Goodbye to a State (of Being)

Four hundred and seventy years ago, famed Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and his men got lost in the Texas panhandle. They floundered there for three weeks.

They were confounded by the redundant plains. They were disoriented by what seemed to them a landmark-less sea of grass.

As I recently turned off US Hwy 287 at Claude, Texas and got on County Road 1151, venturing due west towards Canyon, Texas and Palo Duro Canyon, I crossed what used to comprise one of these amazing plains. But instead of indigenous grasslands, most of the area is now farmland. The beginning and end of this quiet 30-mile stretch is dotted with occasional houses, metal churches and closed-down firework stands. The middle features wide expanses of shorn cotton fields and ember-like splashes of maize crops, some fenced, some not. There’s at least two ancient buffalo wallows along the way (if you know what you’re looking for) and now and again you’ll see a disenfranchised coyote sneak across the road in broad daylight; you’ll see three or four times that dead on the side of the road.

Every once and awhile, however, there’s a break in the crops and fences and you find yourself quizzically gazing out across a vast grassland, just like Coronado did.

It’s frightening to consider how quickly and utterly we’ve filled these wild expanses. Four hundred and seventy years ago, no one would have imagined it possible. But in the blink of an eye, really, we’ve done it. And sometimes we have the nerve to call it progress.

Out at Palo Duro, folks are building subdivisions practically right up to the canyons. Wild untamable places are turning out to be docile and wobbly in the path of human “civilization” and technology. The frontier that was first sliced up by fences is now scarred by highway asphalt, so we can gaze upon our plunder.

We have to have highways now, to see our country. We’ve lost the old ways, Indigenous, Spanish, settler and all the rest. And we can now visit most of Texas from the comfort of fully-enclosed, air-conditioned, rolling bio-domes, with power windows and GPS on board.

There are still a few spots where we can get lost, but they’re shrinking as fast as our water supply. Stretches in the Big Bend region come to mind; and the forests and thickets of the Piney Woods area. But I fear for them.

We like to talk about Texas as if we were proud of it and proud to be Texans. But some of the ways we’re exploiting our lands are nothing to be proud of. Andrews County out west of Big Spring now hosts a 1,338-acre dumping facility for low-grade nuclear waste. Thirty-six other states around the nation are currently invited to deposit their nuclear trash here, and the dump sits in the precarious vicinity of our massive, precious Ogallala Aquifer.

Some folks talk about Texas secession as if Texas could be a First World contender; but our politicians have allowed a billionaire from Dallas to turn a part of the state into a Third World dumping ground. Three true Texan scientists resigned from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rather than sign off on the nuclear dump’s licensing, but their protests were like three pebbles tossed into Lake Travis. They hardly made ripples. Especially compared to the flood of hundreds of thousands of lobbyist dollars that washed thru Austin to seal the deal.

We’re not just losing Texas in far-off, empty places either. Right here in our own backyard, the natural gas cartel has utilized billions of gallons of our limited water supply to fracture the crust we live on and their pumping processes’ toxic byproducts have been injected into disposal wells that are about as safe as the nuclear dump out past Big Spring.

There are now billboards all around town that herald the notion that the resultant natural gas harvest will last 100 years, but it’s a head-scratcher for any Texans that still have brains left to scratch.

One hundred years is nothing–except in terms of human encroachment.

There are hardly any great explorers left because there are hardly any great spaces.

Today, a Coronado wouldn’t bother with Texas, and who could blame him. We’re selling off our state and our state of being to the highest bidder. It is intensely sad.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is an award-winning journalist and author. His latest works include Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..