25 Top Custom Bootmakers

Bootmakers
FROM TOP: A custom pair made by Rocketbuster Boots in El Paso; a bootmaker works on a top at Arditti Footwear; a vamp is fitted around a last at Arditti. Photography by Wyatt McSpadden.

25 Top Custom Bootmakers

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 2002

ABILENE

James Leddy Boots
1602 N. Treadaway Boulevard
915-677-7811
The nephew of boot king M. L. Leddy is now royalty himself, and he runs a real family business: He does the cutting, his wife and daughter do the stitching, his son-in-law does bottoms, and his former daughter-in-law creates the prettiest inlays anywhere. Specializes in: Flowery tops, old-fashioned crimped vamps, zipper tops, sharp pointed toes. Prices start at: $625. Turnaround time: Three to four months. Has made boots for: Country singers Buck Owens, George Jones, and Johnny Bush; U.S. representative Charles Stenholm.

Bell Custom Boots
2118 N. Treadaway Boulevard
915-677-0632
The gregarious Alan Bell understudied with Tex Robin in Coleman (see below) before going solo. Twenty-five years later, his is one of the state’s busiest husband-and-wife operations (Pauline Bell does the top stitching). Specializes in: Versatility (his leather ranges from tough and rugged to soft and supple) and signature stitching outside and inside the vamp. Prices start at: $625. Turnaround time: One year. Has made boots for: Race car driver Kyle Petty; cowboys from the 6666, the Pitchfork, and other mega-ranches.

AMARILLO

Western Leather Craft Boot
1950 Civic Circle
806-355-0174
Four generations of the Ross family have been making fine working and dress boots since 1914. Specializes in: Work boots, art boots, wing tips, and flower inlays. Prices start at: $575. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Singing cowboy Gene Autry.

AUSTIN

Texas Traditions
2222 College Avenue
512-443-4447
Lee Miller apprenticed under the late, great Charlie Dunn and took over the business when Dunn retired. Specializes in: Flashy designs, such as wild flames decorating the tops and trademark Charlie Dunn pinched rose overlays. Prices start at: $1,000. Turnaround time: Three years for new customers (they’re not taking any right now), thirteen months for old ones. Has made boots for: Country singer Lyle Lovett, rock singer Sting, actor Slim Pickens, golfer Arnold Palmer.

COLEMAN

Tex Robin Custom Handmade Boots
115 W. Eighth
915-625-5556
Robin’s father, also called Tex, opened his doors in 1944 and passed his talent and commitment to high quality on to his son, who has now run the one-man shop for thirty years. Specializes in: Artistic tops with eclectic stitching (e.g., prickly pear cactus spines), brilliant coloring, and trademark butterflies and eagles. Prices start at: $695. Turnaround time: One year. Has made boots for: Governor Rick Perry, gambler Benny Binion.

COMANCHE

Kimmel Company
2080 County Road 304
915-356-3197
Since learning the trade from the late Dan Trujillio, another Comanche legend, Eddie Kimmel has built up one of the most productive small shops in Texas. Specializes in: Old-style boots that are a little stouter and have a heavier inner sole, which means they last longer. Prices start at: $550. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Actresses Sandra Bullock and Priscilla Presley; movie producer Lynda Obst.

EL PASO

RocketBuster Boots
115 S. Anthony
915-541-1300
Their boot designs are part flash and part kitsch, so it’s no surprise that the showroom in which Nevena Christi and Marty Snortum greet their customers—by appointment only—resembles Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Specializes in: The wildest tops in the business, from Hot Rod Devil and Custom Car Angel logos to fiery chiles and the Virgin of the Guadalupe. Prices start at: $750 (take $40 off any order if you trade a childhood cowboy photo). Turnaround time: Twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Actors Billy Bob Thornton, Mel Gibson, and Bruce Willis; actress Sharon Stone; director Steven Spielberg; talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.

Tres Outlaws
421 S. Cotton
915-544-2727
Co-owners Scott Emmerich and Jerry black (the third outlaw "we hung," says Emmerich) supply boots to high-end retailers, including Emmerich’s Falconhead in the tony Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Specializes in: Elaborate designs, exotic leathers, handstitching as wide as 25 rows, braided kangaroo-skin piping, and silver inlays built into the boot. Prices start at: $595. Turnaround Time: Four to eight weeks. Has made boots for: Actresses Brooke Shields, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Renee Zellweger; rock singer Sheryl Crow; uberagent Mike Ovitz.

The Stallion Boot and Belt Company
100 N. Cotton
915-532-6268
Longtime boot collector Pedro Mu–oz, Jr., made a killing off of the Urban Cowboy craze. Twenty years later, he still designs boots for sale via trunk shows and couture retailers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Dior. Specializes in: Replicas of classic boots emphasizing starbursts and flame stitching, as well as buck stitching and lacing. Claims to be the only bootmaker using fossilized walrus and woolly mammoth ivory. Prices start at: $500. Turnaround time: Six to twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Rock singers Madonna, Robert Plant, and Bob Dylan; actress Ashley Judd; actor Tom Cruise.

Arditti Alligator Accoutrements and Handcrafted Footware
910 Texas Avenue
915-532-7833
A twelve-year veteran of the leather biz at age 31, Thomas Yves Arditti produces high-end designs for boots made of alligator and other exotic leathers. Specializes in: High-quality leather inside and outside the boot and signature sterling-silver logo built into the heel. PRICES START T: $550. Turnaround time: One to two months. Has made boots for: Actor Jack Nicholson, former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

FORT WORTH

Carman Allen
8616 Quebec Drive 817-367-7976 Formerly a bull rider, Allen designed chaps before shifting his focus to boots. Specializes in: Detailed tooling and a trademark lightning bolt. Prices start at: $650. Turnaround time: Eight to ten months. Has made boots for: The cutting-horse crowd.

HOUSTON

Wheeler Boot Company
4115 Willowbend
713-665-0224
Dave Wheeler has been working at his father’s shop since he was twelve; forty years later he continues the family tradition by working alongside his wife and his mother. Specializes in: Colorful, elaborately designed boots-as-art Prices start at: $825. Turnaround time: Eleven months. Has made boots for: Vice President Dick Cheney, actor Robert Duvall, defense attorney Dick DeGuerin.

Maida’s Blackjack Boot Company
3948 Westheimer Boulevard
713-961-4538
First-generation Italian bootmaker Sal Maida, Sr., served Houstonians for years; since 1977 that task has fallen to his son, Sal Junior, and bootmaker Richard Salazar. Specializes in: Upscale boots suitable for cowboy balls. Prices start at: $695. Turnaround time: Ten to twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Rockers ZZ Top, actor Ben Johnson.

R.J.’S Boot Company
3321 Ella Boulevard
713-682-5520
A bootmaker to the power elite, Rocky Carroll is a worthy successor to his dad, who started the business in 1938. He is backed by independent contractors, including 76-year-old Antonio Sanchez, maybe the state’s finest craftsman, who works semi-exclusively for him out of a garage in Mercedes. Specializes in: Conservative, upscale boots with artistic tops, such as corporate logos, and lots of gold and silver. Prices start at: $295. Turnaround time: Two weeks. Has made boots for: Both President Bushes, Governor Rick Perry, country singer Dolly Parton.

LAMPASAS

Jazz Boot Shop
803 E. Avenue G
512-556-3857
Pablo Jass worked for twelve years alongside the late Ray Jones, also of Lampasas. He still turns out tougher-than-hell real cowboy boots made for working on the range. Specializes in: Jones’s box toe, white piping, and stiff tops, and electric topstitching done by his wife, Juanita. Prices start at: $600. Turnaround time: Six months to one year. Has made boots for: Author and boot aficionado Tyler Beard.

MERCEDES

Cavazos Boot Factory
302 Second
956-565-0753
Vicente Cavazos, an unsung elder of the bootmaking biz, does the whole boot himself, from fit to finish, excelling in artistic stitching, inlays, and overlays. Specializes in: Imaginative top designs, including roses and a Corpus Christi cityscape, and stylish ostrich wing tips. Prices start at: $225. Turnaround time: Four to five weeks. Has made boots for: Former president Bill Clinton, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Camargo’s Handmade Boots
710 U.S. 83
956-565-6457
Henry Camargo considers himself an artist and lets his imagination fly, producing an assortment of unconventional designs on exotic skins with free-form stitching. Specializes in: Tops with 55 Chevy convertibles, ’66 Corvettes, Harleys, Ford pickups, speedboats, Dallas Cowboys helmets, and Lone Star beer logos. Prices start at: $225. Turnaround time: Three to five weeks. Has made boots for: Country singer Willie Nelson, actor Patrick Duffy.

MILLSAP

Stephanie Ferguson Custom Boots
2112 Poe Prairie
817-341-9700
The Ohio native-the only female bootmaker in Texas going it alone-understudied at Jack Reed’s place in Burnet, where she developed a flair for flamboyant colors and overlays. Specializes in: Tops with three-dimensional hummingbirds, coconuts, flamingos, parrots, and morning glories. Prices start at: $850. Turnaround time: Six to eight months. Has made boots for: Country singer David Allan Coe.

RAYMONDVILLE

El Vaquero Boots
722 E. Norman
956-689-3469
Ignaclo "Nacho” Martinez, another unsung elder, was part of the team that built boots for President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the dedication ceremony for Falcon Dam, in 1954. After spending most of his career at Raymondville’s now-defunct Rios Boots, he currently works out of his garage with his son, Joe. Specializes in: Flaming-red rose inlays, intricate braided-lace piping, and lizard scallops. Prices start at: $300. Turnaround time: Six to eight weeks. Has made boots for: Armstrongs, Klebergs, Yturrias, and other ranching elites.

Armando’s Boot Company
169 N. Seventh
956-689-3521
Abraham Rios once had Raymondville’s biggest shop, serving area ranches like the King Ranch. Today his nephew Armando Duarte Rios puts his 45 years of experience into each and every boot. Specializes in: Fancy inlays and nimble stitching up to ten rows wide. Prices start at: $420. Turnaround time: Eight to ten weeks. Has made boots for: Former governor Mark White; former Speaker of the House Gib Lewis; actors Sean Penn and Peter Coyote; country singer Willie Nelson.

Torres Brothers Boot Company
246 S. Seventh
956-689-1342
In 1997 Raul and Frank Torres reopened the longtime business run by their father, Leopoldo Torres, who still consults for his sons on a regular basis. Specializes in: Butterfly stitching and white-alligator boots. Prices start at: $200. Turnaround time: Six to seven weeks. Has made boots for: King Ranch cowboys, Texas Rangers, border patrolmen.

SAN ANGELO

J. L. Mercer and Son Custom Boots
224 S. Chadbourne
915-658-7634
J. L. Mercer began working in his daddy’s shop at age eleven. Seventy years later, he sells boots out of a rickety storefront and at rodeos, cutting-horse competitions, and the State Fair. Specializes in: Basic work boots, roper boots, and crepe soles, Prices start at: $450. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Lyndon B. Johnson; former governor Mark White; actors Barry Corbin and Tom Wopat; country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

Rusty Franklin Handmade Boots
15 E. Avenue D
915-655-7784
Franklin split off from his venerated grandfather, M. L. Leddy, sixteen years ago and recruited master bootmaker Eugene Lopez from the late Charlie Garrison’s operation in Llano. Specializes in: Stiff tops, school logos, and Texas icons such as the Capitol, the Alamo, mockingbirds, oil derricks, yellow roses, and bluebonnets. Prices start at: $495. Turnaround time: Five to six months. Has made boots for: Actor Tommy Lee Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

M. L. Leddy Boots
2200 W. Beauregard
915-942-7655
One of the oldest and largest custombootmaking operations in the state. Specializes in: Old-fashioned high-heel range riders, nuevo-retro cockroach stompers, tool tops, and lace-ups. Prices start at: $495. Turnaround time: Three to four months. Has made boots for: Country singer Trisha Yearwood, basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actor Paul Newman.

SAN ANTONIO

Little’s Boots
110 Division Avenue
210-923-2221
What Lucchese Boots once was to San Antonio, Little’s Boots-established in 1915-is today. Little’s sets the standard for fancy custom boots, which are on display at the state’s best showroom. Specializes in: Expensive, unembellished exotic leathers and intricately detailed art boots, including three-dimensional pinched roses and unique wildflower and leaf patterns. Prices start at: $750. Turnaround time: Three and a half months. Has made boots for: Country singer Reba McEntire, actor Tommy Lee Jones, author Alex Haley.

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Boot Anatomy

Boot Anatomy
This boot is one of the most popular styles made by Lee Miller of Texas Traditions in Austin.

Boot Anatomy

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 2002

Top

The top, also known as the shaft, is the artist’s canvas: Here is where the most detail work is done (although, ironically, if you’re a man, the top stays hidden under your pants legs unless you’re riding or at a cowboy ball). Standard tops are twelve inches high, though custom boots that replicate vintage models of fifty years ago or older—especially old-timey cowgirl boots called peewees—sometimes have tops that are shorter. Luccheses have always had thirteen-inch tops. Yahoos and Buffalo Bill wannabes go for even higher tops, despite their propensity to cause the feet to sweat more in the summer.

Leather

When it comes to skins and leathers, the sky—and your wallet—is the limit; the rarer the species, the costlier the material. Calfskin is the basic starter, followed in no particular order by goat, lizard, anteater, shark, kangaroo, quill ostrich, stingray, buffalo, bullfrog, snake (not very durable), bullhide (very durable), elephant (the most durable), and alligator (the most expensive).

Stitching

The stitching of custom boots is done by hand. Think decorative, not practical: Once upon a time, stitching held the layers of leather together, but today glue mostly does the trick. The more rows of stitching, the finer (and more expensive) the boot. Two rows are standard. Ten rows are awesome.

Vamp

The vamp is the lower part of the boot, and ideally it’s cut from a single piece of leather. It comes together in a series of steps. First the medallion—or bug and wrinkle, so named because it looks like, well, a bug and a wrinkle—is stitched onto it. Then it’s sewn to the top, wetted, and stretched over the last. Next, it’s pulled back so the toe box can be inserted. Finally, it’s sculpted and dried.

Pulls

Pulls, or ear pulls, are the loops sewn into the side of your boots at the top to help you get them on. Over-the-top pulls are standard. Mule ears, which are five to seven inches long, and flush pulls, which sit inside the boot, are fancier. Some boot buyers prefer holes in the top to slip their fingers into.

Inlays

Inlays are sewn into the top or, less frequently, the vamp. This is the delicate part of the artistic process, sometimes involving microscopic strands and pieces of leather. The more detailed the inlay, the harder the job—and the longer it takes. (Overlays, or foxings, are pieces of leather attached to the outside of the top or the vamp; they’re the bootmaking equivalent of hair extensions. They perform the same decorative function as inlays, but they’re susceptible to scuffing or being torn off.)

Piping

Piping covers the vertical seam where the tops are stitched together. Typically it’s a single strand, but sometimes it involves more-elaborate braiding.

Toe

Your choice of toe reveals what kind of person you are. Rock stars and fashionmongers gravitate to pointy toes, also known as pin box toes, roach stompers, and fence climbers. Yes, they’re trendy, but they’re actually the kind grandpa used to wear when he rode horses (the pointy toe makes it easier to stick the boot into the stirrup). The box toe—also called the five-eighth toe, since the boxed front is five-eighths of an inch across—is the most popular version of the pointy toe. (The boot pictured has a three-fourths-inch toe.) Round toes, reflecting more conservative tastes, are preferred by modern ranch folks and professionals who want something to wear with a business suit. The number one round is a modified pointy toe. The number three, also known as a J toe, is the most common of the round-toe styles and is preferred by the button-down crowd. The number four is so round that it can pass for a shoe.

Bottom

The bottom consists of the insole, the outsole, and the shank cover. The insole is nailed to the bottom of the last before the vamp is stretched. After the vamp is dry, it is stitched to the insole by hand, creating the welt. The nails are pulled from the insole, and the last is removed. Then the outsole is stitched to the welt.

Heel

The heel determines height and function. Higher heels make it easier to stay in a stirrup while on horseback, but they’re hard if not hell to walk in (getting around on a two-and-a-half-inch “undershot high narrow rounding heel” is like wobbling on Manolo Blahnik spikes). Most boot wearers prefer a lower, flatter heel, like a one-and-five-eighth-inch “walking wide heel” or a one-and-three-fourth-inch “short contest heel.”

see also Alive and Kicking; 25 Top Custom Bootmakers


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Alive and Kicking

Enrique Velasquez
Bootmaker Enrique "Kiki" Velasquez of Arditti Alligator Accoutrements and Handcrafted Footwear in El Paso. Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden.

Alive and Kicking

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 2002

As apparel goes, handmade cowboy boots are one of the last remaining links to our past—and they look sweet on your feet. Here’s where you can find a pair that fits your personal taste, plus everything you ever wanted to know about vamps, stitching, and more.

LIKE SO MUCH ELSE IN Texas these days, apparel—the kind that proudly proclaims our Western heritage—ain’t what it used to be. Jeans were co-opted 25 years ago, when Gloria Vanderbilt designer-labeled them, and all hope of taking them back is lost now that Wranglers and Levi’s, those icons of the cowboy way, are made out of the country by workers who wouldn’t know a Santa Gertrudis from a milk cow. Cowboy hats? Gimme caps supplanted Stetsons and Hi-Rollers long before Bum Phillips coached the Oilers. Spurs and chaps? Appropriated by the alternative-lifestyle crowd (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Shirts with pearl snaps? Hell, folks are more likely to wear running shorts with the Texas flag on the backside.

Cowboy boots, on the other hand, are inviolable. They’ve been with us forever and still look damn sweet on a pair of feet today. And they don’t have to be Texas feet; anyone who dons a pair (well, the right pair) can pass for a native. Boots directly connect us to our storied past—they were the footwear favored by the Spanish conquistadores who brought the horse to North America, although there’s still some dispute as to whether the first cowboy boots arrived in Texas from Kansas via the cattle drovers or from northern Mexico by way of the vaqueros. Their shining moment came in the early eighties, when the Urban Cowboy craze transformed them into a pop culture artifact embraced around the world. But by the early nineties, sales were back down and the industry began to consolidate. More recently, venerable Texas bootmakers like Tony Lama and Lucchese have followed jeans makers in shipping some of their manufacturing operations across the border and overseas. Several lines of Justins, once the pride of my hometown of Fort Worth, are today made in Mexico.

This, I would argue, is not necessarily a bad thing. With the decline of the big boys, the small bootmakers—the ones who custom-make them by hand—are on the rise. Presidents, movie stars, rock stars, and even the occasional Mexican wrestler, along with regular folks all across the state, regard made-to-measure boots as one of the last remaining status symbols connected to the Western myth. Mind you, they’re expensive, ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand for a single pair, and assuming you can find someone willing to take you on as a customer, it can be weeks or months before they’re ready to wear. But price and patience have their rewards, because custom boots are more comfortable than a pair of slippers and last for a minimum of ten years. The way I figure it, they’re a far better value than the new pair of $200 Air Jordans you have to buy every year—plus they look cooler and are versatile enough to be worn in the saddle or propped up on your desk.

The place to buy custom boots is Texas, which is home to more than one hundred of the best bootmakers on earth—though you’d never know it; most custom bootmakers don’t advertise, as word of mouth brings in all the business they can handle. Aesthetically speaking, their shops are like barbecue joints: The funkier the place, the better the product. Some have a fancy showroom out front, but the actual work is done in environments charitably described as messy, dank, and musty, and the air is redolent with the sweet, mellow aroma of tanned hides. Piles of leather scraps are scattered in every nook and cranny, as are such tools of the trade as awls, hammers, and ancient sewing machines (the model 3115 Singer is particularly revered).

Yes, bootmaking is an art form—literally. Over the past twelve years, custom boots have been the subject of three coffee-table books—100 Years of Western Wear, The Cowboy Boot Book, and Art of the Boot—by Tyler Beard, a writer and collector of Western memorabilia living in Lampasas, and Jim Arndt, a photographer from that upper Midwestern hub of bootmania, Minneapolis (Arndt also publishes boot calendars). At the moment there are two major boot-themed exhibits in Texas: “These Boots Are Made for Gawking,” at the Grace Museum in Abilene, which features the works of Texas’ best modern bootmakers, and “Heels and Toes and Everything Goes: Cowboy Boots As Art,” at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, including boots worn by Lyndon B. Johnson, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry.

With an eye to all this, I spent a few weeks traveling around the state this spring, visiting some of the state’s best bootmakers. I was sorry to be reminded that so many of the veterans are no longer with us: Charlie Dunn, of Austin, Ray Jones, of Lampasas, Charlie Garrison, of Llano, Dan Trujillio, of Comanche, Willie Lusk (the only African American to distinguish himself in the trade), of Lubbock, and Genaro Hector Uribe, of San Antonio, the last in a family line that stretched back 150 years to bootmakers who shod soldiers in Emperor Maximilian’s army. Yet I discovered some old masters still at it, such as 76-year-old Antonio Sanchez, of Mercedes, 73-year-old Ignacio Martinez, of Raymondville, and 65-year-old James Leddy, of Abilene.

From these and other Michelangelos of leather, I learned that getting the new generation to follow in their bootsteps is no easy task. “I’ve got two sons and a daughter who didn’t go into the boot business but live in nice houses with all the finer things in life,” says seventy-year-old Dave Little, whose family’s boots, hecho en San Antonio since 1915, favorably compare with ones the Luccheses once made in the Alamo City. Thankfully, another of Little’s daughters is getting ready to take over the business. An additional problem is finding good craftsmen—the only dependable talents are Mexican nationals, the occasional Mexican American kid from the border region, and the handful of graduates (never enough) from the bootmaking school at the technical branch of Oklahoma State University, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

Custom bootmakers, I was told, are divided into two camps. Solo operators insist that you can’t turn out really great handmade boots if even two people are involved in the process. Ideally, the person who does the measuring should be the person who makes the last, cuts the patterns, and cuts the leather. “Those four steps are so critical that you’re asking for trouble if more than one person does it,” says Houston bootmaker Dave Wheeler. Shops with two or more bootmakers hoot at Wheeler’s premise, pointing out that specialists who focus on stitching, stretching vamps, or putting together boot bottoms make for a better overall boot. Besides, going it alone is akin to taking a vow of poverty, says Little, who makes the sale, does the measuring, and collaborates on the design but leaves the actual assembly to six workers in the shop out back. “The fellow who makes boots one at a time, from fit to finish, can’t make any money,” he says.

There are regional differences in Texas as well. Small bootmakers who make real cowboy boots for real cowboys—durable footwear that’s nothing fancy—are easily found wherever big ranches are nearby, with two significant clusters around Abilene and San Angelo. Custom bootmakers in El Paso, the undisputed Cowboy Boot Capital of the World, tend to be larger operations and focus on sales not to individuals as much as to retailers in Texas and elsewhere, who measure their customers and then send for the boots to be made. Not surprisingly, boots tend to cost more the farther you travel from the border. The least expensive boots are made in El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley towns of Mercedes and Raymondville, where many makers were trained in the Mercedes factory of revered bootmaker Zeferino Rios, whose family was in the business for nearly 150 years.

Whatever you pay for them, wherever you get them, get them. This is an industry worth supporting. “It’s not going to die,” insists Lee Miller, of Austin, one of the nation’s finest young bootmakers. (Miller is doing his part: He was taught by Charlie Dunn and eventually took over Dunn’s business, and he is now teaching a Japanese man named Atsuki Sumi, who aims to open up the second custom-made-boot shop in his home country.) “The boot boom may have ended in 1983,” says Scott Emmerich, who co-owns Tres Outlaws bootmakers in El Paso, “but the serious boot buyer has never gone away. It always has been and always will be, because Texas is Texas and Texas is boots.”

see also Boot Anatomy; 25 Top Custom Bootmakers


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A Time to Drill

Kemp's ridley turtlesA Time to Drill?

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March 2003

Last year the feds went toe-to-toe with environmentalists over allowing natural-gas drilling on Padre Island, but neither side has scored a knockout. Here’s what to expect in the next few rounds.

So who threw the first punch in this fight? The Bush administration. A year ago, citing the growing demand for natural gas and the need for the U. S. to become less dependent on foreign energy supplies, the Department of the Interior approved a permit allowing BNP Petroleum, of Corpus Christi, to drill an exploratory natural-gas well inside the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS). In November, after BNP struck a reserve fifteen miles from park headquarters, the Interior Department agreed to let it drill two additional wells.

Since when is drilling legal on Padre Island? Since forever. In fact, oil and gas exploration is legal throughout the national park system (nearly seven hundred oil and gas wells exist in thirteen other parks). In the case of PINS, when the federal government began acquiring its 160,000 acres in 1962, it limited the purchase to surface lands, leaving oil and gas rights in the hands of the state and private owners. Any company can apply for a drilling permit, but approval must also be granted by the National Park Service, which is overseen by the Interior Department. Nineteen wells have been drilled on Padre since 1979, but only two in the nineties, and both were dry holes.

Okay. But if drilling has always been legal, how can environmentalists fight this? By playing every green group’s favorite trump card: suing under the Endangered Species Act. Few roads exist inside PINS, and to access its drilling sites, BNP must send eighteen wheelers down the beach, which, from April through July, is prime nesting habitat for endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles. Roughly five thousand female turtles exist, and critics of drilling argue that the giant oil company trucks will crush both turtles and their nests. Using this argument, the Sierra Club filed suit against the Interior Department in April.

How is BNP addressing the Sierra Club’s concerns? BNP spokespeople argue that their trucks are no more harmful to the turtles than the thousands of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts who roam the beach already each summer. Besides, they say the existing regulations governing their beach access, which include requiring drilling trucks to maintain a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and to travel in caravans led by trained turtle spotters, will adequately protect wildlife.

So how does all of this affect Texans? First, the bad news: Increased drilling will unquestionably have a negative impact on tourism. Nearly 800,000 visitors flock to PINS each year, and no matter how environmentally and visually friendly BNP’s operation is (it will use quieter, diesel- and electric-powered rigs painted the color of their surroundings), nothing spoils a beach picnic quite like a rumbling caravan of industrial truck traffic. On the other hand, there’s a significant financial carrot being dangled by the pro-drilling camp. Because BNP’s proposed new wells will be on state-owned reserves, state law stipulates that between 20 and 25 percent of the revenue the wells generate must go to Texas’ Permanent School Fund. And considering the state’s $9 billion budget shortfall, the estimated 80 billion cubic feet of gas sitting untouched beneath the island could represent an irresistible revenue source.

What happens next? Don’t expect the feds to purchase Padre Island’s oil and natural-gas rights like they did last summer for Big Cypress National Preserve, in Florida. The move to protect the preserve was largely viewed as a political maneuver (read: a chance for President Bush to boost brother Jeb’s 2002 reelection efforts), and the administration has been otherwise adamant about the need to tap our existing energy supplies. A compromise that involves limiting drilling trucks during turtle nesting season or cutting a road down the island away from the beach might appease some critics, but remember, there’s an endangered species involved, and the Sierra Club doesn’t typically go down without a fight. Expect this issue to drag on in the courts, where a judge will issue a final TKO.

[Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club] [Padre Island drilling] [Padre Island National Seashore] [Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle]


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See the Forest of Cooperation for the Trees

See the Forest of Cooperation for the Trees

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
May 19, 2003

The first shot marking a new phase in the great American environmental war was fired last week — in Fort Worth, of all places. But hardly anyone heard it.

A two-day writers workshop titled “Beyond Command and Control” — sponsored by Environmental Defense and the Sand County Foundation of Madison, Wis., and hosted by Ramona Bass — was largely ignored by the Texas media, other than the five outdoors writers who attended the conference and me.

It’s understandable. On the surface of it, there isn’t much newsworthy about 40 people getting together to hash over land use, endangered species, law and human interaction with nature, topped off by a tour of the Texas Wild! exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo led by Bass.

But the mere fact that landowners and greens were engaging in dialogue to develop consensus about land, water, wildlife and the environment rather than yelling at one another other was not just news — it was downright earthshaking.

Ten years ago, the Endangered Species Act, which originally was intended to identify, protect and save rare birds, fish, animals and insects, was having precisely the opposite effect.

Landowners who had endangered species on their property were being punished with onerous rules, regulations and restrictions rather than being recognized for harboring unique plants and animals.

Many Texas landowners felt so threatened by the heavy-handed enforcement of the act that they summarily denied federal and state biologists access to their property out of fear that endangered species would be found and some bureaucrat would step in to tell them how they could or couldn’t manage their own land. Some went so far as to kill rare birds and destroy their habitat.

Similarly, whenever a green organization such as Environmental Defense saw a problem, the first reaction was to “Sue the bastards,” as Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense’s president, explained at the workshop.

Those attitudes defined the old rules of engagement. Today, it’s a far different story.

Environmental Defense, having recognized the pitfalls of wielding a heavy hammer to instigate change, has taken the lead in developing “Safe Harbor” agreements that reward landowners for having endangered species rather than penalizing them.

Several landowners, including Dr. Rickey Fain from Glen Rose and Bob Long of Bastrop, testified how such agreements and cooperative efforts among landowners, environmentalists and regulators have worked to protect endangered species including the black-capped vireo and the Houston toad.

That mirrors the philosophy articulated by Aldo Leopold, the Wisconsin conservationist who inspired the creation of the Sand County Foundation by championing personal responsibility and individual stewardship as the most effective means of preserving and protecting the environment.

A news conference was held during the workshop to announce Environmental Defense’s $1 million investment in a partnership with the Sand County Foundation to create the Leopold Stewardship Fund.

The money is already being spread among 14 landowner groups dealing with endangered species across the country.

Landowner incentives ring especially loud and clear in Texas, which is home to more animal species than any other state in the nation, and which happens to be 97 percent privately owned.

The sometimes not-so-subtle message tucked into the $40 million Texas Wild! recreation of the state’s regions and its wildlife is that private property owners are conservationists, too, and despite the doom-and-gloom message that humans are destroying the environment, there’s plenty of reason to have hope.

The message reflects the beliefs of Bass and her husband, a former commissioner of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Basses own tens of thousands of acres. My family owns less than 10.

Ramona Bass and her husband are avid hunters. I prefer observing wildlife to shooting at it.

But when it comes to describing the flight of a caracara, knowing why side oats grama is good and guinea grass is bad, and appreciating the subtle beauty of the South Texas brush country, we are equals in our passion.

We both recognize that it is in the best interest of Texas and Texans to care about land, water and wildlife — especially in the current climate of budget cuts and an administration that has been less than enthusiastic when it comes to environmental matters.

In the long run, Congress and the Legislature are not the places to seek answers. If you own it, it’s yours to take care of, no matter how big or how small the parcel of land.

The responsibility of stewardship goes hand in glove with property rights. Cooperation trumps confrontation — especially when the natural world we all live in is at stake.

To pull it all off also will take a leader much like Lady Bird Johnson, who helped beautify America with wildflowers.

Are you listening, Mrs. Bass?

[Fort Worth Star-Telegram]


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Pom-pom and Circumstance

February 2003 coverJudith Zaffirini — Pom-pom and Circumstance

Texas Monthly
BY JUDITH ZAFFIRINI
AS TOLD TO JOE NICK PATOSKI
February 2003

Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. What did I learn from cheerleading? How to lead and how to foller.

I FIRST REALIZED HOW BEING a cheerleader could help you in politics when I became a candidate for the state Senate in 1986. I remember going to a high school out of town, not in Laredo, during the campaign. They invited me to go to a pep rally right before the football game. I had already checked out the football schedule. Every time I went to a high school, I knew the mascot, I knew the colors, I knew their scores, I knew the record for their football team. I knew the details, just like I know about the rainfall when I visit another county, because farmers and other people in agriculture will ask questions such as “How much has it rained in Laredo?” I always have the answer.

During the pep rally, someone turned and asked if I wanted to say a few words. I walked the entire length of the gym to get to the microphone, and Dennis Longoria, a family friend and volunteer who was traveling with me, wanted to die. He said, “Oh, no!” All he could think of was that the cheerleaders had just had the pep contest between the classes to see who could yell the loudest, then had formed a human pyramid with layers of people standing on each other’s shoulders, and now I was going to talk about economic development and tort reform and all those issues I’d been talking about, and they were going to boo me. Dennis said that was the longest walk he ever saw me take. And I walked up to the microphone and said, “Are we going to beat the Bulldogs?”

I really helped rev up the audience. They were stunned. They didn’t expect that from me. To this day, when I visit high schools, if I’m invited to a pep rally, I know what to do: ask questions, involve the audience. And don’t get up and talk about yourself and get serious. Be able to go with the flow. Create an appropriate atmosphere. Focus not so much on myself and what I want to say and do but on them and what they need to hear. That’s what cheerleading teaches you.

George W. Bush, Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison—they were all cheerleaders, and they are all very effective with an audience. As cheerleaders, they learned how to work with a crowd. It’s important to bond with an audience and to help the audience come together as a unit. At this point in their careers, they don’t need to rev up a crowd too often. Cheerleading is particularly an asset for first-time candidates. It gives you the ability to understand audience psychology and know how to respond to an audience yet help unite them. I wish Tony Sanchez had been a cheerleader in high school. He would have known how to rev up the troops from the beginning. Instead, he had to master that art along the way.

Part of leadership is knowing when to lead and knowing when to follow, and cheerleading teaches you that. The best leaders have that skill. I saw it in George Bush. After Bush’s election in 1994, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock asked me to talk to the governor about welfare reform. I said to Bush, “I’m the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. I have passed welfare legislation and have a bill for this session, but Bullock asked me to meet with you and to ask you what your bill does and who will carry it for you.”

Bush looked at me and said, “Senator, your bill is my bill.”

I smiled. “Governor, we’re going to get along just fine.”

The image of cheerleaders as shallow couldn’t be further from the truth. So many leadership skills are involved: not only bringing the audience together but also sharing enthusiasm with them and motivating them to be enthusiastic too. I really believe cheerleading develops leadership and develops understanding of other people. It builds character in so many ways. One of the opportunities cheerleading offers is learning to handle victory and defeat with grace and dignity. That’s important in politics too. I vividly remember using that lesson the night of the runoff in my first race for the Senate. I was at my headquarters telling everyone, before the election results came in, that whether we won or we lost, we would act the same way. That if we won, we would not gloat, and if we lost, we would not cry, and we would handle it—using those words—”with the same grace and dignity.” And then someone said that my opponent was on the phone to concede, and everybody went, “Yaaaay!” and started just being very ugly. I tried to calm everyone down and said, “I’m not going to pick up the receiver until everybody is totally quiet. Let’s thank him, and let’s be very dignified about it.”

In 1959 I went to Ursuline Academy, an all-girls school, and tried out to be a freshman cheerleader for St. Joseph’s Academy, the all-boys school. The cheerleaders were selected after tryouts and elections. Whoever went to the tryouts got to vote. Since we were freshmen, it wasn’t exactly a popularity contest, because no one was known. The sophomores, juniors, and seniors certainly didn’t know the incoming freshmen. The election was held during the summer before the academic year, so we hadn’t met anybody. I can tell you the exact cheer:

Chickalacka chickalacka, chow chow chow
Boomalacka boomalacka, bow wow wow
Chickalacka boomalacka, who are we?
St. Joe’s Antlers, yessiree!

My sister Celita was already a sophomore cheerleader at Ursuline. After my election, one girl who was a sophomore yelled, “Ya llegaron Las Papitas“—”The Little Potatoes have arrived.” Our maiden name was Pappas. It’s a Greek name. In Laredo many people think it’s Papas—Spanish for “potatoes.” So we were called Las Papitas in high school, “the Little Potatoes.” My sister was and is very popular. Certainly that helped me. I wanted to be very much like her. She was a role model. I learned to read at the age of three because she knew how to read. She was five. That’s my first memory of childhood: learning to read.

We had friends who were cheerleaders at other high schools. They were our role models too. A dear friend of mine who died recently, Nora Montemayor, was a cheerleader at Martin High School, the only public high school in town. (Now we have seven.) She was a friend of my oldest sister. Nora and her twin, Dora, were just darling, very energetic and popular. Certainly they impacted us.

We didn’t have women role models. I never thought of going to college until I was a senior in high school. I don’t recall anyone urging me to go to college. My mother encouraged all four of her daughters to be prepared to fight our own battles. She encouraged us to be well mannered, to be bilingual, to speak English with an American accent and Spanish with a Mexican accent, and not to be pocho—you know, Tex-Mex—and she encouraged all of us to learn how to type. So I type very, very well, very quickly. She wanted us to be prepared. If we married and our husbands got sick or died, we would be prepared to work. She wanted us to be prepared to be secretaries, as she was a secretary. She wanted us to be prepared to cope.

When I was in high school, from 1959 to 1963, cheerleading was the closest thing to sports for a girl. At Ursuline Academy, we didn’t even have intramural activities, only P.E. classes. Many years later, I was the director of communications and Title IX coordinator at Laredo Junior College, and I wondered how many cheerleaders from my era would have been athletes if we had had the opportunities girls have today.

Today, cheerleading is a sport that requires athletic prowess. They’re gymnasts. When I was a cheerleader, it was different. We practiced—we had so many practices. We had to learn cheers, timing, and how to synchronize our moves. We learned self-sufficiency, discipline, teamwork, and leadership. We didn’t have advisers. We didn’t go to cheerleader school. We did it ourselves.

Judith Zaffirini, 57, has served in the Texas Senate since 1987. She lives in Laredo.


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Up Close and Texan

Los Angeles TimesUp Close and Texan

The Los Angeles Times
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 30, 2004

Visitors for the big ‘fooba’ game have their own ways. So listen up, all y’all.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the sudden appearance of 40,000 or so strange-looking tourists in Pasadena and nearby environs – the ones in burnt-orange golf outfits with big hats and big hair that block your views of the San Gabriels.

If you’ve leaned in close trying to decipher the language they’re speaking, you might have overheard phrases like “fooba” or “purtier’n Tyler.” And if you’ve followed them, you’ve noticed how they get excited about the prospect of horses clopping down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day and go gaga about the Gap in Old Town Pasadena because it’s nothing like the Gap back home.

These visitors are called Texans, a breed apart from the usual out-of-towners from the Midwest who typically materialize around this time of year. But this particular group is hardly composed of your run-of-the-mill, boot-scooting, Wrangler-wearing, pickup-driving, yee-hawing Texans. Rather, they are devotees of the Longhorns of the University of Texas (a.k.a. “The University”) in a state where the only two sports that matter are football and spring football.

We Texans are by nature an exuberant, friendly and sometimes obnoxious lot. But this bunch is really over the top. Forgive them their arrogance (at least that which is not inherent), because they’ve never been to the Rose Bowl before and it’s been a long, long time since they’ve been to any big bowl game.

Like all Texans, they speak with a pronounced accent that is sometimes hard to understand, a point driven home a few weeks ago at a bookstore in Michigan where I was searching for a copy of Life magazine.

“Laugh magazine?” the clerk said, shooting a funny look. “Never heard of it.”

You might think you’re hearing “techsuhsfaht” repeatedly, but that’s really “Texas fight” with a severe drawl.

You will also notice their tendency to blurt out “Hook ’em!” and make odd little waving gestures whenever they encounter a fellow tourist.This arthritic expression of raised index and little fingers, with the middle and ring fingers held down with the thumb, is not a gang sign nor a heavy-metal rock-on signal. This is an affectionate shadow-puppet version of a Longhorn, the UT mascot, summoned to demonstrate faith that UT will gore the University of Michigan’s Wolverines on Saturday.

If they suddenly turn somber, as if they’re having a patriotic moment, it is advisable to give them plenty of space. The school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” is a celebration of paranoia. Of course, you’d be paranoid too if you went around singing, “Do not think you can escape them/ Rise up so early in the morn/ The Eyes of Texas are upon you/ Till Gabriel blows his horn.”

Although more than a few of these UT boosters are in the oil and gas “bidness,” which plays to the old Texas stereotype, many of the really serious fat cats reflect modern Texas’ diversity. Their numbers include a character who is really named Jim Bob, who owns the world’s biggest gold mine; the Dallas takeover artist who made George W. Bush a millionaire by paying him too much for his baseball team; a car dealer whose real name is Billy Joe but prefers to be called Red, who also happens to own an NFL team on the side; and the Houston lawyer who beat Pennzoil out of more than $1 billion in a lawsuit and has since spent so much of that loot on his alma mater that university officials have erected not one, but two statues in his likeness on campus. If you run into any of the above, there may be some benefit in placating them, like a really big tip.

To avoid offending the visitors, it’s best to avoid addressing them as “you guys.” Always refer to them as “y’all” except when referring to a group of them, when the proper reference is “all y’all.” When in doubt, just give a knowing wink and smile and say, “yewbet.”

Under no circumstances try to pander by suggesting the visitors sample the local Mexican food or barbecue – the California versions just don’t cut it with this crowd and never will, no matter how much sour cream and avocado you pile on. As far as Texas fans are concerned, California is all bean sprouts and tofu anyway. Better to offer a really big steak. A side of beef is hard to mess up.

And don’t talk politics or energy price gouging. If you must bring up a famous W. from Texas, better to discuss Willie (as in Nelson) than the president. The latter is embraced as a native son (even though he is in fact an Eastern blueblood born in Connecticut) mainly because he says “noo-cul-lar.”

Which is another great thing about Texans. Anyone can be one. Declaring yourself a Texan is all the roots you’ll ever need. It’s like the popular bumper sticker says: “I Wasn’t Born in Texas but I Got Here as Fast as I Could.”

And if Texcess seems a tad overbearing, remember, it could be Texas A&M playing in the Rose Bowl instead. The University of Texas is in Austin, a blue island in a red-state sea that is frequently described by the rest of Texas as the People’s Republic of Austin.

Aggies, by comparison, are the Lone Star bund, partial to military uniforms, knee-high leather boots and severe buzz cuts. Their “traditions” include spending the whole football game standing up with their hands on their knees, as if straining at stool. Fortunately, for UT fans and Californians alike, the Longhorns regularly whip the Aggies in football.

So all y’all make the best of this weekend. It could be worse. Honest.

[The Los Angeles Times]


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It’s a Texas Thang

It’s a Texas Thang – Or Is It?

The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 3, 2004

It was on a trip to my mother’s native country of Greece that I realized there really is such a thing as Texas culture. My cousin had just introduced me to a teenage boy on a bicycle. He asked where I was from. As was my habit, I told him I was a Texan.

His face lit up with recognition.

“Texas? Ah, yes!” he said in broken, thickly accented English. “Cowboys! Kennedy! Bang bang!”

He hadn’t gotten it exactly right (or so I thought at the time; these days I’m not so sure), but at least he had an image in his mind.

Telling him I was from Iowa wouldn’t have sparked a visual in his head. New York, maybe, but only if I was talking about the city, not the state. California might have triggered some form of recognition. But any Californian would know which California to specify—northern or southern—from the git-go. The two regions are very different from one another, as any northern or southern Californian will tell you.

Texans, on the other hand, think of themselves as pretty much one and the same, no matter if they’re born-again rednecks or flaming secular humanist libs, city folks or country folks, if they live in downtown Houston or suburban Plano, or come from Dalhart on the treeless Great Plains or from the Rio Grande Valley, 700 miles south on the edge of the tropics. For all those people from all those disparate places to think of themselves as a whole, some kind of culture has to exist.

Texas culture has been the conceit that’s driven much of my writing career over the past four decades. I staked my point of view to the belief that Texas was a place unto itself, and that if I treated it as its own country, there was more than plenty to write about. New York or Los Angeles would no longer be necessary. Besides, “Texas writer” sounded a whole lot more respectable than “minor regional writer.” I found the subject matter I was looking for in music, the finest of all the fine arts in Texas, where regionalism flourished in the sounds of Texas country, Texas rock and roll, Texas blues, Tejano, conjunto, and Texas jazz. Two artists in particular, Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, proved consistent fodder since they shared the belief that you could do your art in Texas, carve out a comfortable existence, and still Be Somebody on the national stage. It worked for them and it’s worked for thousands of others since. I took to heart the observation of the accordionist Ponty Bone: Texas was an isolated pocket of good taste.

Over time I came to discover Texas culture expressed in the literature of McMurtry and Graves, the films of Horton Foote and Robert Rodriguez, sports (Dallas Cowboys, Texas Longhorns, Texas Aggies), food (you name it), and couture (hats, buckles, etc.). Besides Texas music in its various forms, I championed the three basic Texas food groups (BBQ, chicken-fried steak, and Tex-Mex), indigenous folkways such as rodeo, the Hidy sign, Big Red, Dublin Dr Pepper, dancehalls, jeans, and handmade boots—the icons that make us stand out from everybody else.

Lately though, I’ve been asking if there really is a Texas culture left. Did Wal-Mart culture subsume it and I just missed it in the papers? Or has Texas always been an amusing caricature to distract us from the reality that Texas is always and forever the minor leagues, a cute, charming, somewhat blustery place to stop that will never be confused for the Big Show? Marketing people love talking about branding concepts, people, and material goods. Well, Texans may have invented the branding iron, but it is that very marketing mentality that threatens to dilute those characteristics that make us Texan and create the dynamic of Texas culture. To which I say: Don’t fence me in.

Geopolitics has a lot to do with this reassessment. Our president has jingofied Texas to the point that anyone else flaunting anything remotely smacking of Texan is subject to acts of overt revulsion as much as they’re likely to elicit a smile or a hug. When I travel out of the country, I don’t take my boots with me anymore.

It’s weird to admit that, since I bought into Texas culture from my very first taste of barbecue at the age of two. But it may be true. Twenty years ago, more blue jeans were manufactured in El Paso than any city in the world. Today, no one makes jeans in El Paso (or San Antonio, for that matter). Kids don’t wear ’em much either. Joe Peters, whose family has been selling cowboy hats to the rich and famous for more than 75 years in Fort Worth, complains hats are out of style. Where’s the next McMurtry or Graves? Just what are those tepid box office receipts for the second filming of The Alamo trying to tell us?

Or, Texas culture may have morphed into something else, judging from the month of programming the Trio cable television network dedicated to the state last summer. “Texas, America Supersized” month featured a nice concert in California starring Willie and his heavy friends and several airings of Slacker, which defines modern alt.Texas culture. Three documentaries focusing on Texans and guns, obesity, and the unique way we mix bidness and politics pretty much nailed the modern version of the culture. The bidness/politics doc was from Germany. The other two were British. In their eyes, we’re a little scary, somewhat reactionary, and a tad crazy from the heat. But no matter how harsh the point of view may be, we still manage to come off radiating just enough charm to win them over. Sound familiar?

The documentaries viewed Texas as neither unique nor distinct but rather as the anti-California. The Texas wildcatter, the oil millionaire driving the big Cadillac, smoking the biggest cigars, and throwing around $100 bills is gone. He has been replaced by the fattest, least literate, dirtiest-dealing, back-slapping, Halliburton-whoring corporate citizen in these United States. Hell, we’re not even Mississippi with good roads anymore. Mississippi’s highways have been upgraded while we’re busy talking toll roads.

Which begs the question: Is Texas still Texas anymore? Or is it all hat, no cattle? Real cowboys are nigh impossible to find these days. As Alpine rancher Tom Beard told me a few years back, most so-called cowboys would prefer to admire themselves in the mirror than put in a hard day’s work. Then again, ranchers aren’t what they used to be either. Robert Halpern, the editor of the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, told me locals speak in code when they define people as either ranchers or ranch owners. It’s a nice way of acknowledging ranch owners aren’t real ranchers. (Note to the White House press corps: Before the Bushes bought land in Crawford in 1999, the “ranch” was referred to by locals as the Englebrecht hog farm.)

There’s a conspiracy at work here. Blame it on interstate highways that have linked the nation together and made everywhere look like everywhere else, immigrants from elsewhere who bring their ways with them—not so much the Nigerians, Nicaraguans, or Oaxacans, but the New Yorkers and Angelenos—clone restaurants, big box stores, and electronic media. Country music is no longer about music from the country or for country folks; it’s the pop music of the suburbs of America, lite rock in disguise. Valley Girl-speak is the lengua de preferencia in the Woodlands and Frisco, same as it is in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Wal-Mart is bigger than Texas even.

Worse, what little distinctive culture that’s left has been pimped and whored to the point it isn’t really Texan-ness that’s being projected. Note to all y’all: Some of us may still say warsh instead of wash even when we know better, but no one I know, even the last Bubba on earth, says noo-cu-lar like our President does.

Heck, even Texas music has been compromised. For all the good the Dixie Chicks and Lloyd Maines have wrought, I’m wary of Pat Green, who pulls in crowds bigger than Willie by serving up a watered-down version of what Texas music once sounded like. No fool, Green built his career on injecting the word “Texas” into as many songs as he could write when he was a young pup striving to become the next Robert Earl Keen. He has matured considerably and has uncanny business sense. But if you take his artistry at face value, say on his recent single “Wave On”—an exceptionally well-constructed song that calls up images of water and the beach and if nothing else, the lake—it has no sense of place, in a Texas kind of way. At least Charlie Robison has the good sense of name-dropping the Dallas Cowboy transvestite bar in Nuevo Laredo’s Boystown, where most of the pretty waitresses have Adam’s apples. A real Texan understands these things without having to make a big deal out of it.

A similar debate is stirring up a stew in culinary circles. Board members and supporters of the Hill Country Food and Wine Fair are questioning whether affiliation with Saveur magazine and national food celebs has been beneficial or deleterious to showing the best of Texas foods and wines. If they think New Yorkers’ embrace of barbecue is off the mark, they should’ve been around when Hollywood discovered Gilley’s back in the 1970s.

So just when I’m ready to kiss it all off and start buying jeans at the Gap, my neighbors tell me about the foreign exchange student from Germany who came to live with them this summer. Wolfgang stepped off the plane wearing a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt. He got to suit up and practice with the local 3A high school football team. He bought a Seal of the State of Texas belt buckle. Before he left, he was fantasizing about buying his very own Dodge Ram pickup even though he admitted, “My countrymen would not understand.”

No, they wouldn’t. But while Wolfie’s vision may be as skewed as that Greek boy all those years ago, he gives me hope. I can relate to his fantasy vision of Texas because in isolated pockets of good taste, that vision is more than just a fantasy. Yewbet, Texas culture still exists. I’m betting the ranchette on it too.

[The Texas Observer] [Joe Nick’s Blog for It’s a Texas Thang – Or Is It?]


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Whitetail Deer

Paging Dr. Frankendeer

Field & Stream
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 30, 2005

A controversy over cloned deer erupts in Texas.

Brutus, a 6-month-old spindly-legged whitetail with two nubs already rising on his forehead, is roaming with five other fawns around several high-fenced acres protected from the outside world by black shade cloth. He and his pals are one of several herds confined to pens scattered around the grounds of Revolution Whitetails, a scientific deer-breeding ranch located 30 miles east of Dallas. Brutus has a dewy-eyed innocence that isn’t surprising considering that he’s been bottle-fed and pampered by Dr. Tim Holt, an equine veterinarian who owns the ranch. That also explains the animal’s fearlessness as he approaches Holt, whose familiar white pickup and lean frame adorned in a blue veterinarian’s scrub shirt and Wranglers usually signal feeding time.

Brutus and the other whitetails grazing around this idyllic woodland prairie are clonesÑliving, breathing examples of a new and controversial chapter in wildlife science. Depending on which side of the philosophical fence one stands, cloned whitetail deer are either the latest innovation in breeding technologyÑpushing the envelope of antler sizesÑor they’re FrankendeerÑscary examples of the domestication of game into livestock and the ultimate insult to fair-chase ethics.

Revolution Whitetails is the first and only private enterprise licensed by the state of Texas to clone deer for commercial gain. The company holds the patent on the process, which is based on research conducted by one of Holt’s partners, Mark Westhusin, an associate professor at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where Dewey, the world’s first whitetail clone, came into being in November 2003. Brutus and about 30 other deer were conceived by replicating fibroblast cells (the basic building blocks of connective tissue) taken from skin samples of bucks with superior genes and implanting that DNA into a host doe’s ovaries. The procedure is complex and expensiveÑabout $75,000 to $100,000 per clone. Still, Brutus looks the same, flicks his tail the same, and acts the same as his counterparts in the wild.

The idea of cloning wild animals upsets many people, but Holt doesn’t think it’s such a big deal when viewed in the context of animal husbandry. "The Texas Deer Association [which represents about 600 breeding-permit holders] was totally against cloning when they first heard about us," Holt says. "They formed an ethics committee to discuss if they were going to allow me to do it. Now they’ve changed their position. All it takes is for one of their big bucks to have an untimely death, because we can preserve those qualities through DNA and re-create the animal."

Still, he understands some of the initial reactions, which he believes were based on a lack of knowledge about how the science of cloning works. "People were against artificial insemination when it first started," he says. "But we’re not in the experimental phase anymore. We’ve done it. We’re in the commercial phase now, which makes people nervous because I’ve got the best genetics in the state." And when it comes to trophy whitetails, genetics are everything.

Big Bucks
Plenty of hunters are willing to pay serious money for a chance at supersize whitetail bucks, and that excessive trophy lust fuels the economics of cloning and, for some, its rationale. Look no further than the $450,000 a syndicate paid for Dreambuck, a scientifically bred whitetail that may be the biggest deer in Texas, with antlers measuring 3013/8 inches. Sales of its semen, which will be used to breed more giant bucks, have already paid off handsomely for investors. Bigger deer mean more money for landowners, outfitters, and retailers associated with a state hunting economy that is the nation’s wealthiest, a $3.6 billion industry. So why not clone deer? It’s not illegal. Yet.

Bob Brown, Ph.D., the head of Texas A&M’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Science and vice president of the Wildlife Society, views cloning as unnatural. "I don’t think my faculty could’ve been more upset if they’d cloned a human," Brown says. "I haven’t talked to anyone who wasn’t appalled that wildlife is being treated as livestock. They’re catching does and inseminating them with semen." The result, he says, is "a cloned animal that has been bred and fed and conditioned to come to the feeder. That’s not wildlife."

Gene Riser, a Texas A&M alumnus who runs a scientific breeding operation on his ranch in the South Texas Brush Country and is a founding member of the Texas Deer Association, agrees with Brown that artificially bred deer are the same as livestock, but he argues that deer produced in such breeding operations are privately owned herds that belong to the landowner. He contends that since these animals are not the property of the people of Texas, as all wildlife in the state is designated, the landowner can do anything he wishes to do with them. Riser doesn’t mince words when it comes to the broader implications of cloning.

"I don’t give a s— about fair chase," he says. "When I go hunting, I want to kill something. We all have different attitudesÑhow we go about the hunt and how complicated we make it. Some want to make it hard and use muzzleloaders or bows. As far as making rules for other people about fair chaseÑoh, come on."

On the other side of the debate, the Texas Wildlife Association, which represents private landowners, is so adamant about the negative effects of cloning whitetails that it is lobbying the Texas Legislature to prohibit any cloning of wildlife except in cases involving endangered species.

"I worry that we’re moving toward buying shrink-wrapped antlers from Sammy the Superdeer at the Wal-Mart," says the organization’s executive vice president, Kirby Brown. His predecessor, David K. Langford, who is a seventh-generation Texas rancher and deer hunter, takes a wider view: "The more that artificiality is introduced to hunting, the more the experience is diminished. It’s not much of a leap from cloning to just forgetting all about the heritage of hunting." Both men fear that the process will generate an anti-hunting backlash.

That kind of skepticism prompted Boone and Crockett officials to put cloned deer in the same category as pen-raised deerÑunfit for trophy status.

"Cloning is a step too far," says Jack Ward Thomas, the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana. "A trophy is a symbol, a memory of something achieved. Here’s an animal that’s lived long enough and survived long enough to be a trophy. B&C started the scoring system to honor the trophy. Where’s the honor when you’ve manipulated the genetics, diet, and age?" Thomas, a director emeritus of the U.S. Forest Service, understands that not everyone lives by that code. "Texas is a whole other place," he says. "It’s an entirely different culture with a different attitude toward hunting and wildlife." He should know: He’s also a Texas A&M graduate.

Stacking the Gene Pool
The discovery of a sick and dying trophy buck last November on the grounds of Camp Bullis, a U.S. military reservation near San Antonio, has added an element of intrigue to the cloning saga. That monster buck had antlers measuring 2713/8 B&C points, which is the third highest ever seen in Texas. A skin sample was obtained and forwarded to Revolution Whitetails, where its genetic material has been stored.

"I have samples of genetics of the best deer in Texas," Holt says. "I feel like the next world-record deer is going to be taken. The sights have been lifted so high that we’re shooting for a 300-point deer. If I’m able to provide people the opportunity to shoot a big buck, then that keeps the economy going. Next year we want to raise public awareness about what to do when a large animal is harvested."

Holt believes cloning whitetails is just another chapter in the ongoing evolution of animal domestication. "Horses, cattle, and dogs were all wild at one time," he says. "We’re not doing anything different that hasn’t been done to other species." Those other species, of course, are not game animals.

Perhaps the day isn’t far off when mounted heads will bear tags identifying them as wild or farm-raised, much like organic products and wild seafood are labeled in supermarkets. Whatever the implications of cloning might be, the revolution has already started in Texas. Its impact on hunters and hunting remains to be seen.

[Field&Stream, Article URL: http://www.fieldandstream.com/fieldstream/columnists/article/0,13199,1056389,00.html]


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Far Out Far West Texas

Far Out Far West Texas

The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 16, 2005

Mythic Texas gives way to Montana chic.

When the bumpy dirt road to this Far West Texas ghost town was coated with asphalt four years ago, Terlingua became convenient. Its days as a sleepy, unpretentious, off-the-beaten-path reinvented mining town were over. All along Farm to Market Road 170, the main drag of the greater Study Butte-Terlingua Microplex, just west of Big Bend National Park, there are signs of the change. Some are overt, such as the For Sale signs advertising West Texas Realty that seem to have popped up all over like mushrooms after a rain. Others are subtler, like the opening of La Posada Milagro, the new four-room rustic luxury lodge with high-speed Internet access and massage, yoga, and chi gong services. Up the road around Lajitas, fake historical markers signal a resort called the Ultimate Hideout that used political clout to reroute the state highway around its property to make it seem more exclusive.

I’d predicted Terlingua’s fate to one of the town’s residents, Betty Moore. Last August, while we were sitting inside Desert Sports, the recreational outfitter in Terlingua where Betty works part-time, she reminded me of what I’d said. Betty and I were playing a parlor game enjoyed around the Trans-Pecos, Big Bend region–that wide swath of mythic Texas between Fort Stockton and El Paso extending south of Interstate 10 to the Rio Grande: Where was the next best place? Rating a town’s buzzworthiness was an amusing way to compare notes and bullshit away some of a blistering hot afternoon. In a way, though, it’s becoming a serious subject, especially if you’re a homeowner, a prospective homeowner or second homebuyer, a realtor, speculator, hustler or seeker of All Things Cool.

Downtown Marfa

The starting point of the game is always Marfa (pop. 2,424). The county seat of Presidio County has been under the microscope as an unexpected international art destination ever since the late minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to town in the early 1970s and began buying up vacant houses and buildings and ultimately, the old Army camp, which is now the Chinati Foundation, a world-class destination for fine art pilgrims. But it isn’t just Marfa that is hot and haute anymore. Folks who can spot a trend before the masses catch on are moving in all over Far West Texas. And if real-estate prices in Terlingua are climbing, almost any wide spot in the road with enough dwellings to call itself a town is fair game.

The same forces that have brought a cultural and economic sea change to the state of Montana over the past quarter century are at work in Far West Texas, mainly because massive chunks of land can be purchased by people of means who are looking for a refuge from the real world. That became evident last spring when Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who founded Amazon.com, bought 239,000 acres of barren ranchland in Culberson County in the flats north of Van Horn with the aim of building a private spaceport. The build-out of the Blue Origin aerospace testing and operations site on the old Corn Ranch at the foot of the Guadalupes is expected to take five years. Rockets firing from the desert floor will fit right in with the blimp refueling station at the Van Horn airport, and the tethered border control balloon farther east on Highway 90.

Montana’s makeover also started with high flyers–like Ted Turner, David Letterman, Tom Brokaw, and Jeff Bridges–who could afford huge pieces of acreage and the luxury of flying to their high country retreats for the weekend. They’ve since been joined by legions of CEOs and the crème de la crème of the creative class, who are goosing land prices out of the reach of working cattle operations, thereby completing Montana’s transformation from authentic western to mythic western.

Far West Texas has many Montana-like attributes, particularly mountains (albeit in the desert), giant ranches (tens of thousands of acres were requisite to support livestock operations in such an arid region), few people (less than 30,000 folks scattered over five counties larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island), and easy access to the outdoors. Like Montana, Far West Texas is in reasonably close proximity to massive amounts of public lands. More than a million acres-worth of national park, state park, and wildlife management areas sprawl across south Brewster and Presidio counties in a state that is 95 percent privately owned.

Nowhere else in Texas is a string of small towns several hundred miles from big cities and airports actually gaining population. Most of the new residents are folks who move by choice, rather than necessity–for the wide open spaces, big sky, starlit nights, clean air, and for the things Far West Texas lacks, such as Wal-Marts, Starbucks, malls, and big-box stores. Even better, Far West Texas has its share of weirdness to accommodate the quirks and eccentricities of the rich and famous.

Betty Moore–who moved to Terlingua 25 years ahead of the curve, blowing off a sweet publishing gig in Austin to be a part-time river guide, part-time peregrine falcon researcher, part-time secretary, waitress, landlady, and book buyer–all means to allow her to explore every part of the desert worth exploring–offered her opinion about what still undiscovered town was prime to become cool.

“I think it’s going to be Sanderson,” she mused with her usual beatific smile. “There are some great old houses and buildings there. Adobes, too”

I agreed the whole region was undergoing a rapid makeover, but there were limits, and as far as I was concerned, Sanderson was over the line. Nope. No way.

I pointed out to Betty that no matter how appealing the housing stock and prices might be, Sanderson was surrounded by low canyons, not desert mountains. It was on the way to the Big Bend, not in the Big Bend. Our mutual friend Terry Tex Toler, who headed the Terrell County Economic Development Corporation long enough to have Sanderson officially designated as The Cactus Capital of Texas, had closed down his Savage Guest House in 2005 due to lack of business. The town just wasn’t ready to join the pantheon of Marfa, Marathon, Fort Davis, Alpine, and Terlingua as far out Far West Texas towns. If there was a next best place, my bet was on another town abandoned by the railroad in the flats between the Sierra Vieja and the Davis Mountains.

“Valentine is next,” I told Betty Moore with all sincerity.

The town of 200 may lack a gas station or any kind of store other than the post office, but it sure has cachet. I cited the Prada Marfa adobe art sculpture on Highway 90 near Valentine. It’s a full-scale reproduction of a retail outlet of the trendy minimalist Prada fashion line that was installed in October, causing quite the sensation. Within days, “Dum Dum” and “Dumb” had been spray-painted on the exterior and 14 shoes, all right foot, and six purses were stolen from the display window. The acts of vandalism may or may not have been committed by the artists themselves on their way back to the El Paso airport. Even if that wasn’t true, it made for a good story, which is an important element of life in this part of the state where people love to talk as much as they love to listen, and storytelling remains very much part of the cultural fabric.

Betty wasn’t buying. No way was Valentine about to get hot, she swore.

Prada Marfa art installation Prada Marfa art vandalized

Maybe the media will give Valentine a boost. After all, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, The New York Times (three times in one month), Salon.com, and Art in America have all taken note of Far West Texas and Marfa in particular over the past year. So has The Wall Street Journal, which profiled part-time Marfa resident Quality Quinn on the trials and tribulations of social obligations and charitable giving in one’s second hometown.

Discovery has evidently come with a price. The message out front of Carmen’s Cafe on Highway 90 in Marfa still reads “Tie Your Horse and Come on In,” but the restaurant has closed. The Borunda Cafe, a storied culinary institution in Far West Texas whose family recipes date back to 1887, is no longer owned by a Borunda. The real estate market in Marfa is so overheated the city government has imposed a building moratorium while planning and zoning rules are being rewritten.

Robert Halpern, editor of the Big Bend Sentinel, the weekly Marfa newspaper I occasionally contribute to, thinks Marfa is faring the buzz better than residents in neighboring towns, who derisively refer to the locals as Marfadites, would like to admit. “Folks moving to town are not doing anything outlandish,” he says. “The adobes being remodeled are being done in the vernacular. The architecture investment has been a positive. Many new additions have been positive,” he adds, citing Ballroom Marfa, the contemporary arts and culture space run by Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn; Maiya’s Restaurant, which does northern Italian cuisine; the revitalized El Paisano Hotel where the cast of the movie “Giant” once stayed; and the Pizza Foundation, named in honor of all the arts foundations in Marfa.

Robert and his wife, Rosario Salgado Halpern, the newspaper’s publisher, have a catbird’s seat for viewing the Marfa and Far West Texas transformation. He’s a native of Alpine. She’s a native of Presidio. And as the town paper of record, they’ve seen it all. Both have embraced most of the changes while keeping tabs on what is lost in the bargain. They were friends of Donald Judd, the one person most responsible for this whole New Montana/Far West Texas phenomenon, and they and their children are docents at the Chinati Foundation.

If the Halperns’ strategy is to embrace change, it may be because there’s no alternative. “How do you control it, or can you even control it? No one has a lock and key,” Robert says.

Still, you wonder if it was better before the word spread, back when Judd was alive and employed more workers than any single business in town while shunning the kind of buzz and attention currently swirling around Marfa. For all the seeds he planted–the Chinati Foundation, the Judd Foundation, which oversees much of the property he bought and filled with rare artworks, and those infernal WWDJD? bumperstickers–there’s a real sense that if Judd were still alive (he died in 1994), the last place on earth he’d want to be is in Marfa, as his son, Flavin, insisted to me a few years ago. He’d rather be at his ranch, where no one could find him. Whatever Judd started, though, can no longer be stopped.

“Far West Texas might well be the next Montana, but is that good?” asks Larry Francell. Francell is the director of the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, and a resident of Fort Davis, where he’s a County Commissioner. The land boom has swept up Highway 17 to Fort Davis, 21 miles north of Marfa. With a population of 1,050, the unincorporated county seat of Jeff Davis County is landlocked by the Fort Davis National Historic Site, the Davis Mountains State Park, and big ranches that dominate the Davis Mountains. Those conditions, along with the presence of the McDonald Observatory and a campaign to lock in conservation easements by the Texas Nature Conservancy, may jack up real estate prices, but they are precisely the kind of amenities that make Montana so appealing, and explain the loud outcry locally and statewide when John Poindexter–the owner of the Cibolo Creek Ranch resort down the road near Shafter–tried to purchase several thousand acres of the Big Bend Ranch State Park for $45 an acre.

Francell said he’d heard about a lot in Limpia Crossing, the only subdivision in the Davis Mountains between the town and the McDonald Observatory, originally priced at $7,000 that went for a quarter million recently. He knew for certain that the effective tax rate in the county has risen due to the flurry of construction. “There’s even two mini-mansions going up in town,” he says. “One of them is being built by a Marfadite. A lot of Outlanders are moving in and bringing real money, as opposed to the indigenous rich. But at this point, it’s subtle, like old age–you suddenly wake up and you’re old.”

The land rush extends east of Marfa along US Highway 90 through Alpine (pop. 6,079)–the county seat of Brewster County, home to Sul Ross State University, and the biggest town in the Trans-Pecos–all the way to Marathon (pop. 600). That bucolic gateway town to Big Bend National Park was a sleepy little ranching community not too long ago. These days, Marathon’s practically bursting at the seams, with four art galleries, several new shops and cafes, and a slew of second-home residences. J.P. Bryan, the man who brought modern upscale tourism to the Big Bend when he and his wife Mary began refurbishing the Gage Hotel in the early 1980s, has been eclipsed by Russ Tidwell, a lobbyist for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association who is working the tourism angle with his Chisos Gallery, the Captain Shepard’s Inn bed & breakfast, the Cottonwood Station barbecue restaurant, and the Adobe Hacienda Lodges, south of the railroad tracks. Since the Anglo part of Marathon north of the tracks has been pretty much bought up, properties on the Mexican side of town south of the tracks are going now too. You can tell which ones are Adobe Hacienda lodges by the BMWs and Lexuses parked out front.

The development boom extends 30 miles south of Marfa as well, to the aforementioned Cibolo Creek Ranch, three historic adobe forts refashioned into a rustic luxury resort where rooms go for $450 a night, but not to Presidio (pop. 4,167), the dusty border town whose great hope at the moment is a pork-barrel highway project called La Entrada al Pacifico that other towns in the Big Bend and Trans-Pecos are fighting. Once notorious as the Hot Spot of the Nation for its high summer temperatures, Presidio is too poor and too desperate to qualify as a Far Out town of Far West Texas.

On the other hand, Terlingua (pop. 100 or so; nobody knows for sure), 67 miles east of Presidio along the River Road–one of the most scenic drives in this part of the world–is most definitely a Far Out town, mainly due to the creative desert rats who came to reinhabit the adobe ruins of the old mining town or build their own off-the-grid dwellings, and its location near the western entrance of Big Bend National Park.

Cartoon by Gary Olliver Over the past decade, a reclusive billionaire named Brad Kelley has bought at least 20 ranches in Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties accumulating more than 400,000 acres–half the size of Big Bend National Park. Kelley, a self-made entrepreneur who made his fortune building up and then selling a discount tobacco company and owning horse-racing tracks including the storied Churchill Downs, is known as a conservationist who raises rare black and white rhinos, gazelles, wildebeest, and pygmy hippos on land he owns in Florida. He is interested in introducing rare desert species on his ranches in Far West Texas.

“There have been a lot of success stories about bison, wild turkey, and other creatures being brought back from the brink,” Kelly recently told the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune from his home near Franklin, Ky. “We want to use our space to cooperate with these sort of efforts.”

Kelley and Amazon’s Bezos are hardly the first high rollers to move in. Long before they showed up, there were lavish spreads tucked back in the mountains, like the Sibley castle in the Glass Mountains north of Marathon, and Don McIvor’s Scottish castle in the Davis Mountains. The late industrialist Justin Dart, who spearheaded passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, kept a place near Blue Mountain outside of Fort Davis.

Jeff Fort, founder of Tyco Industries and part-time Marfadite, has rehabbed and reopened the Chinati Hot Springs in the desert west of Presidio. Houston attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Tim Crowley have bought up choice properties in and around Marfa. Hamilton Fish, president of the Board of Trustees of the Nation Institute, has a second residence in town. When Ed Albee is signing books at the local bookstore, Laura Wilson is showing photographs in a local gallery, playwright Wallace Shawn is staging plays in a local theatre, and John Waters is doing a local speaking engagement, there’s a sense that if you haven’t bought in yet, you’re way too late.

Carla McFarland, a former Dallasite who bought the Holland Hotel–the historic Alpine hotel designed by Henry Trost, the great architect of the Southwest who also designed the Gage in Marathon and El Paisano in Marfa–insists that Alpine, which has experienced the Montana effect in its own way, is different.

“There’s a lot of people buying up stuff thinking it’s going to happen here,” she says. “Which fucks up your tax base and fucks up your people who’ve lived here all their lives. Instead of the tenfold increase in Marfa, the Carla Prediction is we’re going to see a 50 percent increase here in Alpine, maybe even a twofold or threefold increase in price. We’re OK. I don’t think it’s going to be as wild as Marfa, but there are some opportunities.”

This means a run on adobe, especially neglected, crumbling, and cheap-for-the-price adobe, which in Far Out West Texas translates to property south of the tracks–the historically Mexican part of town. All the good Marfa adobe may have been scooped up. Not so in Alpine, which, according to a Texas Historical Commission study, has an abundance of adobe structures exceeded only by El Paso. And as McFarland points out, “Who wants to live in El Paso?”

“My business partner looked at a crumbling adobe south of the tracks going for $42,000,” she says. “It was being sold by a guy who’d bought it last year for $32,000.”

The business partner, Andrew Nelson, is further evidence of the Montana effect in Far West Texas. Nelson is a writer for National Geographic Traveler magazine who moved to Alpine from San Francisco by choice after visiting while researching an article on rail travel. Two of Nelson’s friends–Tom Michael, an editor for Britannica.com, and Katherine Shaughnessy, a writer specializing in gracious living–stopped in while driving from Chicago to Savannah in search of a place to settle down and raise a family. Three weeks later, they bought a place in Alpine too. Michael is now the general manager of KRTS-FM, the National Public Radio station that will soon begin broadcasting to the region to complement KVLF-AM/KALP-FM in Alpine, the only commercial stations in the Trans-Pecos, and three low-power community stations.

Alpine remains relatively down to earth, where function trumps form, Carla McFarland contends. “Marfa people have to drive to Alpine to get their Prada dry-cleaned,” she says. “You can’t get a prescription filled in Marfa. If you’re having a heart attack, you have to come to Alpine for a defibrillator.”

But it is not without its airs. The annual Gallery Night weekend puts more people in the streets than any other community event. A brewpub has opened in the Holland Hotel. La Tapatia Cafe changed its name to La Trattoria to better reflect the Italian heritage of owner Allyson Santucci. And Sul Ross State University, which used to be famous for its rodeo teams, has added a Writer in Residence to the faculty. That writer, David Marion Wilkinson, who partnered with Alpine resident Joaquin Jackson on Jackson’s memoirs One Ranger, is sold on his new sense of place. “These people are more alive, and live with greater joy,” the former Austin resident says. “I feel like it’s a privilege to be among them.”

We’ve started to have conversations about what’s going to kill the fatted calf,” says Robert Halpern, musing over what the tipping point will be, if there is a tipping point. “Will it be the militarization of the border?” he wonders. “The Border Patrol used to be huts and temporary buildings. Now it’s these huge complexes. The Marfa airport is getting a $16 million upgrade in facilities for the Border Patrol and US Customs.” Rich folks don’t much cotton to building castles in militarized zones. Maybe La Entrada, the envisioned superhighway from Presidio to Midland will do the trick, bringing enough truck traffic, noise, and pollution to neutralize any sense of specialness.

Maybe the real cool places will just move farther off the map. Shafter, the mining ghost town between Presidio and Marfa is gussying up with fewer and fewer ruins for sale. Presidio could come into its own. If Ultimate Hideout owner Steve Smith drops another $100 million and doesn’t run out of water, perhaps he’ll actually realize his vision to make Lajitas another Palm Springs, although someone should break the news to him that while Los Angeles is a two-hour drive from Palm Springs, Midland is at least four hours from Lajitas. The villages of Ruidosa and Candelaria, where the pavement ends on FM 170, the River Road, are relatively undiscovered. And don’t forget Kent.

Despite all the stories I’d read and the complaints I’d heard, Far West Texas appears to be pretty great in the here and now, no matter what’s coming, or how it used to be. The unease under the surface, though is palpable. Where do all those rugged individualists who make the Trans Pecos and the Big Bend so appealing go when they sell out to the outsiders? Stockton? Odessa? El Paso? Valentine? Sanderson? And does the sense of place they’ve instilled go with them, leaving the newcomers with a movie set version of the real thing, just like Aspen, San Francisco, and Jackson, Wyoming, have become?

Some of the outsiders moving in are so obnoxious, they justify the endless gossip about them (e.g. Steve Smith of Lajitas). But others deserve praise. You’ve got to admit, a coffee shop that roasts its beans on premises like the Brown Recluse in Marfa would be a welcome asset to any community in which it was located. What makes Far West Texas one notch better is the Mexican abuela around the block from the Brown Recluse. As long as she continues to serve up giant breakfast burritos in the small dining room built onto the side of her house, the changes are welcome. But when the abuela can no longer afford to live in Marfa, whatever it is that makes Far West Texas so far out will be lost. In its wake will be the Texas version of the Hamptons, or a dry variation of Aspen, where the service workers have to be bussed in from 70 miles away because they can’t afford to live there any more.

Donald Judd learned that early on. These days, it’s easier to find a Gap in Soho, the downtown Manhattan neighborhood of warehouses and old skyscrapers that artists like him first began inhabiting in the early 1960s, than it is canvas and painting oils. Real artists can’t afford to live in Soho any more. Will real cowboys, ranch supplies, feed stores, and saddle shops suffer the same fate in Far West Texas?

Far West Texas is not for everyone. People come for the incredible scenery, breathtaking vistas, and rugged beauty. Some of them decide to stay. But many leave shortly afterwards due to the relative lack of goods, services, and modern conveniences, especially “when they figure they have to drive two hours to get anything,” as Alpine realtor Joy Parsons told me. Such was the celebrated case of Bridges of Madison County author Robert James Waller, who used his royalties to move from Ohio to a ranch near Alpine, and stayed some years before departing for a more civilized place outside Fredericksburg (at least he found his second wife in Far West Texas).

In early December, I stopped in Sanderson, the Cactus Capital of Texas, with a group of people that included my friend Betty Moore. The town was as empty as ever. But I began to see it the way Betty saw it. Buying a couple blocks of a real downtown including a vacant department store would be pretty cool, I thought to myself. Sanderson had a few things going for it, all right. Whether or not it was far out enough to qualify as a far out Far West Texas town was still a bone of contention, but at that particular moment, the hand-cut, skin-on French fries at Piruli’s, the only restaurant in town open after 2 p.m., were far out enough for my tastes.

Joe Nick Patoski loves to visit Far West Texas, but lives in the Hill Country village of Wimberley, which resembles certain far out towns in Far West Texas in more ways than he’d sometimes like to admit.

Hudspeth Hustlers (sidebar)

The good vibrations of Far Out West Texas seem to peter out by Van Horn (pop. 2,435) the Crossroads of the Texas Mountains Trail, 74 miles west of Marfa. Not that Van Horn doesn’t have some of the same qualities of its neighbors to the east: fairly stunning mountain scenery including the Guadalupe Mountains National Park a mere 63 miles away; the Jeff Bezos buy-in; the arrival of one of Texas’ oldest cattle ranching families, the D.M. O’Connor family of Victoria, who have purchased extensive property in the area; the visitor-friendly Red Rock Ranch; and the occasional John Madden visit to Chuy’s Restaurant to inspect the shrine built in his honor. The local economy here runs largely off Interstate 10 in the forms of truck stops, motels, cafes, and convenience stores. This also makes it a distribution point for illegal drugs.

The next county to the west is Hudspeth, where growth issues are of a particularly nefarious nature. The rugged basin and range landscape resembles the rest of Far West Texas. But the comparisons stop there. The county has a history of environmental exploitation mainly because few people (3,334 at last check, mostly in Sierra Blanca, Fort Hancock, and Dell City) live there.

Take Sierra Blanca (pop. 533), which sports the oldest adobe courthouse in Texas and the silver spike commemorating completion of the second transcontinental railroad across the United States, all within a stone’s throw of Interstate 10. The town is best known for the Poo Poo Choo Choo and the sludge ranch (see “Sued and Censored,” March 22, 1996) both thankfully out of business. Before that, Sierra Blanca was the proposed underground storage site for nuclear waste, an effort that was ultimately defeated by vocal resistance from leaders across Far West Texas (see “West Texas Waste Wars,” March 28, 1997). And before that, Hudspeth County was known for land sales advertised in the back of comic books and magazines and on late-night television commercials for as cheap as $5 a acre. Years were spent by county officials clearing the tangle of ownership claims, broken deeds, and delinquent taxes owed on these failed developments, but their scars are still etched in the desert sand, visible from the air when flying into El Paso International Airport, the marks of would-be streets and cul-de-sacs as mysterious as the Nazca lines in Peru.

“Unfortunately, the county has no power to require land-use regulations,” explains Hudspeth County Judge Becky Walker.

And so the land hustle continues, with the Internet being the medium these days.

In the northern part of the county on US Highway 62/180, a Florida condo guru named Jerry Wallace bought the town of Cornudas between the Salt Flats and the Hueco Mountains, which consisted largely of the Cornudas Cafe, in March 2005. He changed the name of the town to WallaceTown USA and launched an aggressive advertising campaign on the Internet, announcing to web-surfers that “The Dealmaker’s In Town” and ready to develop “Texas’ #1 Resort and Theme Park” by selling condominiums starting at $200,000, along with parcels of land. The centerpiece of the development is the theme park, an old west town with gunfights, cancan dancers, hayrides, and a parade down Main Street every day.

In the southern part of the county along Interstate 10, another Florida-based developer named Jack Giacalone has purchased several working ranches, subdivided the land into 20-acre increments, and renamed the spread Sunset Ranches. The land sells online for no money down and $135 a month to out-of-state buyers, many of whom buy the land sight unseen, oblivious to the absence of water or infrastructure. Making matters worse, Judge Walker says, is the participation of County Attorney Kit Bramblett, who has become an intermediary helping Giacalone purchase ranches.

“The Internet has made this thing go like wildfire,” Walker sighs.

The newly landed gentry are a sight to behold. “People come here to look at their property and don’t have a clue what they’ve bought,” says James Schilling, who sees them all the time because they stay at his Sierra Lodge Motel, a historic rock motor court near Interstate 10 in Sierra Blanca. “They’ve bought 20 acres but what are they going to do with it? You can’t put two jackrabbits on it. There’s no water. A water well will cost more than the land, if you’re lucky enough to hit water. Our whole thing out here is water. There is not enough. But what can you do? We are a county of 2,000 people. You think they give a shit about what we say?”

“Do you know it takes 80 acres to run a cow out here?” Judge Walker asks. “We’re a desert.”–JNP

see also

  • Texas Mountains In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas.
  • The Ultimate Big Bend Hike Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty. [Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine, Travel Feature]
  • Hangin’ Out With … Joe Nick Patoski interview in MyWestTexas.com

[The Texas Observer]


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