'Pokémon Go' in Rural Texas Is a Different Kind of Fun

You might have to fork out some cash to actually see pokemon, but there are other attractions to rural Pokémon Go.

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Jul 18 2016, 10:00am

Image: DarlingClandestine.

It took me over an hour to find my first pokémon on the family ranch, which turned out to be a spiteful-looking doduo lurking among the prickly pear as if hiding from the South Texas sun. I flicked my thumb up on my iPhone, and he disappeared into a ball that most of my neighbors would have called a fishing bobber.

I felt some elation, but as is so often the case, it was the journey that made it all worthwhile. I'd found no pidgeys or charizards in the 97-degree heat, but I had found rattlesnake sheddings beneath the thicket of one-inch huisache thorns, I'd seen armadillos and skinks scurrying through the mesquite, and I'd seen enough sign of feral hogs to wonder if I should have brought along a more substantial weapon than a Buck knife.

And that's been my experience of Pokémon Go way down here in the empty spaces north of Goliad, Texas. It's a different experience than what most fans know, sure, but neither does it lack its own appeal.

It's an experience you have to work for. I'm used to friends from New York, San Francisco, and Houston posting screenshots showing Pokémon Go maps crowded with "gyms" for battling other players or "pokéstops" for refilling the game's supplies. Walk a few minutes in any direction, these screenshots suggest, and you're bound to hit something. But when I try that here, I see only the lone prairie stretching far into the distance.

Image: Leif Johnson

The troubles I've had here highlight the extent to which Pokémon Go is a city dweller's game, even though it's ostensibly about hunting down critters in the brush. It makes some sense that gyms and pokéstops are common only in developed areas with plenty of parks, but I was unprepared by how rare the pokémon themselves were. As Motherboard's Vicki Turk showed recently, that scarcity is likely because developer Niantic partly pulled data from its previous game Ingress, and I highly doubt many people out here ever played it.

In fact, to get anything besides that single doduo, I had to use the Pokémon Go cash shop and spend a buck on incense that attracts pokémon to a player's location. We're used to this kind of thing out in the sticks; everything from gasoline to internet pricing comes with a convenience fee of sorts. But the near-total absence of critters? It's a shame, but those lonely hours made me realize it acts as an inadvertent safeguard, as some people around here are fond of saying they'll shoot trespassers on sight. And if there's no temptation for a Pokémon Go player in the first place, so my idealistic thinking goes, these tragedies won't happen in the first place. Unfortunately, last night a man in Florida proved such statements aren't always bluffs.

Sign on a door in Weesatche, Texas, right across the street from a Pokémon Go gym. Photo: Leif Johnson.

But neither is the experience always this asocial. My wife and I hopped in the car and went hunting for pokémon with her holding my phone while we traveled through empty back roads where the cellular signal sometimes disappeared altogether. Sometimes we'd stop on roads where you could wait a whole hour without anyone passing by and pick up a rattata waiting by the barbed wire fences. We even made it to tiny Weesatche, Texas (pop. 268), where we waved hello to old men rocking on their porches near pokéstops and cowboys hauling their horses in trailers to the next job. People seemed curious about the two 30-somethings laughing and looking at their phones, but no one seemed hostile.

Image: Leif Johnson

Earlier this week I was on my daily run to the post office when I saw a car pulled over along an empty stretch north of town while the driver and passenger were out in the grass. It's the time of year when cars overheat down here, and if it was a flat tire, there was a whole lotta nothing around for help. I pulled over.

"Need help?" I asked. They looked up.

"No, it's, um, a game," the driver said. I suddenly realized that spot used to be a roadside picnic area until the county tore it apart years ago because people kept using it as a free garbage dump. It must still show up as a park in the Ingress data Pokémon Go uses, and thus as a gym. "Oh, Pokémon Go!" I said.

"Yeah," she said. "Want to battle?" I had to decline; I hadn't even reached the required level at that point. Even so, I couldn't help but marvel at the way Niantic's game was bringing people together way out here where people still use physical messages boards more than Craigslist. I once thought some old guy at the feed store was even playing it, but it turned out he thought I was talking about an actual hunting app.

It's even causing some problems, which is saying a lot in a county with a population density of eight people per square mile. You have to go through around 30 miles of nothing to get to Goliad from almost any direction, but once you get here, history buffs in particular will find plenty to drool about. There's Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga, built in 1749 and by some accounts the first cattle ranch in Texas. There's also Presidio La Bahía, a key site in the Texas Revolution. And that means that after miles and miles of no pokémon, a bundle of pokéstops and gyms suddenly pop up in the landscape alongside the San Antonio River.

Image: Weesatche, Texas. Photo: Leif Johnson.

Brenda Justice, the superintendent of the normally quiet Goliad State Park, welcomes the increased interest in the park the game has brought but also concedes it brings its own challenges for such a rural location. The Pokémon Go craze has brought in both customers who properly pay for admission and those who don't, and she notes the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is currently trying to figure out how to work with it across the state.

"We noticed a lot of people stopping at our entrance, just stopping in the middle of the road or blocking traffic, and now we know it's probably because of the game," she said, highlighting some of the unexpected safety issues. "Last night was challenging because we don't allow campers and other visitors up here on the mission grounds after dark and the park closes at 10, and yet at 11:00 there were little lights from phones everywhere but no flashlights. I mean, my dog just got bit by a rattlesnake a few hours earlier."

But there are also some good moments in Pokémon Go; moments that enrich others' awareness of the lives we lead out here. Toward sunset I drove back to the ostensibly empty mission, opened Pokémon Go on my phone, and saw two lures activated over toward the north end of the ruins. It was the first time I'd actually seen a lure in person, and walked over to find the pokémon trainers responsible.

Propped along the crumbling 260-year-old wall, I found Devin Hall and Tristan Stone of La Vernia, Texas, who were camping with their families at the state park for the weekend. To hear them say it, Goliad, for all the trouble I'd had on my own place, was actually better off than their hometown 65 miles north and it was all because of the park.

Image: Tristan Stone (left) and Devin Hall. Photo: Leif Johnson.

"The parks actually seem to have a better spawning rate," Stone said, adding that the proximity of the river helped, too. "We live out where there's nothing. So you can't get any pokémon, you can't get any pokéstops, and it's really rough."

Hall added that he'd even found scythers in Goliad, an apparent impossibility further north.

"There's a better variety than what you get in La Vernia," Hall said, adding that their hunt had taken them to the local brewery and other parts of town they probably wouldn't have seen otherwise. It also made them interested in the mission complex around them.

Tristan Stone (left) and Devin Hall hunt pokémon. Photo: Leif Johnson.

"I guarantee you that if we hadn't been playing Pokémon Go, I wouldn't have left the [travel] trailer," Hall said. "This is, what, half a mile? We saw the mission's skull door, the sundial, and it's like, while you're here, why not read what's on the plaque?"

And that's the beauty of Pokémon Go, isn't it? People have struggled for years to get people "out of the living room" and into the outdoors, but this little wonder of augmented reality enriches the appreciation of the one through the activities associated with the other. There are great things hidden here in the blank spaces in between the splotchy, crowded words on the maps, and anything that reminds people of that in our increasingly urban world should only be applauded. For us who live there, it can be a way of rediscovering things we've always loved, and in the intensity of the hunt, it fosters discovery of things we never knew were there all along.

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