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Drifting Along with the Tumbleweeds

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

Horizon City
Horizon City in El Paso, Texas

I JUST RECEIVED another letter from Billy in Hurst, Texas.

He used to write from nearby Euless, but it looks like he’s moved his Dallas-Fort Worth- area firm a few miles up the highway.

Actually, Billy’s letters are addressed to my deceased parents, but they’ve also moved – to a far more distant address. So now the correspondence comes to me.

Billy’s in the land business, which in Texas can keep you pretty busy, since

Original land use plan.

The Lone Star State has the second largest land mass in the country. As Texans often like to remind us, things are just bigger out there.

Well, except for Lot 8 in Horizon City, El Paso. It’s only 0.65 acres, and if you wanted to see it, you’d probably need to hop on an all-terrain vehicle and ride into the Chihuahuan Desert. That’s because it’s a “ghost lot,” a worthless plot of land.

And it’s all mine.

GHOST LOTS, scattered mostly through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, were sold by unscrupulous land dealers during the ‘60s and ‘70s, touted as desirable retirement locations. That is, if your idea of retirement is kicking back on a piece of arid, desolate land without access to water or electricity.

I’m sure that’s not the kind of lazy life mom and dad envisioned when they went to the Penn Center Inn in Philadelphia, on Dec. 17, 1967, to sign an “agreement for deed” with the now-defunct Horizon Land Corporation.

You can see for miles, and miles, and miles ...

It turned out the land guys were playing the long game … the very long game. And nearly 55 years later, here we are. I’ve got a piece of inherited crap land in El Paso that my parents bought for $1,040 and that Billy, the land investor from Hurst, wants to buy for $666. Which is a lot better than his last offer of $346, or even the one before that, of $260. At this rate we may get to $1,040 before I join my parents at their present place of retirement.

Although Horizon City is the last area available for development in El Paso, the ghost lots make planning difficult. With so many parcels owned by people all across the country, many now dead, the city continues struggling to consolidate land use. But property speculators are rolling the dice that things eventually will move in the right direction.

AT THIS POINT, you’re probably wondering: What the hell were my parents thinking?

Me too.

I mean, the farthest west my mom ever traveled was Scranton. Which makes me wonder: What the hell was my father thinking? There’s no way Louise was ever going to visit El Paso, let alone live there.

Nice paving job.

But Frank’s interior life was always somewhere out west. Somewhere warm, maybe more free and wide open. This very quiet, practical Italian immigrant loved country music, especially Charley Pride and Eddy Arnold. And I couldn’t understand why. Now, I think perhaps the western terrain and lifestyle reminded him of the rural Italian landscape he left behind as a child.

Near the end of her life, my father’s sister, Josephine, started writing letters to me about their experiences in Marsico Nuovo, a hill town in Basilicata, which at the time was among the poorest regions in the country. I still laugh at this passage: “I remember our life at Calabritto Farm. One day we were walking home from the farm, grandmom, your dad, myself, and the pig. We were all crying because we were tired. Grandmom hit your dad, me, and even the pig.” Though life was difficult for the Fortunatos -- hard enough, in fact, to ultimately leave the pig behind and board the Giuseppe Verdi out of Naples to settle in an even stranger land – it’s probably human nature to romanticize what once was.

Seems to me all those checks my father wrote to Horizon Land Corporation was an installment on a dream – an eventual return to a simpler life and time. It really didn’t matter if that dream ever came true. It was a $13-a month feel-good. And that was enough for him.

OCCASIONALLY we’d get letters from Texas realty companies offering to send a snapshot of our land for $50 so you could “assess” your investment. Dad took the bait once and when the photo arrived it showed an expanse of desert with one lonely tumbleweed rolling across the plain. My father and I laughed. My mother rolled her eyes.

Dad died quite young. He was only 64. The El Paso land had been paid off for more than 10 years by then. Mom lived another 18 years, the final four spent in residential care, suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. When she was finally eligible for Medicaid near the end of her life, the El Paso property was so worthless, not even the government wanted it.

Last time I checked, property taxes were 21 cents a month. If you’re from New Jersey, you just passed out.

Despite all this, Billy is offering “a fast, trouble-free sale and immediate cash.”


And I’m going to pass.


Because selling my Texas land now would be about as useful as hitting the pig.

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