Wandering on a Road Trip to the Odessa Meteor Crater

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Earlier this week Petey and I took advantage of some unusually cool weather for May to drive southeast to check out the meteor crater near Odessa, Texas. Although not nearly as dramatic as Meteor Crater in Arizona, the Odessa crater is the second largest meteor crater in the country!  I had seen the crater some time ago and thought a revisit would be a good excuse to check out the oil-rich Permian Basin.

The drive from Albuquerque includes a 90-plus mile stretch on U.S. Highway 285 (between Vaughn and Roswell) without any services what so ever. There is nothing that resembles a commercial enterprise and only other one paved road along the way. Except for a handful of ranches, a few scattered junipers, and some antelope, it is empty.

And then all of a sudden between mile markers 184 and 183 we saw on the horizon two ranchers on opposite sides of the very wide road arguing. Whoa! I immediately hit the brakes just in case  one of them decided to run across to the road to finish the fight.

From a further distance, my first reaction was that those were real people.

But then I noticed that they weren’t moving, and when I got closer I could see that they were two very large and very realistic full-color cutout profiles facing each other. One on each side of the road.

When I pulled over to take a picture, I saw that the cutouts were painted on both sides to give traffic coming from the other direction the same view. Not wanting to run across the highway, I took pictures from only one side of the road and figured I could get pictures of the other side on my way back.

After a couple of Internet searches, I learned that the double-sided profiles were cut out of plywood and 18 feet tall. The profiles were created by the artist John Cerney and named “Cowboy Rukus.” Cerney has installed similar types of works throughout the country. For more information check out his website at http://www.johncerneymurals.com/projects.html.

On our way back we passed the cowboys during a thunder storm.

After clearing Roswell, we entered the New Mexico portion of the Permian Basin and continued on through to Texas. The Permian Basin is booming! There’s activity everywhere. Oil wells by the thousands; new wells being drilled in every direction we could see; heavy trucks moving this way and that to support the oil operations; and bigger than average pickup trucks scooting about. And there was no escape from the constant scent of petroleum vapors in the air.

As you drive by the oil fields, you can see torches on many of the wells flaring off unwanted gases. It’s an inferno of activity. In the distance we could see a huge cloud of black smoke pouring into the sky. When we got closer we saw that it was an oil collection tank engulfed in flames. For all know, the fire could have been started by a lightning strike from the just concluded thunderstorm.

Flares through the rain.

The economic boom has even trickled down to the lowest paid employees. If you’re looking for a job, the Permian Basin is the place to be! Several companies were advertising for workers on large billboards. Even the local McDonald’s had a billboard offering jobs with a starting pay of $14 to $18 per hour!

With all the new workers needing a place to stay, workforce housing complexes have sprouted up in almost every town. Once vacant tracts of land are now tightly packed with RVs. The Motel 6 where Petey and I spent the night in Pecos, Texas cost us $107.00 for the night. And the motel is sold out almost every night!

Here’s a relatively new workforce housing complex in Pecos, Texas.

Here’s a combined RV and workforce housing complex in Wink, Texas.

The Permian Basin is not a new oil field. It’s been producing oil since the 1920s! What has changed is that new technologies (read fracking and deeper drilling) has unlocked more petroleum and has made the Permian the largest active oil field in the nation. The new wells in the Permian have pushed the United States ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest petroleum producer.

With the area inundated with oil wells, I wish I had a cherry picker or drone at my disposal to get a better view of the wells filling up the landscape from horizon to horizon. It’s unbelievable!

Here’s one of the almost uncountable new wells being punched into the Permian Basin. You’ll see them everywhere!

It will be rare to not see an active well.

If I could have taken this picture from a cherry picker or with a drone, you would see wells as far as you could see in every direction.

But don’t expect a drive in oil country to be a leisurely country drive. It’s not! The posted speed limit on the Interstate is 80 MPH. Surface roads have a limit of 75 MPH. If you find yourself driving 65, you better have your hazard blinkers on or you’ll have a mud splattered pickup truck less than two inches off your rear bumper. And if you want to make a left hand turn be prepared to wait as truck after truck zooms by before there is an opening. With everyone in a hurry to get the oil, a slow leisurely driver is just in the way!

With so much oil being pumped out of the ground, some places have seen some settling and sinking.  With the Permian being a former seabed, there are plenty of limestone and salt layers to make the area a potential hot spot for caves and sink holes. The enormous limestone caves at nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park are on the edge of the Basin.

Two large sink holes have opened up near the town of Wink, Texas. One in 1980 and the other in 2002! The sinkholes are referred to as the “Wink Sink.” I tried my best to get an up close look of the sinkholes but was stopped by a tall fence posted with “No Trespassing” signs and warnings about unstable ground. My hopes were raised a bit when I saw a footpath rounding the corner of the fenced off area.

Here’s a Google Earth view of the Wink area. Every one of those dots is a well pad. The sand color patch right of center is part of a north south running formation of sand hills.

Ironically, sand happens to be a major component of the fracking process. You’ll see plenty of quarries digging into the sand and  truck after truck hauling sand to the wells. If you can find a place to pull over, you’ll see that the swirl of activity hasn’t prevented wildflowers from coming back every year!

Here’s a look at the two Wink sinkholes from Google Earth. The newest sinkhole is to the south.

Here’s an even closer look at the north sink from Google Earth. You can see how the ground outside the sink is cracking and slowly sinking.

Not being able to pass up a footpath, and hoping that some local adventurer had blazed a route to the hole, Petey and I followed the path. The path only led to more fencing and eventually petered out in a tangle of mesquite. We did get to see plenty of wildflowers and oil collection lines crisscrossing the landscape.

With our plans to check out the Wink Sink thwarted, we continued on to Odessa to check out the meteor crater. When the crater was formed 63,000 years ago, it was almost 100 feet deep. Since then, sand and sediments have drifted in to fill the crater very near to the top. The crater is open to the public and  has a nice trail with interpretive signs. Despite the silting, you can clearly see the outline of the crater and evidence of impact. You’ll also see plenty of oil wells outside the crater property.

I asked the museum attendant if there were any shatter cones associated with the impact. He told me that the Odessa area was a lake at the time of impact and that the water softened the blow from the meteor enough to prevent the formation of shatter cones. Had the force of the impact not been reduced, you would be able to see shatter patterns in the exposed rock.

This is a view of the crater from Google Earth. If you look carefully you can discern the crater edge.

Looking across the crater from the edge.

The view from inside the crater.

Looking across the crater from a different angle. As you can see you are never far away from oil in the Permian Basin!

With our tour of the crater complete, we had one more place to visit before heading back to Albuquerque. We wanted to check out a 1920s era concrete navigation arrow not too far from the Odessa airport. The arrow was part of a network of arrows and beacons built by the Commerce Department to make it easier for early aviation airmail pilots find their way. The route from El Paso to Fort Worth passed directly over the Permian Basin and Odessa area. Those pilots would have had a bird’s eye view of the start of the Permian Basin oil boom.

Here’s the arrow from Google Earth.

And from the ground!

And if you need a reason to keep your eyes and ears open, we stumbled on this four foot long rattlesnake skin just beyond the tip of the arrow!

With the finding of the arrow we wrapped up our trip and headed home. The Permian Basin may not be the first place that you’ll think of as a vacation destination, but it is extremely interesting place to explore and somewhat energizing to experience the impact of an economic boom first hand. One of the basic tenets of the gentle art of wandering is that you’ll always find something exciting or interesting if you open your mind to the world around you!

8 Comments

  1. Fascinating, David! Such careful observation! The headline in the ABQ Journal today features the Permian Basin boom. I’ve many thoughts and concerns about this.

    We picked up your New 60 Hikes yesterday at Sevilleta. It is wonderful!

  2. Fascinating. Not too keen on the fracking. Great slice of life. Thank you!

  3. Love the pic of Petey on the arrow (peaceful foul to the oil tank in flames). What a wild few days you guys had…would be cool to see that crater some day…

  4. David, fascinating… because I am from that part of the world. Just went outside of the Permian Basin is Portales, my hometown. We actually have some mineral rights there, they too are just miles from the western edge. I was actually near Pep, NM last week, May 8-15. My friends there are also just west of the basin.
    I saw more wildflowers and birds than I’ve ever seen in southeastern Roosevelt County.And we were able to watch the weather from a 360 viewpoint.

    The sad part is that part of the world has always been boom or bust. What are we doing with all of that oil? Why do we want to pipe oil across the country to Houston? Why are we now fracking so that the earth subsides?

    If asked to drill where our mineral lease is (not likely) I would say no.

    A fine article, I never heard of the Wink Sink or Odessa crater or of concrete markers for airplanes. There are not very many landmarks in those sandhills.
    Rebecca

  5. David,

    A great read. I have passed by this area several times but I never slowed down under 80 and failed to realize just what I have been missing. I love the wildflowers. We may have more this year because it has been a very wet winter and wet spring. More and more of the oil companies are closing the old vertical wells and drilling horizontal wells. Better technology. Some well sites might contain 40 or more wells so the production greatly increased but there are 40 less pump jacks than before. Interesting about the sinkholes. I was not aware of them. They look huge.

    Ray

  6. Wonderful read. Thank you.

  7. David, It’s testimony to your observation That you can visit a place that I have always regarded as possibly the most boring place in the nation–a and find something interesting. A great blog post.

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