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