Us ‘n’ them: Reflections on West Texas

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By Sherry Robinson


Texans fascinate me. It’s not an uncritical admiration, but I can’t help looking across the border and wondering why they zoom out of the recession while we in New Mexico spin our wheels.

From a recent annual meeting of the West Texas Historical Society, held in Odessa, I returned with some ideas to share with you.

“Texas exceptionalism.” 

This phrase, tossed out during one talk, is a fancy way to capture the confidence, the bravado, that permeates the atmosphere the way the smell of money from bobbing pumpjacks fills the air for miles around Odessa. What other state could name a major Austin museum exhibit “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true?”

As Texas publicly chalks up its fine qualities and assets, we mourn our latest depressing national ranking. I and a few of my fellow ink-stained wretches poke at the New Mexico inferiority complex, which is as real as our state bird. What would it take to raise our opinion of New Mexico?

Texas State Historian Bill O’Neal, who probably told his first joke before he took his first step, celebrated the “Historianus Herbidus” in his banquet speech. This is the citizen historian, an individual who, without the benefit of formal training and with or without money, decides it’s important to preserve local history or save a landmark from neglect or the wrecking ball. Or they run little museums like the ones I’ve seen in Corona, Gallup, Lovington, Artesia and Ruidoso. 

The challenge I see is to recruit the next generation of citizen historians. One young Texas historian blogs; a high school teacher brought his students to the conference. We could use connections like these.

One group of citizen historians I met created the Quanah Parker Trail in the panhandle area after thinking about what they might do to promote the area. “We don’t have mountains or blue bonnets, or the Alamo,” said an organizer. 

Texans lionize the last Comanche chief the way we lionize Geronimo. Their trail involved 52 counties (their counties are small) documenting Parker’s presence. Some sites are marked by a 22-foot arrow created by an artist at his own expense and celebrated with ceremonies involving the Comanches. They also have a website, QuanahParkerTrail.com.

We have the Geronimo Trail National Scenic Byway and a similar Billy the Kid trail, creations of the Tourism Department, but imagine the same projects in the hands of Historianus Herbidus.

There’s a darker side to Texas Indian relations. Texas refused to create reservations and pushed all of its Indian people, except for one tiny group near El Paso, into Oklahoma and New Mexico. Consider the implications of that then and now.

You can’t visit a place like Odessa without doffing your hat to oil, but I heard some different views of the industry.

A rancher from Rankin told me, “I won’t say I like everything the industry brought, but it’s mostly been good for Rankin. It’s been good for the schools. The county’s been able to build some new buildings. We used to have one café, and now we have three.”

He said he doesn’t call it an oil boom but a technology boom of directional drilling and fracking: “They know where the oil is, and they’re going after it.” 

Another West Texan observed ruefully, “Isn’t it better to have a small but steady income over a long period of time instead of a big burst all at once?” In other words, the booms could be short-lived, a sobering thought for them and us.

A final observation: The West Texans don’t apologize for their scenery. They think they live in the most beautiful place on earth. When the setting sun glazes the plains, and the clouds stretch in fanciful shapes across a big sky, I agree with them.