This morning we board a flight to return to the East Coast, San Angelo to Dallas to DC. A week in West Texas leaves me with many initial impressions and some need to think more deeply about what I saw and heard out here. But there is an inescapable truth: West Texas is wide and open and empty.
There are people in West Texas, for sure: my Dad is from here and therefore, logically, some people live out here. San Angelo, his home town, and Midland and Odessa - other cities of commensurate size - each is about 100,000 folks large. No shame in that size. Each has its character and its shape, economies formed by ranching, oil, and energy. There are other towns as well - Pecos and Monahans and Marfa and Alpine and Fort Stockton and Big Lake and Rankin and so on. Smaller for sure, but present and bustling. We drove through all of these and, in my own style, made sure to drive through the main street of each of these to really get a feel.
But the betweenness? Nothing. All of these communities sit in the Chihuahua desert, an environment characterized by little rain and similar flora and fauna. All are connected by two lane roads (in most cases) with 75 mph speed limits and not much else. Leaving a town in West Texas, one passes the last gas station and then it is wide open space. Suburbs exist only for the very largest cities, and these are sparse. As soon as the town sign is passed, the topography of low hills, flat scrubland, or mile after mile of cactus is reached. With almost no exception, this sere landscape continues until the very next town sign 60 miles down the road. In most cases, there are no gas stations or stores or even intersections between towns.
So what is there? Lots of looking at the horizon, trying to discern what one can see. Is that a water tower, way over there? Is that, perhaps, the first (or last) oil pump - and what is that white thing way over there? Perhaps that tiny rise ahead conceals the next town - but that is unlikely since it is still 20 miles to go. Plant life - creosote bushes, small mesquite, prickly pear cactus, undefinable gray shaped bush - stretch for mile after mile after mile. There is no visible animal life, except for the rare road kill. And energy - energy infrastructure that changes one's idea about exploitation in a landscape where there is nothing to do but exploit.
Some areas between towns are covered with the archetypal oil pump - big head, bobbing up and down. Dozens, hundreds. Google maps shows vast areas of these pumps extending beyond the edge of the road. Concomitant with these are the glimpses of small pipelines and valves, non-potable water tanks, broken equipment, dust. Every once in a while, a larger pipeline pops up out of the scrub and then, just as quickly, drops down like a prairie dog checking out the neighborhood.
Beyond these pumps, scattered along the edges of the distant mesas, are the wind turbines - huge towers, spinning quickly. Between Fort Stockton and Big Lake, there were about 20 miles - miles of row after row of towers - extending off to the horizon. Near Alpine, on one of the ubiquitous flat spaces between slightly less flat spaces, was a vast solar array. Driving past this it feels perfect - of course they have a solar energy field here - there is literally nothing else.
Driving through some of these towns - hardscrabble is a kind word in this case - the dusty streets are edged by businesses that provide services for this energy universe - pipelines, water tanks, engineering services, consolidators, metal work, anything and everything. Also in these towns are what can only charitably be described as SROs for energy workers - brand new little structures, each with a pickup truck in front, row after row of these with nothing between but dust. There are lots of little burrito shops and a bar or two. Of course, in order to really understand any community, one has to stay for a bit, but in the interest of keeping moving I can only cast a glance at what I pass.
None of this is to say that West Texas is not beautiful. It is. It is a rarefied beauty and one that deserves greater attention than a car-window view. It is stark and quiet, and the people kind. But it took 5 and a half hours to drive from Big Bend National Park to San Angelo, and we must have passed about 10 towns and a handful of ranches. Contrast this with, say the 5 and a half hour drive (slowly) from DC to New York - passing about 30 million people in large cities. This is a different place - wide and open and empty.