This story appears in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
He’s seen it all before. Back in the Dust Bowl days he watched in awe as dark clouds of topsoil swallowed up the family ranch. That was in the mid-1930s, when Bill Tullos was just a boy. He still lives on the ranch outside San Angelo, Texas, and that memory is still vivid. “Day turned to night,” he recalls.
It was even worse in the 1950s. The rains didn’t come. Grazing lands withered. Water holes dried up. “We said, Well, it will rain tomorrow,” Tullos says. “We waited seven years before it finally broke.”
Last year he saw the signs once more. “Normally May and June are our rainy months, and we just weren’t getting any rain,” he says. So he started selling his animals at the local auction house. First the cattle, then the sheep and goats. “The 1950s nearly broke me. This time I was determined it wasn’t going to happen to me.”
By the end of 2011 Tullos was down to 300 goats on his 8,000-acre spread. The man who had seen it all—taking over the family business at 16 after his father died—was calling it quits. “It was nearly heartbreaking, it sure was,” he says.
All across West Texas, men and women accustomed to toughing it out were nearing their breaking point. Those who managed to hang on were spending a fortune on feed and hay for livestock or on water to irrigate dusty fields. The air was so hot and dry, much of the water sprayed on the soil evaporated before it could soak in. “They just couldn’t keep up,” Buzz Cooper says of the cotton farmers near Lubbock who normally bring their crops to his gin. In May two-thirds of the nearby fields were bare ground.
By September Texas had suffered the driest 12 months in its history. Farmers across the state lost more than eight billion dollars. In West Texas, where people are used to hardship, the drought caused some to question whether their way of life was even possible anymore. Although the winter at last brought some nourishing rain, they still faced a long road back to good times.