I had read about the Permian Basin but never thought I’d have the chance to go there. Fate, however, works in unexpected ways. Last May, my partner, Mark, and I found ourselves heading south of Roswell, NM, on US Route 285, bound for Fort Stockton, Texas. This wasn’t a route we had intended to take, but a sudden outbreak of fierce tornadoes along the Texas panhandle and northerly route of I-40 back East convinced me last minute to change course. Pumpjacks dotted the landscape on either side, their rhythm ceaseless against the setting sun, more and more as we sped south. We passed more tankers and semis; on the back of one tanker read, “In God We Trust” in script, emblazoned upon the white.
“White pickups — look at them all,” Mark exclaimed. As we rolled through the small town of Artesia, nearly every modest ranch home had a white pickup truck parked outside, and we passed more than one dealership, Ford or GM, with fleets of white pickup trucks for sale. White pickups fanned out across the roads — apparently the vehicle of choice for those who worked for the shale oil companies. A freshly painted public school displayed banners announcing its grand opening beside the older, worn-out building it had replaced. As twilight approached, girls’ teams played one another in a softball field, the local crowd cheering beneath the bright lights. Windows closed, the noxious hint of drilling fumes crept in — fracking’s gift, however tenuous and debt-driven, having infused these small towns with prosperity they wouldn’t have had otherwise, these past ten years, yet the fumes made for an unsettling reminder of the price. Pollution — to what extent were these children, laughing and running bases, being harmed? No doubt once you stayed there for a while, you didn’t notice the smells. All the more insidious the devil’s bargain.
We came to Carlsbad, where the local pickups outside eateries were parked beside dust-splattered SUVs like ours, hatchbacks full of backpacks and hiking boots, and a few warmer looking, tourist-friendly hotels dotted the route. I gazed upon the signs for the wondrous caverns with longing. But night had nearly fallen and exploring yet another national park would have to wait for another time.
Our trip, the entire reason for finding ourselves on Rt. 285, was over, after two dazzling weeks of touring the American West. Following my brief stint at a writing residency in southwestern Colorado, Mark had flown out to meet me. We embarked on a road trip long on both of our bucket lists — from the ruins of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings to the otherworldly formations of Arches National Park, the silent and breathtaking Canyonlands, Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Antelope Canyon, the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, and finally the civilized repose of a friend’s house in Santa Fe. We were out of time, out of money, and even my awe was at peak capacity.
Yet neither of us had any idea that the real trip — the true adventure that would stand out from all the splendor of the past two weeks — was about to begin. Mark filled the tank. We kept on Rt. 285 south, and into Texas.
Up until now Rt. 285 had been an easy drive, a double-lane highway on either side with a smattering of ordinary vehicles riding the lanes along with the many tankers, semis, and flatbeds. Below Carlsbad, however, the highway abruptly changed from double lanes to just two narrow ones, pavement gritty and uneven. Headlights blinded as truck after truck thundered past, gravel spraying our windshield. Mark evaded the orange cones peppering the lanes but no shoulder — no place to pull off or turn around. Worse, the sun was gone, the two lanes ahead looming dark for the next 200 miles.
White knuckled, he gripped the wheel and swore, as I frantically swiped my GPS for answers. But there had been no warning of the next 200 miles being a heavy construction zone, and the other routes we might have taken didn’t look any more promising — just as likely old, two-lane routes through what had been scrubby ranch land, just as heavy with tanker traffic and rumbling flatbeds. All this to avoid a sudden spate of tornadoes that had devastated North Texas and Oklahoma, because of the wandering jet streams — wandering because of the Arctic Sea ice now in drastic decline, ice which has acted as a giant air-conditioning unit for our planet, keeping the jet streams stable, and thus, our weather, for the entirety of humanity’s existence. Industrial civilization is a heat engine, Tim Garrett, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah has stated, and that night I journeyed into its underbelly.
For as far as I could see, on either side, flames glowed and jumped from fracking wells like Olympic torches. My nostrils and lungs burned, eyes too, and Mark complained about a headache, the odor of toxic fumes was so thick. Invisible, the natural gas and other toxins pluming from the wells, but I’d done my research, I knew it was there. At no point did I count fewer than 12 wells within my 360-degree vantage point, but of course those were only those I could see, and the wells surrounded us, dancing in the dark, all the way south. The US produces about 12 million barrels of oil per day, with about 1/3 coming from here, among the world’s thickest rock from Permian times. Light, tight oil, much is refined into gasoline and exported — although I had to wonder if what powered my SUV right now had come from within the ancient rock beneath. Certainly, our whole, wondrous trip, some of the most magnificent geological sights I’d ever experienced in my life, had been enabled by the energy-capturing equipment that now labored around us without cease — experiences and quality of life of which an ancient civilization such as the Anasazi could have never have dreamed, and for which I am without doubt or hesitation, grateful.
We were the only car on Rt. 285 now, an interloper from the world outside hurtling among this ravaged, sci-fi dystopian hellscape. Blade Runner came to mind, and also HG Wells’s The Time Machine, with us unwitting and pampered East Coasters the Eloi, the oilmen the tirelessly laboring Morlocks. Sometimes a tall oil rig, lights as piercingly bright as those of a space station, loomed beside the road. Loading stations illuminated the route, tank trucks filling up nonstop, operations often overseen by a large, middle-aged man wielding a hose. Then one by one the tankers heaved off. Some of these contractors got hazard pay, I knew, and high salaries for working in the oil fields, but at what price to their health? My stomach clenched with nausea; mouth dry, I sipped some water and tasted the waft of natural gas and petrochemicals. I felt for them, as I had for the youth of the New Mexican towns. Days, weeks, months among flaring wells, had to bode ill for mind, body, and soul.
More than once, a flatbed abruptly swayed or rumbled too close, and we nearly got run off the road. At last, we reached Pecos, a sizeable town, and switched drivers, Mark collapsing into the passenger seat and me bracing for the 45 minutes of evading tankers and squinting through the uneven, orange-lined darkness to Ft. Stockton. My hands quickly grew cramped.
Just a few days earlier, we’d driven through the Petrified Forest National Park in a late spring storm, the painted desert dusted with flurries. Afternoon sun broke when we reached the far end and got out among the rolling hills strewn with ancient logs. The Crystal Forest, the spot was called, and I stood there, the frigid gusts burning my ears, fingers tingling, but enraptured by the pieces of rainforest transformed over time into glossy, rainbow-streaked rock. 220 million years ago in the Permian-Triassic period, the area had been part of the great supercontinent Pangea and had sat at the latitude of today’s Costa Rica. Many species we know today — armadillos, amphibians, birds, crocodiles — are descendants of those that lived then, and died out. As I knelt and touched a log, once a living, breathing tree in a forest where incredible creatures roamed, my cheeks numbed with cold. There came the thought, the forest is still here, it has just been transformed, into something no less remarkable — petrified rock, no two alike. The creatures, too, are gone in one form, but not entirely. Look closely, and the past is still here. In time, everything transforms. One extinction event brings about a new state of being. A rule, not an exception, as Carl Sagan has so oft been quoted.
The Permian-Triassic extinction event, also called the Great Dying, is what separated the Permian and Triassic periods, during which an estimated 70% of all terrestrial vertebrate species went extinct, and over 96% of marine species. Insects were largely wiped out. With such a severe loss of biodiversity, terrestrial life took approximately 10 million years to recover — the longest rebound of any prior mass extinction. Evidence for what caused the Great Dying points to multiple factors, including at least one meteor impact, but more notably massive volcanic eruptions, specifically the Siberian Traps, and large releases of underwater methane. This methane triggered changes in climate severe enough to destroy habitat for much of life on earth. Today, subsea methane deposits beneath the Arctic, currently being released in greater and greater volumes as the oceans warm and the sea ice melts, poses a similar dire outcome for our species and many others — just one of many tipping points being crossed as a result of anthropogenic climate change and the industrial burning of fossil fuels for energy. In no place is the cause of our human activities more evident than a trip through the Permian Basin.
The next morning we hastily hauled out our bags to the car, the parking lot of the Super 8 filled with flatbeds of fracking equipment, including two small helicopters (white, interestingly enough), and the accompanying pickups; the lots of the Motel 6 and other nearby hotels much the same. We drove onto I-10, eager and relieved to put the side trip on Rt. 285 and the Permian Basin behind us. Soon enough, we reentered civilization again, San Antonio to Houston, on our way to stop at my relatives’ in Lake Charles. Leaving Houston, entering Louisiana, trains chugging past us, long lines of cars shining with coal, bound for crude refineries, and at last, we sped past the refineries and petrochemical plants — ugly, brutal, and nothing like the grandeur of soaking in the tranquil green bottom of Canyon de Chelly or the vast panorama of Canyonlands, their smokestacks pluming warm clouds skyward, the acid from their pollution falling into the oceans. The ocean currents, too warm, melting the ice, stirring and awakening the frozen seabed of ancient methane.
No doubt, the pueblo dwellers holed up in their Cliff Palace, empire crumbling around them, would have done no different.
Everyone is to blame, and no one is to blame — had this thought occurred to any of the Anasazi as they fled from their dwellings on high, and scattered? As we passed another refinery, I thought, how I hate this, and its ghastliness, toxins, death. But also, please keep running. Fill our tanks with diesel and gas, deliver medicines to our hospitals, and food to our stores for as long as the wandering jet streams may allow. •