Places That Once Were

Abandoned RV and car near Terlingua, TX

Landmen have an interesting relationship with history. Some will harken back to the good old days of driving out to a rancher's property and discussing business among prospect maps spread over the hood of a pickup truck and closing deals with handshakes. If you stick around long enough in this field—I'm nearing my thirteenth year—you likely develop at least a passing interest in the history of the land and the minerals underneath. And the history of the owners, sometimes leading to revelations of betrayal and the accompanying family feuds. When researching title, you may become more familiar with other people's family trees than you are of your own. And don't let anyone tell you that wills, probate proceedings, and affidavits can't be exciting—sometimes you find some four-letter words and some spicy accusations in those documents.

A desire to advance my career led to a five-year stint in Midland, Texas, a place not known as a hotspot for things to do. Desperate times call for desperate pleasures, as Bill Ryder-Jones said, so in the land of oil, even your escapes may be related to petroleum in some way. At some point, I spent a day driving across Reagan County, starting with a town called Stiles, once the county seat until it was bypassed by the railroad and oil was discovered in Big Lake. These days little remains in Stiles, other than the remains of the former courthouse.

The old Reagan County courthouse in Stiles, TXThe old Reagan County courthouse in Stiles, TX

A former neighbor told me that the chainlink fence surrounding the old courthouse was erected after someone tried to burn it down a few times. I do not condone trespassing, but the fence had been cut when I visited, so I couldn't resist the temptation to step inside.

Inside the old Reagan County courthouseInside the courthouse

Next my adventures saw me going to the settlement once called Best. I was surprised Best had a sign announcing its border, since I saw nothing else to suggest anyone ever lived within its limits. I doubt much worth remembering ever happened there since it was said that Best had the worst residents.

The last leg of my Reagan County world tour took me to Texon, the home of the Santa Rita No. 1, the well which gave birth to decades of drilling in the Permian Basin. Aside from a monument to the well named after the patron saint of foolish endeavors—an appropriate name since crews sought oil for two years before finding reliable production—I saw an old scout shack with some used tires and a decaying goat.

The old scout shack in Texon, TXThe old scout shack in Texon, TX

Each of these towns, which would be considered dead by modern measures, had its day and its history. These towns were once functioning communities with schools, banks, markets, churches, and post offices. These were places where people built lives. Places where people dreamed of a bright future. But these places in Reagan County are hardly alone, as the same goes for Thurber, Texas (way over in Erath County), a former company coal mining town, which was at one time the largest settlement between Fort Worth and El Paso, and which now boasts a population of five, along with two restaurants and an old smokestack as an homage to its past. Who would have thought that the first electrified city in Texas would someday be reduced to a footnote in the history books.

The lone smoke stack in Thurber, TXThe lone smokestack remaining in Thurber, TX

And the same goes for the Baker Hotel, located in Mineral Wells and formerly a resort for the elites who thought the town's spring waters had therapeutic qualities. According to Wikipedia, “the star-studded guest list included Glenn Miller, Lawrence Welk, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, future U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, and even The Three Stooges. It is even rumored by local historians that legendary outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow may have spent a night or two at the Baker.” An investment company had purchased the Baker and had broken ground on renovations before the pandemic, so maybe there's a chance that the old hotel will be once again be somewhere new memories are made.

The Baker Hotel circa 2015The Baker Hotel circa 2015

At one time, people would have imagined these locations would last forever, and now these places are little more than distant memories. If such places have come and gone, why should we expect any of our comforts to be immune to such possibility? Why would we expect our jobs to be invulnerable? Our industries? Whole swaths of an economy? The pandemic has shown the flaws in many of our collective assumptions, and history echoes some of those callouts.

More often than not, we should live through the lens of probability: If x then y; what do the statistics say? Yet there is utility in entertaining possibility, if only to be slightly more prepared for it. History can be a great tool for learning possibility, because while history may not repeat itself, it does often rhyme. And sometimes it features rhymes accompanied by 808s and heartbreak.

Americans are horrible at accepting impermanence. Look no further than how hard some will fight for that extra year of life, often an extra year of pain and suffering. Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone...

Yet my life has improved as I've learned to accept that all I hold dear will be forgotten after the earth makes a few more passes around the sun. That is more than possibility or probability. It is inevitability.

When I visit ghost towns and abandoned places—places that once were—I can't help daydreaming about the stories forgotten in time. These days, I think about the stories that have been lost through those dear to me who have passed. How many stories will be lost because of my reluctance to share? These thoughts and questions, which once seemed silly, became more important once I had kids.

I have a habit of living anywhere other than the present. I replay the past in my head and beat myself up for things I cannot change. I look ahead to catastrophes that may never materialize and work myself up over nothing. But with the help of meditation and Stoicism, I've become better at living in the moment, though like an addict, I relapse. Reminding myself of impermanence also helps. If precious moments are destined to be forgotten, then they should be enjoyed in their time.

Perhaps you've heard certain mantras that help to keep this in perspective for you:

Nothing lasts forever.

This too shall pass. (This mantra applies to the good times too).

Things come, things go.

But for me, seeing is believing.

#personal #ghosttowns