Greetings from the Lone Star State,
Last Monday, I flew down to Texas to spend the holidays with my family. Flying always feels a bit strange to me, as if I’ve been “beamed” somewhere – magically, like in Star Trek. In the morning, I stepped into the high anxiety chamber that is LaGuardia Airport amongst so many long faces and frumpy winter coats, then was magically transported to San Antonio International, where people walk slow and easy, wearing t-shirts. I didn’t feel the miles in between, and feel like I missed so much of America along the way. But hey, at least I got there quicker. Zoom.
The other day, my mom and I were driving back to Jourdanton – 35 miles south of San Antonio – where my mother lives. Jourdanton has a population of around 4,000. It is the county seat of Atascosa County in the heart of cowboy country. The earth rises and falls in waves and is covered with brush and giant squirming live-oak trees. A lot of cattle were driven through the area in the olden times. Many people here still live like cowboys, even if they don’t ride horses anymore. Some still do ride, however, and will until the day they die.
However, one can’t say Jourdanton is the birthplace of the cowboy. Citizens of Pleasanton – Jourdanton’s sister city 5 miles away – will tell you that. In fact, the town’s official motto is Birthplace of the Cowboy. It’s impossible to find the exact location (probably Mexico) where the first man (probably Mexican) that could be called a cowboy (vaquero, in Spanish) stood, but citizens of Pleasanton hold to the belief that the Great Stork dropped the first cowboy off on their turf. So much so that it is a part of their identity. Or, their previous identity.
Pleasanton was founded first, in the mid 1800’s, and was the county seat for many years. Jourdanton wasn’t founded until 1909. However, in 1910, the county seat was switched from Pleasanton to Jourdanton. There are two different takes on the switch, according to who you speak to, and what wikipedia page you read. But it’s basically like this: Jourdantonians say a legal vote was held in favor to switch, and Pleasantonians claim the county seat was stolen from them, the county records being removed from their courthouse by a covert group of Jourdantonians in the dead of night. As with the actual birthplace of the cowboy, it’s probably impossible to find out for sure which story is true. But it’s probably like all Old West tales – both versions are false and both are true, the real answer being somewhere in the middle.In the century that has passed since the switch, the two towns have found a way to co-exist. Jourdanton still has the county seat, along with the jail, and most of the feed stores. Pleasanton has the newspaper, the movie theatre, and most of the churches. They seem to serve each other well, while holding on to their individual identities. Or, they used to.
The two towns are connected by State Highway 97 and the distance in between the towns used to be noticeable. However, Jourdanton and Pleasanton are situated smack dab in the heart of the oil and gas fracking boom in South Texas, and everybody’s cashing in. The once 7 to 10 minute drive of silence amid the magestic live oak trees has been replaced with the noisy shine of capitalism. Business after business has popped up along every inch of the highway. Streetlights have been added, and a countless stream of cars and trucks motor down the way – pull in and out of the shopping centers and fast food joints. Work-out gyms, money lending and title offices, pawnshops, oilfield supply companies, and a ridiculous number of hotels have been built, too. And, of course, at the heart of all the industry is the gargantuan Castle Wal-Mart – open 24 hours because King Walton knows the peasants don’t sleep.
The space between Jourdanton and Pleasanton has been obliterated. But most people down don’t seem to mind. In fact, most are excited. The economy is going like gangbusters. The oil and gas industry has breathed new life in the two communities, they say. They say it’s progress and prosperity. But if this is progress and prosperity, then my own understanding of the terms has been grossly off the mark. But what do I know? People down here have seen lean times, and it is a fact that, in America, that healthy life is a wealthy life. If someone down here chooses to cash in on the oil and gas boom, they can get an insurance policy and go to the hospital that is situated in between the two towns and get treated for the cancer they got in return for living that good life.
The old gunslinging rivalry between Jourdanton and Pleasanton is mostly held only by the older folks of the towns – some still truly and royally pissed off about the theft of the county seat. But those old folks are pleasantly out of the way of all the joint commerce, tucked away in one of the area’s many nursing homes that have sprung up in the last few years. But there is no new rivalry – or new form of the old one – for the younger generations to pick up. There seems to be no identity at all for each town anymore, just something more like the mild amnesia brought about by suburbia. And how can anyone – or community – fight if they don’t know who their opponent is, or more so, if they don’t know who they are?Oil booms mean fast money, and nothing has the time to take root around here. Everything’s moving along like tumble weeds while the venerable live-oaks are dying. And as more and more drilling companies clear huge swaths of the Brush Country to set up sprawling oil fields and truck yards – changing the landscape forever – soon it won’t even look like the Old West anymore. No one will know who they are, or where they are. And as we hobble about like toddlers, trying to find something sturdy to hold onto, The Old West – that place where misfits could find themselves and call a place home – continues to grow into an indiscernable wasteland, inhabited by Hell monsters nashing their coprorate teeth at you as you drive to something you used to call home but can’t anymore.My mom and I pulled into her driveway around sunset. As soon as I got out of the car I could smell the fuel from the snake of vehicles on the highway. The sky was a combination of orange, pink, purple and indigo blue – absolutely mesmerizing, save for the skeleton of a hotel being built. But I could hear the evening coyotes yelping in the distance. I pray they always will.
People are speculating that the current oil and gas boom will last 20 years. It’s hard to think that far ahead, but I can easily think back, to when I was a boy growing up in Jim Wells County, 2 hours south of Jourdanton. The county seat was Alice, and it was boom times back then. One store after another shot up. There was even a mall, and the two movie theatres usually had lines of people wrapped around them before showtime. A Wal-Mart sprung up, and it was a high falutin time. Then the boom busted, simple as that. Alice whithered in no time. The businesses went under, and the many empty buildings gave Alice the appearance of a ghost town. The Fat Cats made their millions and left, but all the working men who took out loans and got mortgages, got married and had babies all went into debt and were left to wander about the emptiness like ghosts.I don’t know if Jourdanton, or Pleasanton – or the mutant creature they have morphed together to form – will face the same fate as Alice. But people around here are acting like 20 years is gonna last forever, and that’s dangerous, for the Cosmos has no mercy for such folley. But new ghost towns have always be on the horizon in America…each generation creating a newer Old West, as it gets harder to remember who we are, and easier to forget we’ve been here many, many times before.