West Texas is quite bizarre.

An eclectic blend of sprawling cattle ranches, quirky railroad towns, and wide-open desert, Texas west of the Pecos River is starkly different than every other part of the state.

Particularly bizarre is Loving County, Texas– the least populated county in the entire United States. Loving County is home to roughly 70 people (rounded up from the official 2000 figure of 67), 15 of which populate the county seat of Mentone. There aren’t many people there. Imagining a small community of people living in the blazing Chihuahuan Desert is pretty easy. Imagining the practicalities of running a county here– government, public works, a school system– is a little mind-boggling.

As you may have hypothesized, normal aspects of civilized, American life like buying groceries and, well, taking a hot shower are very different in Loving County. This blog, unfortunately, is mostly reporting facts– but honestly, I find the facts interesting enough to allow them to speak for themselves. Here are some “Lovely” facts about the desolate community:

  • In 1930 the population of Loving County was a bustling 600. In 1950, the number had dwindled to 225. In 1970 the population had fallen to 73, all Caucasian. After a brief peak in 1980 to 100 residents, the number has dropped steadily.
  • The county closed its school system in 1972, when just two students were enrolled. Students were transferred to Winkler County’s school system, a short 35-mile drive away.
  • A survey of the 1980 population discovered that only four county residents were college graduates.
  • In the summer of 1988 Loving County piped drinking water to a 500-gallon tank in Mentone for use by residents– the first time drinkable water was actually piped in.
  • Also in 1988, petroleum gave the small population of Loving County the highest per-capita income of all US counties– $34,173. Not bad for a county whose county seat was abandoned twice.
  • The county seat, Mentone, used to boast a whopping five cafes and five gas stations in its heyday. The small community now comprises of a courthouse, two stop signs, a gas station, a post office, and a cafe. Oh, and that 500-gallon water tank.

Having grown up in a large city, it’s fascinating for me to imagine a county in which sherrifs only thirty years ago didn’t carry a gun since they knew everyone in the county. Also, Loving County doesn’t have a grocery store. Or a medical facility. Or a bank. Or a library. Of course, 75 percent of the world doesn’t have these amenities. But Loving County is in Texas, just six hours from Austin– which changes my perception.

With so many people migrating to urban areas to live and work, you have to wonder what will become of Loving County in the next 50 years. Keep in mind Mentone was abandoned twice in the 1900s. If the oil the county is floating on runs dry, it could happen again. But what would the state do if people abandoned the place, or if it was no longer capable of producing a county-level government? Would they de-activate Loving County and divide its land to the adjacent Reeves County or Winkler County? Counties just don’t lose their people every day. Perhaps Loving County should be put on the “endangered species” list.

I’d like to take a road trip through West Texas soon and visit such bizarre attractions as the Marfa Lights (http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Marfa_lights), Wink Sinks (http://ceed.utpb.edu/the-wink-sinks-project/about-the-wink-sinks/), and the incredibly tiny town of Mentone (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mentone,_Texas).