Driving across West Texas I could swear I had an out of body experience.
One hand on the steering wheel, elbow on the window ledge, 70 miles per hour down a dead straight road with Carmen asleep in the passenger seat beside. For two hours. Or was it three? I honestly can’t remember. My mind drifted away over the hypnotic horizon and floated back when the sat nav told me to make a left turn at a ghostly junction.
The land in West Texas is as flat as a billiard table and covered in stubby green shrubs that seem to have faded in the unrelenting chromatic sun. It is beautiful. Simple and clean; land and sky as one. I drove automatically, feeling like I was meditating as mile after mile passed beneath the wheels. I could have driven forever without even noticing.
We crossed the border into Texas at the bottom end of New Mexico and entered what is known as the Permian. Under the ground there is oil – untold billions of gallons of the stuff – and the smell of crude being sucked up from the bowels of the earth by thousands of nodding derricks hangs thick in the air. But those old methods are nothing compared to the new style driving a huge oil boom in West Texas.
An oil boom in Texas
Fracking – using high pressure water, sand and chemicals to extract the oil – is everywhere and the roads are wild with trucks carrying equipment and men to the countless drilling sites. There is so much traffic the sides of the bitumen are frayed and cracked and our windshield took a dozen or more hits from rocks thrown up the speeding trucks. They stop for nothing – oil is everything.
In the middle of all this mad activity is a peaceful Texas ranch called Loving Ranch run by Ronnie and Jeanette Scott. Jeanette is the sister of Jane Tully who runs the Hat T ranch in New Mexico with her husband Gerry – we featured them in another post that is well worth a look.
We arrived at Loving Ranch well after dark and in the blackened miles surrounding its acres we could see floodlights illuminating dozens of fracking sites. It was like being on an island surrounded by cargo ships. ‘This all came in the last five years,’ Ronnie told us. ‘We used to be on our own and you could see every star in the sky.’ But the oil boom driven by fracking demands drilling 24 hours a day and now the stars are faded, having been replaced with the bright rig lights.
Home on the Texas ranch
Ronnie and Jeanette were wonderful hosts and sat us down to a delicious dinner of beef stew made from scratch. We said a prayer together with Ronnie welcoming us to their home and wishing us safe travels for the rest of our journey which was very heartening. As we ate (I had seconds!) we swapped stories about our travels and their life on the Texas ranch.
They love the land and have a deep connection to Texas. Jeanette works at the local post office and knows everyone, she is a linchpin of the community and barrel races with her daughters in competitions. Ronnie is a well respected cattle man who is also a dab hand at cowboy poetry. We talked well into the night and then settled into bed. We would be up early the next day for a look at their Texas ranch and we wanted to be well rested.
Ronnie’s tour of the Texas ranch began early to beat the heat of the day. The sun rises quickly in Texas and seems to stay in the sky forever, so a cattleman’s day always starts early. He took us out to the stables where he and Jeanette’s horses are kept and fed them a bundle of hay which they devoured quickly. Ronnie competes in roping contests and Jeanette loves to ride them so the horses need to be kept in good trim. They were some of the best I’ve ever seen; brushed, shiny and super healthy.
Compared with Ronnie’s work truck, it’s obvious who he loves more! It was a beast; covered in dust and dirt and totally functional.
It had a large crack in the windscreen thanks to a fracking truck that had driven past him at high speed, sending a rock flying into the windscreen.
Ronnie hooked up a trailer full of feed for the cattle, gunned the engine and we were off, trundling down a dirt road toward a highway that would take us to the entrance to the grazing area.
Ronnie pumped the brakes and brought us to stop about half a mile into the grazing land. To my eyes it was an endless expanse of shrubs and grass and rocks; not an animal in sight. Then he let out a mournful cry that sounded like a cow mooing after it had stepped on a thorn.
Feeding the elusive cattle
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Dozens of black cows materialised out of nowhere and came running up to the truck. Ronnie pressed a lever on the back of the trailer and clumps of feed pellets tumbled out. The cows looked at me suspiciously for a few moments. ‘They don’t know you,’ Ronnie said, so I backed away until they were comfortable enough to start eating. Then there was no holding them back and they tucked in happily.
We drove further into the grazing area and dozens more cows appeared out of the landscape to feed on the pellets. Ronnie took us looking for a half dozen cows who had been missing for a while and drove to the highest point of the land. He let out that mournful cry again – ‘MOOOOOOO’ – and we waited, looking out at the sea of green. Then a black dot appeared in the distance, followed by another and another. Three cows found, three still missing.
‘I’ll come back another day and find ‘em,’ Ronnie said and pumped out a big pile of pellets for them to find. He loves his cattle and as we drove away he had a smile on his face from finding a few of the lost ones.
We had to be on our way after that unfortunately so we said our goodbyes to Ronnie back at the Texas ranch house then drove into town to meet up with Jeanette at the post office. We had a great chat with her about all the comings and goings and drove away from rural Texas with new eyes. The oil boom swirling around their lives probably won’t last, they never do. But Ronnie and Jeanette and cattle people like them will, and we hoped the stars at night will come out again as brightly as before.