if you don’t desperately want to make stuff up?