In Friona, Texas, there’s an iridescent red mud pit that was discovered in 1921 by a group of children playing amid the desert shrubs, in the central panhandle valley near the border of New Mexico. The pit itself is almost 3 acres in diameter with dozens of ruby red tributaries about one foot wide spreading out from the pit like a spider’s legs for a good quarter mile in all directions. The red mud runs in each one of these veins. Over the years, residents have come to refer to it simply as, “The Mud.” The mud is formed through periodic shifting of tectonic plates that overheat the earth’s central crust. This intense friction creates a heat three miles below the surface of the earth, near the magma, beneath which the tectonic plates shift. The heat caused by the shifting is enough to turn the hard oil shale into a liquid which seeps upward to cooler temperatures near the surface of the earth. What comes out of the pit is a bright red, viscous, and sweet smelling oily substance.
Friona has been nicknamed “Sweet Town” because of the smell of the red mud. The scent is very similar to the smell of brown sugar simmering in a pan. This smell is caused by the abundant mineral deposits melding with the stag magma, the same resinous amber clay that is used as a stabilizer in chewing gum. The bright red color of the mud is the result of the cool, dark, iron-rich soil coming into contact with warm oil, which heightens the acid balance at the exit point, making the soil hyper-enriched with iron, hence, its vivid red color. Though the immediate area of the pit is off limits to current residents, many of them have bright red veins of mud running across their property.
Over the years, various attempts to contain the red mud have been futile. In 1948, The Army Corps of Engineers tried covering the pit with 4-metric tons of lime, but the lime coagulated from the warmth of the mud and formed a solid white disc about the size of a kiddie pool in the center of the pit that rests there to this day. In 1932 a geophysicist named Frederick Thomas from the University of Texas in Austin, Texas was put in charge of trying to contain the spread of the mud. He surmised that he could float the oil from the earth through ammonia infusion. Engineers inserted 12 high capacity fire hoses in a circle and inserted them through pipes pounded in by pile drivers 60 feet deep around the pit. Thomas then propelled 500 gallons of raw ammonia through hoses into the pit base. Unfortunately, this operation had dire consequences: 5 men were killed from the ammonia cloud that formed near the pit and all 224 residents of the southern forest of Friona had to be evacuated for a year while the ammonia dissipated. Subsequent years have seen property values plummet, as homeowners struggle to pay taxes on property they can’t even sell. Since the local economic downturn of 1990’s, people in the area looking for a little extra cash dig up buckets of the mud from their own backyards and put cups of it in large baggies. They sell the mud for 50-cents a bag next to local gas stations and convenience stores. They discovered that the mud could be used as a flame accelerant when mixed with charcoal briquettes, making it far cheaper than lighter fluid. During the summer months, when many families are barbecuing, people buy the mud in such abundance that some sellers can make a hundred dollars in a few hours.
The sad part of this geologic oddity is that some local Texans have taken to huffing concentrated forms of the mud. In order to huff the mud, the users mix it with peppermint oil to open their lungs so the petrol can constrict the blood vessels of the brain quicker; delivering a rush that the mud users crave. The first step of the process involves rolling the mint-infused mud into a tight red ball between the thumb and forefingers, forming a plug. Next, a hole is poked with a fountain pen into a white air filter mask that goes over the nose and mouth. They used the same kind of masks construction workers use as dust filters. The user then presses the plug of red mud into the hole in the front of the punctured mask. Once the mask is secured on the user’s face with a rubber band stapled to each side of the mask, the high is delivered within the sealed cavity between nose, mouth, and mask.
There’s a group of 10 Friona area men who call themselves “Red Mudders.” They meet the first Saturday of every month in the back of a dilapidated bar called The Wildcat Lounge on I-60. At both the mud nights I attended, the Red Mudders mingled in the back room around a pool table with their mud plug masks on. It seemed like any other gathering in a bar except for the masks, which looked like they’ve been rubbed with red lipstick where the plugs were inserted. All of the men had red fingers from rolling the mud into plugs. There was a lot of laughter and the usual euphoric, tipsy behavior when they first put their masks on. Several of the men there were known for speaking in tongues while high on the mud. They called these men the “Speakers.” They circled the pool table with their masks on, mumbling and chanting in rhythmic patterns of speech, somewhat like an auctioneer or preacher, pointing at one another, their shouts muffled by their masks. Under the influence of the mud, the Speakers violently thrust their hips forward with a dance-like rhythmic motion that was threatening and seductive.
Both times I attended the mud nights I witnessed one of the men break down and cry like a child; his body heaving while he sobbed into his mask. The other men imitated his sobbing sounds, wailing and chanting through their masks. This idea of mimicry and laughter was a theme I observed at both gatherings. The men switched back and forth between mock-crying, and twerk-like movements. The final part of their ritual cycle involved a unified chant when they all asked, “What do you seek?” over and over again while they pointed at one another and thrust their hips forward. While this did seem intimidating to watch as an outsider, it was always tempered with a palatable sense of compassion. It was clear the men all knew that this was a ritual that would go no further than the room.
A pivotal moment of both nights was when one of the men was picked to stand on the pool table in the center of the room while the other men walked in a circle mumbling toward the man standing on the table. After my first night watching the mud party, one of the men told me that this part of the ritual was known as “the loosening.” The men let out a quick succession of rhythmic whoops, which felt to me like a falling away from words. As one man described it, “When we’re under the influence of the mud it’s like words are just a lot of garbage. We don’t need any fancy talk. We can just be raw and fucking real.” From my own perspective, it appeared that the men were regressing during the “loosening.” One could imagine the same scene in a kindergarten classroom that a teacher had left unattended. Twenty minutes or so after this animated ritualistic period, the men became lethargic almost on cue. Then, everyone collapsed on the floor, in booths, or on chairs with their heads resting on the pool table. The petrol in the mud plugs essentially evaporated (or “flamed out” as they called it) into their lungs and the plugs shrank, hardened and fell out of their masks, allowing the Red Mudders to revive themselves once a few minutes of fresh air had been flushed through the hole in their masks. The whole process began again; the cycle continuing until dawn.
During both of my visits to The Wildcat Lounge, I never witnessed any violence, but I did feel a sense that something beautiful, and absurd might bloom from this circle of men high on mud.
“Red Mudders,” they’re called. God help us.