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Life Finds a Way: Ten Bits Ranch

Isolation and Paleontology at Ten Bits Ranch
Written by Matt Joyce. Photographs by Beatriz Terrazas.

Ten Bits Ranch is in the Chihuahuan Desert, not far from Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. (Photo © Beatriz Terrazas)

As you approach Ten Bits Ranch Bed and Breakfast on a dusty road that bumps and swerves through slanted hills and cliffs, the beaten path tapers away and it becomes apparent that you’re venturing into the remote badlands of the Chihuahuan Desert. Most signs of human development have already receded from the roadside as Texas 118 zips down from the relative metropolis of Alpine, leading to the Ten Bits turnoff.

The dirt road climbs a small hill as you encounter the ranch, a cluster of six buildings that owners Steve and Jennifer Wick constructed themselves at the foot of a jagged mountain. The Wicks designed the compound to look like an “Old West” town with a jail, schoolhouse, general store, and other buildings. It might sound hokey, but it actually fits in pretty well with the desert surroundings of rusty brown limestone cliffs and spires of igneous rock. A few miles to the west, with nothing but creosote bushes and yucca spikes obstructing the view, Egg Hen Mountain protrudes from the desert floor, capped by a triangular peak at 5,000 feet.

“It can be phenomenally quiet for people when they’re not used to it,” Jennifer says one morning during a breakfast of egg-and-sausage tacos in the Ten Bits cantina. “As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s too quiet for people. I have to give them a bedside fan so they don’t freak out because of the quiet.”

But for the most part, visitors seek out Ten Bits Ranch because it’s quiet, remote, and set among spectacular desert scenery—qualities that draw travelers to nearby Big Bend National Park, the town of Terlingua, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and the region in general.

Ten Bits also emphasizes the geology and ancient history of the area. Steve is a staff paleontologist at Big Bend National Park (the western entrance is a 20-minute drive away), and the Wicks’ interest in fossils and the region’s indigenous cultures is on display throughout the property. In the dining room, a replica of a mosasaur skeleton hangs from the ceiling and a display case houses crocodile, dinosaur, and shark-tooth fossils found on site. On weekends, Steve offers information-packed tours of the lodge’s 500-acre property, which also hosts university geology classes and academic fossil digs. For visitors who want guidance on other regional activities, Jennifer coordinates 4x4 off-road tours for the company’s sister business, Big Bend Expeditions, and helps steer guests to the attractions that suit them best.

Desert Scenery The Wicks  selected the Ten Bits property based on its stark beauty and po-tential for paleontological relics. (Photo photo © Beatriz Terrazas)

Ten Bits is so isolated that standard utility service is impractical, and therefore the settlement runs on solar power (with a back-up gas generator), a 1,400-foot-deep water well, propane gas for heat, and a septic system for sewage. There is no cell phone service, no televisions or air-conditioning in the four guestrooms, and no FM or AM radio signal. (There is a wi-fi connection, if you must.)

On a visit last winter, tourists gathered around the Ten Bits picnic table to enjoy beers among the ocotillo, socialize, and gaze out on the panoramic desert vistas. There’s a fire pit on site, but gusty winds discouraged a campfire. Instead, the group decided on a dinner trip to the Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon in Terlingua, a 20-minute drive away. 
The Starlight’s exposed adobe walls, artistic Southwestern décor, and friendly vibe give the restaurant a timeless, almost magical feel. The cheeseburger topped with onions, jalapeños, and spicy Terlingua chili was equally as compelling.

The drive back to Ten Bits illustrated the beauty of the desert at night, as well as the difficulty of navigating the back roads in the dark. The moon was nearly full, but because of the darkness of the area, the stars still shone brilliantly. Depending on their orientation, the surrounding mountainsides either glowed in the moonlight or loomed as shadows, like black construction-paper cutouts against the horizon.

Ten Bits’ one-room cabins provide a welcome respite for the night, with soft beds, tidy bathrooms, stucco walls, tile floors, and wood-paneled ceilings. Each cabin is decorated to reflect its Old West theme. The “gunsmith” shop, for example, has a leather saddle in the corner, and wall-mounts of antique firearms and sheriff’s badges. As the winter wind howled and overnight temperatures dropped into the 30s, the gas log fireplace kept the room toasty warm.

To really see what the surrounding badlands have to offer, it’s worth booking one of Steve’s educational tours ($50 for guests, $60 for non-guests). The three-hour Lost World Tour takes participants on a hike through the clay-shale hills that hide the fossils of dinosaurs, crocodiles, turtles, and other creatures that inhabited the area 75 million years ago when it was a swamp. Tourists get the chance to learn about professional paleontological practices and handle the fossils extracted on site. The tour lingers at the spot where Steve discovered a few bits of fossilized turtle shell about nine years ago, leading to an excavation and identification project that eventually determined the turtle to be a previously unknown genus and species—now named the “chupacabra chelys.”

The tour also makes a short but steep hike to a Native American cliff dwelling in a limestone grotto facing the ranch. The site—perched above an indigenous pathway that was adapted over time into a mining road and is now a county road—was home to semi-nomadic people who traveled throughout the region.

'There are artifacts from this site that date back 5,000 years,'  Steve Wick explains. (Photo © Beatriz Terrazas) “There are artifacts from this site that date back 5,000 years,” Steve explains. “This was not a site that was used for 100 years, or maybe once or twice; it was used probably every year for millennia. And you’re right on a major Indian pathway that takes you down to Terlingua Creek, one of the region’s most reliable water sources.”

Along the way, Steve points out arrowheads and flint chips indicating the Native American presence, as well as thick shards from colorful glass jugs that were discarded during the days of cinnabar mining at the turn of the 20th Century. When the hike reaches the cliff dwelling, Steve brings to life the hardscrabble existence of the natives, pointing out burned and broken rocks that could have been used for hot-rock cooking, a meat-smoking cave with a blackened ceiling, a pestle for grinding food, and a deep mortar in the grotto’s floor. 

“How many meals are represented by a six-inch diameter hole, ground a foot deep in solid bedrock?” Steve wonders aloud. “There are nine of these up here.”

The view from the grotto stretches over desert mounds, mesas, and valleys to the Rio Grande and beyond. The Chisos Mountains of the national park are visible to the east, the Solitario formation of the state park to the west, and the sierras of Mexico to the south. Just overhead, a lechuguilla grows horizontally out of the limestone.

“The plants that grow out of the bedrock out here are stunning,” Steve marvels. “Life finds a way.”

For more information on Ten Bits Ranch Bed and Breakfast, call 432/371-3110. The lodge’s capacity is about 12 guests; its busy seasons are fall, winter, and spring.

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