We drove west along Highway 302 and soon arrived in the county of Loving, famous for lacking any incorporated municipalities and being the least populous county in the United States (Loving is also, with the exception of two or three counties in Alaska, the least densely populated county in the United States). Wikipedia insists that, in 2010, Loving’s population was only 82. With such a small number of people in the county, it comes as no surprise that there is only one settlement, that of tiny Mentone (Mentone is named after Mentone on the French Riviera. I have no idea what the two settlements have in common). An article in Time magazine suggests that Mentone’s population is only 15. Inevitably, Mentone has been designated the county seat, which means that it possesses Loving’s courthouse. Predictably, the settlement’s most notable structure is the courthouse itself. It is cuboid in shape and spreads over two storeys. It lacks the domes, towers, flourishes and embellishments associated with many other Texas courthouses.
Mentone’s relatively modest courthouse (however, it benefits internally from marble panelling on the walls) no doubt reflects the fact that, due to its tiny population, the county is not a wealthy one (although, per capita, the residents of Loving County would appear to be among the nation’s richest! Cattle, oil and natural gas account for their economic well-being). Outside the courthouse is a magnificent ocotillo, a plant that is not, strictly speaking, a cactus, but nonetheless looks like one to laypeople such as myself. We were falling quietly in love with the ocotillo because of its long, spindly limbs crowned with masses of bright crimson flowers. The flowers taper at the end furthest from the ground.
We stopped to look around. Most of Mentone’s buildings have an impermanent air because a majority have been constructed from wood or corrugated iron. A small gas station remains open near the courthouse. I chatted with a woman who had pulled up in her large pickup truck to fill the tank. She said she lived a few miles to the north of Mentone, “in a beat-up house along that dirt road.” She pointed down a road along which a large oil tanker kicked up a cloud of dust. Every few minutes an oil tanker passed by, those bound north using one dirt road and those bound south using another.
Other than the courthouse, Mentone comprises of simple frame houses, trailers, shacks, sheds, yards littered with scrap metal, discarded household goods and farm implements, and a tiny wooden church that can shelter about thirty people. The gas station has a sign outside saying that it sells chilled beer. It is possible that a few items of food are displayed in the office. A tiny shack reveals that a barber’s shop once existed, and there was also a cafe called the Boot Track Cafe, but that shut some time ago (a post on the internet suggests that the cafe was forced to close because the landlord refused to make repairs to a building “falling down around the ears of the couple which prepared the food and drink”). If you stick to the highway you drive through Mentone in about fifteen seconds. It takes about ten minutes to walk around because, with so few buildings required by such a small population, the “town” comprises of little more than five or six small and dusty blocks.
Wikipedia reveals that Loving County:
“was the home of the first elected female sheriff in Texas, Edna Reed Clayton Dewees. Dewees was appointed to the job in January 1945, then won an election to continue in the office through 1947. She never carried a firearm and reported only two arrests during her entire term. Later, she returned as a county district clerk, a job she held from 1965 to 1986. After retirement, she lived on a ranch near Mentone. She died in Del Rio on 22nd January 2009.”
We drove south-west until connecting with Highway 285, which took us north to a dot on the map called Orla in Reeves County. If anything, Orla is more of a ghost “town” than even Mentone. In Mentone the courthouse, the garage and a few homes manifest obvious signs of life, but in Orla life is confined to a small gas station and a cafe that opens at odd hours. Wikipedia has the following entry about the tiny settlement:
“Orla is a ghost town in Reeves County, Texas. It lies about 38 miles north of Pecos. It is believed to have two residents and has its own post office located on Highway 285. The post office was established on 26th December 1906 with Joshua D. McAdams as first postmaster. Orla was founded in 1890 and served as a section house for the newly built Pecos Valley Railroad, incorporated by John J. Hagerman, an American industrialist, to link Eddy, New Mexico (now Carlsbad) with Pecos, Texas. The population remained small until world war two when the town finally grew and the number of businesses increased to two to serve a total of nearly 60 residents. The population reached a high of around 250 people when oil, gas, and sulphur activity brought more workers to the region in the 1960s.”
We parked the car to walk around the old wooden buildings that congregate at the intersection of highways 285 and 652. A single-storey house has a veranda along the front. Nearby is what was obviously a gas station because in front of the single-storey structure is the skeleton of a flat roof under which the pumps once stood. A short walk from the old gas station is the Red Top Cafe and Bar, which, according to a sign beside Highway 652, opens Monday to Friday from 11.30am until …” The ambiguity about closing time suggested to us that it shuts once the last customer has gone. The cafe and bar offers “ice, food, cold beer and cold sodas.” Across the road is the open gas station. Oil storage tanks stand beside the road about 50 yards away. Back at the intersection, near a single-storey building that was once a tiny grocery store (a pitched roof extends over the front of the building, no doubt to shelter customers who used to drive up in their cars or pickup trucks), are two or three more small structures. The small structures may have been houses. Litter, scrap metal, old tyres, discarded items of furniture and cast-offs from the oil industry lie on what had once been dusty gardens or fenced-off work areas. Such debris increases the sense of neglect, dereliction and abandonment.