Texas is a big state, the biggest of the Lower 48, covering over a quarter million square miles. From the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the high plains of the north, the Chihuahua Desert in the west to the bayous in the east, Texas wears robes of discordant design. To the farthest west, beyond the Pecos River, is Trans Pecos Texas, the bent elbow of the state. Forming only a part of the whole of Texas, the Trans Pecos defies the basic laws of geometry, seemingly outsizing by itself the whole of Texas combined.
Most of Trans Pecos is unpopulated. Driving through these portions, one thinks of Douglas Adams’ fictional “Total Perspective Vortex”, a device into which vain souls are thrown as castigation for their sin of vanity. Inside Adams’ device, one is confronted with the unfathomable scale of the whole universe, its virtual infinity overwhelming the relatively miniscule sense of self. As with the fictitious Total Perspective Vortex, Trans Pecos encompasses incomprehensibly vast space. It at once both fills and is the void: empty yet palpable, at hand but unreachable, and above all else, overwhelming of the sense of self.
Physically, much of the space is unreachable because of the fences – runs of barbed wire with gates closed and locked – lining the roads everywhere. Typical is US 90, where on a 75 mile, hour-long drive from Van Horn to Marfa one encounters not a single road-side mile of un-fenced, un-gated space. The scrub land and distant mountains flow seamlessly from the distance to the nearby roadside in a unitary, uninterrupted landscape, but that space is profoundly, if somewhat metaphysically (and legally) held apart. The land beside the highway is not for the mere traveler, it is the province and property of wealthy ranch owners in the “Big Bend” region of the south and of mineral rights leaseholders in the “Permian Basin” region of the north. To commune with the land in Trans Pecos Texas is to trespass.
For those willing to transgress the law, though, no fence or gate is insurmountable, and with minimal agility anyone can squeeze between the wires or climb the gates. So in the end it is not the legalities of ownership that conspires against comprehension of the space of the Trans Pecos, but the scale of the whole of it that cannot be grasped. It is not quite the whole of the universe, but it might as well be, because the breadth of the scrub lands, the mountains, and the mountains and scrub lands beyond them, lacks an adequate frame of reference for comprehension. The forever-ness of the flat scrublands and the unmovable mass of the mountains rising from them do not seem to exist in any thing or any place. They exist in and of themselves. There is thus no vantage point from which a traveler can gain the necessary perspective to comprehend the place – there is no viewing stand separate and apart from the space to give the necessary perspective to consciously comprehend it.
Yet despite the failure of conscious comprehension – the inability to actively understand the place – an understanding can be found form the space itself. It is as if the space, rather than being empty, is instead composed of a weighty but invisible liquid that engulfs the traveler. The volume of space cannot be touched, but it most certainly can be felt, and it infuses in the traveler an inarticulable sense of the proportions of the vast Trans Pecos.
Dispersed through this vastness, like candied fruit in a giant jello mold, are disparate specks of towns and small cities, often populated in the hundreds in the south but comparatively more metropolitan in the north.
In the south, a lucky few towns have transformed themselves into retreat-like getaways for wealthier city folk from Dallas, Austin and Houston – tourists are drawn to the region ostensibly by its rugged beauty and the national and state parks immediately to the south, but also in a self-aware search for a hipster-and-artist hinterland. For these towns, tourism means art galleries, fancy restaurants, sleek espresso hangouts, and boutique hotels – along with the associated service industry jobs and local tax revenues. For the other, less fortunate towns, having none of that has meant population flight and communities deflating with a steady hiss of air into ghost town-ness.
In the north, local economies are all about oil, specifically, the Wolfcamp Shale deposit, which stretches from the New Mexico state line southward to the city of Pecos. Because of the oil field boom, Pecos has grown to a mix of overpriced motel rooms and corporate-run, trailer-based “man camp” lodgings for hundreds of highly paid oil field workers. Oil field economics also means a shortage of affordable staples for the locals, whose service industry paychecks lag the inflationary pricing brought on by the high oilfield wages.
These cities and towns – from Pecos in the north to Marfa in the south and Marathon in the east – are mere specks on the vast canvas of the Trans Pecos region. The desert scrub land envelops them all, springing on travelers like interstellar space just beyond any of them. Within minutes of crossing the city limits, the traveler is back on a ribbon of highway threading vast scrub lands and distant peaks. Ultimately, it is this sparse immenseness that most embodies Trans Pecos, because even surrounded by fellow Trans Pecosians in the local bar, coffee shop or street corner, there is no escaping the soul engulfing expanse just beyond the town line.