"Lest you forget this is the Wild West, a billboard between the cities depicts John Wayne, apropos of nothing, declaring, 'Don’t much like quitters, son.'"
MIDLAND, TX: Surrounding the city of Midland in the western crook of Texas, there are apparently 82 hotels. In the laundry rooms of these hotels, signs plead with their patrons: PLEASE DO NOT WASH OILFIELD GEAR HERE. I am not exactly a frequent traveler, yet I have stayed in four of these hotels myself. My brother, a petroleum geologist, first moved here on temporary work assignment two summers ago.
Now he is engaged, and bought a home there with his fiancé.
This story is more or less emblematic of Midland. The oil economy creates much more demand than supply for homes and service jobs outside the industry. Homes were built before the land could be appraised, yet cost more than in the rest of Texas. The oldest, most expensive homes are listed at millions of dollars, and are usually swiftly sold and closed in hushed deals before they even hit the market. Wages for non-oil jobs are as high or higher than in the cities on the east coast.
About a fifteen minute drive west of Midland is Odessa, known for Friday Night Lights. The two cities are often merged, signaling a likely future, into Midland-Odessa, or the more local Midessa. Odessans gripe about coming in second. Midlanders gripe about being associated with Odessans.
Those without a vested interest in either find little difference between them. I have heard some say, “Raise a family in Midland, raise hell in Odessa,” but mainly business travelers who do not hail from either. Midland has the higher per capita income, for what it’s worth. In fact, Midland’s per capita income is the highest in the country. Mansions rise along the horizon, reminding you of oil’s power.
And lest you forget this is Oil Country, the pumpjacks nod and refinery towers loom in every direction. Lest you forget this is the Wild West, a billboard between the cities depicts John Wayne, apropos of nothing, declaring, “Don’t much like quitters, son.” Lest you forget this is still very much of Southern cloth, the pristinely uniform baptist church steeples poke out above the oil machinery to remind you who God really is around here.
All the homes have fences, yet it’s perhaps the friendliest place I’ve ever been.
When we visit, my family falls into a routine equally comfortable and disorienting. You aren’t really supposed to drink the tap water in Midland (the arsenic levels are high), so you have to ask for, or buy, what always feels like too many water bottles. Navigating the Loop 250 highway involves a lot of nervous yielding and U-turning. But you make a waffle shaped like Texas in the lobby the first morning. On the others, you drink coffee that isn’t strong enough and pick up a Midland Reporter-Telegram. On Sundays, it includes a full section titled THE OIL REPORT. Regional high school athletes populate the sports section (and sometimes the hotel lobbies at breakfast, with a polite “ma’am” as they scoot around you in their jerseys), and little pieces on local landscaping are featured during the week: cacti, agave, yucca, and palms. Midland-Odessa belongs to the Trans-Pecos arm of the Chihuahuan desert, a true desert that looks and feels like one. The winds are strong and dusty, bringing to mind what Joan Didion wrote: “The wind reminds us how close to the edge we are.”
West Texas is a land of edges: the line between boom and bust, the borders of Mexico and New Mexico, the fringes of wilderness and civilization. Midland is a city born out of a train stop (and Odessa, a water stop), and the best way to understand this is to leave and drive somewhere else.
Carlsbad, New Mexico, and El Paso, Marfa, Fort Davis, Big Bend, and Palo Duro Canyon are all about a half-day’s drive. Then, mountains that are more of Mexico than of Texas will remind you how close to the edge you are. Finding a $100 bill on the ground (my brother’s fiancé did) will remind you how close to the edge we all are. There is a sense of witnessing the sausage being made, and the uneasiness of that proximity, that transparency.
But there’s a comfort in that transparency, too. You can see for miles ahead. And if you listen, you’ll actually get a sense of what’s going on. Maybe we never listen as closely as when we’re away, when we're somewhere else.
Still, I suspect it’s truer in some places than in others.