Oil and Cattle Barons

We gallivanted through the western states hoping to see sights we’d never seen before. From Atlanta, Georgia we’d driven to Lawton, Oklahoma, and from there to Roswell and then Carlsbad, New Mexico, down through Texas to Conroe near Houston, and back home to Atlanta again.

Anybody who’s watched the TV series Dallas is familiar with Texas cattle barons and oil rigs, but it was New Mexico which awed us with cattle ranches spreading for miles across the scrublands dotted with oil rigs and power lines and windmill turbines.

The never-ending flatlands of scrub were not what we expected, but according to Bear, they smelled like money. We could smell the oil wells as we drove down the highway. He recognized the smell because in his younger years, Bear worked the oil rigs of Oklahoma, as did much of his family.

Like me, he’d traveled around a bit and then moved to Georgia eons ago from his wintry home state. Living on the East Coast spoiled us with green trees and abundant water, but we looked forward to seeing groves of saguaro cactus, Joshua trees, agaves the size of Volkswagen Beetles, and a variety of other cacti that we cultivate at home but which are native to the southwest.

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  • Bear moves hundreds of cactus plants indoors every fall, some so tall that he has to cut off the top because they’re taller than the ceiling, and then he moves them outdoors again in the late spring after all the freeze warnings have come and gone, so to see these plants in their native environment would have been a real treat, except that we didn’t travel to the right desert. Who knew?

    We didn’t see any of the desert plants we expected to see because like most easterners, we didn’t know that saguaros don’t grow wild in New Mexico, Texas, or Nevada, but are limited to southwestern Arizona. Reverend Horton Heat poked fun at the common misconception in his song, “Ain’t No Saguaro in Texas.”

    Saguaro cactuses, aka Carnegiea gigantea, are the emblem used on products to convey the southwest, especially in silhouette, even in states where they don’t grow. Saguaros are native to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, California, and Mexico.

    The Joshua Tree, or Yucca brevifolia, is primarily found in the Mojave Desert of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. In other words, we didn’t travel far enough west.

    Cattle ranches, however, abounded in the scrublands of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas, with black cows being the most prominent. We also saw strange looking long-horned humpbacked cattle with large dewlaps and a prominent hump above their shoulders.

    Humpbacked cattle are commonly known as zebu, and scientifically known as Bos primigenius indicus or Bos taurus indicus. They originated on the Indian subcontinent. Being particularly adapted to hot climates and drought, they are well adapted for life in the southwestern United States. We also saw a species of grayish-tan cattle which stood out for their unusual coloring.

    Most were spread out across the landscape with individual cows grazing far from their brethren and no sign of a ranch or even a road to a ranch. Short fencing separated them from the highway with an occasional cattle guard, being an opening in the fence whose entry “road” consisted of piping far enough apart that a vehicle could drive over it, but most cows wouldn’t attempt to cross it. There’s always the rebel, however.

    Only once were we stopped by cowboys on horses as they herded cows and their calves across the road, and we never saw a cattle dog. Maybe cattle dogs were only used during roundups, or maybe the climate was just too hot to utilize this bundle of wonder of the cattle world. Sheep, goats, and horses were also a rare sight — it was all about the cattle.

    Power lines were everywhere, rising up from the flatlands and extending as far as the eye could see. These weren’t dainty little power lines just along the roadways either — they were giant monstrosities of metal gridwork bunched together in wads across the landscape. They were up close and in your face, even from a distance.

    Wind pumps and wind turbines were prominent as well, the latter being tall, three-bladed windmills spanning the horizon near and far in wind farms.

    In 2012, wind farms produced 3% of the nation’s electricity, projecting to 20% by 2030. They provide a steady income to the farmers who host them. Texas has the most wind power capacity, followed by California and Iowa. As windy as it was during our travels in Oklahoma, wind power made sense. I had to wear a ponytail and pin up the tail and loose hairs with barrettes to combat the ever-blowing wind which otherwise whipped my hair into knotted tangles.

    Solar farms existed as well, though not as prevalent as wind farms, cattle ranches, and oil rigs. Also known as solar parks and photovoltaic power stations, they created a cover of solar collectors a few feet above the ground, lying nearly flat. We wondered at whether this created a cooler microclimate underneath for the desert animals, though we didn’t see any animals lounging underneath.

    Oil rigs were by far the most interesting sight for Bear, who relived his past as we drove down the roadways with their distinctive odor of petroleum. There are so many different aspects to drilling for oil and then siphoning it up from the ground, and what you see most often are the grasshoppers with their horse or donkey heads bobbing up and down.

    Officially known as pumpjacks, they serve as the overground drive for piston pumps to pull oil up from the underground oil reservoir and send it into holding tanks. Workers known as “pumpers” maintain and repair the grasshoppers and keep track of when the holding tanks need to be emptied, after which trucks come and empty the tanks. Pumpers set the pressure, density, rate, and concentration to ensure that the pumps operate according to production schedules, and they switch the flow of oil between storage tanks.

    Flare stacks weren’t as abundant, but when seen they were clustered together as giant, metalwork towers emitting sizable flames or fires from the top which could be seen for miles. Bear said that this burned off the natural gas which was often found with oil and he called these burn off fires “wasted energy.”

    We saw the trucks utilized in setting up new oil rigs, as well as workover rigs which replace worn out wells and their components, a process which requires the well to first be “killed” in order to stop the flow of gas and oil.

    Oil worker jobs include worms, pumpers, toolpushers, daylight drillers, motormen, chainhands or floorhands, and derrickhands, many of which fall under the general nickname of roughneck. Bear achieved the rank of daylight driller, one rung below the top dog of being a toolpusher.

    Worms are the greenhorns at the bottom of the rung, and back in the day, oil companies used to give out stickers to the crews. Bear has quite a collection including one that says: “Ain’t no worm shit on me.” Political correctness probably did away with the joys of collecting oil stickers which was a pretty big deal to the guys.

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  • “Smell that money,” Bear said as we passed through the oil-rich regions with their peculiar odor. Inexplicably, a good many pumpjacks weren’t pumping — they stood as silent sentries across the landscape with an untold story. In spite of being closest to the crude oil, gas prices were the highest in the oil-rich regions with the most oil rigs.

    The oddest sights were gas station pumps out in the middle of nowhere as if the gas stations themselves had vanished into thin air. There wasn’t even evidence that gas stations ever existed.

    The lonely gas pumps stood without buildings, stores, lights, signs, or restrooms of any type, being just isolated gas pumps which took credit cards, or so we were later told by a local.

    Isolated gas pumps were easy to miss unless you’d marked them on the map in advance, and it explained why we drove past a gas station I’d flagged as a potential rest stop only to see absolutely nothing there — not even the gas pumps.

    Who thinks to look for a gas pump by itself in the scrublands of the desert? I was too busy looking at humpbacked cows and oil rigs, and expected the gas station to be highly visible as they generally are.

    A frustrating internet search did not yield much info except to suggest that they were called “unmanned gas stations,” but the unmanned gas stations shown on the internet still had lights and signs and a roof over the pumps, unlike the pumps we saw.

    Maybe the cattle barons installed pumps on their land for the ranch hands — who knows? Or maybe our “source” of information was just pulling our legs and we fell for it. Have a little fun with the tourists and tell them something really weird and see if they fall for it… and we did, because I’m STILL scouring the internet looking for just one mention of a working gas pump out in the middle of nowhere, seemingly attached to nothing. It’s not like we actually stopped at an isolated pump to see if it actually worked.

    Ah well, maybe it belongs with Bear’s favorite new description of our trip: We drove to Oklahoma to visit his family, and then we drove to Roswell, New Mexico to visit mine… meaning extraterrestrials, that being a private joke since I recently found out that my blood type is Rh-negative.

    Geneticists have yet to figure out where it comes from which throws the door open for speculation. Is Rh-negative blood non-human? Extraterrestrial? Supernatural? Divine? The bloodline of the people of Atlantis? The Holy Grail? Evidence of the fallen angels who commingled with humans? Evidence that ancient astronauts inserted their DNA into the human population? Or is it just a random mutation? Theories abound.

    * * * * *

    Follow along with us as we share the full lead-in for the Big Change to full-timing in an RV, and to what lies beyond… Currently we are preparing our sticks and bricks house to sell, and leaning toward buying a small house for storage and a home base, though we expect to stay on the road for most of the year.

    In the meantime, join me on a very different journey with Alien Nightmares: Screen Memories of UFO Alien Abductions. Experience my memories and dreams relating to personal experiences with extraterrestrials, along with the little-known UFO flaps from the time periods which swept me up into an extraterrestrial neverland of high strangeness.

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