By John MacCormack
San Antonio Express-News
KENEDY — If the Lonesome Creek RV Resort were any more lonesome, it could at times pass for a graveyard of manufactured housing. On a recent midmorning visit, the only signs of life were a skittish stray cat and a turkey buzzard wandering among the trailers.
Only during the early morning and late afternoon shift changes in the oil field, when the welding trucks and dusty, oversized pickups come rolling in off FM 2509, does the park stir from its stupor.
Even during what passes for the evening rush hour, it’s rare to see more than a few tired workers, waiting with towels in hand to use the office showers, or drinking beer with buddies on their trailer stoops.
“This is basically a place to sleep. People get out of work, sleep, get up and do the same thing all over again,” said Samantha Mirelez, 23, the assistant manager, who barely knows some of the renters and sometimes goes all day without a visitor.
“About 200 people live here, maybe 10 women. No kids live here right now. I think I have four or five dogs at the park. All inside dogs,” she said.
In the past three years, thousands of oil field workers have flooded South Texas to cash in on the Eagle Ford Shale play. And since conventional housing in the region is both scarce and expensive, local entrepreneurs have opened hundreds of makeshift RV parks.
Some are little more than loads of caliche graded over hastily dug water and septic systems. And while amenities range from nonexistent to primitive, some park owners charge $500 or more a month for an RV slip.
Like most of the parks, Lonesome Creek exists as an artificial, parallel community, a temporary settlement of migratory workers who have no thought of staying and little contact with the natives beyond what’s necessary to buy gas, food and beer.
Only a bold few visit the local bars, where the posted advisories can be sobering.
“No knives, guns, drugs or thugs,” reads the warning outside Coyotes, a bar in Kenedy.
For that matter, said Mirelez, most park residents have little to do with each other, unless they happen to work together or come from the same hometown. The rare disputes usually are about loud music.
“They are peaceful. They don’t mess with each other. Everyone is in their own world,” she said.
The park, which opened three years ago, holds 77 trailers, with 20 more on the way. It also has eight large cabins that sleep four. Most workers come from the Rio Grande Valley, but some are from distant ports such as Louisiana, New Mexico and Washington state.
While the South Texans often can drive home on weekends, others live too far away or must work 14-day tours, followed by 14 days off.
Mirelez, who lived at Lonesome Creek with her husband and young son last year before finding a house in Floresville, has painful memories.
“I remember I would go crazy when I first moved over here. There’s no space. These poor people,” she said.
This experience helps when someone drops by the office looking for a sympathetic ear.
“People come in because they get lonely. They have no one here. That happened last week. An older man came in. He just needed to talk to someone,” she said.
Trade-off for good jobs
For the workers, the hard work and living in cramped conditions, sometimes with two or three other men, is the basic trade-off of oil field life: Long hours on the job and separation from family in exchange for money that could not be earned elsewhere.
“I’ve lived here since 2010. My wife and three boys are back in Mission. I get home almost every weekend,” said Armando Barrientos, 36, who trucks gravel and caliche to drilling sites around Karnes County.
Barrientos earns about twice what he could at home but said being away creates predictable domestic strains.
“Distance affects a marriage, and not in a good way,” he said. “It’s harder on her. We tend to get used to this job. You have the mentality you’re doing it for the family, but the girls don’t see it that way. They prefer you be at home.”
Angel Terrazas, a pipeline crew foreman, is one of the few to travel with some family members. Wife Virginia, sister Dulce and father-in-law Andres Islas all work with him.
“We’ve been working on pipelines together for seven years in Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, West Virginia, South Carolina and now Texas,” he said.
Terrazas, 34, from Alamo, makes about $2,500 a week, but said it comes at a stiff personal price.
“I like the money. I don’t like the travel. If you stay home, you’re working for minimum wage and living on food stamps,” he said.
“The hardest part is leaving my 2-year old baby, Angelynn, back home. She stays with my mother-in-law. When we go home for two days, and then have to leave, she cries,” he said.
His wife, Virginia, a pipeline locator, has worked with him for almost six years. His sister Dulce is her helper. Her three children stay with her mother back home.
“I was a bookkeeper in McAllen, but I left it about a year ago. This is my first oil field job and the money is good,” Dulce said.
A nightly ritual for the Terrazas clan is to enjoy some stout Bloody Marys while grilling meat outside the trailer. But such relaxing breaks must be brief. At 6 a.m., the crew would be rolling again, headed back to a pipeline job near Cuero.
Angie Mears, 44, one of the few women living in the park, came from Itasca, a small town north of Waco. She and husband Barry moved in about a year and a half ago, after they sold their one-man trucking business.
“I’m here to take care of my husband. Not to be ugly, but some men don’t do well by themselves,” she said during a chat at the Lonesome Creek office.
The couple left a country home on a 10-acre lot for a 40-foot mobile unit in what Mears sardonically calls “the trailerhood.”
“There have been sacrifices. I had to sell all my animals that I loved: goats, chickens and a horse,” she said.
Also left back home were two sons, ages 18 and 22, and her husband’s elderly parents, who sometimes require quick visits.
But overall, Mears said, the move has been very good and she accepts the limits of trailer life. Her husband earns much more as a construction project leader than he did hauling gravel, she said.
She shudders at memories of the $500 diesel fill-ups and the $6,000 for new tires all around.
“This is a whole lot better than being self-employed. We sold that dump truck a year ago, and I’m so glad. It’s a lot less stressful,” she said.
But, she said, despite stereotypes of quick oil field wealth, not everyone is getting rich.
“There’s a guy I went to school with down here and he drives a truck. He’s living in the back porch of the company he works for because he can’t find housing,” she said. “My friend was 30 days away from home. He wanted to go back but he couldn’t because he had to make the extra money.”
Meanwhile, she’s in no hurry for the Eagle Ford Shale boom to fade.
“We’ll do this for as long as it’s here. When it’s over, we’ll have a house that’s paid for, a retirement and savings,” she said.
By rough count, Lonesome Creek is one of about 90 RV parks and man camps, which have cabins or larger mobile homes, scattered around Karnes County. More are being built all the time, and no one has a good count.
“I’ll be honest with you. There are so many here, we don’t even know where all of them are,” said County Judge Barbara Shaw, who’s sympathetic to the oil field workers.
“It’s not the way they want to live. It’s almost like the military. You’re gonna go when its time to go. It’s a tough life. I think we have to be more understanding of their needs,” she said.
And, she said, in her visits to RV parks, she finds a sense of estrangement. Some locals blame the workers for bad traffic and high prices, and the pejorative expression “oil field trash” still is heard.
“They say, ‘We get a lot of sighs and sneers, but we’ve got to be here to work,’” she said.
The judge estimates the oil field workers have swelled the county’s population of about 12,000 by 70 percent, but again, no one has a good count.
Helen Hernandez, the county’s special projects coordinator, said some operators resist getting a $25 permit that requires a septic system inspection, making it hard to keep track of them.
“Some property owners say, ‘I’ve owned this property all my life and I can do what I want with it,’” Hernandez said. “We never find out they have an RV park until we get a complaint.”
At last count, she said, there are 57 permitted man camps and RV parks in the unincorporated portions of the county. This does not include those within city limits or others that have not sought a permit.
“You really can’t drive down a country road without finding one. There could be 20 more that are not permitted,” she added.
“We get a lot of complaints about smells,” she said, but added that because the county doesn’t have an RV park ordinance, there’s no effective way to police them.
Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva said his deputies rarely get called to RV parks although early this year there was a murder at one in Runge, and a man despondent over a failed marriage committed suicide at another one. His death by gunshot went unnoticed by his neighbors.
“We had to bang on doors to wake people up. No one had heard anything,” the sheriff said.
For Javier Casas, 37, of Zapata, opening a trailer park was an afterthought when the family-owned oil field service company, Duval Lease Service, acquired 48 acres south of Kenedy and moved here in 2008.
The business, which builds well site infrastructure including tanks and piping, occupies an adjacent hillside on U.S. 181. It was recently sold to Wood Group, a large energy company.
The Lonesome Creek park started out as a modest venture on the back acreage but quickly grew.
“When we first opened up with 15 slips, we had a water well. But there are limits, so when we expanded, we had to do something,” he said. “At that point, we knew the Eagle Ford was a sure thing, so we ran 5 miles of 6-inch water line to the park. It cost $250,000.”
The cabins at Lonesome Creek cost $1,250 a month, and the trailer slips go for $330, with water, sewage and Internet access included. This is low compared with some others. A park now opening in nearby Kenedy is asking $530 to $560 for a slip.
What began as afterthought has proved quite lucrative.
“We’ve been in business three years now, and it’s paid for itself,” said Casas, who hopes to be running the park 20 years from now.
“It won’t be the big boom then, but there will be production. The parks that are now packing them in like sardines and charging $550 a month plus utilities won’t be here,” he said.
Oil in the blood
Always in the back of the minds of most Lonesome Creek residents is the next trip home.
With six days to go before he could fly back to New Mexico, Joe Golding, 62, a grandfatherly consultant for Conoco-Phillips, confessed that trailer life in South Texas has been a trial.
“It’s miserable. I’ve been married 40 years and I’ve not been away from home before. I want to be home with my family,” said Golding, who goes back to New Mexico every two weeks.
Golding has been in Kenedy for more than two years. He lives in a 37-foot RV with another worker who fortunately knows how to cook.
After a long, live-at-home career in the oil patch in northern New Mexico, he retired a few years back, but quickly learned it was a mistake.
“After two months, my wife said, ‘Get a job or get a divorce. I don’t care which,’” he said.
And he admits, as lonely as life can get at Lonesome Creek, it’s worth it because he’s still married and is being fulfilled in other intangible ways.
“I yearned for the oil field. It gets in your blood. You can’t get away from it,” he said.
More than halfway through his 14-day work tour, Golding was making plans to invite his wife and eldest daughter to visit Lonesome Creek. Maybe they would get a sense of life he has chosen, complete with the buzzards and welders.
“I think next month, I’ll bring ‘em both down here and show them what South Texas is all about. I enjoy it. The camaraderie and the people,” he said.