Day 395 – Study Butte & Terlingua

The Study Butte-Terlingua area is ripe with history and I just brushed the very edge of it while in town for two nights. The place is a mix of history, music, big personalities, liberal drinking, heat and dust. I get the impression that people like to follow their own path and most seem to be fine with that, but at the same time a steady increase in popularity is bringing pressures from the outside.

While checking in at Big Bend Stable for my first ever horseback ride, I got a chance to talk with Brandi (pic). I learned that a reality show had been filming in town and many of the residents, including her were not happy about it and refusing to participate. I’ve watched my share of Reality shows and also earn a living editing them and can sympathize with why many of the townsfolk would not be welcoming the production with open arms.

As I am sure most who read this know, there is a lot of augmentation and fabrication in Reality TV, rendering the term “reality” comical. Part of it is structural – when working with non-actors on short timelines and tight budgets producing becomes an important part of the process. Rare events become common place, conflict is ever present and the actions and responses of characters are exagerated to a high degree. Trust me, if this wasn’t done the vast majority of Reality TV would be unwatchable and this includes your favorite show.

I’m explaining the above because I want to be fair to my Reality TV colleagues. It is a tough business to run a production company in and work for. The ability to tell stories that reflect the “true” experience of those participating is next to impossible and that is the nature of the beast.

Original Productions is producing the show for National Geographic and they have done a number of popular shows like Deadliest Catch, Ax Men, and Ice Road Truckers. I’ve watched and enjoyed many episodes of Deadliest Catch and think they have found a winning formula for bringing the action to the screen in a believable way. I am still blown away by the story line involving the death of crab boat Captain Phil Harris at age 53. They were allowed to film his actual death in the hospital and that is a very powerful moment to get on television. I understand it was important to Phil that his story be told to the end and his sons, who also participated in the show, felt it was handled sensitively by the company.

Check out a synopsis of the show being filmed in Terlingua as written in an email to Pat O’Bryan who maintains a blog on the area music scene. It is an interesting sounding synopsis for an 8-part documentary, but wait a minute…what’s this about a murder trial that has torn the town apart?


On February 4, 2014 Glenn Felts, the 50 year old owner of the beloved bar La Kiva, was found dead by an employee coming to work in the morning. The man thought to have killed Felt’s is another well liked member of the community and river boat guide, 37 year old Tony Flint. There is a good write up of the story here in Outside magazine.

The not guilty verdict of the trial came out on May 6, 2015 a little over 6 weeks from the time I am writing this and within the principle 10 week shoot. I’m guessing that is by design to build tension over the 8 episodes to see how the verdict plays out.

If you read through the links in this post I think you will see how painful this murder has been for the town and that makes for good television, but at the same time I question the sensitivity the series will ultimately have to the people that live here. I also wonder how representative the series will actually be based on the seemingly low amount of participation by the people of the town. Specifically Bill Ivey, owner of the actual ghost town itself and the new owner of La Kiva who never got a contract from the production company that he felt protected his interests.

I haven’t spoken to anyone involved in the production so there is some informed speculation on my part about their motives and actions. I was interested in filming a piece on what it is like to have a Reality TV show in town and take a look at themes like authenticity, control of image and the pressures that come from a town gaining in popularity through it’s depiction in the media.

Would I be able to earn people’s trust and tell the story of their town respectfully in a way that would be compelling?

I had a momentary burst of inspiration to do it, but upon further considerations like – principle production being over, the time it would take to do properly, and the fact that I have a bike trip to finish made me decide to keep moving.

Of course I could always come back to Terlingua and hopefully this blog post speaks to some of the themes I was interested in exploring.

Terlingua is a special place and I hope the people that make it so are able to hold on to it against all the pressures that are building on them. It is on my list of places to revisit.

Here are a few more links that I think are worth your time to read.

Dr. Doug’s Mental Health Clinic

The Burrow Lady

Quicksilver Memories of Hard Times in Texas