A Tale of Two Towns

  • Posted: March 31, 2017
  • Category: Blog
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My wife and I are members in good standing of the Open Road Society. There is a giddy liberation that comes over us when pulling out of our driveway for the next travel adventure. Maybe we have been seduced by what is only the pale imitation of a drug high, but we must admit to the possibility that we are addicts. The drudgery of routine, the slings and arrows burdening daily life fade away. On the road, everything is once again new, a clean slate to write our story afresh, anything we like. The bills, the problems, the commitments don’t go away, we just can forget about them. For a time.

A big part of that high, that time on the road in unfamiliar landscape or living space, is a closer communion with the woman I love, the woman with whom I have spent my life. In our own house, in our own space, we grow apart, each tending to the needs of our own particular garden. But on the road, we are once more best friends, once more each other’s focus and constant companion.

The open road beckons. Our wonderful country, our world, stretches for thousands of miles in every direction and the open road touches all of it. Traveling on the open road through this marvelous world allows us to see its wonders, but also to see, sometimes even to hear, its people. By experience and by twist of character, I have grown jaundiced, blasé even, with “the sights”. Those places distorted into fantasy by travel writers and the notions of “bucket lists”, those places featuring crowds of tourists taking “selfies”.

That being said, I do not seek the quiet of the wilderness either. I have grown accustomed to comfortable beds, internet access and morning coffee. If pressed, I admit to having become a bit of a snob about coffee. It pains me to admit that truck stop coffee, even diner coffee, just will not cut it anymore. While I still see myself as the Marlboro Man, an honest mirror reflects more than a passing resemblance to George Costanza.

I am no stranger to the open road, having traveled a great deal in my life. As my son says, “engineers don’t build things near our office buildings”. As a result, I am practiced in navigating the roads of our own country as well as byways well beyond our borders. But the places I have been, the memories engraved in my heart, are of the extraordinary amid the ordinary, far from the world’s “bucket lists”. I fondly remember the innocent charm of hard packed sand on empty beaches during a morning’s run in Muscat, the large green trash bags full of coca leaves for the laborers in the Campo Duran refinery, the jarring presence of a Carl’s Jr. on the main drag in Hermosillo.

But there is no doubt that my best memories are those of travel in the good old USA. Close my eyes and I am looking out the window at a blinding blizzard while landing at night in Dickinson, ND the day after Christmas, or being awed by spring flowers driving down a road outside Palestine, TX. I can still feel the tightness in my stomach while driving through dense fog to the Deseret power station outside Roosevelt, UT or breathing in the peculiar smells at dawn in Taft, CA.

You may think me strange for remembering forgettable places. Don’t think I have been deprived of tranquility and comfort in my travels. I’ve spent time in nicer places as well, places steeped in Adorable charm. I have spent time on the picturesque Boulder campus of CU, the famed Flatirons of the Rockies framed by mature pinery. Walking in the utility tunnels beneath the quadrangles of that University on open grates over oil filled sumps, I can still smell the overpowering odor of Bunker C fuel tanks while directly overhead the flower children of CU Boulder dreamed of “Saving the Earth”. I have wandered alone on the beautiful and empty sandy beaches fronting Edison’s Ormand power plant at Port Hueneme just above Malibu. Building a pipeline on the north bank of the Columbia River west of Portland is a post-doctoral course on the incomprehensible mazes of Rube Goldbergesque permitting, but views are spectacular.

Away from the madding crowd jostling to see the local version of the Sistine Chapel, one sees other things. Travel is broadening, but only if you really travel to different places. Don’t be fooled, the travel industry excels in creating the illusion of difference. Perhaps there are live monkeys or lions, perhaps it is soaring cathedrals and medieval city centers, perhaps sidewalk cafes and hot night spots, but is there really anything to challenge our comfortable worldview. We revel in the food and the opportunity for “selfies” to spice up our social media presence, but mostly the ideas on display are comfortably familiar.

As far as the open road goes, being a Deplorable traveling in the land of the Adorables is a good gig and I recommend it, as long as you don’t think too much or look behind the facades. The beds are soft, the coffee is good and everyone is polite. But as we travel away from the city centers, the resorts and comfortable suburbs of the Adorables, it becomes harder to avoid that other world, the land of the Deplorables.

Everyone who knows me is aware of my many character flaws. Some might even have discovered my weakness for baseball. I like baseball. What can I say? The excesses of the modern game display the behaviors debasing our culture, but I am hooked. The self-destructive greed and near sighted arrogance of its players simply are a reflection of the less visible greed and arrogance of its owners. Both owners and players appall me, the exploitation of impoverished Central American tweens is sickening. But like the junkie looking with horror at the paraphernalia of his addiction as he shoots up once again, I cannot help myself with the coming of spring and the return of baseball. The collapse of my beloved Yankees each fall simply restarts the junkie’s helpless need for the next year’s Spring Training.

On our way to Spring Training in Phoenix this year, my wife and I spent a couple of nights in Santa Fe, New Mexico’s singular and unexpected oasis of the Adorables. Santa Fe is a beacon of civility in an otherwise deplorable landscape. Even though New Mexico is a reliable foot soldier in the progressive order of electoral battle, that political allegiance comes as a great surprise to the unsuspecting traveler passing through the state. But New Mexico’s need for the revenue from large government payrolls and the identity politics of the progressive plantation make New Mexico blue, even though an unlikely fellow traveler. Santa Fe, as well as neighboring Taos, are the lone outposts of the true Adorables.

We spent two pleasant days in Santa Fe, comfortably blanketed in a world view simpatico to any Adorable passing between the coasts. Just to prove the point, we enjoyed our morning coffee sitting only a few feet from a proud and open member of the Transgendered community. We could have been in Boulder or even San Francisco, but for the women at a neighboring table commenting on his/her appearance in Texas accented voices. It is no wonder that Texas has the reputation it does.

On our meandering jouney to Scottsdale and Spring Training, we spent the next night in Silver City, an outpost of adorableness so isolated as to bring to mind Fort Defiance at the height of the Apache Wars. At our hotel the next morning, we talked with the lady handling the breakfast room. Middle aged and newly arrived from the East Coast, she was a single mom and had followed her now adult daughter to the Silver City area. She enthused over how cheap it was to live in Silver City, but she had recently driven through the town immediately to the south, the town of Lordsburg. She was mystified by how poor it was, innocently wondering why Lordsburg seemed to be dying.

At the time I wondered at her words. Besides having a star turn in Stagecoach, the movie that made John Wayne into a star, Lordsburg was one of those places of fond remembrance from my working years. We had built a compressor station near there some fifteen years ago. It had been one of those rare projects where contractor, engineer and owner ended the job as friends, rather than as litigants. I remembered Lordsburg as a small town of a few thousand people, very like the town I grew up around.

Driving south out of Silver City to the interstate highway that would take us to Scottsdale, we passed through Lordsburg. Lordsburg was a town that both of us, the breakfast lady in Silver City and myself, saw differently but clearly. She saw a dying town. I saw a town so typical of fly over country that it was unexceptional. Lordsburg is a town without Starbucks or Uber, a town without visible prospects, its people growing older with each passing year. While I didn’t see any tumbleweeds blowing down the streets of Lordsburg, it would not have been a shocking sight.

As we pulled onto the onramp of I-10, I remembered another town in New Mexico. It was a town from my past, a town in New Mexico that did have tumbleweeds blowing down its main streets. It was a town with empty storefronts and their broken windows, sometimes covered with cardboard, sometimes not. The town was Farmington, also in New Mexico.

I first came to Farmington in 1988. To be sure, Farmington was a larger town then than Lordsburg is now, but that just made its decay more stark, more depressing, harder to ignore. Driving down Main Street at twilight in 1988 Farmington was to imagine oneself in an episode of the Twilight Zone, a black and white depiction of a post-Armageddon world. It was no wonder that Demi Moore had left for Hollywood without a backward glance. Farmington was a once thriving town of thirty thousand, now with tumbleweeds blowing down its main street, sand drifting in piles against shabby storefronts with broken windows.

But Farmington is a different place today, hardly recognizable from that first sight in 1988. There is no danger of being hit by tumbleweeds on its well kept streets or prosperous shopping areas. It is a clean town, the center of a metro area population of 130,000. For someone like myself who learned his way around town in 1988, getting lost is a constant danger. The cityscape is totally different.

What happened? Conditioned as we are by NPR and its well-spoken experts on how to reverse the decline of Middle America, we look in vain for the large new medical center that opened up or the University that opened a new campus. Maybe Silicon Valley’s Google decided to locate a research center here? Is there something about the lifestyle available in northern New Mexico attractive to Millennials? What is it?

I can’t speak with the authority of a scientist, much less one of NPR’s designated experts, as I don’t have either a research grant or background in community activism. But I have been coming to Farmington on a regular basis for almost thirty years. In my amateur’s opinion, I would venture to say that Farmington returned from the dead because of the oil & gas business.

I first came to a Farmington on life support in 1988 because the oil & gas business had embarked on a quixotic quest to produce natural gas from the underground coal seams of the Four Corners area. I came to Farmington because gas wells were being drilled, pipelines were being laid, compressor stations and process plants were being built. That was what I did and so Farmington was a place I needed to visit, regularly. Over the course of the next thirty years an infrastructure was built, a large piece of flyover country became prosperous, thousands of people and their families were given a great opportunity to build good lives for themselves. In a state remarkably empty of tax revenue, Farmington ships steady rivers of money to Santa Fe, allowing its bureaucrats to build and nurture their own infrastructure encouraging the Adorable life style. The only real downside to the success story of Farmington is the unfortunate fact that the town’s citizens are mostly deplorable.

On the arid plains and in the deep arroyos of northern New Mexico, vast quantities of high quality natural gas are produced out of coal seams thousands of feet underground. That natural gas then travels to Southern California where it both heats and cools the faceless tens of millions living there. The gas fuels the large fleets of gas turbines allowing California’s windmills and solar panels to continue their charade as reliable sources of electrical power.

Farmington is a story replayed many times in flyover country. The teeming masses of the coastal warrens cannot feed themselves. The anthills populating our coasts can neither heat nor maintain themselves in the air-conditioned comfort to which they have become accustomed. Left to their own resources, they would drown in the wastes of their own existence. To even exist, the teeming masses of the coastal megapolis require enormous supplies of energy and food, materials and water that must come from elsewhere. When the Farmington’s, and other deplorables, of America are allowed the opportunity to feed this hunger, they too prosper.

Perhaps Lordsburg is in the wrong place at the wrong time to be resurrected. Perhaps it is doomed to become scattered ruins slowly covered by drifting desert sands, an obscure reference in an obscure movie known only to film historians and the increasingly rare aficionados of John Wayne trivia. Without the cultural iconography of nearby Tombstone or the sedimentary basin surrounding Farmington, Lordsburg is without resources and only one among many towns surrounding it, all equally in decline.

What separates the gloom of Lordsburg from the prosperity of Farmington? In one word, jobs. In two words, quality jobs. Farmington has oil & gas jobs, good jobs with prospects for long term steady employment. The oil & gas business provides numerous jobs at entry levels that lead to career paths allowing ambitious and responsible workers to steadily acquire valuable and transferable skill sets. Farmington is part of the oil & gas business, while Lordsburg and the surrounding towns are left aspiring to attract tourists, bringing the promise of seasonal jobs in food service and hospitality.

Last November’s sea change in American politics was driven by an angry cry from flyover country. Circumstance and deliberate national policy have sucked jobs and prosperity out of large parts of the United States. Enormous regions with thousands of towns like Lordsburg are dying because they have no jobs and therefore no future. Whether for help or in angry despair, millions of our brothers and sisters cried out last November for a helping hand.

Conservatives and liberals, alt-right and progressive, they who aspire to lead us are caught in the grip of ideology. They fight over obscure doctrines and arcane talking points. Perhaps this is because so few of our betters have ever done anything beside tailor their resume. Do any of our leaders have life experience in anything other than networking, politics or government affairs? Have any of them ever created a job that didn’t require a law degree? Have any of them ever gotten their hands dirty? I hasten to add, dirty in the sense of actual dirt.

Farmington’s story is an interesting one with lessons for everyone, conservatives, liberals, alt-righters and progressives. It might surprise many on both sides of the aisle to learn that Farmington began its climb back to prosperity because of a government program, a government incentive for the oil & gas business.

Back in the 1980’s there was widespread doom and gloom about the future of natural gas supplies. There were widespread shortages of natural gas. Federally mandated conservation was not only the order of the day, it was legally required. The experts from academia or the big oil companies charged with shaping our national energy policy were in despair. These talking heads, these learned sages, were convinced of the imminent collapse of our civilization because they knew fossil fuels would soon be totally exhausted. In fact, based on their advice Congress passed the Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Act making the use of natural gas to generate electricity illegal. The coal fired power plants that the EPA seeks to close today were the same plants required by law to be built by that same EPA in the 1970’s.

To delay the coming end of natural gas, Congress made available in the 1980’s a ninety cents per million BTU’s (MMBTU) tax credit for natural gas produced from coal. In an era when natural gas sold for $2/MMBTU, $0.90/MMBTU was a very substantial incentive. Farmington, surrounded by immense underground coal seams, was a natural regional center for development of this experimental approach. Entrepreneurial companies began experimenting with drilling into the coal seams and trying to produce the natural gas adsorbed in that coal.

These experimenters began to be successful, leading to more experimentation. Somewhat later, the tax credit expired in a rare example of policy prudence by our government. But by the time the tax credit expired, the new techniques for producing natural gas from coal were wildly successful and development continued unabated. It was learned that the secret to successfully producing natural gas from coal was massive fracturing of the coal seams, enabling the trapped natural gas in the coal to flow out the well bore. Pumping water and sand down into the coal seam under high pressure, fracturing the solid coal into pieces, enabled enormous increases in the amount of gas produced.

Perceptive entrepreneurs wondered, “if this works for a an underground coal seam, what would happen if we tried it on oil bearing shale?” The “fracking” revolution was on its way to being born.

Today the “fracking” revolution has changed the game. No one wonders when oil & gas supplies will be exhausted. Oil & gas supplies are now for all practical purposes inexhaustible. Has Silicon Valley added more high quality American jobs than the “fracking” revolution? I really doubt it, but I do know that Silicon Valley has many more multi-billionaires on the lists of the world’s richest people. I do know that Silicon Valley uses many more overseas factories, employing what we might call slave labor. I do know that Silicon Valley regularly breaks its arm patting itself on the back over its innovation and many good deeds.

OPEC is now an afterthought. American foreign policy need no longer make itself hostage to the ticking time bomb that is Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of thousands of high quality American jobs, not foreign jobs, have been added. Many cities and towns in fly over country have been revitalized, saved for at least a time from a future of decline, or the need to compete with India for call center jobs.

As further food for policy makers’ thought, the companies that remade Farmington and many other towns in fly over country were not the big boys, not Exxon, Shell and BP. The big boys, the companies that lobby Washington or whose executives become cabinet officials, had abandoned the United States long, long, ago. The big boys exported their jobs and their investment dollars overseas long, long, ago. It was new players that created the “fracking” revolution, new companies made Farmington and her sister towns prosperous, new players employing American citizens on American soil.

Lordsburg and her sister towns in SW New Mexico and SE Arizona are surrounded by shutdown mines. It is not a work of genius to imagine where Silver City got its name. This area was once home to a large and thriving mining industry. Now these towns are a spectral presence, kept on life support by EPA mandated mine reclamation efforts while investing in frantic efforts to attract “selfie” taking tourists.

In 1988, the old oil and gas wells around Farmington were too exhausted to produce. Governmental regulations, old-fashioned corporate managements and a lack of vision conspired to cause the slow death of entire regions. In 2017 the old mines around Lordsburg are too exhausted to produce. Just like around Farmington in 1988, governmental regulations, old-fashioned corporate managements and an absence of vision stifle the area. What vision can be seen is in short supply and focused on how to attract a microbrewery into dying downtowns.

If our government can’t help, is it too much to ask that they get out of the way?







2 Responses to “A Tale of Two Towns”

  1. jeff esbenshade says:

    Bill we might have crossed paths. We had a customer, Iowa Tank Lines,

    in Roosevelt Utah 2 movie shows in a town of 5000! When I left my motel room

    always put the Bible on top of the Book of Mormon.

    I also went to Dickenson ND as there are direct flights to Denver.

  2. Geoff S. says:

    The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said “change is the only constant in life”.
    There is a lot of change going on at the moment in our lifetime- there always has been. As a 65 year old some of the givens that we rely on appear to be eroded.
    It seems that Energy policy in the USA is as confused as it is in the UK.
    P.s. I don’t understand baseball but I doubt you understand cricket.

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