Tucked in the semi-arid (meaning dry, dry, dry) sedimentary flapjack of the Permian Basin lies Kermit, Texas (pop. 6,286). It's roughly 21 miles from a town called Notrees. You know why Notrees (Pop. 23) is named Notrees? They ain't got no trees.
10 miles away from the tumbleweeds that stopped tumbling and scattered oil derricks that have seen better days, Kermit once hosted a Sahara of the Permian known as the Kermit Sand Dunes (aka, The Kermit Sand Hills, The Dunes at Kermit... everybody knew where you were talking about).
My mother, Rhonda Akins, grew up at the dunes and knows firsthand the joy they brought to many.
"Once you managed to make it to the top... as your feet sunk into the sand and sucked away your progress, you could gaze around in all directions and see forever," Akins said.
For generations of West Texans living by the skin of their teeth, the Kermit Sand Hills were a dusty Disneyland for the landlocked and the penny pinchers. A grainy substitute for snow-capped mountains where kids skied and snowboarded for the first time, sans snow.
A Lawrence of Arabia for people who'd rather picnic in the sun, hook up their RV, and tell you that Lawrence of Arabia is kinda boring. It was the first place many Texans ever saw their own footprints disappear. Where sunsets made you feel like you're on another planet.
"We seldom ever saw snow and never had enough to build a snowman in West Texas, much less ride a sled down a snow-covered hill," said Akins. "But the Sand Hills was our thrill ride."
Where four-wheelers, dirt bikes, and dune buggies fulfilled their destinies.
Odessa's Permian Panthers (go Mojo!) even practiced there. The coaches had them running in the sand. That's an intense workout, but that's why they're the Permian Panthers.
But in December of 2016, this staple of West Texas was suddenly extinguished. 1,300 acres of formerly public playland that drew visitors from all over the state was now no longer public. No warning. No compromises. The park's website didn't mince words.
"It is official that the Dunes at Kermit will be CLOSED indefinitely. The absolute NO TRESPASSING LAW will be strongly enforced. That means no more public riding or go to jail. MERRY CHRISTMAS and GOD BLESS..." read their Facebook page. Nobody understood why or how. It immediately made local news, and nobody seemed happy about it.
Rumor had it, the Dunes had been purchased by someone intent on closing them. Not for profit, but because of instances of actual danger. Those hills attracted their fair share of daredevils, that's for sure. You can get some sweet bike jumps there. It's easier to flip four-wheelers and dune buggies at night. And it's tough not to go too fast when you're rippin' it up.
But safety had nothing to do with the closure. Turns out, the Dunes were doomed when the Houston-based Hi-Crush Partners LP purchased every acre of the land to produce frac sand for drilling oil. Now it's been on lockdown since December 14 of 2016. And emotions are running pretty high for those who remember it best, and those who have to drive by it every day, in its current state.
On the bright side, Hi-Crush plans on bringing up to 70 jobs into the area across for the next three decades. And Kermit's an oil town, like every town in the Permian Basin. Most denizens work in the business. They understand that business is business.
But for many, it's not really a fair tradeoff. The Dunes were already a fine source of local revenue, especially if you're in the ATV business. It gave people a place to go picnic (even if you got sand in everything you tried to eat). It had good camping and grilling spots. It was a mind-blowing place to have a beer and see the stars. And it gave the kids something to do that wasn't staring at screens all day. That's right. The Dunes made them want to play outside.
Most of all, it provided memories you can't put a price on. And for those who've lived through West Texas's endless cycle of booms and busts--where real estate prices spike, new hotels are born to die vacant, and population swells and shrinks in a blink--Hi-Crush's takeover seems like just another frack in the pan.
As Akins says, "There will be another bust eventually, but the glorious sand dunes will never be the same."