To make my way across 2,500 miles of America as economically as possible, I joined an RV organization called Passport America (PA). For a mere $44 a year, PA makes it possible to stay at selected RV parks for half price. Notice I wrote “selected” — not to be confused with “exclusive.” Many of the parks limit PA stays to only 1 to 3 nights, and many do not offer PA pricing over the weekends. Although there are cheaper ways to park an RV in the U.S., these methods typically involve camping without hookups. The heat and humidity in the parts of the country I’m traveling through, including Arizona and New Mexico in the Southwest and the southern parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, make it not only attractive but a life affirming experience to have access to electricity to run air conditioning. Not for me, mind you, but for Missy, particularly when I leave her in the RV while I sightsee during the day.
This, then, is how I ended up in the small West Texas town of Van Horn. The RV Park was as basic as they come but then again I paid only $13.50 a night, the cheapest price to date. One horrible park billed itself as a “resort” and cost $22.50 a night. What makes a park horrible? Well, let me show you just two of the many “amenities” provided by my neighbors:
But back to Van Horn. The town was obviously dying. I asked the campground manager, who by the way had been given the job by Central Casting, about the economic conditions of Van Horn. Why did I think the manager was from Central Casting? Well for starters her name was Billie Sue and she weighed in at least 300 pounds, smoked like a chimney and had 3 dogs and 9 cats. She fed the felines by heaping kibble on the sidewalk outside her office around 5 pm every night. That’s why.
According to Billie Sue, all the young people left years ago to work in the oil fields. I did some research and found out the following:
- Van Horn is the county seat of Culberson County, which has the distinction of being the westernmost location of the Central Time Zone. Although entering Van Horn resembles stepping into the past, I found I actually was entering two hours into the future since I had no idea I had been in the Mountain Time Zone for days. As one who is time-zone challenged to begin with, I never know what time it is in Arizona given that the state does not observe daylight savings time (although the Navajo Nation does). To state I’m confused in the State of Arizona is only the beginning of the problem.
- Van Horn’s population has been steadily declining. At its peak in 1970, the town had about 2,900 people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population declined nearly 17% from 1990 to 2000; and more than 15% from 2000 to 2010. In 2015, the town had declined 6.5% to 1,900 residents. The numbers have certainly taken their toll on the downtown. For example the one grocery store is long gone.
- As I visit towns, cities and states, attend museums, and take tours, I am astounded at all I learn. I joke that what I don’t know would fill books. I think of these realizations as “duh” moments. For example, I was not aware that, to quote Wikipedia, “The petroleum industry influenced long-term trends in Texas and American culture. Conservative views among the early business leaders in Texas led them to help finance the emergence of the modern Christian and the American conservative movement.” Wow. Was this reflected in the TV series Dallas? Not that I watched it. But really, just where did I think the Koch brothers’ money came from? Talk about a “duh” moment.
- Van Horn’s current economy is based in large part on its location: it’s a convenient stopping place traveling between San Antonio and El Paso, a 500-mile journey. It’s also on the route for those visiting Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. State Highway 62 runs north from Van Horn to the Caverns from I-10, a major interstate freeway that takes you from Los Angeles, California, to Saint Augustine, Florida. For the record, I’ve traveled this route from the West to the East Coasts. Since every exit off I-10 is populated by the same fast-food chains, gas stations and convenience stores, you would never know which state you were in.
- More Location. Location. Location. Van Horn’s wells provided water along the San Antonio-El Paso Overland Mail route in the 1850s and supplied the Texas and Pacific railroad in the 1880s. The railroad is still up and running. I know this for a fact because it came through my RV around midnight every night. As far as I can tell, RV parks are required by law to locate next to a major highway or railroad crossing. Once, when I was at a park east of San Diego and far away from any traffic or locomotives, it took me days to spot the catch. We were located on the road used by dump trucks on their way to the dump. Trust me, there’s always
- More than 40% of the 600 employees in Van Horn are classified as being in the retail trade. That sounds fine and dandy until you realize the “retail” trade refers to gas stations. Accommodation and food services (hotels and restaurants, which include Wendy’s) account for the next largest group of employees — 30%. Virtually none of the 600 people working in Van Horn manage companies or enterprises, are in education services, or in the arts or entertainment business. Oh look: A bit over 14% are involved in “health cate (sic) and social assistance.” (For all you Seinfeld fans, this reminds me of when George played Trivial Pursuit with the Bubble Boy and a critical answer was the “Moops.”)
- But — and this is YUGE — all this may change in another year or two. That’s because Blue Origin, the private aerospace company founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos to enable people (rich ones, at least) to orbit Earth from space, is located in Culberson County, Texas. As I mentioned earlier, Van Horn is the county seat.
- According to Fox News, Blue Origin will begin test flights next year with commercial flights beginning in 2018. If I’m still on the road in 2019, I plan to revisit Van Horn to see how Billie Sue’s cats are faring and Blue Origin’s effect on the town.
Shown below are some of the boarded up buildings in downtown Van Horn, Texas.