West Texas

The scrubby West Texas landscape took over the horizon once I was a few miles west of Sweetwater. Wind turbines began to dwindle, although pockets of them popped up from time to time. Oil and gas drilling rigs and bobbing pumpjacks showed up more frequently, as this was the  heart of the Permian Basin.

I made my way west towards Midland and Odessa. The first was a key oil hub decades ago and remains important today. A town of a little over a 100,000 people, it seems to think it’s more of a Dallas, Jr. Oil companies such as Schlumberger, Halliburton, Baker Hughes etc line the highways with field offices. Pumpjack repair companies have loose parts strewn around fenced lots.

The Petroleum Museum of Midland was my first stop. Appropriately just off the highway, it featured a significant interior exhibit as well as a series of oil and gas equipment and relics set up around its grounds. A friendly secretary showed me the order of exhibits and I wandered around, fascinated by drill bits and pipelines, geology and rig equipment.

I drove into town, visiting the George W. Bush childhood home, a modest single-level house just west of downtown. A few tallish buildings marked a downtown. Hungry, I found a local landmark, the Wall Street Bar and Grill and strolled in.

The place was empty. Perhaps the Goldman Sachs spectacle had scared everyone away. A waitress told me the kitchen was closed but offered me a salad and some bread, and I ordered a drink at the bar. It was 4pm. It was fantastic. I watched Glenn Beck launch into some tirade on a TV above the bar. Thankfully, he was on mute.

Odessa was 20 miles away. If Midland was trying at all to glamorize its raw oil culture, Odessa wasn’t. Refineries and power plants lined the highway and dusty scrubland filled the breaks. It was as if spring never arrived here.

I made a couple of circles around town and headed back towards Midland on the way to Lubbock, where I’d booked a room for the night. The drive was as lonely as could be. Long stretches went by where all I could see were cotton fields, bobbing pumpjacks and towers and cables of a transmission line. I drove by cotton gins and granaries. Empty fields stretched to the horizon where they met the waning rays of sunlight.

Lubbock finally arrived. I missed my exit and ended up driving through some of downtown. Not a person was to be found. I drove by what looked like some noteworthy bars and restaurants but couldn’t see anyone. I headed west towards the room I’d reserved in a LaQuinta Inn. The place smelled smoky and musty, just like the old, poorly ventilated hotel it was.

I escaped the next morning and drove through the Texas Tech campus which turned out to be much prettier than many other schools I’d visited in Texas. The spacious campus had a number of handsome dark mustard yellow stone buildings that actually coordinated and felt like a real campus. Students walked half-asleep in their pajamas to class and I felt a rush of memories coming back to me.

I headed across town to the American Wind Power Center. The museum had just opened and I wandered in, finding more types of windmills than I ever knew existed. Some were massive, some colorful, some wood, some iron. Brands, color schemes, platforms all varied in a large exhibition hall. Outside was a field with many more examples, mostly of water producing windmills. Wind turbines, which produce electricity, had minimal representation, being substantially larger and more expensive. One large (660kW) Vestas turbine stood at the entrance and a disassembled GE turbine lay on the ground – it was enormous, and fascinating.

I left for Amarillo. I got there a couple of hours later after driving through more small towns, more cotton gins, more granaries, more endless fields. A few miles south of Amarillo, the terrain started to become a little more hilly with a brighter red soil and more rocks strewn around. Vegetation was more scrubby with even fewer trees. I checked into my hotel (a significant improvement) and drove around town. I found Route 66 which was a major letdown for a long stretch from downtown to the west, with little besides formerly interesting but now run down restaurants, bars and hangouts. Further west on Route 66 things picked up. There were a couple of cafes, some restaurants, classic diners, funky boutiques, people.

I drove by a nice-looking Thai place and sat down for a quick dinner before heading home, barely beating the imminent downpour. It was my last night in Texas.

The next morning, I headed west towards Santa Fe on I-40. A fairly large wind farm showed up on my right. Cattle feedlots appeared to my left (Amarillo processes 1/4 of American beef). A stench followed.

About 50 miles west of Amarillo, the terrain went from flat farmland to rolling scrubland to wide open vistas with noticeable changes in elevation. Golden brownish grasses lay in between small patches of green bushes and leafless shrubs which stretched out until taller plateaus, some of which had an occasional gash revealing a bright orangish red sandstone.

It continued like this until New Mexico.

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