The “Pie Sauna” & Other Spa Treatments of Terlingua

Between the pie baking during these hot summer afternoons and the subsequent body-cooling trips to Terlingua Creek, I’ve realized is that I’m living in the world’s biggest outdoor spa, surrounded by natural treatments — and all for free. Here’s the list so far.

1. Sauna: Bake pies in your kitchen during the height of the afternoon when it’s already 100 degrees in the house. Turning on the oven to the necessary baking temperature of 425 will ensure sweat flows freely out of your pores, just like in the cedar-lined heated rooms of Sweden. Downside: There’s no cold plunge pool to balance out your body heat — the closest is 10 miles away. Add to that, Terlingua’s cold tap water heats up as the day progresses, so by afternoon the “cold” comes out of the tap the same temperature as the hot.
2. Exfoliation: Head over to Terlingua Creek (pictured above) where the tiny little fish will nibble off your dead skin. By the size of their appetite you figure you must really need the body scrub! Downside: You never know when and where the fish will bite next. Also, they have a preference for arm pits, which can be very ticklish.
3. Hair Highlights: Go outside (right outside your door is fine), stand in the scorching sun for thirty minutes a day, and your hair will get naturally highlighted by the intense rays. Downside: Your skin will burn too until eventually it resembles beef jerky and you will likely become dehydrated, but by god your hair will be blond! 4. Massage: Hike to Cattail Falls in Big Bend National Park and stand under the waterfall (as I did just last week, above). The pounding of water pouring down from 100 feet above will do wonders for your tired shoulder muscles. Downside: It’s illegal to enter the water. “Sorry, officer, I didn’t see the sign.”

5. Mud mask: This one is easy. We have lots of mud here – it’s more like clay — full of natural minerals, and, of course, it’s free. For this you just roll around on the banks of the Rio Grande River and — voila! – your skin will be purified! Downside: The mud doesn’t come off easily, your swimsuit will never be clean again, and you’ll have to wash your hair at least 3 times to remove the residual dirt.
6. Acupuncture: Just go for a run through the cactus and you will come out with perfectly placed, deeply imbedded thorns that look just like acupuncture needles. (The pic above shows a good example.) You will feel very relaxed afterward – after the severe pain has subsided. Downside: The “needles” are not sterilized and must be self-inflicted.

Special Delivery: Rhubarb from a Colorado Garden

Betty, my landlady, knocked on my door yesterday and said, “Jim Carrico called.” Jim is a long-time and well-loved resident of Terlingua. He served as the Superintendent for Big Bend National Park for many years, and later invested in a successful adventure outfitter, Desert Sports. My first reaction to her news was that he had died. The 70-year-old man had suffered a stroke last year. I met him my second week in Terlingua when Betty invited me along on a Sunday rafting trip down the Rio Grande; a group of locals and the owners of Desert Sports would be floating through the famous Santa Elena Canyon. The catch was they were taking Jim Carrico; it would be his first time on the river since his stroke, a stroke which had left him in a wheelchair for months afterward. He could walk – and talk – now, but he would require that we all pay special attention to his needs. Even at 70 he was so handsome, fit and charismatic I paid attention to him alright! What a dashing and lovely man!

PHOTO: From our day in Santa Elena Canyon, May 2009

The reason I thought he might have died was that just a few days earlier Betty had expressed concern about his well being. That’s because he and his wife were driving their truck, camping trailer, dogs and cats from Terlingua to the cooler climes of Colorado — and Jim would be the sole driver.
It took me a second to realize he wasn’t dead or he wouldn’t have been able to call. Duh! “Is he okay?” I asked, holding my hand over my heart to recover from my nonsensical scare.
“He’s fine. He called to ask if you want some rhubarb from his garden,” Betty continued. “He wanted to know if you would want to use it for pie.”
“He called to offer me rhubarb? I didn’t think he would even remember me.” I was in a different boat on our river trip and the only time we interacted was when I offered him some of my Peanut M&Ms, which as I recall he politely declined.
“He asked if Beth the pie baker was still here and I told him you were,” Betty replied. “Have you ever made a rhubarb pie?”
I laughed. “Yes, when I baked pies in Malibu I used to make strawberry-rhubarb pie for Dick Van Dyke. It was his favorite. One day his wife came in to tell us that Dick didn’t think the pie was sweet enough. I checked the recipe and discovered he was right, I wasn’t adding enough sugar.” Then I asked Betty, “Do you want to drive over to Jim’s together and get the rhubarb?”
Betty looked at me quizzically. “To Colorado?”
“What? He was calling to offer me rhubarb from his garden in Colorado?” My morning coffee must not have fired up my brain cells yet, because I kept getting confused. “Yeah, I guess you can’t really grow rhubarb here in this desert. Is it frozen or what? How is he going to send it to me?”
“I think he’s planning on picking it from his garden and mailing it,” she said.
“Well, please tell him I’d be happy to have it.” I spent the rest of the day buoyed by Jim’s sweet offer. I still shake my head to think that he sees rhubarb in Colorado and it makes him think of me, a newcomer to his hometown and a practical stranger, baking pies in Terlingua. I continue to be baffled – and happily impressed — by the power of pie and the generosity of people. When the rhubarb arrives I’ll be freezing some so I can make him a pie upon his return. Until then, I’ll be making daily trips to the post office, waiting for his package.

Upstaged by a Rock Star

It seems I’ve grow a bit cocky when it comes to bringing my homemade pies to dinner parties. Upon arrival, my pies – and, subsequently me – tend to become the center of attention – culinary and otherwise – robbing the limelight from the party host. Exclamations like “Wow, you made that?!” from fellow guests send my ego soaring. It’s the closest thing to feeling like a rock star. But last night at a Fourth of July barbeque I had a humbling experience. I brought a pie, a beautiful banana cream pie with a perfectly toasted meringue topping. It was a showcase pie, if I may say so myself. I listened for the predictable murmurings of “Who brought that gorgeous pie?” but seeing as it was a rather large gathering, one to which I had arrived slightly late, and the marinated filet mignon and bottles of expensive tequila had already captured the attention of the guests, I silently left my pie on the kitchen table and went to find a glass of wine. I joined the others on the terrace overlooking Big Bend National Park and dinner was soon served. The steaks were, admittedly, phenomenal – juicy, tender, grilled to perfection – and the tequila strong and smooth.

When the dinner plates were cleared I prepared for my rock-star moment – the presentation of the homemade pie. But the host didn’t offer dessert. Another guest grabbed his guitar, along with the center stage, and entertainment was offered instead. The handsome dark-haired man strummed and sang, plucking the strings in soothing rhythms, his melodies in perfect harmony.
Leslie, a guest from Dallas, leaned over and asked me, “Do you know who that is?!” No, I didn’t. “That’s David Garza! He plays to sold-out audiences in Dallas and Austin. He tours with Fiona Apple. He’s got a bunch of albums out. I just paid $30 to see him in concert a few months ago.” She was giddy with excitement. “You cannot believe how lucky we are to hear him play!”

Indeed, his music was worthy of the attention he was getting, music I would definitely be looking to buy on iTunes. Still, as one hour of music turned into two I wondered if anyone remembered that there was still a pie waiting to be eaten. I could only laugh at what was a first for me – a lesson in pie humility: my rock-star pie had been upstaged by a real rock star.
At last, Mr. Garza took a break, upon which he and his elegant and earthy girlfriend, Nancy, announced they would be serving dessert. “We brought ice cream,” she said. Naturally, this rattled me. Huh? What about my pie?! But I kept quiet.

A few minutes later, still sitting in my far corner on the terrace, the night sky filled with only a few traces of fireworks, Nancy came by, graciously handing out plates, forks and napkins.
In her wake was David Garza himself, carrying not ice cream but my banana cream pie. He had cut it into mini-slices and was serving the small pieces with a silver pie server.

“Thank you,” I told him as he placed a piece on my plate.
“No, thank you for making this,” he replied with a warm smile.
“And thank you for your beautiful music,” I told him, looking into his gentle brown eyes. “You made this a very special evening.”

Then I listened, not to music, but to the people around me as they shoveled the little bites into their mouths, cooing with delight as the vanilla cream, bananas and buttery crust melted on their tongues. It was a very satisfying sound.

If there ever was a win-win, this was it – celebrating America’s Independence Day with a gathering of interesting people in the peaceful desert night; eating good, fresh food made with care; humming along to world-class music played from the heart; and ending the evening with pie. Given a dinner party this perfect, I look forward to a rock star upstaging my pie any day.

The Barter System: Pies for Laundry

I have two apple crumble pies in my (propane-powered) oven. I am finally making good on my promise to Mimi that I would come back to Terlingua and bake pies for her espresso bar. She is expecting a full house at La Posada Milagro for the 4th of July holiday weekend. Yesterday, she drove to the nearest grocery store – Fairway Market in Presidio on the Mexican border – and bought me whatever she could find in season for pie fillings. But this being the desert where it’s hard to grow anything, let alone fruit, in the 100-plus degree temperatures, she came back with only imported apples and bananas.
She asked me how much I would charge her for baking. How could I charge her anything? I wondered. It’s because of her that I’m here; it’s because of her I’m so happy in my new home. I never would have known about this tiny town if not for her. Besides, I love baking pies. I love it so much I’m willing to do it for free. But I did pause for a moment and think about what I could charge. “Tell you what,” I said. “Let’s work on the barter system. I bake for you and you let me do laundry at your place. And use your Internet access. And, well, I’m always borrowing stuff from you. So let’s just call it a fair deal, okay?”
She smiled and said, “That’s not exactly fair for you. You would have about one load of laundry a month.”
“True,” I said. “But that’s not the point.”
I was glad she didn’t argue. Instead, she launched into the details. “There’s a new washing machine,” she said. “I paid a thousand dollars for it. It works really well.” I’d seen it; it’s a Bosch front-loader sitting outdoors on a rock patio in front of her caretaker’s cabin. “What’s really nice is you can hang your clothes on the line to dry. They’ll smell so good, like the clean desert air.”
I look forward to fresh desert-scented clothes. But right now my clothes – and my whole house – are permeated with the scent of apples and cinnamon. I’d say I’m getting the better end of the deal. Except that suddenly I can smell something burning in the kitchen. Guess you get what you pay for!

My Life on Easy Street

I just returned to Terlingua after ten days in Los Angeles. Ten very loud, traffic-filled, stress-inducing days. How did I ever love that city so much? How did I ever tolerate the extreme density of population, housing and cars? How did I ever manage to stay calm and kind in the midst of such aggressive and rude people? And how did just one month in Terlingua change me so much?

I have always considered LA home. For the past 20 years I have surfed in the Pacific Ocean – often in the company of dolphins and pelicans, hiked in the Santa Monica Mountains where the scent of sagebrush permeated the air, taken yoga classes from the world’s top teachers, had weekly dinners with my best friend alternating between our favorites of Houston’s (amazing burgers and high-end wine list) and Sushi King, and regularly socialized with inspiring creative types at hip coffee houses. I learned how to beat the traffic by working from home. When I had business meetings I would schedule them nearby so I could ride my beach cruiser. My freelancer’s schedule allowed me to shop off-peak hours to avoid the crowds. In short, LA suited me just fine. Until I discovered Terlingua last month. Quiet, remote Terlingua – population 200.

When I got back to LA my senses were immediately assaulted with noises I hadn’t heard in a month –sirens, car alarms, jets, helicopters, buses, screeching brakes, blaring horns, and, most offensive, leaf blowers. Besides the noise I started questioning other aspects of urban life: Why the increasing popularity in pit bulls? Why am I seeing police arresting people in my neighborhood every single day? Why are there traffic lights every half block? Why do people talk so loud on their cell phones while waiting in line? Why would a Prius driver with Save the Whales license plates cut me off in the Whole Foods Parking lot?

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about being back in LA. I worried I might regret the decision I had made a week earlier, to give up my apartment there and return to Texas. But it didn’t take long (about one hour) to realize I made the right decision, reinforced many times during my stay. First my landlord, when I went to say goodbye, unexpectedly burst into tears and said, “I wish I could just take off like you.” She has three young kids. Then I went to the AT&T store to buy a phone charger and the manager, upon me mentioning my move to Terlingua, said, “Two more years and I am out of here too, as soon as my kids graduate from high school. I’m going home, to Woodstock, New York.” Later I ran into a friend who is a VP of advertising for a top music magazine. She is glamorous, not someone I would peg for rural life, but when I told her my plans she replied, “That’s what I’ve always wanted.”

I didn’t know my change of lifestyle would resonate with so many others. I just assumed people lived in LA (or any other big city) because they wanted to. This past week told me otherwise. I hope those who are tied to city life because of whatever obligation will find a way to fulfill their dreams, to honor their own sense of freedom, adventure and quiet space — even if it’s just to come and visit me for a week or a month, knowing that one month is all it took for me to decide I could live outside of a big city. Waaaaaaay outside.

PHOTO: The view from my backyard. We’re not in LA anymore.

Now, back in Terlingua, my ears are filled with only the sound of the breeze, singing birds, and, at the moment, some distant thunder from a brewing afternoon storm. There is no traffic, thus no traffic lights – for that matter, Terlingua doesn’t even have a stop sign. There are no cars, therefore no car alarms or honking horns – better yet, no one to run you over in a pedestrian crossing. There are many dogs, but no pit bulls. Of course there are no sushi bars, no ocean waves to surf, and no business meetings or coffee houses to ride my bike to. And though the Whole Foods chain started in Texas, the nearest organic milk is 90 miles away (along with the nearest Prius). I love this life. I love the simplicity. I love the lack of conveniences as it forces you to improvise, or, more importantly, realize how little you really need. But what I love most is the quiet.

I don’t know how long I’ll stay in Terlingua, but for right now life on Easy Street is, well, easy.

Snakes Where You LEAST Expect Them

This past weekend was my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I had planned to bake a banana cream pie for the family celebration – as banana cream is the pie my mom made that prompted my dad to propose to her 50 years ago – but I was too tired to bake. I had just driven to LA from Texas (1,200 miles) and no sooner did I get back to LA, Mimi (from La Posada Milagro) sent me an email telling me the latest Terlingua news: Dyann had a Mojave rattlesnake in her kitchen. Dyann’s house is almost next door to mine!

Mojave rattlesnakes are THE MOST LETHAL SNAKES IN NORTH AMERICA. Regardless of how quickly you can get to a hospital, these snakes CAN KILL YOU. They possess two types of toxins, one of which will cut off your air supply, so if the first toxin doesn’t get you, the other — a neurotoxin — will.
Equally terrifying is that one bite and your little dog will be dead. I have two little dogs. One of the best things about living in Far West Texas is the freedom to let them run off leash. In the one month I’ve lived there they have never worn a collar, let alone been walked with a leash. They chase bunnies every morning. They sprint through open fields, dodging in and out of the cactus, tall grass and rock formations – all snake hideouts. I am vigilant in keeping a look out, but sometimes I wonder if I’m playing Russian Roulette. A rattlesnake can look just like a big stick. And my dogs love sticks.
So here I was, finally back in LA, safe and happy to be sleeping in my own bed – a delicious nest of down pillows and fluffy comforter – and at last in a comfortable 68 degree bedroom instead of my 100-degree one in Texas. I was so tired I could have slept for a week. But Mimi’s email had worked its way into my subconscious and instead of the deep sleep I had longed for I dreamed all night of deadly snakes. Nightmares. I woke up even more exhausted. And stressed. And wondering if I just made the biggest mistake of my life giving up my Venice apartment in order to live in Poisonous Snake Country USA.
(PHOTO ABOVE RIGHT: Our suite balcony on upper left corner, as seen by the snake)
Our family celebration took place at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel where we booked the Presidential Suite for the night. The Ritz-Carlton’s fluffy beds and million-count cotton sheets made my own LA bedding seem like K-Mart quality. I was surrounded luxury, as well as by the security of my family, and reminded myself that no snakes would ever find their way HERE – in my dreams or otherwise. We spent the evening drinking champagne, exchanging family memories, and I even read an essay I wrote for my parents – about the meaning of banana cream pie in their lives. (If I’m not making pie I am writing about pie.) After lying in bed doing some meditation — wherein I was “sending love” to all rattlesnakes, making peace with my Mojave anxiety, to ensure a good night’s sleep – I did indeed have a very restful night.
The next morning I stood on the balcony of our suite with my parents and my sister. We were admiring the ocean view, when I happened to look down onto the manicured lawn below. A brown coil sat on the grass. “Is that a hose?” I wondered. I looked again. If it was a hose then why was one-third of the hose standing vertically, craning its head around?
(PHOTO: The view from our balcony; the couple, pictured,went back to reading their paper after the snake left.)
I don’t remember screaming but I know that I did because the couple sitting in the Adirondack chairs on the lawn looked up at us on the balcony. “There’s a snake right behind you!” I shouted. They jumped out of their chairs and watched as the reptile, which appeared to be at least five feet long, slithered past their chairs into the bushes. I couldn’t tell from four stories up what kind of snake it was — Mojave rattlesnakes live in Southern California too — but the thing was enormous and, even from a distance, scary looking.
I spent the next hour in a state of giddiness.”Dad!” I kept saying breathlessly. “Can you believe it? I didn’t see one snake in Texas and here, of all places — at the Ritz-Carlton — there’s this huge snake!”
The message in this snake sighting seemed obvious. “Snakes are everywhere,” I was being told. “It’s okay to go back to Texas.”
The five-star weekend was fun while it lasted, and I was so happy I could make it back for my parents’ milestone celebration, but I’m ready to drive back to Terlingua this week and face my fears. Besides, Mimi emailed me again. “Don’t worry about the snakes. We’re tough here. The coffee house business is doing well and we need you to come back and bake pies.”

Martinis and Pie: The Perfect Birthday Combo

Yesterday was my birthday so I gathered up a few new friends here in Terlingua and threw a little party. Instead of cake I made pie. And instead of champagne, my dad (who was brave enough to come visit in spite of my tarantula pictures) made his famous martinis. Pie and martinis. What a combo.

One friend suggested that I shouldn’t be making pie on my birthday. I should be doing something else, something relaxing, something fun. “But making pie is relaxing and fun,” I told her. “Making pie is exactly what I want to do on my birthday.”

Except that it wasn’t relaxing or fun baking pie in the middle of a Texas desert summer afternoon. The temperature in the kitchen was 100 degrees — and I’m not talking about the oven! When the dough kept sticking to the oil cloth as I tried to roll it, the butter and Crisco melting in spite of chilling it first (a step I usually skip to save time), I reminded myself (more like reprimanded) that pie was being made long before air conditioning and therefore I needed to respect my Pie-o-neer Foremothers who baked pie in wood burning ovens (in their un-air conditioned log cabins) for all those years before I came along. So I wiped the sweat from my brow and persevered.
The pies turned out fine — one strawberry and two banana creams. The party was a success — measured by the fact the guests were chanting “We want pie.” And seeing the empty plates at the end of the evening (after the happy pie eaters begged for seconds) was the best birthday present I could have asked for.
This morning, after having pie for breakfast, my dad commented, “This is one terrific pie.” (He was eating banana cream.) After a pause he added, “I’m a little disappointed I haven’t seen any tarantulas yet.”

Future Location of the Pot ‘O Gold Pie Shop

If THIS isn’t a sign that I am meant to stay right where I am, I don’t know what is. Could it also be a message indicating the future location of the Pot ‘O Gold Pie Shop?!Or, wait. Am I in such a state of Texas-inspired nirvana the prism of light is actually radiating out from me — and not the other way around? I’m sure stranger things have happened in this part of the world. Regardless, it’s pretty fucking amazing to have a rainbow landing on your head.

The Man Who Makes Peach Cobbler

Driving back from the swimming hole on Sunday – where I had spent the afternoon with some new friends seeking refuge from the 108 degree day – we stopped at a small ranch to drop off a borrowed water jug. I had noticed the ranch before, a tidy hillside homestead with a nicely painted sign marking its entrance. We drove the quarter mile up the dirt road and pulled up next to the house, which was like many of the “houses” in the area: a large RV parked under a metal lean-to, the covering essential to provide much-needed shade.
We were greeted by the owner of the property, Bob, a small, wiry man with a shaved head and dark beady eyes. He was wearing Levis and leather boots, and a white t-shirt that revealed the definition of his bulging muscles. You wouldn’t want to get in a fight with this guy. He may be only five and a half feet tall but his body mass, and his jumpiness, told me he was ready, with little provocation, to kick some serious ass.
Bob invited us to stay, look around, and “have a smoke.” Tom, who was driving, looked at me, knowingly, and said quietly enough so Bob didn’t hear, “We don’t have to stay.” He could see I was terrified to get out of the truck for fear of what someone with that kind of pent-up redneck energy might do.
But I didn’t want to get a reputation as the scaredy-cat, snotty-pants city girl so I said, “No, that’s okay. We can stay.”
I stepped outside and Bob extended his body-builder hand to shake mine, his grip extra firm. “Very nice to meet you, little lady.” Okay, so he may look menacing but he was very polite. “Let me show you around,” he said.
The place was surprising – actually, no. It was Bob who was surprising. First of all, I was standing close enough to him to discover he smelled of laundry detergent – that white t-shirt was freshly washed. I wondered where he could wash his clothes out here in the desert, and then saw the brand new washing machine by the RV, hooked up with jumper cables to a car battery.
Not only were his clothes clean, his place was immaculate. He had planted a cactus garden artfully arranged and outlined with stones. He had planted an even bigger garden of potatoes and tomatoes in symmetrical rows behind the RV and he showed us how he protects them from the sun and how he uses his gray water (from the washing machine) to irrigate. He had a horse trough filled with water, just for his dog to get wet because, as he said, “A Lab’s gotta have water.” He had a large picnic table set with candles and Mexican pottery dishes. And he had an outdoor kitchen: a raised fire pit built of stacked rocks and, in the middle of the pit, three Dutch ovens hung from chains. A Dutch oven is a cast iron pot that uses coals underneath and on top of its lid to create a baking effect. “I love to cook,” he said. He turned to me, his piercing dark eyes softening as he added, “And I make a fine peach cobbler. It’s the best you’ll ever taste. You just put the peaches and sugar in the bottom and put the biscuit dough on top.”
I went home and couldn’t get Bob out of my mind. Mainly, I was mad at myself for how I had judged – and feared – a person who underneath the tough-guy appearance was as gentle and nurturing as – and, Bob, please don’t beat me up for saying this – a little girl. How many more times was I going to have to be beaten over the head with the lesson: Don’t judge a book by its cover? Out here in Far West Texas, away from all my career-oriented, liberal city friends, I seem to be re-learning this lesson over and over. I continue to meet a new cross-section of people I wouldn’t normally encounter – river guides, ranchers, park rangers, and even a few right-wingers – and I continue to be fascinated with how, no matter what their convictions, leanings, lifestyle, or language each person reveals something good in their heart. Good enough for me to accept them as they are, and maybe even as a friend.
Continuing to look for ways to beat the heat, I drove to the store later that evening to buy ice cream. It was still so hot I dreamed of taking a bath in the stuff. There in the freezer case of the world’s smallest grocery store (the only store for miles around), among the vanilla and chocolate, was one lone pint of Peach Cobbler Ice Cream. I thought of Bob. I thought of buying it for him, but seeing as it would have melted by the time I got to his ranch, I wrote this story about him instead – and ate the ice cream myself.