Above: A tumbleweed rolls through downtown Morton, Texas.
I understand if the wild and weird news cycle of 2018 has got your head spinning. This rollercoaster ride of state and national politics has some reporters nearly dizzy enough to upchuck in newsroom trash cans. It’s only speeding up, too — with the indictment of Trump confidants, the administration’s soul-crushing war on immigrants and the building pace at which climate change is making Earth less liveable, this ride is more likely to careen off the rails than it is to slow down.
With all that commotion, some very important stories from the state’s underreported locales have gone by the wayside. It’s a shame, really, because 2018 played host to plenty of rural stories worth your time: the shuttering of Dairy Queens and rural hospitals, tainted water on the Gulf Coast, more tomfoolery from that 10-gallon-hatted rascal Sid Miller and a rootin’-tootin’-alligator-shootin’ Texas mayor. I won’t hold it against you if these stories whooshed past you on the first go-round.
“A Farewell to Dairy Queens”
If there’s a more apt example of rural Texas’ downward economic trend than a closed Dairy Queen, I don’t know what it is. Late last year, Vasari LLC, a franchisee that owned 70 DQs in Texas and two other states, announced that 29 of the restaurants would be shuttered. Texas Monthly wrote a dispatch from Lockney, a Panhandle town of 1,700 that lost its Dairy Queen. Writer Loren Steffy described a building that was once a meeting place for farmers before they tended fields and for townsfolk to celebrate the touchdown-hurling high school quarterback on Friday night — as “a hollow shell sitting in the shadow of the town’s rusted water tower.”
I saw this trend playing out firsthand last December, when I drove up to Haskell to see state Representative Drew Springer conduct a town hall inside the local Dairy Queen. When I got there, the restaurant was dark. A couple volunteer firefighters across the street told me the place had just been vacated a couple hours earlier; Springer held the event at a Mexican restaurant instead.
Unfortunately, it appears that there’s little chance that Haskell or Lockney will see a resurgence of the small-town staple. “In Lockney and many other Panhandle towns, though, the Dairy Queen is unlikely to return, regardless of how the company’s financial woes are resolved.”
“Sid Miller Put Ex-Doctor With 2 Revoked Licenses on Rural Health Panel”
I hardly raise my eyebrows anymore upon hearing that Sid Miller has done something questionable. After all, the Texas Agriculture Commissioner once used taxpayer funds to get a so-called Jesus shot in Oklahoma, of all places. He also reportedly exercised a horse by tying it to his truck and driving around. Never-ending scandal is this Twitter-clown-turned-Capitol-cowboy’s modus operandi. But this April Austin-American Statesmanstory, which reads like a snowballing car wreck on an icy road, made my jaw drop lower with each paragraph.
The piece revolves around a self-titled “Maverick doctor,” a Miller campaign donor who was appointed by the commissioner to serve on the department’s rural health task force. The Maverick (aka Rick Ray Redalen) has had his medical license revoked or suspended in three states; one of the suspensions occurred after Redalen committed perjury in a legal case related to his marriage with his 15-year-old former stepdaughter. Reporter Sean Collins Walsh revealed that a Miller political strategist named Todd Smith, who has made hundreds of thousands of dollars from Redalen’s company, introduced the ag commissioner and the good doctor.
If that weren’t enough, Redalen readily admitted to the newspaper that he’s used his role on the state’s rural health task force to push telemedicine — a service offered by his company, Quest Global Benefits. The always quotable Buck Wood, who was largely responsible for getting ethics and open records laws passed in Texas in the 1970s, said that arrangement “sure stinks to high heaven.”
“Rural Texas Driver’s License Office Closure Creates Challenges and Controversy”
In August, state lawmakers considered a Department of Public Safety proposal to close 87 “inefficient” driver’s license offices in mostly rural areas. The proposal would have saved DPS less money annually than the agency spends on its never-ending war against the border and people who live there. The plan would have, however, drastically increased travel times for people who need to obtain a government-issued ID, which is required to vote in Texas. Thankfully for many rural Texans, legislators unanimously killed the proposal.
But the driver’s license office in Presidio, a far West Texas town of 4,100, closed anyway. In November, Marfa Public Radio reported that car after car pulled into the DPS parking lot only to find a sign on the door indicating the office was closed. Reporter Sally Beauvais interviewed the mother of a teenager who’d been unable to take his driving test, though he needed a license to transport himself to work. Another teen said she was ticketed for driving without a license, even though it’s damn near impossible to get one — the next-closest driver’s license office is in Alpine, 85 miles away, and it’s only open two days a week. DPS said it was working to reopen the office in Presidio, but it may be after January before anything gets done.
“Family Deals with Water Woes After Oil Exploration”
In July, the Victoria Advocate laid out the troubling story of a family who suspected that an oil well drilled too close to their property had rendered their water undrinkable. As the Wortham family tried to rebuild their Hurricane Harvey-damaged home, one family member struggled with unexplained stomach pain. The Worthams received a letter from Frostwood Energy, the oil company that operates the well, saying that they had inadvertently drilled too close to the home.
Then the Houston company tried to convince the Worthams not to protest an amendment it sought from state regulators to retroactively allow the well to remain in close proximity to their home. Citizens are allowed to protest such requests to the Texas Railroad Commission, but as reporter Jessica Priest discovered, the average Joe almost always loses. The state oil-regulating commission has ruled in favor of Frostwood Energy in 27 of 28 cases that have come before it. In another instance, the company offered a family “enough money to go to Walmart and buy a big screen TV” if they agreed not to protest.
“‘How Can You Do This to People?’: After Rural Hospitals Close in Milam County, Residents Scramble to Find Care”
What’s an end-of-the-year listicle without a little shameless self-promotion? I’ve spent 2018 writing about rural Texas for the Observer, but I think this story, set in Central Texas, is one of the most important I produced. In Milam County — equidistant from Round Rock and College Station — residents are grappling with the loss of their only hospitals, their emergency room and three satellite clinics. Little River Healthcare, the company that operated the facilities, shuttered them without giving residents any advance notice, they say.
The closures left a gaping hole in the rural county’s health care. At the senior center in Rockdale, a 64-year-old Vietnam vet told me his prostate surgery scheduled for January has been canceled. A disabled woman who credited the Rockdale Hospital with saving her life when she had a stroke said she’d probably die if the either of the two untreated aneurysms in her leg were to burst.
The Milam County hospitals are just the latest in a recent string of rural hospital closures in Texas — casualties of low patient volumes, stingy Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates, and the burden of operating in Texas, which has more uninsured people than any other state. Governor Greg Abbott and the Legislature could help matters by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but state GOP leaders have refused to do so since the law passed in 2010.
“Great-Grandmother and Livingston, Texas Mayor, Judy B. Cochran, Hunts 12-foot, 580-Pound Alligator”
Rule No. 1 to staying alive as an alligator in Polk County: Don’t swim onto the Livingston mayor’s ranch and eat her favorite miniature horse. Rule No. 2: If you ignored Rule No. 1, for the love of God, leave that ranch as quickly as your scaly tail will carry you. Because the punishment for eating miniature horses belonging to Mayor Judy Cochran is death. Then you are eaten. And turned into boots.
In September, Cochran found the rapacious reptile that allegedly snatched her horse, and she proceeded to open a can of whoop-ass. Per state law, Cochran hooked the gator on a fishing line before dispatching it with a rifle. “Typically the gators don’t bother us, but we’ve been looking for [this one],” Cochran told the Houston Chronicle, which published the only-in-Texas news item.
The extrajudicial killing was clearly personal, since the mayor could have just sicced one of her gator-gunning grandchildren on the beast. Cochran told the newspaper that in addition to turning the alligator’s belly into boots, she’d also mount the head — as a warning, one can only assume, to any others looking to break the rules.