There has never been a shortage of loners or oddballs in south Brewster County, a bleak, isolated region that attracts errant souls seeking escape from modern society, a complicated past or even an inconvenient identity.
While armed and edgy conspiracy types can be found in the back country off Texas 118 and other hidden pockets, don’t look for them in the old ghost town of Terlingua, now a booming tourist mecca.
On a Friday night, the wait at the Starlight Theatre for a rib-eye and live music can be two or three hours. In certain boutique lodgings, the rooms are booked months in advance.
“We’re happy to have tourists. That’s how we live out here. My experience over the past 30 years is that Terlingua has never been closed off to outsiders,” said Betty Moore, who rents out rooms in the old miners’ homes.
Thus, the recent appearance of a production crew from California working on a reality show with a dubious premise
— that Terlingua is an outpost of suspicious, standoffish outliers — has triggered a protective backlash.
Some fear that “Badlands,” planned as an eight-part series on the National Geographic channel, will make Terlingua into a Duck Dynasty of the desert.
“It’s my town and my friends, and I know what they are going to do, make us look like idiots,” said Buckner Cooke, a former reality show cameraman who lives in Terlingua.
More disturbing is the show’s announced plan to use a recent and tragic local homicide as a window into Terlingua’s troubled soul.
The killing last year of well-loved local bar owner Glenn Felts, allegedly by popular river raft guide Tony Flint, is still a raw wound for many residents.
On Monday, Flint goes to trial in Sierra Blanca on a murder charge.
“It’s a tragedy on both sides of the aisle here. They are taking something that is very painful to us and hideous to the families, and turning it into a sideshow,” said Linda Walker, a longtime resident and owner of horse stables.
From Bill Ivey, owner of most of the ghost town, to local journalists and businessmen, many with a deep stake in Terlingua are telling Original Productions to take a hike.
“From just the cast of characters they have chosen, I feel they are going to depict Terlingua as a perpetual Burning Man festival, with a stranger, psychotic twist to it, and I don’t want to be part of it,” Ivey said.
“I’ve spent 35 years promoting Terlingua as a destination for tourists and travelers to the Big Bend. Even though they offered me money to use Terlingua as a location, I said, ‘No thank you,’ ” he added.
Others are even less diplomatic.
“I’ll tell ’em to go straight to hell. Reality shows are not reality, and when you get involved with folks like this, you can expect crap,” said Angie Dean, who came to Terlingua in 1989.
Dean, who ran the Starlight for a decade, fears that Terlingua’s image will be distorted by reality television.
“I’m sure it will show there are a lot of drunks down here. OK, in many ways that’s true. There are people who drink, but there are not people who drink and kill other people,” she added.
Repeated attempts to get comment from three Original Productions officials were unsuccessful. Eventually, the company referred questions to National Geographic television, which plans to show “Badlands.”