William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In West Texas, such a thing is no more obvious than around the oilfields and sometimes individual wells now receiving second or third looks as motivated by the upticking price per barrel.
Though left to the bear the steady beat of sun, wind and weather, much related to the old-and-new-again drilling areas surrounding us still lays where it was left from times passed, a natural museum of drilling history.
The amazing thing is how much human work remains hidden in the “nothing,” above the dirt and dead grass but below a shallow ocean of mesquite scrub branches. You can look out and to the horizon see nothing but endless nothing, yet go walk through it, stand where the thorns catch your pantleg and look down, and you see the land teeming with the ghosts of hundreds of lives that passed through and likely now have passed on.
The other day a photographer and I went out to go look at what still sat on an otherwise indistinguishable stretch of wilderness west of FM866 and north of Penwell.
Our guide was Brandon Duane Young, a leaseholder for the place we were to travel and a general walking encyclopedia of local history, anthropology, botany and geology.
We followed his Jeep off the nicely graded main road to ones that made it obvious why oilfield workers don’t drive sedans. Parking near some structures and remnants of structures, we found ourselves encircled by the cast-offs of numerous decades and several waves of development.
“It becomes a place where people just dump stuff,” Young says. “It’s just a graveyard.”
The remnants of what Young thought were carbide lamps, which give off light by chemical reaction from water drops, sat in pieces near an abandoned electrical transformer of an old model, maybe the ’70s. Beside it, modern transformers, examples of what helps keep the oilfield powered and pumping.
We go to a well site, now with a pumpjack sitting over it, and of course it’s clear for 30 yards all around, where a bulldozer pushed aside and demolished countless items still slowly transitioning from litter and junk to artifact and relic.
Around it, the fences of forgotten divisions that separated one part of a camp from another. A clothesline, wood still with nails in it, gas lines still stubbornly attached to the ground but with flowing nothing in them. Timbers from an old cable-tool rig dragged from one spot to another to be the basis of something new (still not rotted), a fallen down chicken coop, a collapsed-in hut once occupied by a least one fellow who collected Trans-Pecos rocks. For some reason he left them behind. As many trinkets have been left behind.
There’s broken pieces of ceramic that look like they could have fallen off someone’s table yesterday. They lie out on the ground near old soda pop glass, bottled in places like Carlsbad, N.M., next to a lot of rusty metal that you can’t discern what it was. Occasionally enough of an old license plate is in one piece that you can, and know from the design it can’t be less than 60 years old. Old tires and other vehicle pieces fallen off of disappeared cars are concentrated in a place Young wonders may have been a garage.
We go elsewhere and the air stinks and groans with the presence of a natural gas compressor, and within a stone’s throw you go back half a century, except all that’s left is the concrete sidewalks, a septic tank that’s fallen in on itself and a pile of a dozen or more dead but thick Siberian elm trunks, emaciated rings show how they survived 40 or more years, some of those years very dry, eventually too dry.
Young takes us to a set of currently unused but still impressively giant tank batteries. There’s three, two of steel and one of wood, apparently Redwood. It’s partially fallen in on itself, and your first thought is it hasn’t been used in decades, but then you see the white PVC pipe creeping over the lip at the far side. Maybe it was abandoned as recently as the 2008 bust. Maybe it was abandoned many times before that.
But the polyvinyl chloride product servicing it so anachronistically has some subtle beauty in scene: the petroleum-based product used to keep useful a facility that made the product possible to exist.
In some ways that’s a happy ending.
Except that as we walked through the mesquite, looking for this and that, our group of three stumbled onto a little pond of black gold, the result of a recent pipeline leak. It was about 4 inches deep, 30 yards long and 10 feet across at widest, though the stain of went wider from where it had been, strangling vegetation and soaking dirt.
Luckily there’s nothing really out here for it to ruin.