Jessica Mills
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  • West Texas

    I grew up, and still spend time in, West Texas.  And when I say West Texas, I mean about five hours directly west of Dallas, and 100 miles from the nearest mall.  My hometown is the largest town in our county, at a whopping 10,000 people.

    I grew up on 100 acres of cactus, mesquite trees, wildflowers and various scrappy herbivores and even scrappier carnivores. As a kid, I was always fascinated by hawks, floating on the air currents like they hadn’t a care in the world.  An armadillo my brother cleverly named “Army the Armadillo” lived in the grove of Chinaberry trees.  Armadillos may carry leprosy, but they’re adorable.  Crafty jackrabbits were always an exciting spotting.  They’re fast as hell, and sometimes all you see are their giant ears, bounding through the tall grass.   At night, my brother and I would sit outside and listen to the coyote packs call to each other, from miles apart.  If we couldn’t hear them at first, we would call out ourselves.  Howling and giggling, until the coyotes called back.  They always do.

    When I was growing up, sunflowers grew to insane heights.  A child, on horseback, nose to nose with flowers as big as my head.  Every spring, the ground would be blanketed with every color of the rainbow. Texas is famous for its wildflowers.  Our chinaberry grove was the closest we had to real trees.  Mesquites get to be real tree size, but they are scraggledy, scruffy plants with thorns.  The chinaberry grove was full of tall willowy trees, that actually changed to fall colors and lost their leaves.  None of the other native trees on our place did that.  Many a day was spent out there, building tree forts and playing super heroes.

    Last year, Texas was ravaged by wildfires that reached temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees.  They swept across the landscape leaving such destruction behind, you can still see damage a year later.  Whole patches of earth that can’t sustain even a little grass.  Stones that shattered in the heat.

    However, for the most part, the earth is recovering remarkably.  After all, before people came along, wildfires were a natural part of the ecosystem here.  So, now, everything is growing back, turning green.  The creatures have come back and are slowly building their numbers up.  In spite of this summer being one of the hottest in history.

    The chinaberry grove is gone, but it’s been replaced by what my brother has called the “chinaberry nursery”.  Tiny, baby trees.  I went to check on the nursery and I got lost.  The paths we spent 18 years wearing out through the grove are gone.  It’s young and wild all over again.

    Hiking out to the chinaberry nursery, I had to keep an eye out for snakes.  I stepped around cactus. I shoved my way through sharp, prickly bushes. My dog got grass burrs in her feet. My face ran smack into a Mesquite limb, and I tripped over a rock.  I was hot, sweaty, bleeding and annoyed.

    Here’s the thing.  West Texas has been described as an acquired taste.  Not classically beautiful, not particularly easy on strangers.

    Mostly because West Texas just doesn’t give a damn.

    It’s here to thrive and survive, not to please you.  It’s your job to learn to deal with its challenges.  Snakebite survival 101, tornado warning signs, where to step to avoid getting your feet stabbed with thorns, etc etc etc.

    It’s also your job to appreciate it’s hidden beauty, it’s glorious strength and the treasures it has to offer if you’re paying attention.  If you don’t want to bother, well that’s fine.  West Texas didn’t need you here, anyway.

    But, before you give up on West Texas entirely, you really should hear about the frogs.

    Of all the creatures and growing things of my home, my favorite are the frogs.  Now, West Texas is very dry.  Very.  Which is what makes these critters even more remarkable.

    They burrow under the ground, and lie dormant…until there is a rain.  And not just a sprinkle, but a real, soaking rain.  We get three or four of those a year if we’re lucky, and every time, the frogs come out.  Suddenly, the air is full of a sound that is almost alien, it’s so rare.  Hundreds upon thousands of frogs, suddenly awake and rejoicing in the rain.  They sing and sing and sing all night long, until time for them to return to their sleep.

    It’s remarkable.  All my life, it’s never ceased to stop my heart in wonder.

    Just a year after those devastating fires, we can still hear the frogs after a rain.

    And that is why West Texas is the BAMF of the Continental United States, and where I plan to end up after the Zombiepocalypse.

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