Posted by: nickgerlich | March 12, 2008

Alone Star State

Last summer I bicycled across Texas, cutting a path from El Paso to Shreveport. We followed the I-10 and I-20 corridor all the way to Abilene, and then headed “inland” on little 2-lane roads.

Dead TownAll the way across our great state, I saw a common theme. There are countless small towns that have been reduced to a ghost of their former existence. All of these little Texas towns have rich histories, and if those walls could talk, there would be many a spine-tingling story.

But all the stories have the same ending.

Just like Sierra Vista (pictured on the right, where we took a rest stop on Day 1). And Pecos. Monahans….and all the way across. It seemed to make no difference whether we took “the old road” paralleling the freeway, or ventured into the interior of the state. The small towns, they are a’struggling.

Texas is an interesting place. It is the largest land expanse in the lower 48, and has 23 million people. But about one-half of them live in any of four metro areas (Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio). The rest live in the Great Elsewhere.

Last semester I posed this perplexing question: What if everyone in the world came to Texas? If we scooched in a bit, we could actually make room for everyone. Yeah, it would be a little tight with over 6 billion people, but we could pull it off.

Fortunately, though, we don’t have to do this. The result is that, while Texas continues grow rapidly (we may one day topple California if both domestic and international immigration trends continue), we’ve got plenty of room for new Texans.

And our small towns will continue to die, as most of that immigration will occur in the burgeoning metro areas.

It is expensive to administer a state of this size. TxDOT maintains some 79,000 miles of roads to connect all these scattered little dots, and the prospect of toll roads looms in our future. It will probably become the only way to keep our 254 counties connected.

The demise of the small town is certainly not just a Texas problem, as I have witnessed it everywhere. It is the artifact of an evolving economy and society, as lifestyles become increasingly urbanized. There just isn’t much future in many of these small towns (other than possibly setting up speed traps).

Interestingly, I see e-commerce contributing to the small town decay of America. But I’m not sure it is because people prefer big city businesses; no, our e-comm alternatives can be anywhere but here, yet the effect is the same. I hear that old Bob Dylan song again.

And so half of Texas is practically living alone in their quaint home on the range, increasingly “townless” as they labor for little, and dine on week-old burritos down at the Allsup’s.

Their only hope is to pull a Hillary out of their sleeve.

Dr “Home Alone” Gerlich


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