It was hot by the time I pulled out of Hotel La Posada in downtown Laredo, but it’s always hot on the first of September. I took several lefts and rights and meandered through the rigid grid of one-way streets and then hit IH-35 North, put the car in fifth gear and sped off, leaving Starbucks, Palenque Taco, Target and Wal-mart behind for other dangers, like wind-shearing massive rigs on the interstate and hidden DPS officers.
About twenty miles north of Laredo I veered of west onto Highway 83—a road I’d never traveled on. I’d decided earlier at breakfast while looking at my road atlas (I don’t use google maps) to take 83 north towards Catarina and then Carrizo Springs, Crystal City and then take the farm roads on further north to Highway 90 into San Antonio. This is an area of Texas I know little about and most of which I had never been before.
The stretch of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River was named the Wild Horse Desert by the early Dominican and Franciscan padres who noted the abundance of wild horses while traveling up the King’s Highway to the missions at Bexar and beyond into East Texas and Nacogdoches. Even in 1821 when a heartbroken Mexican lieutenant passed through he noted “vast herds” in his diary. And while there may be no wild horses left in the area it resembles a desert in ever way.
As I tear up the road north there is little to see except blue skies, the occasional cloud, and fields full of prickly-pear cactus, desert yaupon, leather stem, purple three awn, goatbush, ceniza, mesquite, tasajillo, huajillo and the occasional desert olive. Not a one is friendly and it’s been fairly said about this part of Texas many times, “if it don’t sting stick or bite it ain’t down there.”
The plains down here roll and so there are long stretches where you are climbing slowly up and hit the crest of a hill and then vast stretches of the desert spread out before you. The desert is splotchy here, like a dog with early onset mange, portions of it are white, like caliche dirt, and others filled with the shrubs and brushes and sticker-burr like-plants aforementioned. Usually, there isn’t much else. But today at one such crest I stopped and counted the natural gas flares: 18 with the bare eye. Had I a pair of binoculars it would have been more. Had it been night I imagine I’d have seen three dozen wells flaring off natural gas, just to get rid of it because its uneconomical to transport.
But what’s most bizarre to me was the feeling of being in the middle of no where—no gas stations, no homes, no ranches, not a hint of sound from oncoming cars—and see multiple huge industrial enterprises out there in the desert. In effect they’ve poked a straw down into the earth and are slurping out the last of the hydrocarbons. It’s the last energy boom we’ll ever see on the planet and I had a front row seat.
A little while later I stopped in Catarina, a hamlet that has seen better days. I noted that the hotel here was built in 1926, at the tail end of the first great Texas oil boom. I wandered around the tight grid of streets and stumbled upon and old dance hall and hotel as well. Dilapidated and dangerous to walk through my curiosity got the best of me until a large Barn Owl in the rafters knocked some things about and scared the wits out of me as she swooped straight towards me and the exit. That was reason enough to leave Catarina for me. Besides, Barn Owls and I aren’t a good mix, but that’s a story for another day.
A few miles down the road I saw one of the new hotels for the oil field workers and took a photo. Each oil boom has left its own stamp on the region. The first one built places like the Catarina Hotel. The one in the fifties and sixties built small town Texas. And the present boom seems to be leaving nothing behind, except less water or poisoned water. It hasn’t done anything to improve life or business in Carrizo Springs, based on a quick glimpse of the dilapidated old town square.
I drive on past Carrizo into Crystal City. The landscape has changed now and so has the dirt. It’s no longer caliche but something approximating real dirt that can grow sustainable crops. There is a Del Monte plant in town. Big oil has given way to big ag, except when I cross over the Nueces River it’s empty. Ag has taken its portion, but you can be certain fracking has taken an equal if not larger amount. And I mean the river was bone dry. A few further miles down the farm to market road and I hit the Sabinal River. It too is bone dry for the same reason: drought, fracking and agriculture.
Fields are dust. Pecan orchards have died in the withering heat and drought, ongoing since at least 2009. One old boy had cotton, which as a crop is a notorious water hog, but it was a scrawny, mean looking yield he grew this year. And then I hit Highway 90, a road I know well, and made the dash home to San Antonio.
I’m not real sure what I was looking for today, but after reading “The Son” by Philipp Meyer a few weeks back it was pretty clear that the family at the center of his book found its origins somewhere in the barren, cactus-filled landscape of the Wild Horse Desert. I had it in mind they were a Carrizo Springs family but after passing through Asherton, which is ten miles before Carrizo, and seeing Bel-Asher I’m inclined to think this might be where the family came from. It certainly fits geographically speaking.
Of course, that’s why we read—to learn new things, ideas, and to hear old stories told in a new way. Maybe sometimes those old stories take on a life of their own when you wake up in Laredo, looking out across the river to Mexico and decide to take a new road home. New books and new roads. Someone ought to write something about that.