Photography is my meditation. The camera is my tool to document for educational purposes, for collecting memories, or for the pure joy of observing the world in a different way. Cameras are kept charged and ready; whether it is a simple phone or a compact camera or the workhorse of an SLR. You never know what you will come across in the Chihuahuan Desert, and it pays to be prepared. Excellent teachers and mentors have pushed me to tackle challenges, and I love to pass their expertise down to young ones in the area. Hand a camera to a youngster, and watch the magic as they chronicle pretty flowers or crazy bugs or brilliant sunsets.
About the photographer:
Crystal Allbright considered trading the big city life for Big Bend in the fall of 1990. Her parents and older sister preceded her here, with her parents retiring and her sister raising a family in Alpine. She recalls watching the sun setting and the moon rising, and how it took her breath away. She wanted to stay.
By March of 1991 she had relocated. One draw was to finish her master’s at Sul Ross State University. Another was the idea that one didn’t need all the conveniences of urban life. One could simplify and get to the core of things, without all the clutter and the blaring of the TV. She became enamored with the layers of history, of indigenous people, settlers and ranchers, and the natural beauty of the geology, flora and fauna.
Allbright has twice been the featured artist at Alpine’s Artwalk festival. She paints in watersoluble oils and creates drawings. She is also an accomplished photographer. Her work was featured in the Big Bend National Park Calendar in both 2015 and 2020. Additionally, she plays guitar and accordion, and has worked her way up to playing solo gigs at the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua, which she hails as a big personal accomplishment. “I’ve been taking a break from art and music, which is a big part of who I am,” she says. “I had a Kodak Instamatic as a child, it’s something I’ve always done.
“I hadn’t planned to become an educator, but that’s what Sul Ross offered at the time.” She studied art in college and earned her master’s in education with an emphasis in art from Sul Ross. As a teacher in the Terlingua School, she worked with students grades five through eight teaching language arts, computer skills and the Gifted-Talented program. In the course of making a photo essay for the Sul Ross newspaper, she took a river trip and fell in love with South County’s adventure industry. She began working for Big Bend River Tours during summers and holidays, learning the ins and outs of river guiding and getting involved with mountain biking. An avid road cyclist back in Dallas, it was a natural segue to exploring the Big Bend. “I think it’s a wonderful way to get out in the desert and see it from a new perspective,” she says.
Toward the end of her teaching career, she started working for Desert Sports, where she has been for the last 26 years. She is now a co-owner of the business. Interpreting the stunning natural beauty and the complex history of the Big Bend is one of Allbright’s favorite aspects of the industry. She views it as an opportunity to teach conservatorship and encourage people, especially young people, to be outside, away from the numbing effects of modern life and technology, where they can hear themselves and the world around them.
Allbright knows firsthand about the injuries, and rewards, the desert deals its dwellers. She and her partner built their home from stone found on their property over the course of 20 years. It’s powered by solar and rain catchment. “It’s really just in the last five years that we’ve been living comfortably, without being in a work zone,” she says. “It has a small footprint. It’s hard here when you work full-time in the high season. You have a short window to build, and that is usually in the summer heat.” Like so many Terlingua residents who hand-make their homes, it’s always a work in progress, but being so in tune with the cycles of nature and every aspect of one’s dwelling gives the concept of ‘home’ a deeper meaning.
Any business faces challenges, but seasonal tourist industry businesses especially so. Desert Sports closed down in mid-March of 2020 for Covid, except for occasional bike repairs. When they reopened on August 1st of that year, business was non-stop until after Thanksgiving, when the river dropped to extremely low levels. Allbright notes that the winter and spring seasons have still been very busy, though the river is as low as she’s seen it in a long time. The hardest part about Covid for her? “I really miss going to Boquillas,” she says wistfully. The little border crossing is still closed as of this writing, the villagers waiting in limbo for their friends—and their livelihood—to return. The Covid-prompted closure is reminiscent of the devastating, decade-long closure after 9/11.
At the same time, Terlingua is in the midst of a major boom, with new residents and businesses, and record numbers of visitors, flooding into the formerly sleepy little desert town. Allbright notes that in decades past, building in Terlingua was for restoration—people would take a little stone shack and stabilize it, make it into a home off the grid and enjoy the quiet life at the edge of nowhere. Now, there is constant building and the focus is more toward visitation, with dozens of new and trendy AirBnBs popping up, and heavy advertising campaigns aimed at enticing tourists. “There’s a strong core of people who have lived here a long time,” she says, “and while I love sharing the Big Bend and everything it has to teach us with visitors, I hope the growth plateaus. We need time to look at the problems and come to a community resolution about how to deal with them.” Some of the difficulties with the sudden surge in business and population have to do with resource capacity, mainly water, which is notoriously scarce in south Brewster County. Even the Rio Grande, on which Allbright used to be able to raft nearly year-round, has struggled mightily in recent years. The rafting season is now brief and spotty, and at times it can be difficult even to take a canoe trip without having to ‘walk’ your boat through shallow sections.
In spite of the challenges, Allbright is heartened to see new adventure companies coming to the area, bringing with them an influx of young people eager to learn about the area and teach others how to protect it. “There’s lots of demand for what we do,” she says, “and there are all these new young people here to help visitors enjoy and appreciate this place.” She notes that outfitters, including Desert Sports, work with each other and agencies like the State and National Park, sharing what they all know and working together to make sound decisions for the community, visitors and the unique ecosystems of the Big Bend. One example of this collaboration is the summer art program with which she’s been involved with Amber Harrison from Big Bend Ranch State Park. The program ties science in with the arts for children ages four through high school, allowing them to learn about the unique place where they live and use this knowledge to develop their creativity. Allbright would like to see a greater emphasis on this kind of community development. “I feel like the heart of the community is contained in the school,” she says. “And our school is so awesome. So many wonderful things happen there.” She hopes the many changes happening in her community will turn the focus inward, toward the next generation, to create a place for residents and visitors to enjoy for generations to come.