IN 1888 THE VOTERS OF MURPHYVILLE, in an early display of Texans' tendency to exaggerate the size of their natural endowments, changed the name of their town, which sat at 4,481 feet above sea level, to Alpine. Now in Switzerland, home of the Alps, 4,481 feet is a mere hillock, but this was Texas, and this was the middle of the Trans-Pecos desert. Alpine was positively Himalayan, and with its gorgeous mountain vistas and mild climate, it was something of a West Texas anomaly. It later became home to Sul Ross State Normal College, the only four-year university in the region, and later still to scores of federal agents from the DEA and the Border Patrol. Then came artists and writers, some all the way from New York.
In other words, Alpine is a strange little town, and I mean that in a good way. Unlike most West Texas communities, it's thriving. The normal college is now Sul Ross State University, a full-scale yet still small (enrollment: 2,100) redbrick campus that sits on a slope overlooking the town. There's a new hospital, the Big Bend Regional Medical Center, and a new federal building is being raised, which will hold a courthouse. There are about a dozen art galleries downtown. You can take a creative-writing class at Front Street Books or surf the Web all night long at the 6th Street Coffeeshop. Alpine is full of cowboy conservatives but also desert-rat liberals; a group of left-wing curmudgeons holds court every Friday afternoon at the popular local bar Railroad Blues, drinking beer and talking loud, while just down the street, a sign at Alpine Auto Parts reads "We are Bush supporters." It is the kind of town where, if you stop in at the small city hall to pay a visit to the mayor without an appointment, as I did, you just might wind up talking with the receptionist when the mayor phones in and then have the receptionist hand you the phone to talk with Her Honor.
Gossip and bad news travel fast here. In January bad news became big news after Sul Ross economics professor Larry Sechrest wrote an article for Liberty, a 10,000-subscriber libertarian magazine based in Washington state, called "A Strange Little Town in Texas." For most of the first half, Sechrest wrote of Alpine's pleasant climate, low crime rate, beautiful scenery, and friendly residents. But something was rotten in paradise. "The secret problem," wrote Sechrest, "is that the students of Sul Ross, and more generally the long-term residents of the entire area, are appallingly ignorant, irrational, anti-intellectual, and, well . . . just plain stupid. . . . Many of the kids in the Big Bend area are only a notch above retardation. Some are below that." Sechrest quoted statistics: Two in five Sul Ross freshmen have to take remedial classes to get up to speed; only one in six freshmen ever graduate. Most Sul Ross grads were functioning as tenth graders, wrote the author, who gave anecdotes of classroom ignorance—kids who didn't know, for example, that 0.75, 75 percent, and three fourths were the same thing. Yes, the problems of public education were nationwide, he wrote, yet "Sul Ross, and this area of Texas more generally, is the proud home of some of the dumbest clods on the planet."
Sechrest didn't stop there. He wrote of Alpine natives being "inbred to a disturbingly high degree," referring to their tendency to live there until they died, yet he used that concept as a springboard to write of "poor white trash and poor Mexican trash socializing with, even marrying, each other. Here the lowest common denominators get together to procreate."
The magazine came out in late December, and it wasn't long before the issue found its way into the hands of curious citizens. Copies were made, then copies of copies. Soon after, someone broke the windows of a car parked in front of Sechrest's house. Then came two death threats, plus dozens of obscene e-mails and phone calls. Sechrest's home was egged. "He pushed everybody's buttons," Sam Conn, an Odessa TV reporter, told me. "Artists, Hispanics, conservative cowboys."
Angry students spoke of boycotting his classes. Sechrest was tenured, and there was nothing the administration could do about him, though R. Vic Morgan, the university president, disavowed the professor's views. Alpine civic leaders were furious too. The mayor decided to fight back and declared the week of February 6 "We Love Alpine Week." The next day a rally was held at the county courthouse. People held signs saying things like "Proud to Be Dumb Clods from Alpine." A band played a song in which the singer sang, "If ignorance is bliss/We'll tell you what to kiss." Citizens held a parade, and marchers wore dunce caps and carried toilet plungers as scepters, walking next to cars and trucks that sported banners proclaiming "White Trash" and "Dumb Clods in Alpine . . . by Choice!"
The controversy settled down some as the semester wore on. There was no boycott after all, and life returned to normal. Yet underneath the daily rhythms of Alpine's laid-back atmosphere, there was still rage. "Alpine will probably be hurt and angry for another year or so," Roy Hamric, the editor of the Desert-Mountain Times , told me. The professor was less than repentant, too. "The only thing I'd change," he said, "is I'd say I'm not trying to single out this town or this university. But we're doing a lousy job here and the school districts are doing a lousy job. And I really do believe nothing will happen unless you kick them in the butts. If you don't hurt their feelings, you won't wake them up. I hope it will lead people to think, 'He may be mean-spirited, but what if he's right?'"
ON A WARM MARCH AFTERNOON, two young Sul Ross students stood on a campus sidewalk and talked to me about Sechrest. "Sally" is Anglo, "Marta" is Mexican American (neither wanted