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“Apparently, man, there were these two guys together and one of them was a writer in Dallas and started this chili cookoff in 1967. But at some point, it split and went two different directions, and that’s why there’s two different chili cookoffs out there. The guy from Dallas was named Frank X. Tolbert, and the cookoff named after him is the one we’re going to …”

Rain is telling me this as we head west out of Del Rio on 90, toward Terlingua — a speck of a West Texas town with a reputation for the bizarre. Gram Parsons is on the radio, the pissing rain is starting to let up, and things are looking good as we take a quick inventory: 154 beers, a bag of dirty grass, a small jar of shriveled liberty caps, and enough jalapeño sausages to choke an elephant. We’ve also brought along a Colt .45 and a .357 Magnum — as a precaution, I’m told. What this means, I have no idea.

Rain is more worried about the beer, though. “154 beers is just not enough for six guys in the desert for two days where everyone’s loaded. We’re going to be loco, man, we need more beer. And we’ll probably need some whiskey to slug on.”

Rain K. Gilbert’s new duds were quickly soiled by drunken mayhem and foul behavior. Photo by Tucker Teutsch
Our caravan, which consists of three pickup trucks driven by two lawyers and an unemployed graphic artist, pulls off in Sanderson to buy a couple more cases of Schlitz (bringing the beer count to 202). Eddie grabs a pound of gizzards for the road, but throws them away as soon as someone points out that “gizzard” is another word for chewy, fried chicken throats.

But no matter: The sage is in bloom, laying a purple carpet over the land that is broken only by the deep chasm of the Pecos Gorge. At Alpine, we turn south into No Man’s Land.

Our group pulls into the Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert-Wick Fowler Memorial Chili Championship around 10 p.m., and we set up camp in a small ravine, out of the wind. Around us, campfires are blazing and the sounds of 2,000 drunken, laughing chili fiends fill the air. We have already knocked back a case as we pitched our tarp, so we grab a full cooler and head toward the stage.

Two Tons of Steel strikes up just as we arrive, and their rockabilly acrobatics soon draw a crowd. Leather-clad bikers and old, dusty women and cowboy hats like ripe pears on a tuna cactus punctuate the landscape: There are Texans in 10-gallons, ranchers, Tom Mixes, and some straw dixies from beyond the state borders. Hicks and heads alike seem at home in this place: here a smattering of hippies, there a black guy in street duds looking lost, and a few Indians at the back of the crowd. Overall, as far as the eye can see, the scene is one of boundless yokeldom and rednecked disarray. There are some in Confederate flag vests and baseball caps, but in their jovial demeanor they all seem to exhibit the sort of Southern pride that includes Charlie Pride. Not once do I hear the “N” word.

At this moment, in this place, the modern icons of Texas mythology are writ large in personality and profile, as the best of our state gathers together for a yearly celebration of what it means to be Texan in the 21st century. We are diverse, yet we are similar. We speak different languages, yet we speak with a common drawl. Here, in Terlingua, our destiny and our past collide, and the funky result goes into the chili pot, along with everything else.

During the concert, we hatch a plan: We will spike the Mexicans’ chili with the last of the psilocybin. Unfortunately, it seems no teams have crossed the river to take part. This, despite a Border Patrol vehicle that sits near the stage. “Yeah, we’ve got illegals here,” I hear someone say. “And they’re gonna win, too!”

Clif Dugan, 2002 winner of the Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert-Wick Fowler Memorial Chili Championship. Photo by Tucker Teutsch
Early the next morning, I rise to have a look around. The mountains are easily visible above the gully where we have camped, and it makes for incredible scenery — but moving through it comes at a price, I soon find. Desert plants, adapted for survival in the arid climate, are prickly more often than not — and woe to the reckless fool who walks barefoot in these parts. Although I had spent some time the night before hacking out brush from the campsite with a machete (and we had all watched for a good hour as a large, spiky plant was doused with gasoline and burned, to no discernible effect), my feet end up welted and bloody as I frog-hop to the truck to find my boots.

The scene around the stage is Grateful Dead flags, boot-cut jeans, RVs, Harleys, funnel cakes, and jalapeños. Someone has brought in an armadillo-shaped grill and loaded it with five racks of ribs; smoke pours from its tail, and a metal phallus serves as a grease drain, complete with a brass ball lever. All around the grounds, hundreds of cooks are stirring pots of chili.

I walk up one alley of RVs and run into Jerry Moore of Ding-Dong Chili. He is dressed in a hobo clown suit, and his wife, Heidi, wears a small, battery-operated speaker with a loop of recorded flatulence that erupts randomly.

I want to know the rules of competitive chili.

“There’s naw floatin spah-ces or anythang lahk thet,” Moore says. “You use dehahdrated onions, anythang that’ll dissolve. Because all they woant is just meat ’n’ thick gravy.”

“So what exactly are they looking for?” I ask him.

“Thir’s fahv criteriers. Heidi, whut’s th’ fahv criteriers?”

Heidi ambles out from behind the pot, her faux-farts trailing her. “Aroma, taste…”

Jerry: “Smell…well, thet’s aroma.”

Heidi: “Color, taste, aroma, afterbite, and consistency. And I’m pretty consistent today,” she chuckles, after a particularly loud bark.

“I whish the batt’ries would run down on thet thang, it’s getting oan mah nerves,” Jerry says, but Heidi’s electric gas is the least of his problems: Turn-in time looms just half an hour away.

“So you’re almost ready?” I ask him.

“T’woan’t be long now.”

Adrian Estrada, head chili cook of the “Terlingua Finger” team from Perland, Texas, took 2nd place in the “Showmanship” category. Photo by Tucker Teutsch
Extracted from my notes:

“Chili People are not like you and me. They will drive halfway across the country to get points in regional cookoffs in order to qualify for Terlingua. When the championships come around (both Terlingua cookoffs take place at the same time), they will travel from as far away as Hawaii and Canada to do battle with ladle, pot, and spice. For one weekend a year, the population of Terlingua balloons from a few hundred to almost 10,000 people.

“The Chili Appreciation Society International (C.A.S.I.) Cookoff is the larger of the two, and is generally considered to have a better class of chili. Though there are more cooks, it is harder to qualify, and just making the grade is considered an accomplishment. The Tolbert cookoff (often called simply, “Behind the Store,” as it takes place behind the Terlingua Store) is more laid-back, with a program of musical acts and a festival atmosphere. Diehards flock to C.A.S.I., but our group went to Tolbert — mainly because we didn’t know squat about chili (nor did we care to).

“The chili community is a tight-knit group, with their own lingo, style, and even their own newspaper, the Goat Gap Gazette. And though they are competitive, cooks often share tips and recipes. Overall, they are Caucasian, countrified, and eccentric as hell. While the rest of us might talk about, say, politics and sports, the chili community is, to a man, obsessed with chili — or, as they call it, ‘a bowl of red.’ And Terlingua, despite its overpowering tinyness, is the Valhalla of chili cooks everywhere.”

Erin Osenbaugh, last year’s “Miss Terlingua,” watches from the crowd as this year’s contestants take the stage. Photo by Tucker Teutsch
High noon: Turn-in time and the pace is frantic as cooks deliver their final mix to the judges. Back of the stage, competitors queue up, all nervous grins and expectant jitters, holding styrofoam cups that brim with steaming chili. Behind a line of pink marker tape, the judges sit at a row of tables. And though the rules are stringent (no floating veggies, no distinguishing characteristics — and for god’s sake, NO BEANS!), the final appraisal is less so: Judges are allowed to complement the chili with salted crackers, cheese, and chopped onions, as well as beer. This is not a wine tasting, after all. They rate the chili on cards, which are soon splattered — as is my notebook — with bits of ground meat and sauce.

Noon is also the last time any sensible person will use the port-o-potties. After the chili starts to flow, you would do better to dig a hole in the ground.

I try two competitors’ chili that afternoon. Then, since our camp is out of Rolaids, I call it quits. Both samples are spicy as hell, and I can feel it burning through my intestines, straight down, like molten lava.

Late that afternoon the crowd gathers around the stage to hear the results. It seems to take forever, but at last, in a solemn voice, a winner is declared: “The Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert-Wick Fowler Memorial Chili Championship goes to the holder of ticket number … 5047490.” A man named Clif Dugan from Denison, Texas takes the stage, but does not give a speech. It all seems anticlimactic, but soon the mood turns rowdy as the final competition nears.

Just in front of the stage, I meet a woman in Texas-shaped sunglasses and bib overalls. Her name is Erin Osenbaugh, and she is last year’s “Miss Terlingua.” I ask her why she isn’t competing this year. “I’m going out on a high note,” she tells me, adding that she got the award only after her third try.

“So what sorts of duties does the ‘Miss Terlingua’ title carry?” I ask.

“Basically, I showed my tits to the crowd and they liked them best,” she answers with a grin.

The contest goes off without a hitch, as a thousand cowboys are crammed into the small space at the front of the stage to get a look at the girls. There are painfully few women at the event, and the men hoot at the barest hint of flesh. Even Shorty Frye, who is damn near 80, gets a yell from the crowd as she sheds her shirt and bra.

Contestants and judges (you decide which) in the 2002 Miss Terlingua contest. Photo by Tucker Teutsch
Later that evening, all six of us head to La Kiva, possibly the finest tequila bar in West Texas. A cave-like joint, dug into the hard ground like some large, alien ant farm, La Kiva is decorated with strange, hybrid skeletons set into the adobe walls, and there’s a full shelf of sins at one’s beck and call.

Ruby Ross and her husband grab us right after we walk in. Ruby, who is 70 if she’s a day, has obviously been celebrating her success at the C.A.S.I. cookoff with a few shots of the hard stuff. She proudly explains that she took ninth overall — no small feat in a field of 309 cooks.

“There’s a lot more important things in life,” she tells us, raising her glass, “but this feels pretty darn good. I never dreamed in all my life that I’d place here.”

Jennifer Kosub sits nearby, win-less but no less festive. At only 19, Kosub is one of the youngest cooks to qualify for the cookoff, and although she didn’t place, she is still thrilled with the experience.

“The best part of the day was seeing that gate today at the turn-in. It says, ‘Through These Gates Walks the Greatest Chili in the World.’ I got kind of teared up at that.”

“So why didn’t your chili win?” I ask.

“Because it’s a crapshoot,” she says bitterly. It may sound like sour grapes, but she also has a point: When you get right down to it, most chili tastes basically the same. Even the professionals often can’t tell them apart; by one judge’s estimation, 75 percent of all competitive chilis are indistinguishable from one another.

That’s not to say that cooks won’t go to great — or downright outlandish — lengths to set their recipes apart. In an article in the Goat Gap Gazette, the Right Reverend Doctor General J. Mike “Scorpion Breath” Smith 3 writes: “If you want to stand on the stage, you’ve got to stand out on the judging table.” Included among some of the more unorthodox chili ingredients the good doctor lists are chocolate, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, butterscotch, canned pinto bean juice, and Dr. Pepper.

“I worked hard at my pot,” says Kosub, “and I said to myself, ‘This is the best bowl of chili I’ve ever cooked in my life.’” I wisely refrain from suggesting butterscotch in her next batch.

Cowboys contemplate the metaphysical and poetic existence of chili. Photo by Tucker Teutsch
Back at camp, I hop on board Geronimo’s Cadillac — a strange, two-tiered vehicle built from an old mining transport and what looks like a large Model-T. Johnny, the grizzled driver, passes around a gallon jug of cactus wine, and I can tell from the raw sweetness of the purplish drink that a little will go a long way. The Caddy travels at a constant speed of about three miles an hour, but it never once flags as it climbs up the steep caliche hills around camp. Drunken cowboys climb on and just as quickly fall off, and we pass on ongoing jam session at a bonfire near one tipi. As we snail-crawl past another camp, a three-sheeted bunch of yahoos pelt us with chicken wings. One of our passengers stands up and offers them a bare-assed riposte.

Rain and Luke are pulling hard on the cactus juice, but I decide to call it a night. The stars are shifting like lighting bugs, illuminating an absolutely perfect, hallucinatory night. This is standard-issue in Terlingua, where wide-open spaces are not yet at a premium. As one local tells me, “Hell, less than 20 acres around here, and you can’t walk outside to take a piss.”

That, in a tiny nutshell, is why people come here to live. Terlinguans all share a wild-eyed, chased look. The desert is their escape, and they take refuge in the nameless expanse of the Big Bend. Out here, people don’t care where you come from — they ask only that you accept where you are.

Frank Tolbert, I decide, was definitely onto something when he chose Terlingua as the spot for the grandaddy of all chili cookoffs. In the middle of nowhere, there is no room for pretense: It’s just you, the land, and your chili pot. Everything else is just filler.

Geronimo’s Cadillac is a staple at the cookoff, and is powered by an old mining-vehicle engine that has been mounted onto a Suburban frame. Cowhike seats, a steam horn, and a bottomless bottle of sotol (raw cactus alcohol) are just a few of the amenities available to passengers. Photo by Tucker Teutsch
The next morning, when we wake, the grounds are almost empty. Most folks have gotten an early start, and only stragglers and hangover casualties remain. We break camp under a gray sky, with low clouds creeping into the valleys of the Christmas Range to the east. Driving out, we spot the newly-christened Miss Terlingua huddled in dazed shock near the dying embers of a campfire; the festival easily attracted 20 men to every woman — lord only knows what kind of depravity that poor girl endured.

The redneck hordes have left the place in tatters, with garbage strewn over the hills and small puddles of congealed chili leaching grease into the ground. Too quickly, I grow smug at the thought that the bumpkin influence has not left its mark on me. It is then that I find the tin of chewing tobacco in my pocket, handed out the day before by a group of Copenhagen promoters. In horror, I reach back to feel my neck, and find that it is tender and hot to the touch.

As we turn onto the road, speeding away from Terlingua into Big Bend National Park, I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the side mirror: My neck is beet-red. As red, in fact, as chili. l

2001 C.A.S.I. championship chili recipe:
Gray 2 pounds of cubed chuck tender beef
(or chili grind).
1 14-1/2 oz. can Swanson’s beef broth
1 8oz. can Contadina tomato sauce
1 cube beef bouillon
1 cube chicken bouillon
Float 1 jalapeño pepper and 1 serrano pepper.

Bring to a boil and add:
2 tsp. Pendery’s onion powder
1 tsp. Pendery’s garlic powder
1 Tbsp. Pendery’s Fort Worth Light chili powder
2 Tbsp. Gunpowder Foods Texas red chili powder
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 packet Sazon Goya

Cut back heat and simmer for about an hour, then add:
1/2 tsp. Pendery’s mexican oregano
1/2 tsp. Pendery’s onion powder
1/2 tsp. Pendery’s garlic powder
1 Tbsp. Pendery’s Fort Worth Light chili powder
2 Tbsp. Gebhardt’s chili powder
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 packet Sazon Goya

Simmer for approximately 30 minutes. Squeeze peppers and discard pulp. Add:
1 Tbsp Pendery’s ground cumin
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 packet Sazon Goya

Simmer for approximately 10 minutes. Taste, and add salt and cayenne as needed.

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