One interesting site during the drive was near Colorado City. The economic development people there were able to have a State Prison located in their community. As we passed, a scene from years past greeted us. With about ten guards ("Bosses") on horses watching, the prisoners were working the fields. Picking cotton by hand still looks like hard enough work that I will continue to stay on the right side of the law.

We also passed through Big Spring where I joined the Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR) Board about a month and a half ago for a meeting. It was difficult, but I fought off the desire to pull over for breakfast at the truck stop where I had enjoyed such scrumptious meals when I visited that fair city during September.

After checking into the Best Western in Monahans, I filled up the Suburban. I made it all the way from McKinney without needing a refill, 425 miles. All that on only 31 gallons of gas. This sleepy little town of 8,500 really takes you back to slower times. We found a nice little Mexican restaurant where the most expensive item on the menu was only $7.50. It was also very good.

On the way back to the motel, we drove through "downtown" and kept noticing these boys standing on every corner. Finally, curiosity got the cat, and I had to ask. That is how they sell their local newspaper. As it said in the newspaper, "The Monahans News may be purchased from independent newsboys who sell their papers on the street corner – continuing an American tradition." Very bizarre.

Now we're packing up and heading to Alpine for breakfast. I've been told they fix a very nice plate. I'll be the judge of that and let you know my opinion later.

It's been a long day. Breakfast was not much to talk about – the drive was. It always amazes me of the truly majestic nature of West Texas. It's so flat and open, and you can see forever. The mountains (if you're from Texas) are really stunning.

Arrived in Terlingua about noon. Checked into the hotel, and then went by the cookoff sight. Note to MHMR friends: Next year we really need to move the Board Meeting to Terlingua because there is a real need for mental health professionals in this town at least at the cookoff. There are some VERY DIFFERENT people here.

Hung out with some chili friends, and was able to find time to even drink a beer or two. Bought some souvenirs and visited a ghost town, but didn't see any ghosts. Went to the Starlight Theater for dinner. Two glasses of wine, a draft beer and a margarita were $7.50. Dallas prices haven't found their way here – thank goodness.

We've decided to take a quick trip over the river to Mexico tomorrow. Took a few pictures today and hope to get some more tomorrow from "over the border." I'm told we just go down to the river and pay a guy two dollars to take us across in a rowboat. Not a lot of Customs people here, but there are a lot of police patrolling the roads looking for DWI candidates.

Now it's time to step outside and sip a glass of red wine and take a few puffs on a cigar. I'll update you tomorrow on the trip to Mexico, and my preparations for the big event Saturday.

Not much more to report. It is beautiful here. Got some great pictures of the sunrise since I got up so early. Sleeping in is still not an option. You just can't believe how many stars you can see here at night. Getting away from the city lights allows you to see hundreds of stars that are otherwise hidden. Going to eat breakfast and then off to Mexico.
Before leaving for Mexico we stopped and had breakfast in the local restaurant. On the way we stopped by the cookoff site and registered. The crowd is starting to gather, and it looks ugly. The crowd – not the weather.

The road to Mexico took us through Big Bend National Park. While its mountaintops are not as impressive as some in other areas of our nation, those here certainly make me proud to be a Texan. The speed limit (45 MPH) makes you stop and smell the roses even if you don’t want to. Actually the are no roses, but it would be a nice touch.

We stopped a few times and took pictures, and then arrived at our Port of Demarcation to Mexico – Boquillas. Actually it is a wide spot on a dusty road at the southeast section of the Big Bend Park. Pulling up we parked at the end of the road and walked down the dirt path to the mighty Rio Grand River. There it is – about forty yards across and maybe five feet deep. Paying two dollars a head, a Mexican boy rows you across in his boat. It's a pretty good deal, since that covers each person's round trip.

On the other side of the river you have three options to get to the city (about two miles away). You may walk, ride a horse or hitch a ride in the back of a very old pickup truck. Taking the advice of friends who had made the trip before and were with us at the time, we opted for the pickup truck. This was three dollars a head, but was, again, the round-trip cost and the best alternative, although the expenses are really starting to add up now.

After riding the two miles on what I would call an unimproved road, we were escorted into one of the two bars in town. As far as I could see, the two bars were the only businesses at all if you don't include the swarming children trying to sell us bracelets. It was a gorgeous day, and we sat outside in the open air with other chili friends who had arrived a few minutes before us.

We stayed about two hours drinking about two beers apiece and sharing three dozen tacos. Our total cost – about three dollars apiece. The expense of this trip is killing me! While the selection was very poor, we did buy a bottle of tequila. Good news! We saved the tax because there is no collection station at the river. Never has been, and never will be.

We drove back through the park and back to the cookoff site. Hung out with chili friends again (hanging out is a major pasttime for chili cooks), then went back to the hotel to clean up before supper. Had fajitas for supper, and went to bed with visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in my head.

Well, the day I have prepared for (for the last year!) has finally arrived. I get up early and put on my finest chili attire. Don't ask – you wouldn't believe it if you saw it. It's 7:00 AM in Terlingua, and the sun is just now peeking over the mountains. Long colorful shadows beckon me to the desert to cook chili along with other chili cooks and thousands of spectators. I pick up my friend, John Strange, and we head for breakfast to fortify ourselves for the long and arduous task that lay ahead of us. It is then that the wheels start to come off.

With the turn-in of our chili due at high noon, much discussion had gone into when we should start cooking. The higher altitude was also a factor in our calculations as we knew that this desolate location would require a longer time to reach the boiling point that our recipes required. When we got to the restaurant, we discovered that it wasn't open. You'd think that because this was the biggest day of the year in Terlingua, the restaurant would at least open on time. Guess they showed us just how really insignificant our presence really was in the overall scheme of things. Oh well, I guess we will do without breakfast.

We drive in and drop off our paraphernalia. At 8:30 AM we start cooking with all the skills and expertise we have accrued in the past year. Around us hundreds of other cooks also are hard at work with one goal in mind – to cook the best bowl of chili and be named World Champion. As the minutes click off, the activity intensifies until it reaches its zenith about ten minutes before the turn-in time. We each have a ritual that we perform during the last few minutes. Some in silence and some in boisterous squeals.

Mine is more a quiet solitude as I try to imagine the shocked feeling that would cover my body if I heard my name announced as the best. Each and every cook here has had to qualify just to set foot in the cooking area. There are no weak links. To just be named a finalist is as big an honor as winning other events. While the competition is intense, I always marvel at the sportsmanship that the cooks show to each other during the turn-in period. Everyone wishes each other good luck. It's very refreshing, because I think everyone means it. At this time we are all equal. We are all at the mercy of the judges.

After turn-in comes the bad time. Like a felon awaiting a jury to come back and tell him if he can walk away or if he is going to get the chair – we wait. The wait lasts hours. This is a big cookoff with a record 309 chili entries turned in. It takes a long time to go through the judging of such a large number of entries. Some other time I will attempt to describe the dance known as judging. Suffice it to say that I think it is as fair as possible.

During this time you now have time to relax and console your fellow cooks on the subtleties of your cooking. A little too salty. I hope they like it hot. My best bowl ever. Secretly, we all hope that we are holding the winning ticket, because today the winner will feel like he has won the lottery.

After awhile you start moving around and doing a little cleaning. Show teams entertain the crowd with their street theater during the rest of the day. By the time the winners are announced, you will want to be able to just walk away if you haven't won. The announcements are exciting and quick. As each winner is announced, a scream is heard as they run to the stage. Finally, the first place winner is announced. Alas, I have not won, but I did have one heck of a time. As I always tell the uninitiated, cooking chili is better than staying home and mowing the yard, and any sport that lets me drink beer at 8:00 AM is not all bad.

I am spent. I am tired. I am ready to go home. This has been fun, but I've about had all I can take. I go back to the hotel and crash. There is a whole other event taking place now. The craziness has taken over. Some have taken the challenge to see just who can drink the most and act the most stupid. In earlier days I might have taken up the challenge, but not today. I don't need one more headache.

I chalk it up to maturity. You can chalk it up to my knowing that I have a nine-hour drive starting early tomorrow morning. I go to sleep not worrying about what might have been. I know my first trip to Terlingua was a winner. I had a great time. I survived, and I will be back.

Andrew Hardin is Publisher of Inside Collin County Business, a bi-monthly business newspaper. Collin County, located north of Dallas, is one the nations fastest growing counties. He is also an avid chili cook and competitor having entered his award winning chili in numerous events across Texas since 1979.

©Copyright 2004 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.