All posts by Steve Stern

Whites City through the Wolfcamp Field

This is the largest estimate of continuous oil that USGS has ever assessed in the United States. The Wolfcamp shale in the Midland Basin portion of Texas’ Permian Basin province contains an estimated mean of 20 billion barrels of oil, 16 trillion cubic feet of associated natural gas, and 1.6 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. From a November 15, 2016, USGS Report.
 

It turned out that, without knowing it, Michele and I had wandered into the Wolfcamp Shale area of the Midland Basin when we were forced to turn around and take another road into the Carlsbad area a couple of nights ago. Because we had really only seen it in the dark, we decided to detour back to see it in daylight. BTW, Michele was driving and I was photographing on this part of the trip. Riding through the Wolfcamp area was the closest I will ever get to Deadwood; this is the 21st Century equivalent to an old-timey Gold Rush, an Oil Rush with corporations doing the rushing. It was both hellishly repellant and strangely compelling.

After breakfast at the Cactus Cafe in Whites City, we drive down the small back road we had used to get Whites City two nights ago. It is the kind of road we often see driving through ranching country in Nevada except that the countryside is flat and empty.
We pass old, almost picturesque, falling down barns and houses, sometimes replaced with newer, but abandoned trailers. 
As we deeper into the former emptiness, we run into trucks….
and then more trucks, under impossibly blue skies.
Everybody is in a hurry to get someplace and the roads are too small to carry the traffic but they are being improved. This is dry, dry, land with only an occasional “gully washer” and one of the improvements are signs that tell the truckers how deep the standing water is in a low spot on the road.
There are trucks every couple hundred feet, for miles (look closely between the first two trucks).
We pass lots of tractors hauling these specialized containers. BTW, by “tractor”, I mean the road machine pulling the trailer.
Everything here had to be trucked here. These huge drill towers are hauled in sections in trucks that take up almost the whole road.
This huge drill rig stands on its tippy toes like it doesn’t want to get dirty, which, considering how dusty it can get, is probably a stellar idea. This is not a cheap operation…
and, apparently,  it is not very safe, either.
Fortunately, there are doctors nearby, or, going by the cars in the parking lot, one doctor. If you can’t read the sign, it says “XstremeMD” (actually, even if you can read it, it says “XstremeMD”).
There are trucks everywhere and…
and they need to be loaded and unloaded which often requires specialized equipment. 


Of course the workers have to live somewhere and we ran into several of these encampments, for lack of a better term. On the sign, the second Bylaw says “Watch for Children”
This is Signor Lodge and they were still setting it up when we drove through.
The newly built – moved in? – Orla General Store with four food trucks behind it.
We talked about having lunch here and then lost our nerve.

All in all, while the area we wandered around is huge, I think the number of workers numbers in the thousands, not tens of thousands. However, they are continuing to survey and more people are arriving every day.

We stopped to talk to a couple of guys surveying for new sites. When I talked to them, I said, “This is amazing.” and one answered, “I wouldn’t say amazing, but it is…something.”

After several hours of traffic jamming with big trucks, we were almost out of gas, so we went back to Whites City to gas up. BTW, we were the only SUV we saw, everybody that wasn’t driving a huge truck hauling something was driving a huge pickup, like a Ford 250 or bigger. 

To be continued…

A day in and out of Carlsbad Caverns


The things that have most stuck with me from Carlsbad Caverns are the people, the mountains, and the railing glowing in the gloom of the cavern. This is the first time we have been to a National Park on our trip and the people are entirely different from anywhere else that we have been. (OK, thinking about it, we did go to the Lookout Mountain Battlefield Visitor Center in Chattanooga and the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park west of Austin so maybe this is the first time we have been to a classic Western National Park.) The people are older and whiter and, somehow, more interested, in a sort of academic way, in what they are seeing (in other words, I suppose, they are more like us). As an aside, every explanatory sign in the park presupposes evolution and deep time and I am reminded of how much work it must take to hold on to a belief that the Universe is only 6,000 years old. End aside. The mountains, ahh, the mountains. We have not seen mountains like this since the end of September and seeing them brings back how big a part of our life mountains are. Almost any place in the Far West has mountains in the background, they anchor the view. 

Our motel is just outside the park so, even after our usual late start, we are at the caverns well before lunch. There are two ways into the caverns, an elevator which takes the visitor directly down into the main cavern itself and walking about a mile and a quarter, through the natural opening and down about 750 feet on a paved path. We took the latter route.  BTW, I was glad to read that people can’t bring their drones into the cave. The walk into the cave was great but about 3/4s of the way on the one and a half mile walk around The Big Room, both Michele and I were getting bored. Yes, it is terrific but it is also repetitious. We took the elevator back to the surface, had a late lunch in the cafeteria in the Park Headquarters/elevator building, and decided to kill a couple of hours and then come back to the mouth of the cave to see the evening fly out of a half million bats. Watching the bats fly out was interesting, for a while, but it was getting dark and cold so we left after about a three-quarters of an hour (with almost everybody else, I want to add). While we were killing time, however, we had a super time driving along a ridge that looked across Walnut Canyon and then into Walnut Canyon, itself, marveling at the beauty of the area, all the time knowing that this was not for everybody but it sure is our kind of country. At the end of the drive, we looked down on the flat plain where we had been stuck the day before and that night, returning from a surprisingly good dinner at Yellow Brix in Carlsbad – where I had pork chops sous-vide which I think were the best pork chops I have ever eaten – looking at the same area, we were surprised at how full it looked with gas burn off fires everywhere. Michele suggested that we take a look the next morning on our way to El Paso. 

From San Angelo to Whites City: Mile 5730.3

After our late lunch in Big Spring, we started our drive to Carlsbad which Google said would be about 170 miles and take about three hours. This seems like the middle of nowhere, but we are also less than 40 miles from Midland TX, the birthplace of Laura Bush, childhood home of George H. W. Bush, and, more importantly to my mind, home of Jim Hall, one of the most innovative racecar designers of all time. Hall was the first designer to use a rear-mounted, upside down, wing to produce downforce two years before Colon Chapman brought the now ubiquitous wing to Formula One. Midland is another, of too many, places we pass saying “We’ll have to visit next time”

As we drive through the mostly empty countryside, we occasionally see trucks and, then, tanks of water for sale. We know it relates to fracking but sort of assume that it is not a big deal.

One of the things I’ve missed on this trip is a late afternoon cappuccino pick me up. It is one of the downsides to spending so much time on back roads. Every major city that we have stayed in, from Albuquerque to Austin, has a Starbucks and most have an independent coffee shop, but, in small towns and small cities like San Angelo, the only way to get a cup of coffee is to get a pour from a pot that has been warming and oxidising for a couple of hours. For me, that’s two problems, a cup of brewed coffee, with about 200mgs of caffeine, is way too big a hit for five in the afternoon and coffee gets too bitter if it sits on a warmer for more than a couple of minutes. A cappuccino, with 40mgs of caffeine, is a perfect afternoon pick-me-upper.   As we drove through Andrews TX, a very small burg of under 13 thousand people, Google reported that there was a coffee shop nearby so we had to give it a try. The only other time we ran into an espresso place, while on back roads, was a small town in southern Georgia that had a surprising amount of street art. As an aside, when we walked into the espresso serving coffee shop in rural Georgia, the first people we saw were a mixed-race couple with their kids, sitting at a table having ice cream. End aside.   In fading light, we continued to drive through pretty much empty country and crossed over into New Mexico at Jal, a small town of about 2,000 people. Jal had the only piece of public art we saw all day (although it did take a small detour). After Jal, however, everything seemed to change; we ran into increasingly heavy traffic and then a huge traffic jam, going the other way, caused by an accident between a tanker truck and a cop car. Then our lane just stopped and we sat until all the light was gone. Finally, a truck from the New Mexico DOT came by and the driver told us that the road was blocked by an accident and would stay closed for the next four or five hours. He suggested we backtrack to the first accident and go down a side road back into Texas where we could pick up a highway that would take us to Carlsbad, where we had planned on having dinner, and then on to Whites City where we were going to spend the night. 

We had expected to get to Carlsbad with about a hundred miles of gas but, with all the back and forth, we were now almost out of gas and in the middle of nowhere, although it was a nowhere with a lot of traffic. Just before the Highway to Carlsbad, we found a very strange “gas station”. It had several pumps in a gravel parking lot, dim lighting on tall poles, and two kinds of diesel with only one flavor of gas. Under the circumstances, it was perfect and we finally got to Whites City after ten where the desk clerk and his friend were watching Fox news. They offered us microwaved pizza which was terrific.   

 

A disclaimer

We are now home even though, in the blog, we still haven’t left Texas. Without going through a litany of excuses, all of which I think are terrific, on why I didn’t stay current, I do want to acknowledge that we are in Portola Valley but I will continue to blog the trip as if we were still on it.   

From San Angelo TX to Carlsbad NM: Part 1


After gassing up, we left San Angelo TX expecting an easy drive, through almost empty West Texas, to  Carlsbad NM. It turned out that this part of Texas – near New Mexico – is far from empty. Still, the road from San Angelo to Big Springs, on US 87 – The 87? – was through increasingly flat and dry country.   
At some point, we started running into giant windmills, some interlaced with interactive rocking horse oil pumps, which seemed to suggest a hopeful future. As an aside, the new windmill turbines are huge with each blade being about  80 to 100 feet and as an additional aside, according to Wikipedia, Texas produces the most wind power of any U.S. state. Wind power accounted for 12.63% of the electricity generated in Texas in the 12 months ending Oct 2016. End both asides.
Every day we try to see something and go for a walk. Today, it was a walk in the Big Spring City Park, where we see our first desert plants – an Opuntia of some sort – which is on a bluff, one of the few around here, outside Big Spring TX. After our walk, we had lunch in what was the highest rated Mexican restaurant in Big Spring. The restaurant turned out to be in a Christian Shopping Center. Everybody we talk to asks where we are from and when we say California, they want to know what brought us here, and we explain the Cousin’s Trip and our accompanying drive across the country. We always get a friendly reception. My worries that prompted my putting an American flag on the back of the Hyundai to counteract our California license plate seem completely unwarranted. On the other hand, every symbol here seems to be either Christian or pro-military.

To be continued…