Dec. 4, Sierra Blanca, Texas – We had run out of gas on I-10 in the howling darkness of west Texas and lived to tell about it. What now?
I know I need to unearth a story from this isolated desert outpost to justify the utter stupidity that delivered us here. My only hope, I figure, is the pretty girl working the counter at the Freeway Chevron Food Mart. She must know something about Sierra Blanca.
So I ask her, “What can you tell me about Sierra Blanca?”
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” she says.
I tell her I’d already learned that one the hard way.
“Everyone who comes here, including myself, changes,” she says.
Her body sags a little as she says this. You know the Sierra Blanca makeover is not necessarily an upgrade.
“It’s like there’s a curse on this town,” she adds.
Her name is Brandy*, and she’s lived here about a year. She’s got piercing brown eyes and a smile that would melt a block of ice.
They’ve got four churches here and two convenience stores. This one’s out of bread. She can’t remember exactly when they ran out. A customer asks if there’s bread over at the Exxon, and Brandy’s not sure.
As of the 2000 census, there were 533 people living in Sierra Blanca. More than 70 percent are Hispanic. Brandy says some uncharitable things about the town’s “Mexicans,” though she admits her best friend is a Latina.
She’s only 15 years old. Her stepfather bought a large tract of land from Sunset Ranches outside of town. Out here, in the forbidding desert, you can get 120 acres for less than $40,000. You can live like a desert prince among the javelinas and coyotes, the greasewood and the yucca. Just don’t try to take your marijuana stash through the border patrol checkpoint. Those German Shepherds know their stuff.
Brandy, well she’s seen her share of places. She’s bounced around from place to place and state to state. She was born around DeLand, Fla. She’s lived in Polk and Pasco, also in Florida. She’s lived in northeast Ohio, and Delaware.
And she’s lived in London. London, Kentucky.
“In one month we went from a $700,000 house with six bedrooms, four bathrooms, two kitchens and a swimming pool to a single-wide trailer in Kentucky,” she says.
She’s a sophomore at Sierra Blanca High, one of 12 students in her class. She lives with her mom in an apartment in town.
Sierra Blanca’s as small as the surrounding desert is big. The Sierra Blanca High Vaqueros play six-man football. They won a game this year, against El Paso Jesus Chapel, by a score of 88-70.
For a podunk town on the road to oblivion, Sierra Blanca does boast a nationally famous border patrol checkpoint just five miles to the west. It’s become a fashionable place for celebrities to get busted by the federales. Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Fiona Apple, they’re all doing it
For nearly a decade, Sierra Blanca served as New York City’s dumping ground. From 1992 till 2001, New York sent its sewage by train to a sprawling ranch on the outskirts of town. Up to 45 train cars arrived daily to dump the Big Apple’s sludge, which spread out like peanut butter across the 129,000-acre parcel.
Her boyfriend, Sam, graduated last year, one of a class of six.
He’s the love of her life. She just knows this. How?
“Because when you know something, you just know,” she says.
Beneath her steely, world-wise exterior, she’s a romantic. She loves Nicholas Sparks’ novels. She does some writing herself. She also writes songs. I ask her to sing one.
Brandy knows the secrets this little town holds.
She knows who buys junk food with her food stamps card, and who scrapes together her last pennies for a couple tallboys. She knows how the construction worker lost his leg, and what the woman next door puts in the cup she gives to her husband to fill with ice.
She knows, like everyone else, who got arrested by the federales. She also knows what kind of pizza the border cops like and how they drink their coffee.
She knows darker things, too. She knows what it’s like to be abused by an out of control stepfather, a little man with a big problem. She also knows what it’s like to have an alcoholic father she doesn’t know at all.
“I was the only one he was physically abusive with, because he knew I wouldn’t take it. He knew I’d stand up to him, and he kept trying to push me down.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she says. “I guess it’s because there’s no one else here. It happened, it’s over. So why hide it? I figure the things that happened to me, God intended me to be a light to others.”
Despite her negative feelings about Sierra Blanca, it figures in her dreams nonetheless.
She wants to go to New Mexico State and study accounting so she can help Sam run the family ranch. Yes, despite what she says about Sierra Blanca, it figures in her dreams.
“I’m going to stay in Texas for the rest of my life,” she says. “But I’m not going to come back here and become a Sierra Blanca drunk. That’s what everybody seems to do.
“My dreams are bigger than this little town.”
* last name omitted to provide Brandy a shred of privacy.