Terlingua, Texas: Where Carroll Shelby’s rat pack let their Mustangs run wild Page 2


2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

Deep in Brewster County sits Terlingua, a town Shelby would have flown over while training bombardiers in the early 1940s. At the time, the Texas Mercury Company mined cinnabar to extract mercury, but the area had long been a gathering point for native tribes, Spanish explorers, and Mexican caballeros, and Texas Rangers. Its name roughly translates from Spanish to “three languages,” and it honors the Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche tribes that once roamed the southwest.  

Terlingua, a few miles from the north entrance to Big Bend National Park, feels as remote as anywhere in the world—at least as a tiny dot surrounded by not much of anything on the Mustang’s navigation screen. On this scalding May afternoon, a crowd turns it into an unexpected mecca, one that straddles a heretofore uncharted line between Burning Man and Margaritaville. Locals brand it as a ghost town, but it bustles with tourists and serves as a supply depot for campers in Big Bend.

The place thrives on quirk. The only ghosts here are crumbling mining structures, some of which have been repurposed and some of which sink into the hardscrabble. There’s a sprawling store with tchotchkes such as chili cookbooks and T-shirts, plus beer sold by the bottle. Next door sits the Starlight Theatre, a former movie house converted to a restaurant and music venue that serves as the Radio City Music Hall of the Chisos Mountains.

Aside from a few teepees and campers rented to out-of-towners, that’s Terlingua. It’s an arid place, the kind of town that dries up as soon as the frequent afternoon thunderstorms pass. 

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

 

Vacationland for the hardy Rat Pack

Terlingua today is a gathering spot, but not the kind Shelby imagined in the 1960s.

Flush with Ford Motor Company’s cash after parlaying a successful racing career into hot-rodded Shelby Mustangs, he began to buy up land around Terlingua. Shelby was the kind of guy who got lucky as often as he failed, and business acumen was not his forte.

Shelby never felt comfortable in Los Angeles, where he converted Mustangs owned by secretaries to fire-breathing GT350s and marginally tamer GT500s in a warehouse near Los Angeles International Airport. LA bustled a lot more than Dallas back then, and it was a lot closer to the Ford assembly plant in San Jose where unfinished Mustangs were drop-shipped to the Shelby skunkworks.

From LA, Shelby watched movers and shakers flock to Palm Springs, where a mid-century mecca was under construction. Palm Springs, with its rugged mountains, arid climate, and fresh air, Shelby reckoned, wasn’t that different than Terlingua. Well, there was one difference, and it was a big one: Palm Springs was an easy drive—or a short flight for the Rat Pack—from LA, while Terlingua was a long trek from El Paso, hardly a hotspot for the Hollywood elite in the 1960s.


 
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