Most of the past forty-eight hours have been spent either in, or en route to and from, the Midland-Odessa region. Far out in west Texas’s Permian Basin, the two cities — towns, really — have a relationship that I still can’t quite unpack. On my last visit, which turned out to be the first time I ever actually set foot in Odessa, a woman told me: “Midland is where you raise families. Odessa is where you raise hell.” She was from Odessa.
Midland-Odessa sits in the vast expanse of the old Llano Estacado, the “staked plain” discovered by the Spanish four centuries back, that was essentially a desert until the twin discoveries of the Ogallala aquifer and Permian oil. In the brief heyday of Texas-republic expansionism, President Mirabeau Lamar sent a Texan expedition to conquer New Mexico. It was the first of three Texas attempts, across a generation, to seize the Land of Enchantment. It was thwarted by the Llano Estacado, which was so arid and forbidding that the Texan expedition stumbled into the New Mexican settlements and immediately surrendered, so it could get some water. The second attempt was thwarted by the United States Congress. The third was thwarted by armed Coloradans. But these are stories for another time.
The Llano Estacado was never actually a vast expanse of nothing. It just took time for its riches to reveal themselves. They are revealed now. You see it when you drive in, on the long highway between San Angelo and Midland. San Angelo used to be the true frontier. The old Fort Concho was the heart and genesis of the city, which for a time was little more than a ramshackle assembly of houses for cavalrymen’s procurement of women and drink. Those cavalrymen, for a generation, fought and beat the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Apache, and more. When you leave San Angelo and proceed to Midland, into a limitless landscape of scrub, mesas, and shimmering horizons, you travel the paths they won.
Along the way there is little sign that the whole thing, like the whole of Texas, was won by war.
What you do see are the fruits of the conquest. The admixture of confident aggression, roll-the-dice settlement, and entrepreneurial genius manifests itself with the first wells you see. The Permian is rich, a treasure-house stored up across one hundred million years, and the wells are everywhere. They appear, solitary or in pairs, and as you proceed westward they multiply. There is a particular mesa with a sharp escarpment on its south face, and every time I see it I marvel at the wells perched on its nearly vertical incline. There is new exploration and investment, too. The Permian has been exploited for nearly a century, but its yield is nowhere close to exhaustion. Yesterday, and the day before, I witnessed tremendous convoys — men, trucks, equipment — sallying forth to new wells in the creation. There is a cotton field with wells on it: acreage that produces everything America needs to keep warm. In Midland itself, there is a golf course with a well on it. There are roadside shoulders with wells on them. There are wells everywhere. Midland-Odessa works: they raise families and hell alike, and power the continent.
All of this is set in the Llano Estacado, a region of Texas ordinarily hostile to life and settlement. Most of Texas outside the verdant east is hostile to life and settlement to some degree. The Llano Estacado, though, is nearly the hardest far place there is, exceeded only by the despoblado and desert of the trans-Pecos. The land is hard. The weather is hard. The enterprise is hard too. The oil-and-gas business makes some men rich, ruins more, and perennially frustrates still more. There are the handful of energy giants around the world — the ExxonMobils, the Shells, and the handful of other names you see on gas stations and giant tankers — but that isn’t who you see in the Permian. It isn’t who you see on the road to Midland. What you see are names and signs of firms that you don’t recognize, and wouldn’t unless this was your professional world. Some are well established. Others are just starting out. All of them are the names of dreams and gambles: ideas made real but not necessarily lasting, leaps without nets. There is something admirable to it.
Spend time in Midland (and, if you’re raising hell, in Odessa) and you realize you’re seeing a way of life that is increasingly rare. It is a place where nearly everyone is working. I don’t mean sitting at a desk. I mean labor as it was once understood, things done with the hands, wearying the body, with the end product being something you could see, touch, feel. It is a single-industry town, yes, but that industry is in the business of real material creation. In our fathers’ time, we could say that about most of America. Now it it characterizes only a small proportion of our national life. Something is lost along with it. You see Midland, a town where the taquerias and coffee shops open at 3:30am, at 4am, at 5am to accommodate what passes for rush hour there — and you see a town that is too hard at work to ever indulge in the luxury of anxiety. Places where people hit the alarm at 6am, at 7am, spend an hour on a crawling commute, spend eight hours motionless in a cube, and then repeat: that’s where alienation and disconnect occur. That’s where the civic neuroses take root and blossom. That’s where we spawn the psychic illnesses peculiar to people who are physically safe and have in their whole lives risked nothing.
I don’t want to unthinkingly valorize Midland-Odessa, or any other small place that does big things. They have their problems too. I’ve never looked up the Permian stats, but we know that nationally addiction especially plagues rural and small-town areas. Perhaps that’s true in the Permian too. But if I could endure its problems in exchange for Austin’s — I would.
And, as an Austin-area resident, I have to admit the obvious. America requires Midland-Odessa and what it does. America doesn’t require Austin, Texas. Austin, Texas, is nice to have. For the life of the nation, Midland-Odessa is a must. The Permian is the hinge. We cannot do without it.
A few years before becoming mayor, James Earl Rudder led the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc. One note from the road to Midland: if you take the route I take, you will pass through the town of Brady, Texas. I don’t know much about Brady, but the folks in Brady seem to like it just fine. They’ve commissioned some appealing murals in their tiny courthouse square, and it was enough to get me to stop and stretch my legs a bit. The McCulloch County courthouse sports the usual collection of historical markers — and, I saw, a statue of a United States Army soldier. I went to have a look. The statue is of a fellow named James Earl Rudder. He’s local. He used to be the mayor of Brady. That’s not to say his life was all politics.
It is a peculiar feature of these small towns — and not just in Texas — that they take the time to memorialize by name, and in special cases by statue, their sons who fought for America abroad. Look, say the silent monuments, we are just a small town. But our boys saved the world.
Wandering about the courthouse, I spotted another daytripper. He also stopped at the Rudder statue. He was in what I took to be an Army uniform, and I could not believe how poorly it was put together. Everything about it was just off, as if he’d seen soldiers in a movie and tried his best to look like one. The worst part was his unkempt beard. I drew near to have a chat, and as I did, I realized I had him all wrong.
The daytripper in strange camouflage was not American at all. He was a Dutch colonel, driving through the Texas countryside and seeing what he could. This officer of the Koninklijke Landmacht was attached to a Netherlands special-forces unit based at Fort Hood, Texas. They came to Texas to practice air assaults. This colonel was out signing contracts with local landowners — farmers and ranchers for the most part — for the use of their land in Dutch heliborne-assault practice. He said the landowners loved it. The air assaults were never a surprise — no one wants to be surprised quite like that — so the farmers would generally bring out their kids, or their neighbors, and watch Dutch Chinooks descend. Dutch special operators would then overrun their barn. At the end of it, the best part was a check mailed to the landowner, from the funds of His Majesty the King of the Netherlands.
Texas, said the colonel, has the space for this. More important, he continued, Texans understand the need for this. That isn’t true everywhere. It’s true here. Fehrenbach wrote that we are a nation created by the endless struggle for the land. What he meant was not a description of our past: it is the foundation and source of our present.