The first half of the drive seemed almost routine as it ran through terrain familiar to a lifelong resident of the eastern part of the United States. However we still had a couple of days to go and began moving into unfamiliar territory. Here I captured a wide swath of previously unvisited counties straight through the heart of Texas and into southern New Mexico and Arizona.
The Weather Turns
My son and I joked that each new day seemed to bring a different form of precipitation. We hadn’t encountered anything serious, a little drizzle, some patchy freezing fog, a few snow flurries and an overnight shower as we slept in our hotel room. That changed once we pushed into central Texas. We couldn’t visit the Abilene Zoo as the first waves of torrential rain rolled over us. I can’t recall ever experiencing a thunderstorm in late December before, although I’d rarely strayed this far south during the Christmas season either. We’d left the freezing cold far behind us days earlier and conditions changed in favor of turbulent weather.
The 170 mile (275 km) stretch from Abilene to Odessa (map) quickly became a formidable driving challenge. Speeds dropped way down as a matter of safety and I came close to pulling over and waiting it out a couple of times. Then we’d catch a break for ten or fifteen miles before hitting the next wave. Still, I felt lucky. At least we weren’t on the frozen side of the storm. This same weather pattern pulling moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and dumping water on us created an epic blizzard farther north in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Plus, we caught some wonderful rainbows during breaks in the action.
Petroleum and Nowhere
The central to western part of Texas seemed almost featureless, both monotonously flat and completely empty. We’d traversed the Permian Basin, the heart of the Mid-Continent Oil Field. Actually, it did have some features. However, they were all man-made. In every direction, as far as the eye could see, stretched an endless array of oil wells and related equipment. Everyone in Midland and Odessa seemed to drive the same white pickup truck with a company logo tied to the petroleum industry. Dust and tumbleweeds swirled around us as we pushed through the back side of the storm. I’m sure local residents loved the setting although it seemed remarkably bleak to me. Surely, minus the the jobs in the oil field, few people would choose to live there willingly.
The terrain changed again as we approached Van Horn, Texas (map), where we stayed overnight after the fourth day. This was the only town of any size in any direction in this remote corner of the state. Van Horn had a captive audience of travelers on Interstate 10, and knew it. With no other place to stay before El Paso, another 120 miles (190 km) away, hotels could charge pretty much whatever they wanted. We paid more here than any other place during our entire trip; and double the rate of a similar hotel room in Arkansas a couple of nights earlier.
Setting Politics Aside
We headed towards El Paso the next morning. News stories that week talked incessantly about the border between Mexico and the United States, and whether a wall should be built. I did my best to ignore the clatter although I got an immediate reminder as we entered the city and drove towards the zoo. We took Rt 375 (map), the loop that ran directly along the international separation. Metal fencing and border patrol agents separated the two countries pretty much completely. Nonetheless, we could easily peer over the fence as we drove by, into the crowded neighborhoods in Ciudad Juárez one the other side .
I put it out of my mind. Twelve Mile Circle isn’t a politics blog. We enjoyed the zoo which seemed a thousand miles away from the controversy even though it sat barely a few hundred feet within the U.S.
Completing the Quest
We crossed New Mexico and pushed into Arizona without much excitement. The first sighting of cacti signaled the impending end of our journey. Saguaro grow only in the Sonoran desert, so only in southern Arizona for the U.S. portion of its range. We rolled into Phoenix where we prepared to stay for a week.
Articles in the Cross-Country Series:
- The Plot Thickens
- Weatherford Art Thou?
- County Counting
- Zoos & Brews
- The Eastern Half
- The Western Half
- A Week in Phoenix
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr