National Geographic : 1993 Sep
runs past the pink-stone courthouse, the post office, a one-pump gas station, the A & G Cafe. That's it. You've left the town behind. Mentone is the seat ofLoving County (popu lation 100). It's also the only town in this least densely populated county in the contiguous United States. "We have seven square miles per person and use every inch," county appraiser Mary Belle Jones told me proudly. Mary Belle is married to Sheriff Elgin "Punk" Jones, a tall, soft-spoken, straight line-between-two-points kind of guy who took office in 1965 with 65 votes. During his first year as sheriff he wrote Mary Belle a speeding ticket, then, as her husband, paid the fine. Punk and Mary Belle moved to Mentone in 1953 when he took a job with an oil company. It was hardly love at first sight. "I knew I'd come to the end of the earth," says Mary Belle with the warmth of a confiding friend. "I cried and cried. Butit grows on you. I've never been west of the Rio Grande or east of Shreveport, and that's just fine with me. We have rattlers and coyotes in the yard, but I was never so scared as when I had to go to Austin." Let us count Loving County's blessings: one elevator, one farmer, highest voter turn out in Texas (87 percent), and 402 oil leases. Other blessings: no unemployment or lawyers. There's never been a criminal trial here. Try finding a jury of disinterested peers in a county of a hundred people. Because Loving County has no cemetery, practically the last person buried there was cowboy Shady Davis in 1929. "He was drugged to death," says Mary Belle. Overdose? I ask. Mary Belle pats my hand. "Drug by his horse. Got hung up in his stirrup." The A & G Cafe is owned by Ann Hogue, a small, wiry woman with hair the color of a dried chili pepper. By my third cup of coffee Ann has cued me in on Mentone folks. "We're tough on the outside, marshmallows inside." The toughest marshmallow in town is Punk Jones. Once he had to arrest a friend. It tore him up so bad he cried. But he did what a man's got to do. The sheriff pulls out a shoehorn-size key and offers to show me the jail. It's your basic decor: two barred windows, bunk bed bolted to the The Pecos-River of Hard-won Dreams floor, sink, urinal, shower. At that, it looks better than some of the motel rooms I've slept in recently. I look at the bunk. It is 20 miles to the near est motel. Can I spend the night in jail? "Don't know," he says. "We have regula tions. I'd have to check you every two hours." "As sheriff, don't you have the final word in Loving County?" I counter. That evening I check into jail. I snuggle under a blanket and fall asleep. Sort of. Every so often I waken to the rattle of drums. Must be quite a party, I think. I toss and turn, hoping someone reports the racket to the sheriff. Next morning Punk sets me straight about the noise. "Just an old oil-well pump jack out side town," he says, then springs me. I walk across the street to join Kathy the postmaster and half a dozen others at the A & G for some sourdough biscuits. How does Mentone stack up to the rest of the world? I ask. A man speaks up. "Well, I been in Paris, France, for two days and didn't much like it," he says. "Mentone has something Paris doesn't." What? I want to know. "Good friends," he replies. N THE HAND dealt by the Pecos, a wild card turns up--a dream comes true. For Ira and Ann Yates that moment came on October 28, 1926, when I. G. Yates oil well number one blew in, repealing the law that said there was no oil west of the Pecos. There was an ocean of it. The Pecos runs right through the Permian Basin, a 125,000 square-mile limestone and sandstone sponge of oil and gas laid down about 500 million years ago when the area was covered by sea. The land that Yates, a grocer, bought for $2.50 an acre has produced one billion barrels of oil with no end in view. A site nearby, two thirds of the way along the river's run through Texas, was named Iraan in honor of Ira and Ann. Today the Yates field, an iron orchard of bobbing pump jacks, is run by Marathon Oil. Iraan has 1,300 residents, one stoplight, and two doctors. The senior physician, Edd Franks, has delivered 1,650 babies in 32 years. On the day I follow him around, he bounces between office and hospital, where he tends to an epileptic child, a weekend cowboy's broken arm, and a woman in false labor ("I'm going to faint," she says and promptly does).