TERLINGUA, Texas -- A hot tradition began in 1967 when chili lovers Frank X. Tolbert, Wick Fowler and a few others held the inaugural Terlingua International Chili Cook-Off.
"In part it started because my dad, Frank Tolbert, was promoting his book 'A Bowl of Red,' which is mainly about chili," says event president Kathleen Tolbert Ryan.
It was and still is held on the first weekend in November. Forty-five years later, thousands gather to celebrate the culinary nuances of chili as well as raise funds to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which took the life of Mr. Fowler, creator of the famous 2-Alarm Chili.
In 1983, there was a rift (too many cooks in the kitchen?), and Ray King created a second festival nearby called the Terlingua International Chili Championship, run by the Chili Appreciation Society International.
"Theirs is wilder. They have a lot of bikers and nudity," Ms. Ryan says, laughing.
It's held the same weekend as the older event, which is officially the Original Terlingua International Frank Tolbert-Wick Fowler Championship Chili Cook-Off.
Every November, chili lovers change the landscape of this southwest Texas ghost town near the stunning Big Bend National Park. RVs, tents and tepees pop up like dessert flowers after a rain shower. But so does the state police, who patrol the stretch of Highway 170 between the two festivals with coyote cunning. The speed limit changes at least five times in less than 10 miles, and you'd better change with it.
In the late 1800s, Terlingua was home to the Chisos Mining Co., which extracted mercury. Many residents died during an influenza epidemic in 1918 while others met their demise from gunfights and harsh working and living conditions. The cemetery in Terlingua is a National Historic Landmark. On the Day of the Dead each Nov. 2, an all-night vigil (party) is held there to remember the dearly departed. During this year's chili festivals, participants can spend the night in the cemetery.
Chili isn't the only competition going on during the weekend. There is an ugly hat contest, a golf shootout and live music and dancing under the ink-black sky alive with twinkling stars.
Sixteen years ago, a Cowboy Camp sprang up at the original chili cook-off, marked by a big billboard that reads "Viva Terlingua!" Started by Tom Nall, CEO of Republic Tequila, and Bob Wire Tugmon, the camp initially honored Chris Regas and his 70th birthday. Mr. Regas, known as The Greek Cowboy, is now 86 and a well-known photographer.
Set up around a stone campfire, the camp opens with a big potluck dinner and collects donations for ALS. Everybody is welcome, but don't bring your generator. They like to get back to nature.
"There are cowboy values we should all adhere to such as honesty, character, manners, a work ethic and integrity," says Mr. Nall. "As long as everyone minds their manners, treats others the way they wish to be treated ... and treats their animals with human respect, they are welcome in Cowboy Camp."
The "cowboys" come from all walks of life. Bruce Bonyun, a vice president for a medical records company, flies down from Vermont each year with his wife, Denise, to meet up with college friends from Fort Worth.
"It's a chance for adults and children to wear the hats and boots and live the dream for a few days," he says.
"This year 10 of us will be doing a three-day, 90-mile horseback ride to raise money for the ALS South Texas Chapter," says Mrs. Bonyun. The group will leave Alpine, Texas, near Marfa and arrive at Cowboy Camp Nov. 2.
Some cowboys rough it, sleeping in RVs, tents or tepees. Others need a cushier place to lay their hats.
Lajitas Resort is about seven miles from the festivals, and Terlingua Trading Co. has the Big Bend Holiday Hotel. They're probably booked for this year's festivals, but you might get lucky. Nearby is the Starlight Theater, a bar and restaurant with live music and plenty of margaritas, and the Posado Milagro guesthouse just a few hundred yards across the dusty street serves a great breakfast.
Many of the people who come for the chili visit Big Bend National Park, one of the most beautiful in the country without the crowds of the more popular Yellowstone or Yosemite. On the banks of the Rio Grande, there are Indian petroglyphs to explore and a hot spring-hot tub where you will find chili lovers relaxing while watching the activity across the river. You can see Mexico from the park and Mexicans sometimes walk across the shallow river to try to sell trinkets. Tourists and park visitors are discouraged from buying the items, which include colorfully painted walking sticks.
You may need more than three days to become familiar with this part of Texas, but the chili cook-offs are a great excuse to get down there and get started.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com or 412-263-2613.