MENTONE - On paper, life in Loving County is idyllic.
There's no poverty, little or no crime, everyone makes more money than the average American and the daily commute is shorter than the national average.
"The last [criminal] trial was in the '80s," Sheriff Billy Hopper said after taking a few minutes to dredge up the memory.
But if you live in Loving County and need a gallon of milk, or are hoping to use a credit card to gas up the car, it's a 23-mile trek to Pecos. If you need anything more elaborate, Carlsbad, N.M., is 75 miles away.
Folks who live in the nation's least populated county - the 2000 census shows just 67 residents, though locals insist their head count shows it closer to 80 - say it's worth it.
"It's just away from all of the flippin' people," Hopper said recently as he sat in his one-room sheriff's office inside the county courthouse. "I can walk out of my house at night and I can tell you what's happening within a mile of here."
Loving County sprawls over 673 square miles - about the same size as Houston with its 2 million people. But outside a 10-mile radius of Mentone, all a visitor will find is brown prairie.
Mentone, the county seat, is dotted with just a handful of buildings, about 120 miles southeast of Midland. It sits just below the New Mexico line off a two-lane highway trafficked mostly by oil field workers.
The town was once bustling with a few restaurants and a hotel, but the population has been on the decline for more than 60 years.
"A lot of people left during the war," Hopper said. "The roads got better, and you didn't have to live here."
Before World War II, it made sense for oil field workers to live in Mentone so the drive over unpaved roads would be shorter than from the larger towns like Pecos. Today there are about 30 miles of paved roads, including the rugged two-lane state highway connecting Mentone to a string of other small towns to the east and to a two-laneU.S. highway on the western edge of the county.
Lacking a major highway or interstate freeway, Mentone isn't really on the way to anywhere except the lucrative oil fields.
Most blame the steady population drop on the lack of jobs. For those who have stayed, about the only career options are in ranching or the oil industry. And most oil field workers are contractors who don't live in the county.
With the people went some services, including the county's school. Hopper was the last high school student to attend classes locally.
"In the fall of 1951, there were eight of us," Hopper recalled recently. "But by Christmastime" he was alone. He finished his studies in Pecos, and now the few school-age kids in town commute about 30 miles each way to neighboring Wink.
Mentone is now home to only the gas station and the Boot Track Cafe, which is open just half the day.
Hopper left, too, for a time. He joined the Air Force in 1959 - he was the only eligible draftee the county had and didn't want to be an Army soldier - and later took a job as an oil contractor and worked all over the world.
He came back in the 1980s and has no plans to leave.
"I've lived in London, I've lived in Singapore, I've lived in New Orleans, Houston, Madrid and Johannesburg, but seldom did I know three people down the road," Hopper said. "There is nothing more lonely than living in a town with 4 million or 5 million people and not knowing anyone."
In Loving County, not only does everyone know everyone - and their business - most folks are related. And in a crisis, everyone helps.
"When my home burned down in 1979, it took me four hours to open all the gifts," said Barbara Creager, a native New Zealander who has lived in the area since the early 1970s.
And when local resident Opal Cook died earlier this month at age 76, everyone made plans to attend her funeral in Pecos - including the county offices, which closed for the occasion.
"We all come together as a family," said Brenda Wildman, 56.
Wildman lives in Waco now, but often visits Loving County and still owns property there.
Jaime Acker Jones, a 43-year-old oil field contractor who lives just down the highway from Mentone's primary four-corner intersection, said people live in the remote community because it's not crowded or overrun with gangs or drug problems.
"If you're raising kids, it's great," Jones said. "They stay out of trouble here."