David Montelongo isn't used to being alone.
He's spent his 60 years in the Central Texas town of Rockdale, surrounded by family and working the last 39 years in the local coal mine. He has a wife, three grown children, eight grandchildren and many other relatives in this town of 5,600.
Now, his days are lived on the road and at a West Texas oil field, where he is a supervisor.
"All I do is go home, sit in an apartment and wait for the morning to come," Montelongo said.
His time in an overpriced one-bedroom Odessa apartment is mostly quiet as he counts the weeks until he can visit his family in Rockdale and the years until retirement.
The closing of the coal-fired Sandow power plant and the mine that fed it – widely seen by outsiders as another gasp of a dying industry – forced Montelongo to find work six hours away from his family.
Sandow owner Luminant, the state's largest electricity generator, said last October it was closing three coal-fired power plants in Texas because they weren't profitable, thanks to cheap natural gas and plentiful wind energy.
Depending on whom you ask, the coal plant closure was seen as a victory for clean air, a rebuke of President Donald Trump's pro-coal agenda or a blow to a durable blue-collar economy.
Milam County residents reacted with a mixture of dread and relief. It could be a burden or an opportunity. Left behind is a one-of-a-kind industrial site that could anchor the county's future economy. But, there are no guarantees.
Sandow's closing in January ended the area's 65-year industrial golden age and sent local leaders in the county of 25,000 scrambling as tax revenue started to plummet.
In the Rockdale ISD, Luminant property accounted for more than 40 percent of the district's tax base. In 2017, the company paid at least $4.1 million in property taxes to the school district, according to county records. This year, that's expected to shrink to $614,000.
Luminant properties that were on the Milam County tax rolls for nearly $632 million in 2011 are now listed at about $47 million. In just the past year, that property value has declined by 85 percent.
The most immediate impact, though, was the loss of 325 jobs, or nearly a tenth of all private-sector jobs in the county, according to federal data. Many of those were the area's best-paying ones.
The closing of the Sandow plant wasn't the only blow to Rockdale and surrounding areas. It was the final act in a decade-long decline.
"We knew that it was coming," said Rockdale ISD Superintendent Denise Monzingo. "We just didn't think that it was coming this fast."
First, there was the aluminum plant
The power plant existed only because of an aluminum smelter several miles southwest of Rockdale and the millions of tons of lignite coal just under the surface. The Alcoa plant started production in 1952, and the power plant and coal mine followed shortly after.
Processing bauxite ore into aluminum requires high temperatures (more than 1,700 degrees) and massive amounts of electricity. So the adjacent power plant and plentiful, nearby coal were crucial to fueling those production lines.
Eventually, Alcoa Rockdale grew into the company's largest aluminum smelter and – along with the mine and power plant – employed as many as 2,000 workers by around 2004, according to Alcoa officials.
The Pittsburgh-based company dominated the Rockdale area for more than a half-century. Generations of fathers and sons, uncles and nephews worked together at the aluminum smelter, the power plant or the coal mine.
Scott Randall, 64, who describes himself as an "Alcoan," said the plant and mine were godsends. Local residents without college degrees could get reliable, lucrative jobs without leaving their hometown.
On-the-job technical training and a strong union allowed them to rise through the ranks.
Randall attended college in Florida and East Texas but didn't have a clear direction. Then, his father told him Alcoa was opening a new production line and to get back to Rockdale as fast as possible.
"We didn't know how lucky we were," said Randall.
With hard work and enough overtime, he said, workers could make $100,000 a year, buy houses and raise families.
As Randall walked down the driveway at his parent's home, he looked up and down the winding, tree-lined street and saw at least eight houses bought directly or indirectly with Alcoa salaries.
"That's an Alcoan. That's Alcoan," he said, pointing from house to house. "They did a lot for us."
Local leaders just wish their predecessors had acted sooner to reduce their dependence on one or two big employers.
"We rested on our laurels," said Dave Barkemeyer, Milam County judge. "It was easy to let Alcoa support the county instead of hustling to get more business."
Decline of coal
The Sandow plant made money for most its existence by supplying electricity to the aluminum smelter.
But in the mid-2000s, the relationship between Alcoa and Luminant started souring over a long term contract to supply electricity. That led to litigation, and, eventually, Alcoa blamed its plant's closing on an "uncompetitive power supply to that smelter and overall market conditions."
In summer of 2008, half the aluminum smelting capacity was shut down, according to the company. The rest was cut by the end of the year, but Alcoa continued operations that made aluminum powder until 2014.
As Alcoa's operations wound down, workers had to figure out their next moves, Some retired. Some switched to the Luminant plant. Some moved to Alcoa's Point Comfort plant up the coast from Corpus Christi, although that facility shut down in 2016.
Kevin Barchenger, 51, started at Alcoa as a production helper, a job known at the plant as a "piddler," sweeping up and other minor tasks. Barchenger lost his first good job when the Alcoa aluminum plant closed. Then, he was able to land a good job with Luminant.
"At least now, I'll retire," Barchenger remembered thinking at the time. "Surely a power plant is not going to shut down. They have a 30-year supply of lignite."
After a three-year apprenticeship, Barchenger was repairing and rebuilding complex equipment at the coal mine.
In 2017, Sandow's long-term contract to supply power – which continued after Alcoa's closing – was finally terminated, leaving the plant to the whims of Texas' competitive electricity market, where price rules.
Barchenger was out of work again.
"It's almost like a divorce. ... Sometimes you don't realize how blessed you are until it's gone," he said. "It's one thing that I've realized, twice now."
He counts himself among the fortunate, though. He now has a good job at Austin's Samsung semiconductor plant and commutes from his home.
Others, like Montelongo, Barchenger's old supervisor, left their families behind to live in travel trailers or apartments far away from Rockdale.
Local officials, just like the former Luminant and Alcoa employees, are now trying to figure out a path forward.
It would take a dramatic announcement – or series of them – to make up for the hundreds of jobs lost and hundreds of millions of dollars of property value leaving the books this year.
Charting a course
Local government and economic development officials throughout Milam County are scrambling to find projects, small and large, to fill the gap.
So far, officials have built a new baseball complex, promoted heritage tourism and launched an improbable bid for the $5 billion Amazon HQ2 project. They've worked on infrastructure in downtown Rockdale and talked about creating a small business incubator.
Also, outside the county seat of Cameron, the increasingly popular 44 Farms is thriving. That 109-year-old family-owned ranch is supplying Black Angus beef to high-end steakhouse as well as more affordable restaurants.
The ranch's president and CEO, Bob McClaren, was the former president of the Houston Astros when the team was owned by Cameron native and billionaire Drayton McLane. That gives the county a pair of wealthy and prominent benefactors.
And a real estate agent who specializes in selling massive Texas ranches – such as the W.T. Waggoner Ranch that was once on the market for $725 million – is shopping the nearly 32,000-acres that formerly housed the coal mine and aluminum smelter. Bernard Uechtritz, founder of Icon Global, has had the Sandow Lakes Ranch site up for sale since 2016 with a $250 million price tag.
The smaller power plant site next door isn't on the market yet.
Local officials say the first new business at that site could be announced this summer, although past projects at the Sandow Lakes Ranch property fell through.
What's left at the old Luminant site now are locked doors, chained fences, a maze of empty conveyor belts and the hum of transformers.
It's a far cry from downtown Seattle and pretty much any bid site for Amazon's HQ 2.
Dr. John Weed, president of the Rockdale Economic Development District, said the reaction to Milam County's Amazon bid was mostly positive, even though the county couldn't meet most of the company's requirements – Amazon sought bids from metro areas with at least a 1 million residents and access to mass transit and major highways.
Still, county officials liked the idea of HQ2 ultimately creating about 50,000 jobs – or double Milam County's population.
"It gave everyone a real sense of hope, even though it was long shot," Weed said.
Milam County officials haven't been notified that they were excluded. But they weren't on the list of finalists, which includes the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Known as the Blue Sky bid, its name was a nod to the natural beauty of the site as well as the county's improved air quality. For decades, Milam County was a major source of industrial pollution despite it slim population and rural surroundings.
"It's business without the congestion," the promo video said about the land, which stretches for 31 miles. "It's business under a brilliant blue sky."
The site is an unusual one. About 8,000 of the 32,000 acres are industrial land with a rail spur and heavy duty infrastructure.
The remaining property is pasture land dotted with 14 lakes, some plunging as deep as 300 feet. There are full mineral rights, 200 million tons of coal still under ground, water rights to millions of gallons per day and wildlife that includes white tail deer and two nesting pair of bald eagles.
Betting on Austin
The other reason for hope in Milam County is that – unlike other struggling rural area – it's not remote. The county is about halfway between Austin and Bryan-College Station.
Local officials noted in their Amazon bid that the old Alcoa site is within an hour of about 2.5 million people and two tier one research universities, the University of Texas and Texas A&M University.
To the east, Union Pacific Railroad announced in January it was starting construction on a $550 million rail yard in Robertson County, in a rural area close to Bryan-College Station.
Austin, however, could be the deciding factor in Milam County's fate. At the Texas capital grows and becomes an increasingly expensive place to live, its sprawl is creeping toward Milam County.
Rockdale is about an hour from Austin (depending on traffic) and less than that to the suburbs of Round Rock, Georgetown and Pflugerville.
Even with confidence in the county's path, local leaders also realize that they'll be squeezed until their new future arrives.
Monzingo, the Rockdale ISD superintendent, said Luminant challenged the power plant's property valuation in court in recent years and didn't have to pay its taxes while the case was litigated.
After a year and half without those taxes, Monzingo estimated that the school district was two months away from bankruptcy before the case was finally settled. Now, most of that money is disappearing for good.
Montelongo has nothing bad to say about the Permian Basin, where he now works, or its residents.
It's just not home. Montelongo hasn't given up on finding a job closer to home, but he also accepts the possibility that this is life for several years.
"Everyone in Rockdale is going to be working out of town," he said. "I don't believe they are going to move out of Rockdale."
Barchenger said these changes were traumatic, even though he landed better than many.
"I know that there are a lot of good people out there that are still struggling," he said.
Barchenger is convinced the coal industry is dying, even with the White House trying to offer life support. Now, it's up to his neighbors to rebound. And in that, he has much more faith.
"They're tough. ... One thing about it, they're resilient. They're dedicated. Most of them have strong faith. They will survive."