But not quite yet. First we had to drive through oil country.
Oh, and I drink your milkshake!!
That was random and pointless – I just wanted to work it in somewhere in Texas.
I’m surprised at the extent to which I was, until really just a few days ago, ignorant about oil country. Technically I grew up in it, though Southern California’s version of it is fairly unobtrusive… oil drilling platforms visible off shore from just about any beach, and these vaguely horse-like guys bobbing up and down and dotting the landscape. I grew up calling them “derricks” but wasn’t sure that was right (it is); I only today learned that they’re also known as “sucker rod pumps.” You’d think as a kid we’d have preferred that more, um, colorful name, but I guess that’s a downside to not having had Wikipedia to reference back then – we never knew.
My assumption regarding Texas oil country had always been that it consisted almost entirely of the vast network of offshore platforms scattered in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Galveston and east toward the mouth of the Mississippi. Bad assumption; it’s much more than that. There is an enormous swath of West Texas and a bit of New Mexico that is absolutely covered with oil wells, and not much else. Tens of thousands of square miles of this. I had seen it from the air, too, and wondered what all the little dirt roads leading to tiny circular clearings were. It looks like this:
But back to our drive.
We did another dawn patrol (pre-dawn really) out of Guadalupe Mountains and were on the road by probably about 4:30AM. I had wanted to reach Texas Hill Country by early afternoon, and we lost an hour almost immediately to time zone traversal, so I was patting my own back in between sips of coffee as we rolled down the road through the middle of nowhere. My expectation had been that we would barrel down the empty two-lane roads and be halfway to Austin before anyone stirred.
It was not that way at all. It started quietly enough, with the occasional oil well passing by in the distance. But as we approached one of the first intersections, which on paper looked tiny, I could see a line of traffic going both directions as far as the eye could see. This was the road on which we needed to turn; I had not expected traffic at 5AM in a blank spot on the map. Here’s where we were:
Closer inspection revealed that not only was this extremely heavy traffic, but it consisted almost entirely of trucks, from F-150s to semis. And when I say “almost entirely,” I mean that I think we were the only non-truck on the road. As I made a right onto the road (fortunately via a 4 way stop from a road that didn’t have any traffic, or we’d have been sitting at that intersection for an hour at least!), I found myself in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max scene of blinding headlights, big rigs, noise, and blowing dust, accentuated by oil wells all around. And not just oil wells, but the kind that have flames shooting out of the top, which cast a fluctuating orange glow through the dust.
“Surreal” doesn’t do the scene justice. In between squinting at the blinding lights and attempting to keep Davista in her lane on the narrow, busy road (there was a good bit of wind, too), I marveled at what I was seeing. Where are all these people going? Why so early? There are no towns nearby – where do they live? Is this a normal job, or is this “hardship duty” that you do for a year or so to earn some good money and then go back to your normal oil job? How often are there accidents out here? If there were one, would anyone be able to get to you? Do people know about this place?
It was a crazy and singular experience. I had departed expecting a quiet, contemplative, pre-dawn glide though the desert and found myself in the middle of our economy’s vigorously beating heart. At 5 AM! And then the sun rose, we reached Fort Stockton and I-10, and suddenly it was another normal morning on the road.