Recently in West Texas Category

Earlier this year I reported on the grand opening of the West Texas Food Bank's main facility in Odessa. That facility - the crown jewel of the Food Bank's physical presence - was the first result of a $13 million capital campaign (an amount raised in only 13 months). The second step was revealed last night, when a sneak preview grand opening (the official public grand opening is this morning) was held at the new Midland location - the official name is the "Midland Community & Volunteer Center" - the first physical presence of the Food Bank in our city. Debbie and I were once again privileged to attend, and I wanted to share some photos from this great addition Midland's benevolence infrastructure.

[Disclaimer: These photos were taken with my phone, amid a crowd of people, so please excuse the obvious quality and framing issues.]

The new facility is located at 1601 Westcliff Drive, just south of the Andrews Highway, near the Midland County Tax Offices. The main building is a repurposed existing structure that was donated by Mike and Cindy Black and Lea and Melanie Crump (the lobby bears their names). It's only about a third of the size of the Odessa location, which is 60,000 square feet, but it purposes are a bit different and don't require the same scale.

The lobby shares some features of the Odessa facility, including the striking green logo wall, and the installation of dinner plates showing the names of the donors who made these facilities possible. A unique aspect of the Midland location is the integration of actual wooden food pallets as an architectural feature, as shown below.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Lobby

Here's a sample of some of the donor plates mentioned above. I felt compelled to highlight the plate belonging to Debbie's and my employer, SM Energy Company.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Donor Plates

Immediately off the lobby is the H-E-B Client Choice Pantry, where clients can "shop" for an assortment of food, both fresh and non-perishable. This pantry will be stocked with items specifically geared toward the nutritional needs of senior adults. H-E-B is a major donor, giving generously of both finances and food, and at the event last night their spokesman surprised the crowd with an additional $25,000 pledge.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Food Pantry

Moving further into the facility, you come to the Wayne & Jo Ann Moore Charitable Foundation Volunteer Center. This is where the work of unloading, inspecting, processing, sorting, and boxing donated food takes place...primarily by community volunteers. It is equipped with a loading dock; a "cold processing room" for inspecting meat, dairy, produce, and eggs; and a "sorting and isolation room" for storing and sorting non-perishable items.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Volunteer Center

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Loading Dock

Moving to the other end of the building, you find the administrative offices, the Bobby & Leona Cox Demonstration Kitchen, and the Henry Foundation Community Training Room.

The kitchen (named after the creator of Rosa's and Taco Villa) will be used to educate the public on how to prepare healthy meals. It has four cooking stations, and will be available to other collaborative agencies for cooking and nutrition classes.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Demonstration Kitchen

The training room has audio-visual capabilities and will also be made available to area groups for meetings and training opportunities.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Training Room

The exterior features of the facility are as impressive as the interior. There's a great playground (the Miles & Laurie Boldrick Playground) to entertain children while their adults are shopping or learning. And, in case you're wondering, there will eventually be grass on that playground (this is a REALLY new facility!). And, yes, that is my thumb in the upper right corner. Don't say I didn't warn you.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Playground

In the background of the preceding photo, you can see part of one of the two greenhouses at the site, named in honor of the J.E. & L.E. Mabee Foundation. These state-of-the-art greenhouses will be managed by the Permian Basin Master Gardeners, and will be used to educate the public about gardening, composting, etc.

The two greenhouses are configured differently, with one being a "Chinese-style" greenhouse surrounded by earthen berms, and the other being a more typical West Texas greenhouse. Both will be served by a 5,000 gallon rainwater collection system tied to the guttering on the main building.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Greenhouse

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Greenhouse

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Rainfall Collection System

There will also be an area where children can plant and tend to their own gardens (still under construction as shown below).

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Children's Gardens

The entire facility, designed by the Parkhill, Smith & Cooper, is environmentally friendly. It will eventually be equipped with a 75kW photovoltaic solar panel system that will provide up to more than 100% of the location's electrical needs (putting electricity back into the grid during the spring and fall). The building material incorporated reclaimed materials (such as the pallets I mentioned above, as well as 50 gallon drums used as light fixtures). And, finally, the polished concrete floors in the lobby contain recycled glass aggregate, and the flooring in the training room is 100% recycled compressed aspen wood.

The West Texas Food Bank is a critical asset in our region, serving millions of meals to hungry people in 19 counties across the 34,000 square miles it serves. I can't think of a more deserving recipient of your philanthropy, if you have the financial resources to share.
Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink...'

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?'

The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

Matthew, Chapter 25
The 50-mile stretch of US Highway 385 between Fort Stockton and Marathon, Texas, has always been one of my favorite drives. If you encounter five other vehicles during the trip, it's a heavy traffic day. It's a perfect showcase for the desolate grandeur of the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas, winding through some of the largest ranches in the country and significant geologic phenomena, and never failing to present the traveler with a wide array of wildlife.

On various trips, we've encountered mule deer, antelope, javelinas, coyotes, snakes almost as long as my truck is wide, and more rabbits (jack and cottontails) than we could count. But on a recent trip, we encountered something that none of us had ever seen before.

Earlier this month we drove from Fort Stockton to eat at the 12 Gauge Restaurant, adjacent to the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon. Our group consisted of MLB, my brother and his wife, and my mother. After the usual excellent meal, we hit the road about a half hour before dusk. About twenty miles into the drive (see map below), we came around a curve and I spotted something out of the ordinary a few hundred yards down the road. 

"Quick...grab your cameras and get ready!" MLB and my sister-in-law immediately armed their iPhone and iPad, respectively, and focused on what I saw: a bull elk standing in the highway right-of-way, just off to our right. 

Initial sighting of elk
The initial sighting

The typical absence of traffic on this highway worked to our advantage, as I was able to stop on the shoulder to photograph the elk, as well as back up and pull forward to stay alongside him.

Bull elk in West Texas
"Are you looking at me? Are YOU looking at Me? Well, are you?"

The animal wasn't particularly exercised by our attention, although he ambled back and forth in a mildly annoyed fashion as the paparazzi recorded his movements (see the short video below). After a minute or two, he calmly stepped over the fence and wandered into the brush, and we left feeling like we had been privileged to witness something magical.

The presence of elk in West Texas is a somewhat controversial topic. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) classifies elk as an exotic species, meaning that they believe it's a non-native species. However, not everyone agrees with this designation. Some researchers believe that elk have inhabited West Texas for centuries, and their evidence and arguments are compelling.

It's not a purely academic dispute. By classifying elk as non-native exotics, TPWD allows them to be hunted year around, with no limits on the number of animals that can be killed. In fact, because the agency believes elk compete with native (and endangered) desert bighorn sheep for food, it recommends that ranchers hunt the elk to the point of elimination.

I'm not a hunter, but I understand and agree with the benefits of controlled hunting for certain species. I just find it hard to believe that the relatively small elk population poses any serious threat to the food supply for another scarce species, especially given the vast landscape in which both reside. The cynic in me can't help wondering about the influence on the TPWD of the hunting outfitters and ranches who benefit financially from year-round elk hunts.

Regardless - or perhaps especially - in light of this situation, it was a memorable encounter on that lonely Texas highway, and we came away with a new appreciation of the natural wonders of the Trans-Pecos region.

Bull elk in West Texas
Debbie and I were honored to attend the grand opening of the West Texas Food Bank's new Odessa facility last Thursday, and we came away more impressed than ever with an organization that plays such an important role in our region.

The new facility was the result of a beautifully-timed capital campaign that raised more than $13 million in just thirteen months. The money was used to build the new 60,000 square foot building in Odessa, as well as a 20,000 square foot facility in Midland that should be completed this spring. The WTFB's Alpine facility will also be upgraded.

If you're unfamiliar with the WTFB - which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015 - here are a few relevant facts that will give you an idea of the work they're doing:

  • Service area: 19 counties in West Texas comprising 34,000 square miles;
  • Partners with more than 75 local hunger-relief agencies including food pantries, community kitchens, emergency organizations, shelters, residential centers, rehabilitation centers, and senior/youth centers;
  • In 2014, WTFB distributed 5 million pounds of food, or the equivalent of 4 million meals;
  • 95 cents of every dollar received goes directly to hunger relief.
The title of this post is not hyperbole; the new facility is a beautiful example of professional planning and execution. It manages to be perfectly functional while also being inviting to clients and volunteers. Parkhill, Smith & Cooper provided architectural services (and also presented a $50,000 check at the grand opening!) and Cooper Construction did a masterful job of building the facility. I could go on and on, but how about if I save many thousands of words and show you some photos?

WTFB lobby

This is the lobby of the new building. The suspended plates bear the names of the major donors to the capital campaign. (I don't know whether they'll be on permanent display or if they were just presented for the grand opening.)

WTFB lobby

This is another view of the lobby, which you'll note is named in honor of Monsignor James Bridges. Msgr. Bridges is pastor of St. Stephens Catholic Church in Midland and was instrumental in forming the Permian Basin Food Bank, which later became WTFB. In fact, he holds a significant place of honor in the lobby of the new facility (in addition to its bearing his name)...

Msgr Bridges bust and quote

As you enter the lobby, you are greeted with a view of a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, aka the BHP Billiton Community Kitchen. 

BHP Billiton Community Kitchen

As you walk past the kitchen, you get a view of the Odessa Development Corporation playground.

Odessa Development Corp Playground

This area is where children of volunteers and clients can have fun while the adults are either working or being served. There are big windows looking into the volunteer area so that kids can keep an eye on their parents and vice versa.

Just past the playground is where the really interesting stuff begins.


This huge warehouse is where non-perishable food (and other donated items and supplies) are stored. It's brightly lit and well-organized.

Loading Docks

The warehouse has four loading docks, with plenty of room for trucks (unlike the previous facility where drivers sometimes charged an extra fee because of the parking challenges).


Above is the walk-in cooler room (we can attest to the efficiency of the cooling system!), and the door at the back leads to the freezer.

Abell-Hanger Foundation Volunteer Processing Area

This is the 5,500 square feet Abell-Hanger Foundation, Inc. Volunteer Center, where community volunteers sort donated food, build food distribution boxes, and sack food for hungry children. (In 2015, 2,400 volunteers contributed 11,650 hours of service.) This venue will also seat up to 300 guests and will be made available to outside organizations who wish to host work parties combined with a time of entertainment. In the above photo, tables for the grand opening banquet are set up.

Food distribution is obviously a big part of WTFB's services, but it also offers in-house client "shopping" services via the fully-provisioned Scott & Minka Sibert Client Service Area.

Client Service Area
Client Service Area

Clients can shop for their groceries while also receiving education and advice about nutrition.

Heading upstairs, you'll find the administrative offices, as well as the board room (sponsored by the Saulsbury Family Foundation), and a community room (sponsored by Lissa & Cy Wagner and Frances & Jack Brown) with A/V capabilities that accommodates up to 100 people and is available to local groups and organizations.

Board Room
Community Room

This new facility is a jewel for West Texas, and it couldn't come at a better time, given the recent downturn in our oil-dependent economy. But this is just the start; plans are for the facility to eventually become energy independent (via solar technology to be funded by BHP Billiton). It will also feature a community garden and water collection tank.

Debbie and I are strong believers in the WTFB's mission. If you live in West Texas, I hope you'll consider giving them some support.

Winter Storm Goliath: A West Texas Pictorial
December 28, 2015 10:13 AM | Posted in: ,

On Saturday night, December 26, the immense winter storm known as Goliath began to edge into the Permian Basin. MLB and I first encountered it ten miles east of Monahans at about 8:00 p.m. while driving back to Midland on I-20 from Fort Stockton, where we'd cut our Christmas visit with family short in an attempt to beat the weather. We didn't quite make it.

From the moment we left Fort Stockton we were treated to a lightning show in the north...the direction we were headed. We drove in and out of a slight drizzle, and while water was running in the streets in Monahans, it was no longer raining and we began to think we'd missed the the worst of the line of thunderstorms that had apparently preceded us. We were wrong.

As we passed the turnoff to the Monahans Sandhills State Park, traffic started to slow and we could see a line of flashing tail lights stretching to the horizon. Shortly thereafter, patches of ice began to appear on the highway. The ambient temperature was still 38º so the presence of frozen water was puzzling.

The further we drove, the worse the conditions, until we were traveling at speeds of 40 mph and less. Sleet was falling steadily; the good news was that the temperatures continued to remain above freezing. Still, we saw plenty of disabled cars on the shoulder, and one pickup on its side in the median. By the time we got to Penwell, we'd seen at least a dozen emergency vehicles with flashing lights heading west toward Monahans. Something serious had apparently happened behind us (we never learned what).

By the time we got to the Caprock, the sleet had turned to rain, and traffic began to move a little better. However, occasional patches of ice kept us from becoming complacent and we kept our speed between 50 and 55 (making the 18-wheelers who continued to pass us doing 70 seem all the more insane). Then, about five miles from Midland, the rain gave way again to sleet, the hardest we've ever encountered. I began to wonder at what point sleet was more properly described as hail. The sound of the sleet hitting our truck was almost deafening.

Despite the drama, we made it home safely, and we really didn't experience any close calls...just long periods of intense nervousness. It was a relief to pull into the garage around 9:00 p.m.

A layer of ice coated everything when we awoke on Sunday morning. Almost every church in town had already canceled its services, so we prepared to spend the day indoors, as the forecast called for increasingly bad weather. Sure enough, the snow began falling at mid-morning, and continued throughout the day. We eventually accumulated between six and seven inches - not a record, but among the top ten heaviest snowfalls in Midland. It was a good day to stay inside with the gas log burning and cheesy movies on TV.

However, I couldn't resist venturing out with my camera later in the afternoon to document the rare weather phenomenon.

Snowy pasture
Near white out conditions - looking toward Midland Country Club

Snowy stream
We have our own snow-fed "mountain stream."

Snow-covered yuccas
The yuccas were not amused.

Ducks in pond
The south pond is always beautiful when surrounded by snow.

Our resident geese like to stand on their pedestals, towering over the ducks.

Hawk in flight
While photographing the pond, a movement caught my eye and I was amazed to find this image on my camera.

Hawk in tree
It was a red-tailed hawk, seen resting here in a tree.

Christmas lights on house
We didn't have a White Christmas, but this was the next best thing.

Snow on a sunny morning
The sun came out the next morning, and the snow was beautiful.

Rabbit tracks in the snow
I suspect the bunnies didn't think the snow was so great.

Of course, heavy snowfall won't keep people from having fun outdoors, and this was the opportunity of a lifetime for some young kids who may have never seen this kind of weather before. I looked out the front door in time to see this heading down our street toward the end of the cul-de-sac, and grabbed my video camera for the return trip.

Fort Stockton by Foot (and then some...)
September 1, 2015 8:58 PM | Posted in: ,

City limit sign
Next time you're in a small town, grab a camera and go for a walk. I'll wager you'll notice some details that are either missing in the city, or easily overlooked. 
I did just that last Saturday in Fort Stockton. For those who aren't from this part of the country, that's the west-of-the-Pecos burg where I spent my [misin]formative years. I still have family there and so we're regular visitors. Here are some of the highlights of our three mile stroll.

The path less traveled is sometimes enhanced by the scent of creosote.

Trail through mesquite and creosote

The irony of a buzzard constructed of scavenged parts wasn't lost on us.
Buzzard made of spare parts

"As long as we're Romaining around, lettuce follow this trail..."
Salad Fork sign

Red, white, blue...and purple sage
Red, white & blue windmill behind purple sage

Someone steered him wrong
Longhorn skull

I mowed this yard when I was in junior high. It seems much smaller now. And quite a bit less grassy.
Big front yard

This ammonite shrine is as awesome as it is inscrutable. Note the petrified wood base.
Fossils and cactus

It's hard to see in this photo, but someone is having their asphalt-shingled roof painted. This house will be visible from the moon. 
Roof being painted white

This is Comanche Elementary. My first grade classroom is somewhere in this photo; there are two more wings in back where I went to second and third grades. The school is now abandoned. I swear I had nothing to do with that.
Comanche Elementary School

This is all that's left of the original playground equipment. Today, it would either be the subject of a lawsuit, or relocated to the Navy Seals training facility.
Playground equipment

This palm tree has no business being so content in the back yard of the house I grew up in. It's outlived many other trees, gardens, people, etc., and proves that benign neglect is sometimes healthy.

Palm Tree

Addendum: Later, on the same day, we traveled down US 385 to Marathon and dined at the 12 Gage Restaurant, adjacent to the Gage Hotel. The route takes you through the Sierra Madera Astrobleme -- which, I believe, is Latin for "big honkin' hole" -- and past some of the prettiest scenery in the state. It looks desolate, and it is, but that doesn't mean it's not teeming with life. On the return trip, around dusk, we encountered the following wildlife:

  • Deer (some of which made the runty Hill Country specimens look like something you'd buy at Toys 'R Us);
  • Javelina;
  • Bullbats (aka Common Nighthawks, or more imaginatively, Goatsuckers) swarming to catch their insect dinners before total darkness fell (they have no echolocation capabilities like bats), and one of which fell prey to the windshield of our SUV (perhaps confirming that they have no echolocation capabilities like bats);
  • One very long -- about the width of our vehicle -- snake stretched across the highway;
and, last but not least, but perhaps most intriguing...

  • One wedding party standing in the middle of the highway so the photographer could shoot the bride and groom with the dramatic sunset at their backs.
US 385 between Marathon and Fort Stockton, Texas

Hotter'N Hell 16.09
August 22, 2015 5:28 PM | Posted in: ,

Bike Computer

The photo shows one of the computers on our tandem bicycle following our ride this afternoon. The number in the lower left corner of the screen is the temperature in degree Fahrenheit. No, it wasn't 10º in Midland, Texas, in August; the computer is obviously not designed for hot weather as the temperature readout only has two digits. So, it's actually reading 110º.

However, that's not accurate either. It's always read much higher than the actual temperature (Weatherbug said that it was really only 100º), at least in hot weather. It's fairly accurate in more temperate conditions.

Regardless, 100 was plenty warm. We don't normally choose to ride in this kind of heat but because of other obligations and errands, it just worked out that we didn't start until almost 4:00 p.m. We were out for only about an hour, and it wasn't horrible, but that's about our limit in these conditions.

We have Camelbak packs on our bike and so it's easy to stay hydrated. But even that's a challenge because the water in the short length of plastic tube heats up quickly, so that your first mouthful is bathwater warm. You quickly learn to spit out that first mouthful in order to get to the cold water.

It is possible to acclimate to the heat, and to some extent we've done so. You can't live in West Texas in the summer without getting accustomed to it. And while it's often said as a joke, it is true that a dry heat is much easier to bear. Humidity this afternoon was only 19%...and even that is a bit high; it's not unusual to have humidity less than 10%.

This isn't the worst heat I've ridden in...not even close. On June 27, 1994, Midland experienced its all-time record high temperature: 116º. I was curious about how it would feel to bicycle in that kind of heat and so I went for a ride - a short ride. It wasn't much fun, to be honest, and I don't recommend it.

But we've also ridden in a few Hotter'N Hell Hundreds, and the heat and humidity in Wichita Falls in late August is just brutal. Again, it's something that you might want to experience just to say you did it, but it takes a special kind of crazy to ride it year after year. If you fall into that category, you have my respect.

December 18, 2014 12:29 AM | Posted in:

We had our first significant T.E. (Tumbleweed Event) of the season last week. It was actually rather mild compared to the springtime varieties, where the prickly beasties have been known to knock semis off the interstate and dig deep gouges in concrete streets*, but it was still good/bad enough to be a topic of conversation at a dinner party the next evening.

Almost everyone had a tumbleweed story, except for the poor couple who lives in the Texas Hill Country and thus has only heard rumors and scary tales around the campfire. Most of the stories involved out-of-state tourists with an inexplicable fascination with tumbleweeds, to the extent that most of us had actually spotted them inside said tourists' cars, presumably being transported back to New Jersey or Massachusetts for some kind of show-and-tell about surviving the Old West.

Most of the dinner party guests who had lived in Midland for a couple of decades or more also had stories of finding tumbleweeds piled practically to the eaves of the house or blocking their garages after some particularly nasty storms. One man described how his wife cried for a year after they moved to Midland after getting married and she discovered the havoc the winds can wreak around here. And, of course, we here at Casa Fire Ant have experienced that disquieting predicament ourselves (the tumbleweeds and dust, not the crying for a year. Ours was no more than three months.). 

Anyway, our neighborhood experiences a phenomenon when the weeds tumble unlike most others in the area, because we have a couple of ponds. The combination of tumbleweeds and water is somehow even more depressing than having them pile up in your yard, except for the fact that someone else has to clean out the ponds.

I took a few photos after last week's T.E.


I wonder if the migrating ducks were perplexed by the stickery things floating in their temporary rest stop?


Our resident geese are, however, unfazed...jaded...or simply clueless. They're geese. What do you expect?


The dock doubled as an effective weed sieve.


The answer to the age-old question of whether tumbleweeds float is, apparently, "sort of."


The 45-mph winds blew tumbleweeds into a mass close to the bank of the pond; this was just the beginning.

Living on the outskirts of town has its advantages, but being a drag strip for tumbleweeds isn't one of them.

*These are obvious exaggerations. All of our roadways are asphalt.

Got a tumbleweed story of your own? Share it via email or on my Facebook post.

Winter is Coming
November 9, 2014 7:34 PM | Posted in: ,

No, this isn't a Game of Thrones post. But we are anticipating our first freezing temperatures of the season this week, so preparations are underway at Casa Fire Ant.

It's slightly ironic that our landscape is looking better than it has all year, just in time for a killing frost. Here's a sample of some of our flowers as they appeared yesterday...





Our bougainvillea and hibiscus are in pots. Neither species will survive our winter in the ground, so we move them into the garage for the duration. Some horticulturists will tell you that being inside for the winter is not good for bougainvillea, but we have plants that have survived ten or more winters that way. And some even recommend forced dormancy as a survival strategy. The plants are puny in the spring, but after a few weeks of warm weather, they're typically back to their happy selves. I suppose the fact that we move them outside occasionally when the winter weather isn't too brutal so they can get a little sunshine might contribute to their hardiness.

It's a pain to move eight or ten fairly large pots in and out of the garage, so this year I've built something that I hope will significantly reduce the effort. I cut in half a 4' x 8' piece of 3/4" plywood and then rejoined the two halves with hinges, and attached six heavy duty casters (two of which are lockable) to the bottom. I threaded a couple of ropes through each end to tow and steer the platform, stapled a sheet of thick plastic to protect it from water leaks, and - voilà! - a movable plant stand that will accommodate all of our pots at once.

Here's what it looks like unburdened:

Rolling Plant Platform

And here's what the loaded version looks like:

Rolling Plant Platform

In case you're wondering, the hinges make it easier to store the platform. I can fold and lean it against a wall during the offseason.

I'm pretty happy with the way this turned out, although the construction wasn't without mishap. In accordance with my usual modus operandi, in which I essentially always have to redo a significant step that I messed up, I discovered that I countersunk the bolt holes on the wrong side of the boards and had to move the hinges to the other side so that the wheels didn't interfere with folding the platform. In addition, I failed to account for the countersinking and the bolts I used interfered with the wheels so I had to cut them off with a Dremel tool. Fortunately, I've done enough of this boneheaded stuff that I actually build in an allowance for it in my timeline and budget, and I'm disappointed in those rare instances that everything goes right the first time. OK, just kidding. I've NEVER had a project where everything went right the first time. But I've resolved to be disappointed if it ever does.

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven't actually tried to pull the loaded platform into the garage, so I may be in for a nasty surprise tomorrow night when I bring everything in for the first time. I did do a test run with Debbie sitting on it, but she weighs SO MUCH LESS than these plants - I mean, really, it's like comparing a feather to a dump truck...seriously! (she's right behind me, isn't she?) - that I'm not sure how realistic a test it was. I'll let you know if, when I unlock the wheels, the whole thing plummets down the driveway and drags me across the alley and through the neighbors' fence and into their pool. Or you can watch for the report on the evening news.

OK, I know some of you are geeky enough to be disappointed that this wasn't a Game of Throne post, so this is for you:

Winter is Coming Meme

Are you ready for winter? Have you messed up a project lately? Do you watch Game of Thrones? All of these are fodder for further discussion, especially the second one, as it will make me feel better. Email me or leave a comment on Facebook.

Rites (and blights) of spring
April 5, 2014 12:29 PM | Posted in: ,

Spring has sprung (despite the temps in the 30s yesterday morning), as evidenced by the return of hummingbirds and barn swallows. The latter will apparently try to take up residence in the same nest they built on our front porch last year, provided they can run off the wren squatters - which, up until the swallows showed up, had no interest whatsoever in said nest, proving that birds are people, too.

The advent of spring, along with our best guess as to when the last freeze has occurred, also precipitates the annual ritual of the Torturing of The Sheltered Potted Plants. This takes place every year (hence the "annual," in case you were distracted by baby squirrels), and involves trundling out of the garage and onto the driveway the bougainvillea and other semi-tropical plants that we've nurtured through the winter. They somehow sense the change in season and begin to put on lush, pale green foliage even in the relatively dim light of the garage.

This, of course, is a display of bad judgment on their part, because they seem to forget what it's like to be thrust back into the brutal West Texas outdoor climate. And so we repeat the sad spectacle that's shown below. I'll let you try to guess which is the "before" and which is...well, you know.

Before and after photos of bougainvillea, which are shocked by spring

Before and after photos of bougainvillea, which are shocked by spring

Incidentally, these photos were taken six days apart, but it took only about a day of 85º weather to turn the plants on the left into what you see on the right.

Fortunately for all involved, bougainvillea are pretty hardy and within a couple of weeks will be back in summer shape, until the cycle begins again next November.

Fort Stockton Photos
September 2, 2013 5:22 PM | Posted in: ,

We were in Fort Stockton over the weekend and I carved out some time to wander through a pasture to take some photos, and then snapped a few at the nursery owned by my brother and his wife.

Dead mesquite
Since the pasture was once part of the Permian Sea,
can we call this mesquite stump "driftwood"?

No, this is not what you think. It's a rock,
and the pasture is littered with them. Growing up, we
thought they were pieces of meteorites but I now realize how silly that was.
They're obviously fragments from a crashed alien spacecraft.

Sulphur butterfly
I think this is a Cloudless Sulphur

Gulf Fritillary
I'm more certain that this is a Gulf Fritillary.

Gulf Fritillary
This is a different view of the Gulf Fritillary shown above.

Riot (Florally speaking)
August 3, 2013 4:11 PM | Posted in: ,

In the midst of a brutal drought, and on a day of 100+ degree temperatures, wildflowers still find a way.

Wildflowers in West Texas

This image is a composite of three photos of the same plant I found growing in the pasture west of our neighborhood, taken at different focal lengths and slightly different angles. I overlaid them in Photoshop, experimented with various blending options for each layer until I found a combination I liked, inverted one layer, and laid the Vibrance and Unsharp Mask on pretty thick.
The planned Energy Tower now has its own Wikipedia page, so it will inevitably be built, because they can't put anything in Wikipedia that's misleading, right? That means that a large number (or small number or a handful or one-or-two) Midlanders will be inconsolable over the demolition of the now-vacant county courthouse occupying a full block of prime downtown real estate, citing its historical significance or some such illogical sentimentality.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for saving/restoring/using truly historical structures, especially when the architecture is unique or even notable. I'm afraid that our courthouse qualifies on neither account.

It was built in 1930, and might be a candidate for protection in its original condition, but it was remodeled in the early 1970s and whatever unique qualities it may have exhibited were plastered over by a shiny new and very unremarkable façade. It has all the grace and charm of a Motel 6, no offense to Motel 6 of course. It's the Pontiac Aztec of Texas courthouses.

The building now stands empty, as the former tenants couldn't wait to vacate the premises for more modern, livable, non-flooding, non-vermin-infested quarters in a high rise in another part of downtown.

That's no slam against Midland. West Texas has more than its share of unremarkable county courthouses. Jump over to this page and hover over the various counties and you'll see a wide range of architecture, ranging from classic (e.g. Jeff Davis and Crockett Counties) to early modern bureaucratic (e.g. Ector and Martin Counties).

In any event, a building constructed in the 70s certainly hasn't the bona fides to compete with, say, the Cass County courthouse in Linden, Texas, which was built in 1961 and is still in active use for its original purpose.

Even if the courthouse building displayed its original architecture, given that it's not being used for anything else and Midland has more than its share of museums and libraries, I would argue that reusing that real estate for something more attractive and practical just makes good sense. But as a 70s relic, I'll shed no tears over its demise.

Poster - Not all Texas Courthouses are Worth Saving
Smug /sməg/ adj. - Having or showing an excessive pride in oneself or one's achievements. e.g. We were smug in the knowledge that we'd accurately gauged that very narrow window between "too cold" and "too windy" and had shoved our bike through it to get in a very pleasant twenty-mile ride.

As I type this, we're experiencing red flag wind conditions (20 mph, gusting to 35), with areas of blowing dust (and tumbleweeds). The winds have been in the weather forecast for almost a week, and we had written off any chance for our regular Saturday bike ride. But when the winds were still relatively calm after breakfast, we decided to take a chance and see if we could beat the forecasted weather front.

We didn't so much beat the wind as we outsmarted it (what is the IQ of energized air molecules, anyway?). We rode out in the direction that we thought the wind would eventually be blowing, and by the time we reached our turnaround point, we had a healthy tailwind. So, not only was the wind not a factor going out, it was actually beneficial coming back, at least until the last few blocks.

At one point, we were riding on smooth new asphalt, cruising easily at 20 mph, and still failing to overtake the swirling eddies of wind-driven sand (this is the place where I'd normally write something witty like "...and Swirling Eddies would be a great name for a rock band" but somebody already beat me to it) roused from the adjacent pasture.

We don't have hills around Midland, unless you count overpasses, which are just as well referred to as "suicide delivery mechanisms" given the traffic around here. Riding in the West Texas wind is a pretty good substitute for hill training, though. The downside is that the blowing dirt is not exactly conducive to healthy respiration. (See also Coccidioidomycosis, or the results of my PET scan.) And with all the construction going on around our city, blowing dirt is an almost daily occurrence.

But, after decades of living here, it's just something you adjust to while giving thanks that you're still able to get out and pedal a bike for twenty miles with your loving and lovely spouse.

Texas Mountain Laurel
March 16, 2013 6:59 PM | Posted in: ,

Here's an amazement, how this...

Photo - Texas Mountain Laurel buds

...turns into this...

Photo - Texas Mountain Laurel buds

The West Texas landscape may be viewed by some as being "beauty-challenged," (a description I strongly disagree with) but at least we have the Texas Mountain Laurel in our corner. The fact that the blooms smell just like grape soda is icing on the cake.

Both of the preceding scenes are found in our front yard today, on the same plant.

The Uglification of West Texas
December 17, 2012 6:23 AM | Posted in: ,

It's no secret that our region is the beneficiary of an economic boom of historic proportion, due to a perfect storm of high commodity prices and technological advances that have unlocked significant oil and gas reserves that were considered by most to be unrecoverable a decade ago. 

The benefits of this boom are easily enumerated: low unemployment, high wages, and a staggering expansion of the tax base. The downsides are equally obvious: overtaxed infrastructure, scarce and expensive housing, and ridiculous traffic.

But there's one additional negative impact I haven't seen anyone else acknowledging, and that's the mess that my chosen industry is making of the West Texas landscape. The oil business is making our countryside ugly.

I realize that many - most? - people already think that the spare, even desolate scenery around here is already ugly. But it's getting much more so as we continue to bulldoze well sites and lease roads, build tank batteries and terminals and pipelines, and drill wells and install production equipment on increasingly tight spacing. As tough as our land is, it bruises easily and heals slowly.

I can also recall a time not so many years ago when it was actually possible to wander into the countryside and feel like you'd actually gotten away from civilization, with nothing manmade in sight. I wonder if there's anywhere in West Texas where that's still possible?

This observation was driven home as we traveled east from Midland on our way to the Hill Country. There's a stretch of road between Garden City and Sterling City where the land opens up to the south, with a miles-wide panorama lined by mesas. The wind was gusting, and the blowing dust and scarred landscape presented a post-apocalyptic tableau straight out of A Boy and His Dog. I half-expected a chopped-and-armored 18-wheeler with gun turrets to appear around the next curve.

I'm a beneficiary of the positive fallout from the current economic situation, and I'm not hypocritical enough to wish it away. I just wish the development could be done without leaving such a large footprint on a countryside that has a certain majesty to it, even if you sometimes have to look sideways and squint just right to discern it.

Country Dancing in West Texas
July 9, 2012 12:15 PM | Posted in: ,

OK, the title of this post might evoke the same reaction as "Sand in the Sahara Desert" or "Idiots in Congress," but consider this as a public service announcement. I posted a similar article about ballroom dancing a couple of years ago and I continue to get feedback and questions about people who have found it via a search engine, which tells me that there's a dearth of relevant online information about local dancing opportunities. I don't know why it's so hard for dance clubs to maintain accurate and up-to-date websites, or even to have a website in the first place. But until that changes, I'll try to stand in the gap. Don't thank me; that's just the way I roll.

As an aside, when we started dancing a few years ago, we really weren't interested in country dancing, thinking it was all boring two-step, and we resisted learning. But it quickly became obvious that a majority of dancing opportunities involved both types of music - country AND western - and we also realized that country music was much more diverse than we had given it credit for. Indeed, almost all of our ballroom and Latin steps can be used for country songs (although we haven't found a good country tango), and even a traditional two-step is pretty much a straight-line foxtrot. So, if you're a ballroom purist living in West Texas, my advice is simple: lighten up and give country a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Of course, most of the country dancing opportunities week-to-week are going to be found in the various clubs and bars around the area, but that's not my focus here. We're more interested in venues where the dancing and music is the focus, not the "extracurricular activities" that accompany the club scene. That brings us to country dance clubs, and there are two main ones in the Midland/Odessa area.
A completely biased aside about line dancing...
You'll not find line dancing at either of events sponsored by the two clubs mentioned here, and that's a Good Thing in my book. Line dancing is to "real dancing" as checkers is to chess, or as Go Fish is to five card stud. It's repetitive and takes up valuable space on the dance floor. I do understand its attraction though. Line dancing is easy enough to do after you've had a few too many beer-a-ritas, and it's also a dance that ladies can do without having to worry about klutzy guys grinding on their toes. Having said that, I must confess a certain fondness for the cumbia - or at least the Mexican version that's popular in our area - which is really just line dancing that moves around the floor, although it provides more improvisational freedom than the strict choreography of line dancing. Anyway, if you're a country fan looking for a line dancing venue, you'll need to stick with the local bars and nightclubs.

Just Dance Country (JDC)

JDC has been in existence for a few years and membership is open to anyone who is interested in dancing to country music, regardless of skill level or age. Annual dues are $40/couple, and monthly dances are $25/person. Dances are generally held on the first Thursday of each month, 6:45-10:00 p.m. at the Petroleum Club in downtown Midland. Attendance runs 60-90 people. At the lower end of this range, there's plenty of room on the Petroleum Club's excellent new dance floor; at the upper end, things can get a little crowded.

The dance fee includes a light buffet. For those of you who are accustomed to the generally great cuisine at the Petroleum Club...this ain't it. The buffet is a low-rent affair consisting of a green salad with limited dressing alternatives, some sliced fresh fruit, cheese slices and crackers, and a main "entree" of fried catfish or chicken strips, or steak fingers. Dessert consists of cookies. Coffee and tea are provided; there's also a full cash bar. The venue is non-smoking.

The average JDC member is middle-aged (however you want to define that), and most attend as couples, although there's a consistent group of singles in attendance. Dress skews toward casual; boots and jeans are welcomed but not required (I've been right at home with my Converse All-Stars on occasion). 

Overall, JDC dances are non-intimidating, and the dancers seem to genuinely enjoy others' company. And the dances are over early enough that getting up for work the next day is not a brutal event.

For more information, email

Permian Basin Dance Club (PBDC)

The PBDC is a relatively new club, formed about a year ago, and its dances are open to the public. Dances are held every Tuesday, 6:30-10:00 p.m. at the Gloria Denman Ballroom located at St. Stephens Catholic Church in Midland (on Neely Avenue, west of Midland Drive). This ballroom is the best venue in West Texas for social dancing, with a huge floor and lots of comfortable seating.

Dances are $5 per person for members and $6 for non-members. Membership is $10 per year, and is open to anyone regardless of age or skill level. The venue is non-smoking, and alcohol is not allowed at PBDC dances. Dances feature local bands, and attendance is generally more than 100 people. The ballroom is large enough to easily accommodate this many dancers.

The demographic of the PBDC is definitely skewed toward older dancers. Many (most?) attendees are retired, and there are many singles in attendance. Each dance features several "Paul Jones" dances where men and women switch partners throughout the extended music, primarily in order to give the single ladies a chance to dance. Participation is voluntary, of course.

Again, these dances are informal and the crowd is friendly and non-intimidating. The cost is low enough to make it a good place to practice for an hour or two, without feeling guilty for leaving early.

These are not the only local venues for regular country dances, of course. The Odessa and Big Spring Senior Centers host weekly dances (Thursdays for Odessa; Fridays for Big Spring), the Midland Senior Center hosts a bi-weekly dance (Fridays), and the Andrews Senior Center hosts a monthly dance (Mondays). Check with those venues for more details.

Yard Art Follow-Up
June 26, 2012 1:59 PM | Posted in: ,

Yesterday's post about the cheesy lawn animals apparently struck a chord with some of you fellow rednecks art connie-sewers. I'm happy to see there are other serious patrons of yard art out there. In particular, I enjoyed hearing from Dale Thompson, an intrepid Gazette reader who enclosed some photos of an occupant of his back yard, along with this narrative: "Of course this is an old photo with the green grass. Went with the old saying 'go big or go home.' Dragon's head is about 9 feet with a 12 foot wingspan. Be careful with yard art; it can get out of hand."

Photo of metal dragon

Is that awesome, or what?

Dale explained that his metal masterpiece is truly a work of art, created by a local artisan and entered in a show in Odessa where it won the People's Choice award.

His warning about things getting out of hand is well-heeded. But, sometimes, too big is just big enough. So I'm kicking myself for not bringing this bad boy home to throw down with the dragon:

Photo of metal knight

As Daenerys will testify, never count out a dragon...but an armor-clad 12-foot-tall knight with a big honkin' sword is also a force to be reckoned with.

It would have almost been worth the $600 purchase price to strap it into the bed of the Ridgeline for the trip home.

West Texas from Above: The End
June 19, 2012 10:00 PM | Posted in: ,

Scarily observant Gazette readers Katie Hilburn, Gregg Ulvestad, Jon Wheeler, and Mark Springer correctly identified the final aerial photo in the series as the area around Hogan Park in Midland. The small body of water directly beneath the "fish" (which is a pond at Hogan Park Golf Course) is part of the wonderful nature preserve maintained by the Sibley Nature Center.


Sadly, we've come to the end of the series. It was a good excuse for me to not to have to do any actual blogging. But I've been very impressed with your perceptiveness and with the number of responses (we had a dozen different people submit correct guesses, and more than that participated). Thanks for making this a pretty darned fun project!

West Texas from Above: Part 8
June 15, 2012 10:01 PM | Posted in: ,

Incredibly eagle-eyed Gazetteers Gregg Ulvestad, Lisa Blake, and Les Blalock recognized foto numero siete in our series a number of things, all of which were correct although not precisely the answer I was seeking. That's my fault for not being more specific.

The photo is of the Penwell area, a few miles east of Odessa on I-20. The feature that's shown but hardly recognizable is a portion of the Caprock Escarpment. Few people know that the caprock was actually an unintended consequence of an early 20th-century top secret government experiment gone terribly wrong, which resulted in a massive underground explosion that raised many miles of West Texas terrain by several hundred feet (and also provided a serious setback to the careers of a number of formerly prominent scientists and their sponsoring politicians).

OK, not really. It all has to do with some geology stuff, perhaps more scientifically plausible, but definitely more boring.

Anyway, everyone pointed out the cement plant (that big white area in the southeast quadrant of the photo shown below, which is a separate but equal answer. Les even provided some accompanying history (which unfortunately omits any mention of massive underground explosions).


OK, you're probably wearing out your eyes and Google Earth, so let's wrap up the series with one more aerial tableau. This is an urban scene, and it immediately caught my eye, and if you seen anything other than a gecko about to eat a fish, you're just not paying attention.

Don't bother clicking on the picture to see a larger version, because there isn't one.

Viewed from 7,200 feet

West Texas from Above: Part 7
June 13, 2012 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

Photo of us checking out our scuba gearGazette-crazy map mavens Paula McKinney and Les Blalock recognized the sixth photo in our series as Balmorhea State Park, which has the distinction of not actually being located in Balmorhea, but "Toyahvale State Park" apparently doesn't have the same cachet.

Every scuba diver in West Texas has cruised the crystal waters of Balmorhea. Debbie and I did our check-out dive there when we got certified, and have returned repeatedly to give our the gear the once-over before dive trips. One memorable trip had us surfacing to find a light snow falling; the spring-fed pool is a constant 72°-76°, and it was 40° warmer than the air temperature that day.

Another interesting bit of trivia (well, interesting for us, anyway). If you happen to have a copy of the August, 1988, issue of Texas Highways laying around, check out pages 30-31. They feature a particularly handsome couple intent on checking out their scuba gear. You're forgiven if you didn't recognize us in the photo above; Debbie was rocking her Flashdance look, and I had lost my razor a few years earlier.


We're coming to the end of the series, and I must say that I've been impressed by your ability to ferret out the identity of famous features of West Texas. This next one is obscure enough that if you figure it out as easily as the previous photos, I'll have to consider the possibility that you've installed keylogger software on my computer. Have at it...

Click on the picture to see a larger version (opens in a new window or tab).

Viewed from 10 miles

West Texas from Above: Part 6
June 11, 2012 6:32 AM | Posted in: ,

Photo of warning signCartographically crafty Gazette readers Jon Wheeler, Joe Lee, and Chuck Rubins all correctly identified photo numero cinco as the famed Odessa Meteor Crater, renowned across the galaxy as, well, a semi-big hole in the ground. Some say it's proof that we Earthlings aren't the only ones who have problems texting and driving. Plus, it has snakes, or at least signs alerting one to the possibility of snakes. Or, this could actually be code for "watch out for alien life forms that might have hitched a ride on a big chunk of rock crashing into our planet." Your guess is as good as mine, but I advised heeding the sign on either account. Seriously, though, it's a registered national natural landmark, so no giggling.


Well, I didn't think anyone - let alone three people - would recognize that location, so I have no idea how challenging this next one will be. The only hint I'll give is that you don't have to be from the Midland-Odessa area to know what it is.

Click on the picture to see a larger version (opens in a new window or tab).

Viewed from 15,000'

West Texas from Above: Part 5
June 7, 2012 8:15 PM | Posted in: ,

Astoundingly intelligent Gazette readers Gregg Ulvestad, Chuck Rubins, and Paula McKinney correctly identified aerial photo numero cuatro as the world-famous Monahans Sand Hills State Park.

I have fond memories of the Sand Hills, despite taking two classes of fifth grade boys over for the day as a part of my Sunday School teaching duties. (Word to the wise: windy days and hot dogs don't mix well in that part of the country. I'm still brushing sand out of my teeth, even though that was 20 years ago.) Not only did I learn to sand surf there, but I recall a great zoological moment when, following a particularly wet spring, someone dug up a 9-inch long salamander who had emerged from a lingering water hole. How long had that critter been dormant beneath the sands, waiting for a wet wake-up call? But I digress. For those who didn't recognize the shot, here's something to help you get your bearings. (By the way, Chuck and I would like to know the identity of the oil field offsetting the park to the west.)


OK, I've been pretty easy on you up to this point, but this is where the gloves come off. I shall bow before your cartographical awesomeness if you can identify the following scene.

By the way, we're taking the weekend off here at the Gazette, because we've been working so gosh darned hard bringing you all this bloggy goodness. So the answer will be posted on Monday.

Click on the picture to see a larger version (opens in a new window or tab).

Viewed from 10,000'

West Texas from Above: Part 4
June 6, 2012 10:01 AM | Posted in: ,

Loyal Gazette reader Joe Lee once again had way too much time on his hands and easily identified aerial photo numero tres in this series as a view of Big Bend National Park, which covers almost a million acres of the most starkly beautiful country you'll ever lay eyes on. Don't let the apparent desolation fool you; life abounds here. From the National Park Service's website:
Big Bend is famous for its natural resources and spectacular geology. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants (including approximately 60 cacti species), 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish, 75 species of mammals, 450 species of birds, and about 3,600 species of insects. The park boasts more types of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.


We continue our aerial tour of West Texas with another striking natural phenomenon. We get a little closer to earth than before, only about six miles up. This one should be a piece of cake.

Click on the picture to see a larger version (opens in a new window or tab).

Viewed from 33,000'

West Texas from Above: Part 3
June 4, 2012 8:07 PM | Posted in: ,

Perspicacious Gazette readers Wallace Craig and Berry Simpson correctly identified aerial photo numero dos in this series as a view of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, home of the highest spot in Texas, and an irresistible attraction to hikers from around the country. The most obvious attractions are Guadalupe Peak and the imposing face of El Capitan, shown below. Neither looks too impressive from 28 miles in the sky, but the view from ground level is amazing, as is the one from the top of Guadalupe Peak.


OK, the first two have been pretty easy, at least for most people familiar with West Texas. It gets a little more challenging now. How good are you at recognizing terrain from an altitude of almost 50 miles? Some people might wonder if this is even a picture of earth.

Click on the picture to see a larger version (opens in a new window or tab).

Viewed from 49 miles

West Texas from Above: Part 2
June 3, 2012 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette reader Joe Lee correctly identified the initial aerial photo in this series as the Yates oil field, located in Pecos County. As indicated below, the town of Iraan is in the northeast quadrant of the photo, and the Pecos River meanders down the east side. The Yates field is one of the largest oil producing properties in the US; more than one billion barrels have been pumped from the field and it's still active.


Ready for the next mystery scene? This one focuses on one of the most significant natural wonders of West Texas. It's a beautifully desolate area (OK, not that unusual for our part of the country), but that doesn't stop it from attracting thousands of visitors each year.

Click on the picture to see a larger version (opens in a new window or tab).

Viewed from 28 miles

West Texas from Above: A Series
June 1, 2012 5:11 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm fascinated by aerial photography, and especially by the images provided by Google Earth. Apart from their cartographic usefulness, which has assumed greater significance because of my new job, the different perspective on natural and human-created features provides a constant source of delight. Sure, there's something of a voyeuristic thrill from peering into the neighbors' backyards - or so I've heard - but the real treat is the way that features that are so familiar at ground level take on new characteristics when viewed from miles above the earth. The world somehow becomes more accessible, more comprehensible.

I have no idea how many Gazette readers share this fascination, but I want to issue a friendly challenge. I'm going to post a series of screen captures of various geographic features located across West Texas; the challenge is to see how many of them you recognize. If you've never lived in this area, you'll likely have a hard time identifying any of them, and that's OK. I wouldn't have a clue as to what East Texas looks like from the sky. But if you're a long-time resident of the Llano Estacado or Permian Basin, some or all of these photos should at least have a ring of familiarity to them.

There are nine photos in all. I'll post them one at a time over the course of the next few weeks. Feel free to leave your guesses in the comments or email them to me if my sucky commenting process won't work for you. At some point, I'll post all the answers.

I guess it's only fair to drop a hint for each photo. This first scene should be recognizable to anyone who's in the oil business in West Texas. Oil fields are everywhere, but there aren't many like this one.

Click on the picture to see a larger version (opens in a new window or tab).

Viewed from 38,000'
On Saturday, May 12, Debbie and I drove to Fort Davis to attend the annual fundraiser for the Marfa public radio station (KRTS 93.5). This year's event was held at the H.E. Sproul Ranch, located about seven miles northwest of Fort Davis, and included a donated artwork sale, catered dinner, and barn dance. We never pass up the opportunity for dancing in interesting places, and this event took place in a spectacular setting.

If you're familiar with the Fort Davis area, but have never been to the Sproul Ranch, you take Highway 118 toward McDonald Observatory, then turn onto an unpaved road immediately before you come to Prude Ranch. The ranch lodge is about 2.5 miles down that rather rough and occasionally treacherous road.

Photo of ranch road

Despite some recent rain, the landscape was still obviously suffering from the ongoing drought. Nevertheless, the natural and manmade scenery is awe-inspiring, as shown below. The structures on the top of the mountain are part of the McDonald Observatory complex.

Photo from ranch road

The ranch complex consists of a lodge, several suites, a barn, and a beautiful swimming pool that epitomizes the concept of an oasis.

Photo of ranch road
Photo of ranch road
Photo of ranch road

The preceding photo represents one of the abundant visual anachronisms that occur where 21st century technology is placed into an Old West setting. The rather large contraption in the background is a radio telescope, and it wasn't until I did some research that I learned that it's part of a network of such devices called the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA). The VLBA consists of ten radio telescopes spanning more than 5,000 miles, from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands, and is used to conduct a wide variety of scientific research. (For another photographic perspective of the Sproul Ranch telescope, scroll down a bit on this page.)

The art show was an interesting event. All the pieces were 5"x5" and were for sale at the set price of $93.50 (corresponding to the radio station's broadcast frequency). It was sold on a first-come, first-served basis, and while Debbie and I didn't get there early enough to get our favorite piece, we did score a pretty cool quilted square made by a Fort Davis artist named Kathleen Morris. Here's a scan of the piece:

Scan of artwork

Note the wonderful little ocotillo in the lower right corner, complete with red flowers. I think we got a great deal.

At the beginning, I implied that our primary motivation for attending this event was the dance, and we weren't disappointed. Doug Moreland grew up in Fort Davis (his dad now lives there), and his brand of western swing is a lot of fun to listen and dance to. I got the impression that this isn't necessarily his regular group - there were just three of them - but they had a great sound and each one was a gifted musician. Moreland is shown below playing the fiddle; according to his website, he's also a chainsaw artist.

Photo of Doug Moreland and band

The dance floor wasn't large, and it got even smaller when they moved tables in from the dining tent, but, fortunately, not a lot of people danced. The only downside was when a well-meaning but inexperienced volunteer dumped a two-pound bag of white cornmeal on the concrete floor to make it easier to dance on. We tried to politely warn her that she was overdoing it, without effect, and sure enough, a little later an older couple (older than us, even!) slipped and fell. Fortunately, only their pride was injured. The photo below shows how the floor looked after a several dances; it looks like we were two-stepping on an ice rink! You can imagine how our boots looked after kicking through the corn meal dust.

Photo of ranch road

Overall, it was a great time and we'd do it again in a heartbeat. I have no idea how much money the station raised, but there were several hundred in attendance, including at least four couples from Midland.

We didn't stay at the ranch lodge; it was booked up. Instead, we stayed at the Harvard Hotel in Fort Davis (across the street from the Limpia Hotel, and next door to the drugstore). The Harvard is owned and operated by the Sproul Ranch, and offers very nice, quiet accommodations. And breakfast at the drugstore is hard to beat!

A Vicarious Ride Across Texas
April 2, 2012 9:07 PM | Posted in: ,

I can't remember how I came across this blog, descriptively entitled "Southern Tier Bicycle Tour- 2012," but it's one I find myself visiting daily. It's the account of a couple traveling by bike across the US, and while a good number of people do this each year (and blog about it), it's pretty rare that they choose a southerly route that takes them across some of the most desolate parts of Texas.

Beginning with their entry into the Lone Star State from Deming, New Mexico, continuing past Van Horn and around the Davis Mountains, and on into the Hill Country, the couple is documenting their impressions of Texas (and Texans). Their photography is beautiful, capturing not only some of the freedom and adventure (and angst) of unsupported cycling, but also the dramatic range of experiences that we Texans might sometimes take for granted. I recommend it.

You can start here if you like, as they first ease their way into lovely Anthony, Texas. If you read far enough, you'll eventually learn the meaning of "PUDs" (which, for my petroleum engineering friends, isn't what you think).

Their experiences in the Hill Country are especially interesting as they ride over some of the same roads - and make some of the same climbs - Debbie and I have done for years. I never had the forethought (or patience) to stop and take photos, although some of those hills are indelibly etched in my memory.

Water Musings
March 30, 2012 9:06 AM | Posted in: ,

On Sunday, the most stringent water use restrictions in memory will take effect in Midland. The city's "Drought Contingency Plan" is detailed here under the heading of "Stage 2 - Moderate Water Shortage Conditions." Earlier this week we received a letter from the city showing how our monthly water bill will increase if we use the same amount this summer as we did last summer, and it's not a pretty sight. In most cases, it's a threefold increase. (Although I must admit we're in better shape than some of our friends, one of whom is facing a $1,200/month bill if they don't change their habits.)

I'd like to be able to report that the ongoing drought, accompanying water shortage, and pessimistic outlook for improvement has universally altered attitudes, but that's not the case. 

Believe it or not, some people haven't even heard about the new restrictions. I exchanged emails with a woman in our neighborhood thanking me for sending out a reminder about the new plan, because their family "doesn't watch local news or subscribe to the local newspaper." [Unrelated side note: I'm mystified by this; how can someone take so little interest in their community? I can understand if there are economic issues at work that might limit access to news media, but our neighborhood isn't exactly in the "crack-house ghetto" category.]

Others are choosing to meet the situation head-on: they'll just get their own personal water supply by drilling a well. Someone is doing just that a couple of streets over from us. The cost of the well will likely approach 5% of the value of their home, but they have the right to decide how to spend their money. More troubling to me is the apparent attitude that, while our lakes may be drying up, there's an infinite supply of water in the aquifer underneath the city. But if a hundred new water wells are drilled each month by people who are determined to maintain their previous levels of consumption - if not increase them - I'm not sure that will be the case. And the sad result will be that some people who rely on their wells for their only source of potable water will go thirsty thanks to others who used that source to fill swimming pools and water lawns. Legal? Yes. Ethical? Questionable. Considerate? Nope.

Our homeowner's association dues are contributing to this ethical quandary.  Our neighborhood ponds are the central showpieces for the development, but they are kept full by pumping from water wells. The streams make a pretty sight, flowing through the landscape and over lovely manmade waterfalls, but I can't reconcile that with the drought-stricken pasture surrounding the development.

Some of the residents in our neighborhood are trying to get all the watering possible before the new restrictions kick in. That's my assessment, anyway, judging by the amount of water standing in the intersections and running down the gutters during the early morning hours of certain days of the week.

Photo of bucket in showerDebbie and I are doing our small part to adapt to the new paradigm. We've already been running our sprinkler system just once a week, and for less than the two total hours we'll be permitted under the new restrictions. We've managed to stay under the 10,000 gallon per month limit for the past six months, and intend to continue doing so. We also bought some five gallon buckets at Home Depot and are catching gray water from the bathtub and shower to hand-water selected plants and trees. We're also getting serious about a complete makeover of our landscaping, including removing the entire lawn and replacing it with hardscaping and xeriscaping. (A challenge will be finding a local professional landscape architect who specializes in this kind of design.)

Many people are turning to artificial turf to retain the semblance of naturally green landscape. We were once tempted to consider that, but decided against it. I think we'd be more favorably disposed if they included some artificial weeds, some half-dead spots, and some unevenly "mowed" patches to better approximate our reality.

I think the city is making a mistake by telling us that we just need to get through this next year, implying that when the new pipeline and water supply comes on line in 2013, we'll be able to go back to our profligate ways. The truth is, we'll never be able to go back - nor should we. But that's apparently a lesson that will take a generation's passing to learn.

Comanche Springs 2012: Drought Update
February 4, 2012 4:22 PM | Posted in: ,

Last February, I posted a series of photos and a video of the vigorous flow of water from Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton, Texas. You might want to take a moment and refresh your memory because this update won't be as meaningful without the comparison.

Fort Stockton has averaged about 14" of precipitation each year for the last 70 years, according to the National Weather Service. 2010 was a wetter-than-normal year and the region recorded about 17" of rainfall. 2011 was a stark contrast, as the rainfall total dropped off to a depressing 2.84".

And so we see what seems to be a logical link between a severe drought and the following photos that I captured yesterday and that document the fact that Comanche Springs is, well, dry. (Click on each photo to pop up a bigger version; use the arrows to move through the collection.) Most of the photos below are updates to their counterparts in the above-linked post. I didn't bother with any videos since a movie of a dry springbed is fairly non-dramatic.

I decided to undertake this update because the folks who are proposing to pump millions of gallons of water each day from the aquifer that feeds this spring and sell it to Midland have argued that the water table is drought-resistant, if not downright drought-proof. I wouldn't attempt to refute that argument based on a few photos taken at a particular point in time, but the pictures do seem to make the argument less compelling than it might otherwise be.

Flights of Fancy
January 31, 2012 8:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I created this from an actual photograph. Any idea what it is?

Aerial photo

You know what? The un-retouched image is actually quite a bit more impressive:

Aerial photo

I know that some of you have seen this scene from ground-level. It's an aerial look at the Forest Creek Capricorn Ridge (thanks, Gregg!) wind farm just north of Sterling City, Texas. The white lines and dots are the turbine locations and service roads, but what really caught my eye when I saw them on Google Earth are the fractal patterns of the terrain, showing how it's been etched over the eons by natural forces. Simply breathtaking, it is.

Speaking of wind, I ran across the following video on a blog called Brand 66, and I was immediately captured by the sheer whimsical genius. 

How cool would it be to set an army of these inventions loose on the West Texas plains, to "graze" and wander at will?

LPG Fracs: Technology for the times?
January 20, 2012 10:08 AM | Posted in: ,

Update (1/21/12): Ran across this blog post about LPG fracing. I don't have a great ear for subtlety, but the writer seems to be entering the discussion with a distinct bias, and some of the claims are simply wrong (or misleading - an outcry over putting hydrocarbons into a rock strata where hydrocarbons already exist naturally is a bit specious). The comments are more enlightening than the actual article but it does highlight the indisputable fact that fracing is an emotional topic for many people on both sides of the issue.

The debate about the merits and hazards of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells will likely never subside, as its opponents argue that the process causes everything from fiery faucets to endless earthquakes, and its proponents claim you can drink frac fluid without suffering ill effects other than an unnatural affinity for the Houston Texans. 

Image of drilling rig in a glass of waterBut at least one argument against the process is gaining validity, and that's the undeniable fact that fracing takes a heckuva lot of water, and water is a precious commodity that's growing painfully scarce in many parts of the country. The typical frac job uses tens of thousands of gallons of fresh water (and can require more than a million gallons), and much of that is rendered non potable by the process.

Perhaps it's time for oil and gas companies to take a serious look at using liquified petroleum gas (LPG) as a replacement for water. LPG is generally a mixture of propane and butane. I ran across this article on the Unconventional Oil & Gas Center website that describes the process and a Canadian company, GasFrac Energy Services, Inc, that specializes in LPG frac technology.

Once you get past the psychological impact of thinking about pumping a highly flammable mixture under unimaginable pressures into the ground (GasFrac contends that the process is actually quite safe, although they probably make that claim from deep inside a bunker in an undisclosed location), the benefits are obvious. You're using a hydrocarbon to entice other hydrocarbons to flee their rocky bonds while eliminating not only the need for copious amounts of water, but also for CO2 which is commonly used to "energize" the frac fluid. The frac fluid becomes a part of your revenue stream as it's produced with the reservoir oil and gas, rather than being an expensive disposal problem.

I did some quick asking around the office yesterday and no one was aware of any LPG fracs in the Permian Basin, although someone thought that Pioneer Resources may have tested the process locally. If anyone has some insights in that regard, feel free to share them.

Some companies will be better positioned than others to take advantage of this technology. For example, those with gas plants in the area of the drilling operations could, in theory, produce the LPG used for fracing, and then reprocess the produced liquids stream.

As recently as a couple of years ago, the proposition of pumping LPG into the ground as frac fluid was laughable, from a cost perspective. That perspective has to be changing as natural gas prices continue to tank, and the reality of dwindling water supplies sets in. Water may still be cheaper, but it's also more valuable. 

As I reported in these pages a month or so ago, owners of oil and gas wells permitted after February 1, 2012 must disclose the ingredients of frac fluid, as well as the volume of water used in the frac operation. Those disclosures will be made public on the FracFocus website.

Back Yard Action
January 18, 2012 9:57 PM | Posted in: ,

I was going through some pictures that I downloaded into iPhoto from one of my cameras and ran across this one. I don't remember taking it, nor do I have any idea how I managed to get the fisheye effect. But there's something about the composition and the action that captures my imagination.

I do know the characters and the storyline...but you don't, unless you were there. Feel free to make up something.

Photo of kids in the back yard

Car Wash Rules
October 23, 2011 10:06 PM | Posted in: ,

I took the pickup in for a wash job yesterday. It was the first time it had been washed since May, due to our drought-related water usage restrictions. As you might imagine, the truck was badly in need of a good scrubbing.

A lot of other people had decided to do the same thing, so I found myself in a line of about a dozen cars. The line moved slowly so I had time to observe some things...such as the fact that I was driving the only vehicle that truly needed a wash job.

Photo of a seriously dirty carSeriously. The white Lexus SUV that was ahead of me looked pristine, and every other car in sight had no visible signs of dirt and grime. It made me wonder how many of the owners had their cars washed as a matter of habit. "Oh, it's Saturday morning; time to get the car washed." Frankly, this kind of mindset has no place in a region that's received less than 4" of rain during the past year, and the lakes supplying most of the drinking water are drying up.

There may come a time in the next few months that car washes will be banned completely. That will, of course, be a terrible blow to those whose livelihoods are derived from providing that service, but the luxury of a clean car cannot compete with the necessity of having water to drink.

But, for now, sitting in that line of clean cars, I came up with a few simple guidelines to help you know When You Can Wash Your Car During A Drought*.

  1. White vehicles cannot be washed. Don't whine. You know good and well you picked out that boring white car for the sole reason that it doesn't show dirt and dust like darker colors. So, own it, and live with it.

  2. Black vehicles cannot be washed. You knew what you were getting into when you picked out that bad boy. Own it, and live with it.

  3. Clean vehicles cannot be washed. And by clean, I mean if you can tell the true color of the vehicle by looking at it, it's not dirty enough to require washing.
I hope these simple rules will prove effective in prolonging our scarce resources. There's no shame in driving a dirty car at this point in time. Just like having a dead lawn indicates you're a good steward of water, a filthy car shows that you really care about our water supply.

*These rules do not apply to those who are willing to hand wash their cars using Ozarka water or cheap beer.

Making a Stop Action Video
July 10, 2011 8:56 AM | Posted in: ,

Note: After I posted this, I realized that what I'm referring to as a "stop action" video is more correctly called a "time lapse" video. Pardon my lazy usage of terminology; I'm still learning this newfangled moving pictures thang and I'm not yet convinced it's not just a fad.

I tested the stop action feature of my new GoPro HD Hero video camera yesterday evening, and the results, while not exactly mind-blowing, are still encouraging. 

I set up the camera on a tripod using the optional mount, and placed it in front of one of our hummingbird feeders on the back porch. I set the camera to take a still photo every 30 seconds until the battery ran out. That resulted in 380 pictures, or just over 3 hours of filming. (I didn't bother attaching the camera to an outlet for unlimited photos - well, until the SD card was full - but that was an option.)

I then imported the photos into iPhoto '11 on my Mac, then exported them to a new folder on my hard drive. I opened iMovie '11, created a new project, selected all the photos from the directory, and dragged them into the project section of iMovie.

I selected all the photos in iMovie and set the duration for each to .1 seconds using the "Clip Adjustments" menu. I also turned off the Ken Burns effect by selecting "Fixed" in the "Cropping, Ken Burns & Rotation" menu. This combination resulted in a fast-moving, smooth stop action video of 50 seconds in duration.

I exported the movie in .m4v format, uploaded it to Vimeo, and the result is the following video. It's nothing dramatic, but if nothing else, you can get a feel for our weather pattern by watching the clouds appear and dissipate without providing any relief!

With the right subject matter, this could be a really fun process to experiment with.

Burn now, learn later
June 23, 2011 4:09 PM | Posted in: ,

While the immediate economic and ecological impacts of the recent wildfires and ongoing drought in West Texas are inarguably negative, there are still some positive aspects to the situation. Steve Nelle is a San Angelo-based wildlife biologist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and he has authored a short and quite interesting assessment of the likely ecological impacts and outlook for recovery from those fires.

He first takes aim at those who attempt to minimize the seriousness of the impact of the wildfires. I have been guilty of occasionally succumbing to the fallacy that since fire is a "natural phenomenon," it must be on the whole a positive thing, once we look past the obvious negative impacts on human endeavor and property. As Nelle points out, that's a naive perspective, especially when considering the multiplying effects of ongoing acute drought on fire-ravaged rangelands. 

In one study, soil erosion after a severe fire (like those around Possum Kingdom Lake, and in the Davis Mountains) was 7 to 10 tons per acre over a 2.5 year period, and more than 100 tons per acre in other locations with differing slopes and subsequent rainfall totals. It's hard for a layman to envision the actual impact of this kind of erosion, but given the relative thinness of topsoil throughout our region, it sounds quite serious.

As far as the grazing outlook for the burned areas, the studies generally seem to indicate that it will take at least three years for the pasture to recover, and that assumes at least average rainfall - not a comfortable assumption for us at this point. Some local ranchers are anticipating that it will take 20 years for their land to fully recover from the conflagrations and drought. Any way you slice it, that's a severe impact.

There are some positives, to be sure, including a great reduction in cedar (allergy sufferers, rejoice!), and reductions in the rattlesnake population. And if weather patterns change and provide more rainfall, the resulting grazing should be better than before - assuming anyone is still around to run livestock to take advantage of it.

If nothing else, the situation provides an excellent laboratory for scientists like Nelle to study the long-term impacts of wildfires and drought, and for ranchers to implement new techniques to optimize their use of the land.
That would be fact, in fact, and it's none other than founder and gazillionaire Jeff Bezos who's backing the project. 

The clock, as designed, will tick once a year, have a century hand that moves once every 100 years, and a cuckoo that, well, cuckoos once every 1,000 years. And the whole shootin' match is being assembled in a ginormous tunnel in the Sierra Diablo mountains, on land that Bezos owns and for which there isn't really any other good purpose so...why not?

This is dramatic scenery, by the way, laying just south of Guadalupe Peak, and about as rugged a stretch of landscape as you wouldn't want to traverse without a healthy supply of water and some good snake-guards.

I guess I somehow missed the fact that Bezos spent some of his formative years in Houston, and his family has ranched in South Texas for many years.

Also interesting to note is that the general contractor for this project is listed on the website as Swaggart Brothers, Inc., headquartered in Oregon, which is presumably how Bezos found them. But their website doesn't list this as one of the projects they're involved in. You don't suppose they're a little bit embarrassed by this job, do you? It's not exactly the sort of thing you brag about to your fellow hardhats in the local bar, unless it's to crow about the huge amounts of dough you're no doubt extracting from a certain eccentric billionaire.

I guess this project makes about as much sense as the Blue Origin spaceport Bezos is building in Culberson County.

Tip of the hat to Neatorama
I see that the Midland Reporter Telegram is officially supporting Clayton Williams's request to pump and sell to Midland more than 40 million gallons of water each day from his land west of Fort Stockton. The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District board begins hearings today to consider the issue, which has huge ramifications for a variety of stakeholders.

The MRT's editorialist acknowledges that competing interests make compelling arguments for and against this transfer of our region's most precious resource.

Nevertheless, we think Williams' plan stands the test of Texas law and science. First, Texas tradition allows property owners to harvest, ship and sell goods coming from the owned property. Oil is a good example. Property owners share in oil revenue as royalty owners when oil is discovered on their property. We see little difference in this model here with the exception that Williams plans to do the harvesting of the water himself rather than through an investor such as an oil company.

I'm not a lawyer or an expert in the area of Texas water and mineral rights, but I do question the analogy to the oil industry. While it's true that mineral owners in Texas have the right to capture the oil and gas under the acreage they own, that right is not unlimited. There are laws and regulations designed to protect adjacent mineral owners from drainage of their property by another owner.

In addition, there are also laws and regulations governing how water can be taken from surface streams and rivers. As far as I know, a private landowner does not have an unrestricted right to dam a river and take all the water from to the detriment of those living downstream. In the sense that the aquifer in question in Pecos County can be likened to an underground stream, there's a legitimate question as to whether the kind of pumping proposed by Williams is encroaching on the rights of those landowners "downstream." (It's an indisputable fact that formerly free-flowing springs to the east - the direction the aquifer extends - dry up when pumping begins.)

The idea that granting the pumping permit is consistent with current law might mean that perhaps the law itself needs to be revisited. If this issue ends up in the Supreme Court, as some think, a fresh look at an old law might be the most useful outcome.

Fire Map
April 17, 2011 1:56 PM | Posted in: ,

I've been tracking wildfires in West Texas via Weather Underground's interactive mapping feature. If you're not familiar with it, check it out when you have a moment.

When you initially visit the preceding link, you'll see a generic Google Map. Use the "Map Controls" located beneath the map to select which options you want to display. If you click on the "Fire" option, you'll then get a set of related options including displays of smoke cover, fire perimeters, and satellite detected fires. I think the first and last feature are most helpful in staying current with the ongoing blazes; the second option shows a [depressing] picture of how much acreage has already gone up in smoke.

The map is usable on a smartphone or iPad, but barely. It's slow to load and navigate. But on a desktop computer, it's very responsive.

Of course, what many of us may not realize is that we in West Texas aren't alone in being threatened by wildfires. As the map below shows (a snapshot from just a few minutes ago), the interior of Mexico is also being plagued by fire. Indeed, much of the smoke cover that's hitting the Texas Gulf Coast is coming from those fires.

Screenshot of Weather Underground wildfire locator map

I don't think I need to remind you...pray for rain!

Redefining a Day
March 28, 2011 7:46 AM | Posted in: ,

In anticipation of the watering restrictions scheduled to begin on April 1st in Midland and several surrounding communities, I reprogrammed my sprinkler system control box on Saturday, determined to get a jump on things rather than wait until the last minute. 

Our home address ends in an odd number, meaning that we'll be allowed to water our lawn on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. I carefully updated the settings on the two programs (one for the lawn and another for the flowerbeds) to ensure that they would take place on the proper days. The lawn program would begin at 4:00 a.m. on those designated days, and the beds would be watered beginning at 7:00 a.m. I carefully selected those times to avoid both the heat of the day and potential conflicts with indoor water use.

I was feeling smug at my far-sighted preparation, until I read this (emphasis mine) and learned that I was setting myself up to be a lawbreaker. Here's the important part:
Watering also is being restricted to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. on each assigned day. An individual's designated day starts at 6 p.m. and carries into the following morning, meaning the yard of an odd numbered home could be irrigated between 6 p.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. on Thursday. Even numbered homes, in turn, could use outdoor water between 6 p.m. on Tuesday and 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Purvis said.
I'm trying to understand the logic behind defining a day as starting at 6:00 p.m. Seems like an unnecessary complication to me, in effect saying "you can water only on Wednesday, unless you want to do it on Thursday."

What am I missing here? What's wrong with an actual "midnight to midnight" definition of a day? Or is this simply another example of the apparently irresistible need of government to complicate things?
Alert readers (and I know that includes all of you, because you don't let me get away with anything) will recall that our dance last Saturday night featured something different, something that to my knowledge had never been tried in the 20 year history of the Ballroom Dance Society: prerecorded music in place of a live band.

I'm happy - nay, ecstatic - to report that the experiment was a smashing success*. Not only did we save a bunch of money, which was the primary motivation, but we got a lot of positive feedback from those in attendance (some of whom were pretty skeptical going in).

Of course, the music playlist was instrumental (ha!) in the event's success, but we had a secret weapon that was the cherry on the sundae, the icing on the cake, the sugar in the tea. OK, you get the picture. We actually did have a band...sort of:

Photo of cutout band figures

We created this "band" from foam board, and set it up on the Midland Country Club stage with the sound equipment (basically an amp and an iPad) hidden behind the drummer. It added a bit of atmosphere that somehow made the unattended music seem less, well, unattended. In fact, there was a steady stream of people throughout the night having their photos made in front of the band (which someone dubbed "The Cutouts").

This Madmen-style of black silhouettes with minimalist white accents provides a classy effect that's surprisingly striking. The photo doesn't really do it justice. If you look closely, you'll note a pearl bracelet on the singer's wrist, and a hint of a shirt cuff on the trumpet player. The shirts on the bass and sax player and drummer are actually just two pieces of white foamboard glued to the black backing board. The bandstands are flat, but appear to be 3D because of the way they were drawn.

There's a lesson here: sometimes, you need to go a little above and beyond what's expected to help people decide to accept a significant change.

If you're interested in the playlist, I've uploaded a version of it (we made some minor changes before the dance) to the iTunes Store. This link will open in iTunes if you have it installed on your computer.

*We did learn a few things. Ten seconds is just about the right gap between songs, if you don't have a DJ. The Rascals' version of Mustang Sally is too slow. If you can hear everyone's feet on the dance floor, the music needs to be louder. You can never play too many waltzes. Who's Been Talkin' by the L.A. Blues Alliance makes for a smokin' rumba. Jaci Velasquez, who's better known for her Christian contemporary recordings, has a song called Tango that's really a cha cha...and it's another fantastic dance song. And even George Strait and Willie Nelson create some great ballroom dance music!
Forbes Magazine has created an interactive graphic showing population movements into and out of every county in the United States in 2008, based on federal income tax-related data provided by the IRS. A mouse click on each county reveals lines emanating from that county to every other county where people moved to or from, and showing the number and per capita income of those who moved. Here's Midland County's snapshot:


Here are the details behind the map:

County # of People Into Midland Avg Income Per Capita - In # of People From Midland Avg Income Per Capita - Out Net Change in Population Net Income 
Kern Co, CA 30 24,200 0 - 30 726,000
Los Angeles, CA 51 18,200 18 38,800 33 229,800
Orange, CA 23 23,200 0 - 23 533,600
San Diego, CA 50 18,800 23 13,000 27 641,000
Riverside, CA 24 30,100 0 - 24 722,400
San Bernadino, CA 38 17,200 0 - 38 653,600
Clark, NV 45 11,700 0 - 45 526,500
Maricopa, AZ 77 13,500 32 39,400 45 (221,300)
Denver, CO 21 18,600 0 - 21 390,600
San Juan, NM 24 53,700 0 - 24 1,288,800
Bernalillo, NM 21 35,600 26 21,100 (5) 199,000
Dona Ana, NM 34 18,300 18 14,200 16 366,600
Chaves, NM 24 20,100 20 13,600 4 210,400
Roosevelt, NM 24 9,200 0 - 24 220,800
Eddy, NM 42 20,400 27 18,900 15 346,500
Lea, NM 136 36,000 71 18,700 65 3,568,300
Tulsa, OK 26 36,900 31 83,100 (5) (1,616,700)
Oklahoma, OK 42 25,400 49 33,500 (7) (574,700)
Cleveland, OK 24 24,800 0 - 24 595,200
Potter, TX 41 26,800 28 25,400 13 387,600
Randall, TX 65 46,300 56 22,300 9 1,760,700
Hale, TX 26 13,900 0 - 26 361,400
Lubbock, TX 327 22,400 310 21,000 17 814,800
Hockley, TX 33 20,700 0 - 33 683,100
Yoakum, TX 57 21,100 0 - 57 1,202,700
Gaines, TX 41 27,400 30 47,500 11 (301,600)
Dawson, TX 84 13,000 67 12,700 17 241,100
Scurry, TX 46 29,600 36 21,900 10 573,200
Andrews, TX 86 19,300 76 17,700 10 314,600
Martin, TX 121 18,200 109 18,300 12 207,500
Howard, TX 157 18,800 155 19,800 2 (117,400)
Mitchell, TX 0 - 23 28,000 (23) (644,000)
Nolan, TX 12 30,200 0 - 12 362,400
Winkler, TX 34 33,700 30 17,200 4 629,800
Ector, TX 1042 25,400 902 21,000 140 7,524,800
Taylor, TX 107 30,300 75 19,800 32 1,757,100
Reeves, TX 65 18,400 41 19,700 24 388,300
Ward, TX 63 26,400 61 18,300 2 546,900
Crane, TX 38 29,700 38 52,300 - (858,800)
Upton, TX 41 44,900 27 16,600 14 1,392,700
Reagan, TX 24 21,000 0 - 24 504,000
Tom Green, TX 201 18,400 117 21,900 84 1,136,100
Pecos, TX 64 36,600 54 16,700 10 1,440,600
Presidio, TX 77 9,200 45 9,200 32 294,400
Brewster, TX 102 13,700 37 11,200 65 983,000
Brown, TX 25 22,100 20 31,200 5 (71,500)
Webb, TX 34 8,400 0 - 34 285,600
Wichita, TX 42 18,200 0 - 42 764,400
Denton, TX 62 24,200 91 30,100 (29) (1,238,700)
Collin, TX 61 26,300 98 45,200 (37) (2,825,300)
Parker, TX 20 22,400 37 34,800 (17) (839,600)
Tarrant, TX 173 26,100 280 26,100 (107) (2,792,700)
Dallas, TX 163 32,300 156 34,400 7 (101,500)
Hood, TX 27 26,300 58 75,700 (31) (3,680,500)
Johnson, TX 0 - 36 31,700 (36) (1,141,200)
Ellis, TX 0 - 22 21,300 (22) (468,600)
Smith, TX 33 27,200 28 29,800 5 63,200
Gregg, TX 0 - 18 64,200 (18) (1,155,600)
McClennan, TX 20 29,800 24 14,600 (4) 245,600
Bell, TX 56 18,200 49 18,300 7 122,500
Williamson, TX 52 28,500 78 28,100 (26) (709,800)
Travis, TX 89 21,400 107 33,200 (18) (1,647,800)
Hays, TX 34 17,800 17 32,400 17 54,400
Comal, TX 22 30,800 27 52,100 (5) (729,100)
Bexar, TX 106 21,000 159 23,300 (53) (1,478,700)
Brazos, TX 22 23,500 22 30,400 - (151,800)
Montgomery, TX 52 43,600 62 48,600 (10) (746,000)
Harris, TX 265 38,800 202 46,000 63 990,000
Fort Bend, TX 66 39,900 46 39,800 20 802,600
Brazoria, TX 26 45,300 14 77,100 12 98,400
Jefferson, TX 25 24,400 0 - 25 610,000
Nueces, TX 48 23,700 18 19,400 30 788,400
Totals 5,233 4,301 932 15,438,100

It's difficult to draw any conclusions from this data without making some shaky assumptions. There's no explanation regarding methodology or clarification regarding the source of the data. There is a footnote that explains that the IRS doesn't report inter-county moves for fewer than ten people, which does explain why it appears that no one moved in or out of Midland County from or to any states other than California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma.

It's interesting to note that all interstate movements resulted in a net population gain for Midland County. 

It's a different story for many movements within Texas (although Midland still picked up a net of 491 from intrastate moves). The Metroplex in North Texas picked up a significant net gain from Midland County. My assumption is that the big movement (a net loss of 107 people) to Tarrant County (Fort Worth) was related to the Barnett Shale gas drilling boom that was in full swing in 2008.

Oddly enough, and probably contrary to common perception, the Houston area sent more people to Midland County than it took. We netted 63 people from Harris County.

Harris County was the anomaly for the major metropolitan regions in Texas. Midland had a net loss to each of the counties where Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin are located.

I have no idea what to make of the "average income per capita" numbers, which in total indicated that the net gain in income for Midland County was over $15 million. But that assumes that people moving in and out made the same income where they landed as where they started. At first glance, that seems to be a reasonable assumption, but it doesn't hold up given that there are so many reasons for people to move.

If you're a data hound, this provides plenty of playground to roam.

Tracking Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton
February 25, 2011 9:45 AM | Posted in: ,

Last Monday, February 21, we made a day trip to Fort Stockton to visit family, and were pleased to see that Comanche Springs was again flowing. This is a fairly dependable annual occurrence each winter, when the agricultural irrigation west of town ceases and the water level in the aquifer rises sufficiently for the water to exit at several surface locations in Rooney Park.

In light of an ongoing battle concerning local water rights - and specifically a proposal to pipe up to 42 million gallons per day from Fort Stockton to Midland - there's a legitimate concern about whether we'll ever again see the springs flow like this. While studies seem to indicate that the aquifer continually recharges, I doubt that it does so to an extent that will permit exit to the surface. I decided to document the output of the springs from beginning to end.

Click on each photo to view a larger version. You can also navigate through the entire suite of pictures if you wish to skip the commentary.

As I mentioned above, the springs come up in several locations around Rooney Park. These sources look like big holes in the ground containing standing water; the flow of the stream is not readily evident, and in fact the water looks like algae-laden runoff. It gets much better.


The third source (the exit from which shown at right above) is at the swimming pool and long-time visitors to the pool will remember the metal cage around it. It's been there for many decades, as evidenced by the undated photo shown below that I borrowed from a caver website. [Comanche Springs Cave is a lightly-explored but quite extensive series of caverns and tunnels that were carved out by the flow of the springs. Some theorize that the system might be as much as 100 miles in length. Exploration is made difficult by the unpredictability of the water table.]

Rooney Park is bisected by a canal that runs from the southwest corner of the park past the swimming pool and exits the park at the northeast corner. Water from the springs is channeled into the canal. The photo on the left shows the beginning section, and the one on the right is exiting the park. The bridge in the background is on the Sanderson Highway (Highway 285). As you can see, the water level in the canal has risen considerably by this point.


After exiting the park, the finished portion of the canal comes to an end just east of the Highway 285 bridge.


As I stood on a concrete embankment overlooking this "pond," a hawk flew out of the underbrush at the left and passed me at eye level, not fifty feet away. It happened too quickly to get a photo, but I was transfixed by the sight.

From here, the stream wanders east and north, eventually flowing under East Dickinson Blvd (aka East 9th Street, aka Business I-10). The satellite photo below clearly shows the meandering nature of the stream. It also demonstrates the life-giving effect of live water in a desert environment.

Following are pictures of the stream at the East Dickinson bridge. In the middle photo, you can see that the water is a welcome attraction to overwintering waterfowl. The third shows the water flowing along the highway right-of-way just before it runs under the bridge, heading north.


The stream continues northeast and crosses under Interstate 10, where it flows across the service road.

We can infer from the above photo that the flow of water is a limited seasonal event; otherwise, the city/county/state (jurisdiction isn't clear to me) would construct a bridge or tunnel to deal with the stream.

From here, the water flows into a privately-owned pasture* and empties into what I believe is a caliche pit. I'm not positive about that, but I do know that alert travelers along I-10 can catch a glimpse of what looks like a very small lake just north of the highway. Whether this is a playa lake or a pit is unknown to me; readers with knowledge about this are invited to share in the comments section. Again, though, we can turn to Google's satellite photo that seems to indicate that the end point is more of a depression than a pit. Zoom in on the map below to see what I mean. [Update: I stand corrected. That large whitish area on the satellite photo does appear to be a pit; it's dry in this version of the photo. But the stream also appears to continue north and then east (follow the green "trail," where it sort of peters out. That's what I initially looked at.]

In any event, by this point the stream was flowing vigorously, and running water through a West Texas pasture is a beautiful sight.

If you look closely at the third photo, you'll see where ducks took off from the water after I startled them; they're flying in the distance.

I shot the following short video with my Canon point-and-shoot to provide an idea of the strength of the stream's flow at this point.

It's been estimated that Comanche Springs once flowed at a rate of 60 million gallons per day or more. According to a 2009 report in the Fort Stockton Pioneer (link no longer available), the flow was estimated at 1.5 million gallons per day, on average, but subject to significant daily variation. That's still a pretty hefty stream in the desert. And the question of whether it's better to let this natural flow continue, benefiting "only" wildlife and pasture, or to capture it and send it to a city whose water supply is dwindling is a legitimate one. Regardless of the outcome of the debate, we should enjoy the beauty of Comanche Springs whenever the opportunity occurs.

*Full disclosure: I'm pretty sure I was trespassing in order to take the photos and videos in the pasture. Although I didn't see a "Posted" or "No Trespassing" sign, the fact that I stepped over a fence to gain access means that I went where I shouldn't have gone. If I had planned this trip, I would have contacted the landowner for permission, and I have no doubt it would have been granted. As it is, I have no excuse, other than a desire to share this special phenomenon with others. You should not follow my example.
[Part 1 is here]

The shivering bubba - and for ease of reference, why don't we just call him Bubba? - perched atop his overturned airboat seemed nice enough, but he was obviously skeptical that the skinny, neoprene-clad guy riding a piece of styrofoam with a sail could be any help. To be honest, I shared his skepticism.

We discussed a couple of alternatives. He did have friends across the lake, and I could certainly sail back to them and describe his predicament, but they didn't have another boat and so that approach didn't seem too beneficial. Pleasure Lake had no facilities, no marina, no infrastructure, so there was no one "in charge" we could seek help from, and this was before cell phones were common. We both came to the conclusion that if anything was going to be done, it would have to be us doing it. And the obvious solution was to sail both of us to shore.

Fortunately, my sailboard - a Mistral Maui - was what is known as a "floater." I earlier used the term facetiously to describe Bubba, but it's an actual term of art in the sailboard business. A floater is a board with significant buoyancy, enough that it will easily support the weight of the sailor even when not in motion. Floaters are good boards for beginners, and they're also good for light wind conditions: the SUVs of sailboards.

At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called "sinkers," and you can guess why. They are smaller, less-buoyant boards that are very maneuverable and fairly unforgiving: the sports cars of sailboards. Many sinkers are so non-buoyant that the only way to mount them is to catch a gust of wind strong enough to lift the sailor out of the water and onto the board; this technique is called a water-start, and I think I managed to do it exactly once in my rather short sailboarding career.

But I digress. My board was quite buoyant (11'-12' in length and about 200 liters of displacement) and I could walk from end to end and barely dip below water level. The bigger question was whether it would support more than twice my weight. Much more.

I described my plan to Bubba.

"I'm going to carry you on my sailboard to the shore."

His eyebrows went up, but he didn't protest.

"I think this will work," I went on, sounding more sure than I was, "but you're still going to get wetter and colder than you are now. This sailboard won't support our total combined weight, but even if it did, I'm guessing you've never stood on a board, and it's harder than it looks. I can't afford for you to bring us both down."

Bubba nodded his understanding.

"Now, what I need for you to do is to slide into the water and partway up onto the board on your belly, grabbing the center of board, about where I'm standing. Let your legs trail in the water, and I'll try to get us to shore as quickly as possible."

Miraculously, he was able to pull himself onto the sailboard without pulling us both into the water, and I was relieved to find that we were sufficiently stable that this plan might actually have a chance to succeed. Now all we needed was some wind.

It was getting late in the afternoon - still plenty of daylight left, but the wind was starting to die, as it often does. But one advantage of having a floater is that you also probably have a huge sail, because you're anticipating lighter winds. That was indeed the case with my setup, and even a 5 mph wind would be sufficient for our purposes. (Truth be known, we would have been in more trouble had the winds been too high.)

As it turned out, the winds were favorable and we moved steadily toward shore. I'm not sure who was more relieved when we hit water shallow enough for Bubba to wade and hop onto dry land. By that time, he was turning a bit bluish, shivering uncontrollably, but the sunlight was welcome and the mile-long hike he had to get back to his truck would no doubt dry him out and warm him up. We shook hands and he set out. I climbed back on my board and headed across the lake.

I often wonder if and how he would have made it to shore without my help. Chances are that the water temperature wasn't cold enough that a twenty minute swim would have been fatal, but there's always a risk of cramping, or worse. All in all, it was probably fortuitous that I picked that afternoon to go sailing.

I never knew the guy's name. I also never heard how they got that airboat out of the lake.
Game wardens recovered the body of a Stanton woman on Sunday, one of two family members who died in a Scurry County boating accident over the weekend. Erin Cook was transported to a hospital, as well, where she was pronounced dead due to hypothermia. The body of Melody Cook, who didn't make it to shore, was found Sunday morning at 8:50 a.m.

This account of a tragic accident appears on the front page of today's Midland Reporter Telegram [online version], and as I read it, I had vivid memories of a similar incident that had a much happier ending.

Long time West Texans may recall that in the mid 1980s, the normally dry playa lake next to I-20 between Stanton and Big Spring was filled to capacity by runoff from record-breaking rainfall. At that time, it was named "Pleasure Lake" by wags, evoking a verdant image that was completely incongruent with the reality of a puddle in the middle of a mesquite-filled pasture. Of course, everything's bigger in Texas, and that "puddle" covered a good number of acres with water that was 6-8 feet deep in places.

The sudden appearance of a "lake" where none existed before produced a rather striking tableau for travelers scooting down Interstate 20, as the generally choppy surface of the water was made even more agitated by a double handful of sailboarders who were thrilled to find a windswept and generally boat-free body of water so close at hand. I was one of those fortunate folks on whom Mother Nature smiled briefly, and I spent a number of weekend afternoons honing my windsurfing skills at Pleasure Lake.

Thus I found myself in the middle of the lake one crisp fall afternoon, pushed smoothly across the water by light-but-steady breezes. The water was cold enough that I was wearing a drysuit (which is like a wetsuit except you stay, well, dry) and neoprene booties and gloves. The air temperature was probably in the 70s, and water temps were somewhat lower than that - not frigid, but also not something you'd want to spend much time in without protection. Or even with protection, for that matter.

We rarely had to share the water with boats, thanks to the shallowness of the "lake" and the lack of boat ramps, but during this particular afternoon, somebody had managed to get one of those Everglades-style, and evidently homemade airboats into the water. Some bubba was buzzing around the lake in it; I don't recall that he was being reckless or even annoying, but the noise was an intrusion in the normally mellow surroundings.

Suddenly, I noticed that I no longer noticed any noise. I looked across the water a few hundred yards and there was the airboat, only it was sitting at an odd angle, and not moving. I swung my sail around and headed over to see what was up.

What was up was the bottom of the boat, and the bubba driver was propped up on the floats, trying to stay out of the water. He'd managed to flip the dang boat, and was flung into the cold water. By the time I got close, his teeth were already chattering. He was about a hundred yards from the shore, the sun was getting lower in the sky, and by the looks of him, he was probably more of a floater than a swimmer, if you get my drift. Hmm. A quandary, and one that could get rather uncomfortable rather quickly.

Check back tomorrow for the exciting conclusion...which can be found here.
I received an email yesterday from Josh Wallaert, the web editor for Places, which is described as an interdisciplinary journal of contemporary architecture, landscape, and urbanism, with particular emphasis on the public realm as physical place and social ideal. Josh wanted to draw attention to a new essay by Cornell University architecture professor Jim Williamson.

I was a bit skeptical that an article emanating from an Ivy League school would be of much interest to Gazette readers, but I clicked over...and think you should do the same. With an enigmatic title, What Passes for Beauty: A Death in Texas recounts the author's experience designing a grave site for a West Texas rancher while working for a firm in Midland during the 1970s.

It's an anecdote that accurately captures some of the spirit of the region, both in terms of the character of the land and of its ranching inhabitants. It's also an interesting coincidence that Professor Williamson's on-campus address is Sibley Hall, given that the Sibley ranching family has a long and storied history in West Texas.

The only minor quibble I have with the article is that it's apparently been a while since Williamson has visited the Permian Basin, given his observation that the oil is now "mostly gone." He would likely be amazed at the current vitality in the oil and gas industry in our region.

New Gallery Images
October 21, 2010 4:40 AM | Posted in: ,

I had no idea I'd fallen so far behind in posting new images to the Gallery.

For simple notes regarding each picture, visit the Gallery. To view the full-sized images on this page, click the thumbnails below.

Pumpjack Railroad Track Clouds and Sun Butterfly on Orange Flower Flower Sulfur Butterfly on Flower Spider and Web Spider and Web Praying Mantis on Crape Myrtle Dew Covered Mushroom Bee and Morning Glory Flower Fall Flowers Fall Flowers Dead Butterfly

Radio Imagination
October 15, 2010 8:41 AM | Posted in: ,

In my hand, if I pointed it just right
You oughta heard what come to me at night
On that little transistor, my big sister's radio.

So many DJs from so far away
You oughta heard the records they would play,
On that little transistor, my big sister's radio.

Tommy Castro's song, Big Sister's Radio (from his most excellent album, Painkiller), paints a picture of a time and practice that's probably quite familiar to those of us who grew up in rural areas during rock-and-roll's "Golden Age" (I'll let you figure out when, exactly, that was). I have fond memories of sleep outs in our back yard, under star-filled West Texas skies, listening to the same kind of transistor radio described by Castro (" dial").

Depending on weather conditions, we could pick up border-blaster stations from just across the Rio Grande (XERF, XELO), Fort Worth (WBAP), and of course, everyone's favorite, KOMA in Oklahoma City.

KOMA was cutting edge rock-and-roll, and I was oddly mesmerized by the incantation of the exotic places where various dances, concerts, and drag races were taking place...such as Lawton, Hutchinson, Enid, Elk City, and Liberal. I could only imagine how cool those places were. (And, to paraphrase Paul Simon, reality could never match my sweet imagination.)

Anyway, these memories were resurrected by another item from Debbie's mom's collection of memorabilia, which I introduced yesterday.

Promotional photo of Monte Magee

I haven't been able to find much about Monte Magee. On this site, there's a reference to his being a radio personality from San Antonio, and in a catalog of copyright entries, under Musical compositions, there's a reference to a 1938 song entitled In that old fashioned way where the music and words are attributed to a Monte Magee. That year is consistent with the dates of the other items in the memorabilia collection, so I assume it's the same guy.

Now, in case you're wondering, 1938 was WELL before the time I was listening to KOMA on that little transistor radio, and I somehow doubt that the DJs of my time were wearing suits and classy striped ties. But I'm sure some kid, somewhere - perhaps in another area of rural Texas -  was held in thrall by Magee's voice and music.

Evil in Martin County
September 24, 2010 7:59 AM | Posted in:

Yesterday, someone shot and killed Bob and Cherie Westbrook's dog. Another dog is missing, and feared dead.

Many thoughts come to mind, not the least of which is a reminder of the cruelty some people are capable of.

Fort Stockton's New Visitor Center
August 2, 2010 9:04 PM | Posted in: ,

I won't go so far as to say that it's worth driving 200 miles just to see it, but if you happen to be in Fort Stockton (or anywhere close by), the town's new visitor center is worth, well, visiting. This multi-million dollar installation - at the intersection of Main Street and E. Dickinson Blvd. - incorporates a lot of symbolism representing the area's historical and commercial contributions.

Photo - Fort Stockton, Texas

The large steel span and signage across Main Street (and close by Paisano Pete, the world's largest roadrunner) serves as a gateway to the historic district where many buildings from the old fort have been restored.

Photo - Fort Stockton, Texas

Larger-than-life weathered steel cutouts evoke the varied cultures of the earliest inhabitants of the region: American Indians, Mexican vaqueros, settlers coming through by covered wagon, US Cavalry soldiers.

Photo - Fort Stockton, Texas

The visitors center also spotlights the region's significant contribution to meeting the country's energy needs. It sports a full-sized pumping unit (oil), a big wellhead (natural gas), and the newest installations - working solar panels and wind turbines. These power the visitor complex, and any surplus electricity is put into the grid.

Photo - Fort Stockton, Texas

Then there's this:

Pretty cool, huh? Streams in the's Biblical, you know.

American Basket Flower
May 27, 2010 1:55 PM | Posted in: ,

I love these big flowers, with their mix of delicate fronds and business-like spines.

This and a few other new images will be up at the Gallery pretty soon.

Photo - American Basket Flower set against blue sky and clouds
One of the presumed harbingers of spring in West Texas is the return of roosting buzzards. If that's true, then Fort Stockton has seen its last cold snap for the season, as evidenced by this iPhone video I shot last evening from my parents' backyard:

This is just a fraction of the flock of scavengers that would eventually come to roost in the Afghan pines and live oak trees of the neighborhood. My guess is that there were 100-200 of the big birds.

They're actually quite graceful, floating silently and effortlessly in the stiff breezes that persisted until nightfall. The only unsettling thing about them being directly overhead was...well, I'll leave it to your imagination.

The voices you hear at the end of the video recounting an encounter of a motorcycle with a buzzard are those of my brother and his wife.
Midland's official snowfall yesterday totaled 4.5" which, as some commenters implied in the previous post, is not worth sniffing at compared to what they've had in their northern climes. But put it in perspective: that total was the 9th heaviest snowfall in our area's recorded weather history. Midland has never had more than 10 inches of snow (officially) in one day (the record of 9.8 inches occurred in 1998). So, for us and our anemic snow-handling infrastructure, yesterday provided an event of historic proportions.

Of course, by 3:00 pm the sun was shining, the streets were [mostly] clear, and those who'd gotten "snow days," while enjoying their good fortune, were doing so with just a tinge of sheepishness. (I initially used the term "guilt" and then decided that it probably wasn't applicable at all.)

I chauffeured my wife to her office around 8:30 a.m. so she could grab her laptop and work from home. The streets were a bit treacherous, but traffic was light and well-behaved. Even though her office was officially closed, several employees showed up, either because they weren't intimidated by the weather or - more likely - hadn't gotten word of the closing. She was able to be productive the rest of the day from the comfort of our living room.

The best thing about snowfall around here, besides the fact that it's rare and doesn't stay around too long, is that it makes for some pretty scenery.

Photo of snow and pond

"Snowpocalypse," West Texas Style
February 23, 2010 7:15 AM | Posted in: ,

We Texans pride ourselves on our fierce, independent toughness, able to overcome any obstacle with aplomb.

Any obstacle, that is, except for 3" of snow.

I'm sure every West Texas-originated blog will carry reports of the snowfall that now blankets our area. That snowfall has practically shut down all public activities, including all local schools (college classes are starting late) and many government offices. Loop 250, one of our major thoroughfares, is now closed. Interestingly, all flights from Midland International Airport are still listed as on time.

Also, for the first time ever, my wife's office is closed due to the weather, something that I'm sure will be greeted by amusement at their Denver headquarters.

I'm also sure that our friends from the northeastern part of the US will also be amused at our reaction to what for them is hardly worth mentioning.

Ballroom Dancing in West Texas
January 15, 2010 9:08 AM | Posted in: ,

[Updated May, 2018]

I'm leaving this post up as historical documentation, but be aware that many things I've described are no longer accurate due to the inevitability of change as time passes. Since I no longer live in West Texas, I don't think I'm qualified to keep all of this up-to-date. Reader/dancer beware!

[Updated January, 2014]

Based on the number of questions Debbie and I get about ballroom dancing, I've decided to create a rare thing: a Content Filled post providing some basic information about dance lessons and venues in the Midland/Odessa area. This is by no means a comprehensive treatise but I hope it will provide some useful tips for those who are new to ballroom or who are new to the area.


There are a large number of dance studios in Midland/Odessa, but most cater to children. I'm familiar with two that offer ballroom lessons for adults.

In Odessa, the Love to Dance studio opened in 2005 and is the go-to place for lessons. Ray and Ronnie Reynosa are the owners and instructors, and they teach all forms of ballroom and Latin dances. Their pricing and lesson options are shown on their website. The Reynosas are also great ambassadors for dancing throughout West Texas as they travel to some of the smaller outlying towns to give lessons.

In Midland, Bernadette Lindsey's Dance Design studio (no website) is the most well-established ballroom studio in the area. Dance Design is located in the Imperial Shopping Center (3211 W. Wadley, Suite 11B; phone 432.352.8866). Bernadette offers private lessons (group lessons have been discontinued, except those through Midland College) and teaches country as well as ballroom steps. She also periodically offers an introduction to ballroom dance class through Midland College's Continuing Education curriculum; you can find the current CE schedule here.

If you're an absolute beginner I strongly recommend the Midland College class. It's a great way to learn the basics of six common dances (Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, Rumba, Cha-Cha and Meringue) in a low-stress environment, and you can quickly decide if ballroom is something you want to pursue further.

The newest dance studio in Midland is Elegance Ballroom, which opened in January, 2013. It's located in the Colonnade Polo Park shopping center, at the northeast corner of Garfield and Loop 250 (4610 Garfield St, Suite B1, to be exact; phone 432.242.1823). This is a full-service studio, offering private and group lessons in ballroom, Latin, country, and swing, for adults and children. They generally sponsor a social dance each Saturday evening.

In the interest of full disclosure, Debbie and I have taken and continue to take private lessons from Bernadette.

Dance Clubs

Of course, knowing how to dance doesn't do you a lot of good if you have no place to use that skill. Our area is fortunate to have two active organizations that promote ballroom dancing.

The Ballroom Dance Society (BDS) is the older of the two, having been in existence since 1990. It current has about 100 members, most of whom are in Midland, Odessa, and Big Spring. Membership is open to anyone, but requires a recommendation from a current member. The annual membership fee is $45/person; dances are $35/person and are generally held at the Gloria Denman Ballroom (see below). The dress code for BDS is semi-formal to formal; men are required to wear coats and ties and you'll see more than a few tuxes at a given dance, and ladies don evening wear. The exceptions are the summer dances where casual dress is permitted. Dances are always accompanied by a buffet dinner. Dances are generally scheduled on Friday evenings, one per month.

The current BDS schedule, showing dates and bands, is available here.

More full disclosure: Debbie and I have served on the BDS board.

Club Dance was formed in 2007 by some members of BDS who wanted to expand the opportunities for dancing in the area. It's a bit larger than BDS, with perhaps 200 members. Club Dance differentiates itself from BDS in several ways. First, it's a little less expensive; annual membership fee is $40/couple or $25/individual; dances are $25/person. Second, the dress code is more casual; coats and ties are rarely required. Third, the Club dances have a wider variety of music, with a couple of dances each year featuring country music. And finally, the normal venue for their dances is the Gloria Denman Ballroom, a wonderful facility that's described in more detail below. Dances are accompanied by a buffet dinner provided by a variety of local caterers. Dances are generally scheduled on Saturday evenings, one per month.

It's logical to presume that the two clubs compete with each other, but that's not the case. With a few exceptions, most dancers are members of both clubs, and the organizations work together to ensure that their schedules don't conflict. Several of the board members of one group also serve on the board of the other. There are several benefits to having two such groups, primarily in the areas of providing alternatives for levels of formality, and exposure to different types of music and dance venues.

All dances for both clubs feature live bands and orchestras. The challenges involved in locating and booking bands that do a good job of ballroom music and that are affordable are not insignificant. While there are a few bands in the Midland/Odessa area, groups are also booked from Lubbock, Abilene, San Angelo, and even Dallas or Austin. Musical quality can vary, but it's all danceable. [It apparently borders on blasphemy to suggest using a DJ, but given some of the rather inexpert musicianship we've experienced over the years, I'd be perfectly happy to dance to prerecorded music that has a steady beat and on-pitch vocalists. But, that's just me. Update: BDS periodically - i.e. once a year - uses pre-recorded music for a dance with great success.]


The showcase venue in West Texas is the Gloria Denman Ballroom (GDB) located at St. Stephens Catholic Church (located on Neely, west of Midland Drive). This beautiful facility is named for the generous benefactor who funded its construction; Gloria and her husband Doug continue to be active in both clubs and are wonderful people. The GDB is massive (7,000 square feet); it will easily accommodate 100 couples plus tabled seating. Its permanent floor is smooth and comfortable. This is truly a showcase venue for local dancers.

There is actually a second venue that can be used for dancing and that's the Petroleum Club in downtown Midland. At one time, this was the venue of choice for the BDS until the oil and gas boom heated up competition for space and the club looked for an easier-to-book location. One of the area's country dance clubs (Just Dance Country) uses the Petroleum Club as its regular venue, but its dances are general on Thursday evenings. In any event, this venue remains an excellent choice when available, albeit with a floor area that's quite a bit smaller than GDB.

Why Join?

You certainly don't have to be a member of a dance club to be a ballroom dancer in West Texas, but you'll find your opportunities to dance to be severely limited if you choose to go it on your own. The aforementioned venues host no open-to-the-public dances, and there simply aren't any other public venues for ballroom dancing in Midland/Odessa. (It's quite another story if you want to stick with country music, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Here's more information in that regard.)

In addition to gaining access to great venues, the clubs also offer the opportunity to get to know a group of people who you might not otherwise encounter. Debbie and I have been pleasantly surprised - blessed, even - by the friends and acquaintances we've made over the past few years. We hear this a lot: we got into it for the dancing, but we've stayed with it for the people. Perhaps it's the basic etiquette that comes with ballroom training, but you meet some of the nicest folks at the dances.

Of course, many (most?) people feel a bit intimidated by dancing with a new group, especially if they're beginners. It's hard not to feel like you're being judged. We certainly felt that way at our first few dances. But we soon learned the simple truth: nobody else cares how you dance. They like it that you're trying. And we're all too concerned with our own steps to judge someone else's.

That's not to say that people don't watch you, because not everyone dances every dance and part of the fun is watching other dancers. If that's intimidating, here's a tip that's guaranteed to mitigate the problem. Find the best dancers on the floor and stick close to them. No one will even notice you. (Hmm. That could explain why we're often alone on the floor!)

If you're a ballroom dancer in West Texas and you have additional information, corrections and/or clarifications regarding anything I've written here, please feel free to share them in the comments and I'll update this post accordingly.

Caged Weed
January 13, 2010 4:56 PM | Posted in: ,

If you think tumbleweeds are mild-mannered critters with no agenda, you've got another think coming. You cannot begin to imagine the epic struggle it took to corral this one. (Word to the wise: never get between a lone tumbleweed and its herd.)

Tumbleweed in a cage

Of course, the difficult decision is now what to do with this one. The humane thing would be to put a shotgun to its head, but given the difficulty of locating said head and the problems of dealing with a wounded 'weed have made it just about impossible to find anyone around here willing to volunteer for the task. Your ideas are welcomed.

Beautiful Big Bend Video
October 21, 2009 7:42 AM | Posted in: ,

The following video is a part of a series produced by The Austin Stone Community Church. The ethereal music is provided by former Midlander Kyle Lent.

The video captures the amazing beauty of the Big Bend area that exists not just in awe-inspiring panoramas, but also in exquisite details. If you have a love for West Texas, I assure you that you'll to happy to spend eight minutes watching this production.

Turkey Stalking
March 18, 2009 3:12 PM | Posted in: ,

I've written before about the flock of wild turkeys that have taken up residence in my old neighborhood in Fort Stockton. For whatever reasons, the size of the group has dwindled from the upper teens to just three, a gobbler (male) and two hens.

The male has been known to exhibit aggressive behaviors towards people, chasing them back into their houses, something that sounds amusing until it happens to you. The city's Animal Services department seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it; admittedly, it's not a life-threatening situation.

Last Saturday (March 14th), having been forewarned by my mother, I took my video camera into the streets in search of the wily Meleagris gallopavo, and found them only a half block from our front porch. Here are a few minutes of video from that encounter.

The gobbler turned out to be all bluff, and not much of that. I could not induce him to come towards me, much less attack, and shortly after I turned off the camera, he flew up onto a roof to join his hens, away from our prying eyes.

One interesting behavioral note: If you listen closely, you can hear the scrape of his wingtips on the street. I wonder if that's an intentional warning signal. I noticed that he did that same thing each time he puffed up his plumage, but the sound effects were less effective when he was in the grass.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the West Texas category.

Two Things is the previous category.

Wildlife - Birds is the next category.

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