If you know where to look, there are pockets of West Texas where visions of the Old West still appear from time to time, like mirages in the heat. I caught a glimpse one Saturday morning last December. Perched atop a pipe fence at the Bullhead Ranch, some forty miles northwest of Odessa, I was scanning the horizon when a white-faced Hereford cow stepped through a thick tangle of mesquite. She was followed by her calf. Seconds later, a herd of rust-colored cattle burst through the brush and came streaming toward me. Guiding the cattle were a dozen cowboys. Most of the men wore chaps and wide-brimmed hats—all were on horseback. The cowboys yipped and hollered as they pushed the herd. The hooves of the animals churned up dust and sent pale clouds streaming into the wide, empty sky. I was staring at a version of West Texas that existed long before oil changed everything.
A half-century before the first oil rigs punched holes across West Texas, scenes like this one were common. Ranching was the area’s primary industry. In this episode of Boomtown, we meet cowboys who still work their ranches on horseback and rural West Texans fighting to maintain their land and way of life, while their ability to make a living off the land gets harder. For them, this boom can be a blessing—and a curse.
Our first stop is the Bean Farm, a twenty-acre spread eight miles outside of Andrews. We meet Johnie Rollwitz, a 78-year-old “puredee country girl” (and my granny), who has lived on West Texas ranches most of her life. Johnie has been on horseback since she was a toddler and started working cattle alongside her father when she was a teen. After high school, she married a ranch hand and spent years cooking for hungry crews of cowboys. To this day, she boards horses at her stables and enjoys the country life, but lately the world just beyond her fence line has changed.
Since the oil boom, new homes and RV parks have proliferated in the once-empty fields surrounding her home. Johnie doesn’t mind the newcomers—she says that twenty acres is plenty of “hollering room”—but the boom has brought more than new neighbors to her doorstep. Until recently, if you stood on Johnie’s back porch and looked past the arena, there was an unbroken view of the horizon. But since the boom, nearly a dozen flares have cropped up in the surrounding pastures. (Flaring in the Permian Basin has doubled since 2017.) These giant torches burn off the natural gas that exceeds pipeline capacity, releasing highly potent greenhouse gases as well as pollutants that can cause respiratory problems. Having spent nearly eight decades in the Permian Basin, Johnie understands the pros and cons of the oil and gas industry better than most, but lately she wonders if the good still overrides the bad.
Next, we head to the Bullhead Ranch for the fall roundup. The cowboys round up the herd, drive them on horseback to the pens, and begin their work: branding, cutting, and vaccinating the young calves born over the summer. The cowboys know exactly what they’re doing. They move together in one fluid motion—like a choreographed dance, except with dust and blood. At the center of the action is the ranch owner, Dan Fisher.
The Fishers have been ranching in Andrews County for more than a century. Dan’s grandfather started his herd of Hereford cattle in 1908, and the Fishers have worked hard to maintain that line ever since. But Dan says it’s getting harder to make a good living off of cattle ranching in West Texas. The big ranches that were once common across the region have shrunk over time—sections of land are sold off to pay taxes or partitioned off through inheritance—and that makes it harder to graze a large herd on the often-parched pastures across the Permian Basin. Raising cattle is a risky business and only marginally profitable, if at all. For many of the younger generations, it’s simply not worth it. Those ranching families who have survived the hard times, like the Fishers, have often leaned on a far more lucrative industry: oil. Some families have sold or leased their land or water to oil companies, and others, including the Fishers, have found success buying and operating their own wells. For these families, oil has allowed them to keep their ranches and way of life intact.
Our last stop is the sand dunes of northern Winkler County. If you were driving through this part of West Texas and didn’t know about the dunes, you might think you’d just stumbled through a wormhole straight into the Sahara Desert. Beautiful rolling hills of cornmeal-colored sand appear out of nowhere in certain areas. For years, these dunes were little more than a curiosity—a place to ride ATVs and for high-schoolers to drink beer. But when fracking came along, they suddenly had commercial value. (Fracking requires a lot of fine-grade silica sand to keep the fractures propped open so the hydrocarbons can flow into the well.) Since 2017, some twenty sand mining companies have been built across West Texas.
We get a tour of this corner of the patch from rancher Michael Moore. Riding in his F-350 down Texas Highway 128, Michael discusses the tension between profit and preservation. The boom has made this once quiet corner a place of intense industrial activity. There’s trash and shredded tires on the sides of the road. Giant sand haulers whiz by on crumbling roads that weren’t built for this much weight or volume of traffic. But Michael doesn’t want to sound hypocritical talking about these developments, he says; his family made the decision to lease some of their land to the sand companies. They knew the companies were coming one way or another. Like Michael’s neighbors, he wants to preserve parts of his ranch so the wildlife can still roam among the sand dunes, but doing so means giving up part of the land he holds so dear.