It is a bone-chilling day in late January, with stinging 20-knot winds, gunmetal-gray skies, and temperatures hovering in the low 30’s. I am strapped into the unheated backseat of a single-engine Citabria airplane as it taxis across the runway of the San Marcos airport, a place so deserted and windswept it could be a set for one of those movies where everyone on earth has been killed by a supervirus. There is no tower here; there are no planes in the sky.
In the seat in front of me, peering over the plane’s primitive dashboard into the vast grayness, is Texas land commissioner Jerry Patterson. I am here as his guest on a reconnaissance mission to the Christmas Mountains, a 9,269-acre, state-owned parcel of land in the Big Bend region of West Texas. Last year, Patterson touched off a political firestorm when he announced that he was going to sell the mountains, which had been donated by conservationists in 1991, to private interests. He was roundly denounced in editorials across the state and publicly criticized by politicians, including Governor Rick Perry, U.S. congressman Ciro Rodriguez, and state senator John Whitmire. As the debate intensified, the remote mountain range was transformed from a chunk of brown, lechuguilla-pocked dirt into the embodiment of a righteous principle of public entitlement and landed heritage. This is why Patterson has invited me along: He wants me to see the real Christmas Mountains, touch the volcanic rock, smell the sagey air, and confront what he says are the true issues at stake.
The Citabria is one of two aircraft Patterson owns. He often flies them around the state on official business of the General Land Office (GLO), a bureau that essentially acts as Texas’s realtor. Today we are taking the Citabria because it is better adapted to landing on short dirt runways in the middle of nowhere. “One of the problems with these planes,” he says through my headphones as we reach the end of the runway, “is if you’re not careful, they tend to swap ends when you take off.” This had not occurred to me, of course. I try to imagine for a moment what it might feel like to swap ends. But moments later Patterson guns the engine and suddenly we are banking steeply over San Marcos, bumping hard into a stiff headwind, and flying toward our destination, 350 desolate miles away.
Since I met the 61-year-old Patterson only an hour ago, the Citabria serves as a kind of introduction. It is a fascinating little aircraft. And I do mean little. Its cockpit is only slightly wider than I am, which is why I am crammed into its tiny backseat. There are only two tandem seats. The interior is ancient and shopworn, its appointments not unlike those of a 30-year-old Oldsmobile. The plane itself, like Baron Von Richthofen’s Fokker triplane, consists entirely of cloth fabric stretched over a spindly frame. Above us, where the wings join the fuselage, are twin tiny, dim fuel gages that jump around like indicator needles on a Model A Ford. As cramped as I am, I must still avoid the “stick” and the pedals that control the aircraft, a set of which are located in front of me. On takeoff the stick whacks me in the knees, so I move them out of the way as best I can, only to have them knock against what appears to be a door handle on the left side of the aircraft, marked with two settings, “open” and “closed.” A few minutes later, Patterson explains that this is not the door handle; it’s the throttle.
I note these details not because I believe I am in any special danger but because in many ways the aircraft really is a perfect reflection of Patterson. Citabrias are legendary for their maneuverability; they were among the first commercial planes to be built for aerobatics (Citabria, in fact, is “airbatic” spelled backward). Patterson explains to me that their flight characteristics allow them to land “almost anywhere.” (He is fond of landing his on the beach in South Texas, for example, when visiting state lands there.) In the hands of a superb pilot like Patterson, the plane swoops and turns like a barn swallow.
But Citabrias are highly idiosyncratic. Like other tail-wheel aircraft, they’re so difficult to fly that it is hard to find an instructor who can teach you how to operate one. (“It’s a manly airplane,” Patterson says with a grin.) And it is, of course, a single-engine plane. Patterson later admits, as we turn tight 360’s over the dizzyingly steep canyons of the lower Rio Grande, that if we were to lose that single engine, we would be in a “shit sandwich.” But all of this suits the controversial land commissioner. After twelve years in public office, he has established a reputation as an unusual—and, like his airplane, idiosyncratic—sort of politician. As a Republican state senator from 1992 to 1998, he authored and rammed through landmark legislation to allow Texans to carry concealed weapons, borrow money off the equity in their homes, and ride their motorcycles without wearing helmets. He was seen as a “completely fearless” legislator, according to former senator David Sibley.
“Once he thought something ought to be done, you could not convince him to go away or stop doing it,” Sibley says. “We would joke about his Marine training. Whenever somebody shoots at a Marine, he is trained to turn toward where the shot came from and charge, shooting his gun. That was Jerry as a senator. He would just turn and charge.” (Patterson is a U.S. Marine Vietnam veteran and flew F-4 Phantom fighter planes as a radar intercept officer—the backseat—for fifteen years, five on active duty and ten in the reserves. He retired in 1993 as a lieutenant colonel.)
Stories of his fierce will are legendary. In 1997 he defied the entire Republican leadership of Texas on a bill that would have made some eight-liner gambling machines illegal.