January 6, 2016
The sun had set about an hour before I turned off I-35 toward the Columbia Bridge port of entry. I was 20 miles north of Laredo Texas and 20 miles east of the border crossing at the Columbia Bridge over the Rio Grande. There were very few other vehicles on the road. In fact, the only vehicles I saw were headed east and I was headed west. During the day there are quite a few big rigs bringing in imports from Mexico down this road. I was on my way to an oil drilling rig on a several thousand acre ranch. I turned south on a smaller paved road and 2.6 miles later I stopped at the gated entrance. The guard emerged sleepily from a camper trailer that resembled a FEMA trailer, plain white with one window. He opened the gate and wrote down my license plate number on a clip board. I had my license out for him to look at, but he informed me he didn’t need it and waved me on. “That was pretty simple”, I thought. You almost need to give a specimen sample to get into some of these ranches we work on. And there are absolutely no firearms allowed. They do spot checks and vehicle searches and I would lose my job if caught with one.
It had been raining the last few days as I made my way down the ranch road. It is full of huge holes that would swallow a Volkswagen and filled with water. There is a speed limit sign that says 20, but there is no way I can go that fast without destroying my truck. I checked my directions again, 8.5 miles to get to the rig site. I go over small hills and dips. The road is lined with thick brush consisting of prickly pear cactus, yuccas, Texas sage, creosote, and mesquite trees. The fresh smell of the rain was still in the air.
This is oil country. I make my living in the “oil patch” in South Texas. The Eagle Ford Shale is the formal name of this oil field. Normally I am in a shop turning wrenches. I manage a shop with 55 Western Star trucks and each truck has a trailer that performs a task. Some trailers have pumps and others have “pots” for delivering cement.
Earlier today as I worked on a truck the dispatcher called begging me to do him a favor. We were busy and one of the crews was going to “slide over” and catch another job without coming back to the yard, so they would need a load of supplies. I agreed to help get him out of a bind and then found out I had to go to the border, and I wouldn’t get there till after dark. I am not particularly fond of that since I must leave my gun at home. It is common to see Border Patrol vehicles and helicopters flying in this area chasing some illegal border crossers. The Rio Grande was only 5 miles from my current location. The illegals swim the river and start north to awaiting vehicles that take them to cities farther from the border so they can find work. These kinds of illegals don’t bother me that much, however, there are plenty of drug runners also. They pack marijuana, cocaine, and heroine on their backs. Usually they are armed, some with automatic weapons. They don’t care who you are, if you get in their way they will eliminate you. If you see a vehicle broken down you don’t stop. They may even put a pretty lady out there to get you to stop so they can high jack your vehicle. The unspoken rule is to run the person over. Whatever you do, you don’t stop! They are ruthless! I heard of several big rigs that were former oil company trucks being used to transport drugs. The cartels figured out that oil company trucks were not getting inspected at the secondary border patrol check stations and bought some used ones. So now we get inspected too occasionally at the check station north of Laredo.
Suddenly, there is a doe in my headlights. She can’t decide which way to go. Finally, after running ahead of my truck for a hundred yards or so she jumped, crashing through the brush to my right. It seems like I have been driving forever. I checked my odometer and see that I still lack four miles to get to my destination. I was beginning to think I had taken a wrong turn when the lights of a drilling rig could be seen through the trees.
The drilling rig stands nearly 200 feet tall up on a small rise. It seems like there is a competition to see who can have the most lights on one. This one was lit up like a Christmas tree.
As I pulled onto the location there was mud everywhere. I could see the crew busy cleaning the rig. A drilling rig runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A rig hands job is never ending. If they are not working the “floor” during drilling, they are busy cleaning. This rig was going to be moved the next day so the hands were cleaning and dismantling what they could. A large crane was already staged on the edge of the location. I waved down a hand and asked him to bring the forklift. We unloaded my pallet of product and some jugs of chemicals needed for the job our crew was coming to do. We talked about the declining oil prices, both of us were happy to still have a job. While we both have different jobs and work for different companies, we both depend on the price of crude oil. When the price goes down layoffs happen and some companies close their doors. When the price is up, we are happy, but the price at the gas pump is high.
After a few minutes of small talk I thank him for his help and head out. Pulling away, I could see the lights of Laredo just to the south. The river wasn’t visible in the darkness, but I knew where it was supposed to be. I was apprehensive again. The drilling location is a safe haven. There is safety in numbers and there is never a concern for the drug runners there. But now I was by myself again for 8.5 miles on a road not much wider than my truck that would not provide me a high speed escape. The drive out seemed to go faster, it always does. I had to honk at the gate this time to wake the guard. He was even more disheveled when he emerged from his camper. After a courteous “Thank you, have a good night”, to which I received no reply, I pulled back onto a paved road and headed north. Shortly after turning back onto the toll road I saw a helicopter, most likely belonging to the Border Patrol, flying not far from the area I was just in. It is hard to judge distance in the dark, so it may have been a little farther away than that. But either way, I was glad to be back on a main road and headed home. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I would be back to my shop in 2 hours.