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In Texas, Getting Away From Y'all

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.

Life in Mentone revolves around its stately brick courthouse, and that's where I find Hopper. The sheriff -- who is also the tax assessor/collector and registrar of voters -- is tucked into a room at the end of a marbled corridor, surrounded by maps, a wad of "Wanted" posters and a framed portrait of Oliver Loving, for whom the county was named. (The character of Gus McCrae in Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" is said to have been based on the wily cattle driver.)

Outside his office, a trio of photos are thumbtacked to a bulletin board, a tribute to the three Loving Countians who have served in Iraq.

Across the street is a service station operated by Hopper's sister-in-law, and a few blocks away sits a 1910 schoolhouse-turned-church awaiting renovation. An empty school -- it closed around 1976 -- is being primed for a makeover, but now it's used mainly as the venue for Mentone's annual New Year's shindig.

The town's sole restaurant is the Boot Track Cafe, hidden behind a nondescript facade (I drive by thinking it's an abandoned building) and open only a few hours each workday. It's run by Regina Derrick, the county's justice of the peace.

I suggest to Hopper that Regina could marry a couple and then cater their reception. He looks at me, shrugs and says, "S'pose so, but I don't know how that would work out. Plus, she mainly serves burgers."

When he graciously offers to show me around in his truck, I nearly call shotgun and sprint to the parking lot. No way my dorky rental sedan can do double duty as an off-road vehicle, and besides, as the sheriff warns, "It doesn't take much to get lost around here."

We head to the Pecos River, the county's western border, and Hopper explains that the salt cedars and mesquite shrubs on its banks are being burned off; seems they've been sucking the river and the water table dry. I see more wells (most owned by interests outside Loving County) than I can count, a few head of cattle and a parade of tanker trucks.

Shortly after we venture into the desert, I spy a stick in the middle of the road. At least I think it's a stick.

"That's a rattlesnake," Hopper announces. "I'd kill it if it was closer to town, but I just leave 'em alone out here." I shudder and look out the pickup's back window, past the rifle straddling our seats. "Town" seems as if it couldn't be much closer. Then again, there's not a soul in sight for the snake to plunge its fangs into.

As we ramble around Loving County, I learn more about the sheriff. He's better traveled than most anyone I know, having spent years living in Dubai, South Africa, England, Singapore and Spain while he worked in the oil industry. When family matters intervened, he returned after a decades-long absence to his home town, once an energetic burg with hotels, a bowling alley, three grocery stores and at least five restaurants. Now there's just the Boot Track and a 25-minute drive to the nearest Wal-Mart.

"I never thought I'd end up in Mentone," he tells me, with just the slightest tinge of sadness in his voice. "Life doesn't always shell out what you'd like. But I got no complaints."

* * *

Nobody seems to get the joke in Pecos (that's pay-cuss to you, pardner) when I refer to the town of 9,500 as the "Gateway to Mentone." But Debbie Thomas, at least, wants to play along a bit.

Thomas, the director of the West of the Pecos Museum, laughs a little, then hands me a tin badge. "We usually give these out to kids," she says, "but you seem like you'd probably want one as well." Well, yeah. After spending the morning with Sheriff Hopper, I consider myself duly deputized and pin the trophy to my T-shirt.

Pecos, proud home of the world's first rodeo in 1883, is not the prettiest place on earth, but I've rarely met more amiable people. For many road-trippers, the town is an unavoidable stopping point, situated as it is at the crossroads between Midland/Odessa, El Paso, and Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns national parks. All are within two or three hours of Pecos, which makes it a perfect -- yet wildly imperfect -- place to call it a night.

Like Mentone, Pecos has a good bit of dusty decay, but there's also a pretty downtown street with a few shops. The rodeo is the year's big attraction (time your visit for early July), and if you like cantaloupe, the region's yearly harvest is evidently hard to beat. I'm told more than once that I should have come a few weeks earlier, when I would have been up to my armpits in fresh melon.

But cantaloupes or not, Pecos is where the hotels (mostly low-budget chains) and restaurants are, so here I am. (When I prod Thomas for dining suggestions, she asks, "What do you want, Mexican or Mexican?") There's also a depressing little zoo with buffaloes and ostriches stranded behind chain-link fences. I give it a drive-by inspection and flee. The Old West artifacts in the museum, however, are wonderful. I spend more than an hour poring over the exhibits, which pack three floors of a historic hotel and an adjoining saloon.

I end my Pecos stay with the $3.75 lunch special at La Nortena, the "home of world famous tamales for over 40 years." The tamales turn out to be world-famous-worthy, but I'm puzzled by the mystified expression on the face of the man who takes my order. Did I say something wrong? It's not until I get my food and see him staring at my chest that I realize I still have my deputy's badge pinned to my shirt.

* * *

It's about 10 p.m. and I'm back on Route 302, a few miles southwest of Mentone. I figure now is a good time to see Loving County, the loneliest place in the Lone Star State, at its loneliest.

I figure wrong. Tankers are still thundering down the road, albeit sporadically. The drilling rigs are illuminated like NASA launch pads, and I can make out the silhouettes of men working into the night. To the south, the lights from Pecos cast a faint glow.

The farther I proceed, however, the darker it becomes. The trucks disappear.

I turn down a dirt road, stopping after 100 yards. A startled jack rabbit sprints into the brush moments before I shut off my headlights, a cartoonish puff of dust swirling behind it.

The night skies are as big and bright as all of Texas. I can't hear a sound other than a low hum from . . . I don't know. Bugs? Oil wells?

I am spectacularly alone. I revel in the moment, then grab my cellphone and call my wife. I have to share this with someone.

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