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  • In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, I’ve been looking for some link to the early days of the petroleum industry that built this town. When Thompson was here in 1962, Santa Cruz was an eastern backwater, a modicum of civilization on the periphery of Bolivia’s seemingly impenetrable Chaco. The town had only just christened electric lights and potable water. Cars were a rarity. Down the street from my motel, there’s a woman selling historical photographs on the sidewalk, and if they weren’t dated, it would be hard to tell the 1960s from the 1860s.

    “Gulf Co. is drilling the hell out of the Bolivian jungle,” Thompson wrote to his editor in September of ‘62, “trying to find enough reserves of either oil or natural gas to justify building a pipeline...Should Gulf come through, however, Santa Cruz will be a hell of a boomtown.”

    Gulf Oil did indeed come through (only to be nationalized seven years later), and today, Santa Cruz is the biggest city in Bolivia, a startlingly modern metropolis built with oil money in the span of just a few decades. The football team here is named Oriente Petrolero. The affluent neighborhood is called Equipetrol, once home to Gulf’s employees and almost certainly where Thompson would have met with its execs. You can still see the influence of American architecture on the older homes.

    I did some idle Googling last week and found a town called Texas just north of the city. I only saw it on Google Maps, and I couldn't find any other mention of it on the web. But Gulf brought many of its employees from Texas in the early 1960s. Surely, I thought, the town must have some connection.

    At the bus terminal, I approached a few drivers going that direction and asked if they stopped in or near Texas. None of them had ever heard of it. I consulted a few cab drivers and the puppy-eyed college girls working at the tourist office, but the only Texas they knew was the cowboy capital in the US. “I have a cousin in Houston,” one taxista suggested helpfully.

    So yesterday I took a micro as far as the city’s northern airport and resolved to walk the last few miles to where Google’s cartographers had positioned the word “Texas.” It was an overcast day, and I kept passing piles of rotting fruit along the shoulder. At a toll gate a few miles up, a young soldier was the first person to acknowledge to me that Bolivia did indeed have a Texas nearby.

    “It’s actually called Texas Arizona,” he said, “but I don’t know why. There’s nothing there. No oil industry, no history. Just a barrio. They probably picked the names off a map.” He was bemused, but waved me through when I insisted on walking there anyway.

    For the most part, though, the soldier was right. The housing development called Texas Arizona is a long, flat stretch of brick hovels along a network of unpaved paths. Most of its citizens seem to ride dirt bikes. A number of them keep chickens, and a few more tend tiny gardens, scratching who knows what crops out of the sandy, hard-pack soil. In the ditches along the main road, a chorus of frogs cry all day long, like space babies in unison. It’s a short walk into a town called Satelite Norte, with shops and services and buses into the city. But there are no crumbling derricks, no tumbleweed ranches of forgotten American oil barons. It’s just a hardscrabble suburb filled with kind, slightly introverted people. And I was their first tourist.

    I wandered all afternoon, inventing new ways to strike up conversation with pedestrians, bricklayers, and porch-sitters, asking whether anyone knew the history of the community’s name. I was met with everything from blank stares to thoughtfully furrowed brows, but no one had any idea. Late in the day, I walked into Satelite Norte and bought several cans of cold beer. With the sun setting and people settling into their leisure hour, I hoped I might find and lubricate an old-timer or two.

    But the only person I met with any insight was a thirty-something father named Juan Carlos, who told me politely that he didn’t drink. Before I caught up with him on the road, I’d watched him put his wife and two small kids on the back of a mototaxi, then wave goodbye.

    “It’s been called Texas Arizona since before there were people here,” he said, “since before they built the houses. And that was maybe fifty years ago.”

    This was about the same time the Gulf Oil Company was hitting its stride. Did he think it could it have somehow been named by the oil companies? Juan Carlos shrugged. He didn't know, he said, and we walked a little farther in silence. It was getting dark, and soon I would have to go back.

    “I guess I’m a little disappointed,” I told him. “All I wanted was to hear a story.”

    “Yes, but this is difficult,” he said, shaking his head, “because sometimes the people come, then later, they forget the stories.”

    Juan Carlos met some friends walking in the other direction, and he wished me well before joining them. Storyless in Texas Arizona, I opened a beer and walked to the bus stop alone.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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