Long on oil, short on congestion, Loving County, Tex., is the least densely populated county in the Lower 48. What's not to like?
Long on oil, short on congestion, Loving County, Tex., is the least densely populated county in the Lower 48. What's not to like?
The Washington Post

In Texas, Getting Away From Y'all

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By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Nothing personal, folks, but I'm sick of you.

The stuffed subways, the endless traffic, that guy who cut in front of me at McDonald's -- so many people heading in so many directions, usually mine. And any day now it'll get even worse (at least on the psyche), when the population of the United States hits 300,000,000. That's a whole lot of zeroes, and Happy Meals.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, whose Web site ( http://www.census.gov/ ) has a clock ticking up to the disturbing milestone, Washington is one of the country's most densely populated cities, with about 9,316 people per square mile. The surrounding area doesn't fare much better.

To cope with the crowds, evasive action sometimes must be taken. This is why I find myself sitting in a pickup truck in Mentone, Tex., on a recent sunny Monday. Sheriff Billy Hopper, the law in these here parts, is behind the wheel, his cowboy hat balanced precariously on the dashboard.

Mentone is the main town -- the only town -- in Loving County, which has the distinction of being the least densely populated county in the Lower 48. Spread over 673 square miles of dusty, oil-rich West Texas, the county is home to 81 residents. That's 0.12 people per square mile.

Now there's a number I can get used to.

* * *

At first glance, Mentone is a disheveled little nothing of a town, a forgettable speck on surprisingly busy Route 302. On second glance, it doesn't change much.

Still, it's a disarmingly authentic chunk of America, the type of place you discover by accident -- or if you're lucky. Every yard appears to have enough scrap metal to build a Sherman tank, but it's hardly an eyesore: September rains have left a bounty of green and, as a result, tiny blooms poke through the junk.

I've gone to considerable trouble to get here, airport-hopping on Southwest Airlines for seven hours to Midland, then driving another 90 minutes -- all for the sole purpose of escaping the mess of humanity in Our Nation's Capital. The effort is well worth it. So far, the only Mentonite I've seen is Hopper, the affable 69-year-old lawman who's eager to show off his town to a visiting reporter.

"It's different here in a lot of respects," says Hopper, who was elected two years ago. Groceries are at least 23 miles away in Pecos, and potable water has to be shipped in. "Everything you do takes a lot of extra time, a lot of extra fuel."

Eighteen people call Mentone itself home, with the rest of the county's residents scattered throughout the desert. Several hundred workers commute each day into Loving, many to service the 15 drilling rigs dotting the countryside, including two just a few paces from the town. Some of the large structures -- think James Dean and "Giant," only with gleaming metal instead of wood and, uh, no James Dean -- have sleeping accommodations and kitchens that, unfortunately for Mentone, make them largely self-sufficient. In addition to the rigs, hundreds of oil and natural gas wells stretch to the horizon, each reached by a spider web of dirt roads.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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