WHENEVER I’VE SEEN wind turbines spinning in the hazy distance as I zip down the interstates in West Texas, I’ve tried to figure out if they’re waving hello or good-bye. I finally realized they were waving me over and took them up on the invitation. After all, how could I resist schmoozing with Texas’s hottest energy celebrities?
I was tempted at first by the American Wind Power Trail, a Texas-Oklahoma tourism project that details, via a map and CD, wind-related stops like the Alternative Energy Institute, outside Canyon, and the Aermotor Windmill factory, in San Angelo. But a tip from Greg Wortham, a wind power cheerleader and the executive director of the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium, steered me instead to a 23-mile stretch of FM 89/126 that runs south and west of Abilene, along the Callahan Divide, a crenulated speed bump rising hundreds of feet out of the flatlands. Here, in Nolan and Taylor counties, where more than 730 turbines have sprung up in the past two years, sits the state’s newest, most concentrated collection of mammoth whirligigs, boasting rotors 150 feet long atop towers 250 feet tall.
My first glimpse of the bunch came when I was still fifty miles away, the sun-struck turbines glowing white against the gray-blue sky of an approaching norther. But our meet and greet didn’t begin until I was heading west on FM 89 out of the almost-too-darling town of Buffalo Gap, where suddenly there they were, in my face, playing peekaboo from behind a hill ablaze with sumac or lording over me from atop a nearby ridge. Outside the tiny town of Nolan, the landscape pancaked and the turbines thickened, lined up as regimentally as the rows of cotton at their feet. (Crop dusting here must be a challenge.)
The twirling troop emitted a slightly amplified continuous sigh, like someone breathing into a microphone, and I pulled off the road to listen. As handsome and hypnotic as the turbines were, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d want to live with one, much less hundreds, in my backyard. As if on cue, a great horned owl swooped in to perch on a nearby power pole, and—I have the photos to prove it—an actual rainbow arched across the darkening eastern sky as the setting sun turned the towers from white to orange to pink. It was as though the turbines’ public relations specialists (their spin doctors?) had pulled out all the stops.
But full appreciation of these modern-day megawatt darlings requires a jolt of historical context, so I trekked to Lubbock to visit the American Wind Power Center and Museum, whose stunning collection of more than 120 vintage windmills ranges from the old Battle Ax, a handmade economy model with a tendency to self-destruct in high winds, to a jaunty Wood-manse and Hewitt number, circa 1890, with an intricate wood wheel. Exhibits illuminate arcane windmill subcultures, and I particularly liked the salesmen’s samples—pint-size but fully functional replicas—and the display of governing weights and tail weights, from no-nonsense 2-pound balls to decorative 125-pound roosters (replacements for former squirrel-shaped weights, which proved highly unpopular with farmers). Outside the exhibit hall, a Vestas-model wind turbine that supplies all the center’s needs—and then some—has recently joined the seasoned windmills on the 28-acre grounds.
You’d have thought I’d gotten my fill of wind power, but like some kind of turbine stalker, I found myself back in Nolan and Taylor counties, driving the Callahan Divide again. And again! At least I wouldn’t go hungry; this backcountry route is graced with surprisingly good eateries, like the Nolan Café, where locals, as well as wind workers from, say, Venezuela or Denmark, fuel up on biscuits and gravy, chicken-fried steak, and homemade pecan pie. (Maybe owner Jeff Egger will have restocked his “Got Wind?” T-shirts by the time you stop by.) At Coronado’s Camp, a hopping joint serving smoked barbecue and buffalo burgers, I snagged a tasty brisket sandwich and, thanks to a shiny Hummer parked out front, a twisted notion to boot: Are local landowners using their lease payments, purportedly as high as $10,000 a year per turbine, to buy fossil-fuel guzzlers? The thought made my head spin and finally drove me home.
WEST TEXAS WIND TOUR
American Wind Power Trail map and CD available at 806-747-5232, windpowertrail.com.
West Texas Wind Energy Consortium , 325-236-9499, westtexaswind.us.
American Wind Power Center and Museum , 1701 Canyon Lake Drive, Lubbock, 806-747-8734, windmill.com; closed Monday.
Nolan Café , 1733 FM 126, Nolan, 325-798-3096; Monday–Friday 7–3, Saturday 7–2, Sunday 10–2.
Coronado’s Camp , intersection of U.S. 277 and FM 89 (southwest of Abilene), 325-572-3985; Monday–Friday 7–6, Saturday 8–6, closed Sunday.
WHILE YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD:
Overnight anonymity awaits at chain motels in Abilene, but for more-personable crash pads, check out the yurts at Abilene State Park (512-389-8900, tpwd.state.tx.us) or the guesthouses in Buffalo Gap, a historic settlement that’s lousy with ancient oaks. Options include Fairy Tale B&B (325-370-8568, fairytalebandb.com), Elm Creek Bed and Breakfast (325-572-3587, elmcreekbedandbreakfast.com), and Buffalo Gap Bed and Breakfast (325-572-3145, buffalogapbedandbreakfast.com). Get a frontier fix at Buffalo Gap Historic Village (325-572-3365, buffalogap.com), and above all, keep eating so you won’t miss out on the enchiladas and Indian fry bread at homey Lola’s Mexican Food Café (325-572-3731), the legendary tenderloin from Perini Ranch Steakhouse (325-572-3339, periniranch.com), or Saturday pot roast at Deep ’n the Heart (325-572-3883, deepntheheart.com).