Dec. 7, Big Bend National Park – As mentioned previously, I made a scattershot effort to soak up as much of the park’s awesome geology as possible as we made our way toward the exit.
I tried to digest Goat Mountain’s volcanic heritage. The silica and the pyroclastic mixed in my mind with the reds and purples that deepened in the sky over the Davis Mountains somewhere out there beyond Terlingua.
I silently fretted, plagued by the thought that I had to come up with some kind of story before leaving the area. We had enjoyed a day full of hiking, first into stunning Santa Elena Canyon, then through an ocean of desert scrub to dessicated Mule Ears Spring. But I had yet to talk to someone besides Becky and Max.
I’m no naturalist, as I’ve said. I can’t get by on the sublime wonder of nature alone.
An idea rattled about the windblown landscape of my mind. Maybe we’d find something in Terlingua, just outside the park, I thought. All I knew of Terlingua was its reputation for funkiness and that Jerry Jeff Walker had once recorded an album with the Lost Gonzo Band called “¡Viva Terlingua!”
I was thinking maybe I‘d call it “Terlingua at Twilight,” which shows you what a rotten editorial methodology it is to write a headline before you know the story.
This is what I was thinking as we approached the park exit on the cusp of sunset. And there, on the edge of Big Bend National Park, stood what looked for all the world to be a desert shaman showing off a tarantula.
He was a madman for sure.
Maybe his brain pan was baked by too many hours in the broiling desert sun. Maybe he ate too much peyote in the sixties. Maybe he got a hold of some bad acid while grooving to Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
Who knows? All I knew was he appeared before me as if he had been dispatched as special emissary from the demented heaven of my dreams.
Whatever the cause, he was definitely out of his mind. He had to be, standing there as he was, hanging on the edge of the national park, unbuttoned shirt exposing bronzed torso, silver pendant hanging against his bare chest. The generous salt-and-pepper beard, the unruly mop of hair, the impish grin on his face all screamed crazy.
This is the way it happens when the road mojo is working. One minute you’re fretting about finding a story, the next there’s a crazy man on the roadside caressing a tarantula.
Sweet serendipity of the road.
We hadn’t even reached Terlingua, and here was a cosmic cowboy in the flesh, approximating my preconceived idea of Terlingua. Something ranger Bob Hamilton said about not caring if Terlingua denizens got stoned in their rock houses flashed across my mind.
I urged Becky to pull over. Go get his picture, I pleaded. And get his story while you’re at it.
And so it was we met mild-mannered Stan Burger and his wife, Joy. Two bemused tourists from Switzerland circled him like hawks with cameras as he posed with the tarantula.
It would be hard to mistake this desert madman for a retired government bureaucrat. But that’s Stan Burger. He’s no madman after all.
He recently retired after a career as an environmental engineer with the EPA. Like many people you meet here, he got seduced by Big Bend when he was a kid.
He came here for the first time in the late 1950s. His family made the 600-mile pilgrimage from Houston in his dad’s 1957 Plymouth in the dead of summer.
He recalls the withering heat, but it was Big Bend’s striking beauty that stuck with him.
“I think that happens to a lot people,” he said. “They come out here as kids and never quite get it out of their minds. People from all over the world come to see this place, but a lot of people in Texas never see it. ”
What could he say about Terlingua?
“I’ve heard Terlingua has more PhD’s (per capita) than any place,” he said. “I haven’t had a chance to meet many people, but the people I’ve met seem sharp. You have to be resourceful to live out here with nothing else around. You have to make sure your car is going to run.
“And there’s not many places where you can live next to a national park. And it’s still quite affordable.”
Of course, I asked him about the situation on the border. He agreed it’s a damn shame they’ve shut down the cross-border commerce, at least the nondrug kind.
“Anybody who knows anything about the border here knows there aren’t going to be any terrorists coming across,” he said. “They’re going to go somewhere else.
“It doesn’t make any sense to shut down the border here. All you’re doing is creating hardship for people on the other side.”
Yeah, he’s s crazy man.
“You used to be able to walk across the river at Boquillas,” he said. “And that was fun. Some people who worked in the park lived over there, because it was cheaper.”
I asked Stan about his tarantula act. I guess it’s not a regular show. In fact, I think it was just our luck that we happened to catch his debut.
He didn’t come to Terlingua to pursue his lifelong dream of wowing passers-by by letting tarantulas crawl all over him.
“I saw a friend of mine pick one up by the side of the road, and he’s not a brave person,” he said. “I thought if he could do it , so could I.”
Joy’s from New Jersey. Stan’s from Dallas, via Houston. He worked with the disposal of hazardous waste and regulation of air pollution at the regional office of the EPA. The Burgers bought a house in Terlingua five years ago.
“God blessed us with a house in Terlingua,” Joy said.
Later Becky offered what would’ve been the perfect rejoinder:
“Oh, really? God damned us with a foreclosure in Gig Harbor.”
But that’s not meant to cast aspersions or sully the magic of the moment. Stan and Joy provided us with a delightful interlude, and saved my day in the process.
She gave Becky a card with their phone number and email, and we posed for sunset photographs before saying our farewells.
Thank you Stan Burger, for being there when I needed someone.