Let’s move from the mountains of Far West Texas to the oil and gas fields. To a porch at the corner of Eighth Street and North Pennsylvania Avenue in Big Lake—a town peppered with houses that were trucked in, porches included, from closed oil camps where workers had lived during the last century’s big boom. Unlike those 1920s communities built around the oil fields, this house sits where it was built—in the town of Big Lake.
I haven’t been to Big Lake in more than two years. I haven’t lived there since 1967. The small town I remember might just exist only in my imagination. From what I read here change has come, brought by a new economic boom. The 1950s were one kind of boom, and I lived there then. The 1920s were another boom about which I’ve heard plenty, and now we have arrived at the first boom of the 21st century.
Small towns? Ask anyone about living in such a place, and you will get as many differing opinions as people you ask. I am a tad defensive, starting with the definition of. When someone says they hail from a small town of 15,000, I cry foul. Fifteen thousand is not small compared to 2,000, which was about the size of Big Lake when I lived there.
Thanks to something called the Wolfcamp/Sprayberry/Cline Shale, the weekday population of Big Lake now numbers nearly 15,000. Did you catch that word ‘weekday’? If the San Angelo Standard Times is correct, those extra 12,000 souls decamp elsewhere on weekends. Most people I knew from Big Lake have decamped permanently to San Angelo or Midland or Odessa, and for that reason I haven’t traveled there in a while. When I do broach the subject of driving to Big Lake for old times’ sake, I am warned about oil field truck traffic. One man told me he counted 500 trucks one afternoon between Midland and Big Lake. That’s a lot of trucks on a two-lane road. Roadside mesquite trees are tinged gray with dust kicked up by that traffic.
In the early years of this new century, I moved my mother away from our home in Big Lake, and on one of last those trips I made a video. Guiding the steering wheel with my knees, I deliberately turned the handycam here and there pointing at my favorite sites for a recording I’ve yet to view. Every spot I filmed in that small town is powerfully evocative.
Homes of friends. Hard to imagine that you could name the family in every house on every street, but it’s true. Homes of teachers. To entice teachers to come, the school district offered housing. Schools and churches. Untold hours spent in both places. Post Office. Mail picked up from Box 907 twice a day and once on Sunday. Swimming Pool. Site of a senior class party my parents chaperoned that I didn’t bother to show up for. Ouch. California Street. The 14-year-old me hit a dog there, hours after getting my driver’s license. My father’s 1955 Ford was full of even more 14-year-old girls, spilling out of the windows and laughing when I popped the clutch, only to turn teary and silent seconds later. (We never found the dog.)
Street corners and parking lots have a story. So do windmills and stock tanks. Too rosy a picture? Probably. I know people had hard times. It is a microcosm after all, with broken families, suicides, alcoholism, segregation, and all other of life’s tragedies, but you’ll forgive me for not dwelling on that right now.
I wonder about the people coming in with the new boom. Will they eventually bring their families and send their kids to school in Big Lake? Will they join a civic club or run for school board? Will their children get married in the town’s churches and then return to bury their parents at Glen Rest Cemetery? Impossible to say, but I hope they take and make the best of this community, seven days a week.
The Nobel Prize for literature was awarded this week to a writer whose stories are set in small communities. Alice Munro’s characters are tender and familiar, skirting life’s troubles, learning lessons, and making memories. Reading her stories is like going home for the weekend and not that different from sitting on the steps at 801 North Pennsylvania Avenue where I’d often watch a full orange moon rise—the faint odor of natural gas in the air—and wonder who’s dragging Main Street tonight.
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will Silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
-From Ode to a Grecian Urn by John Keats