Barely three decades ago, when I first traveled abroad, it wasn’t uncommon to be looked at as quite the curiosity by Europeans on their learning that I lived on the far western edge of the United States. It took me a bit of prying and a double-take or two to discover that some folk outside of North America had no more recent imagery attached to the American West than covered wagons and cowboys rounding up mustangs of a particularly non-automotive sort. I got the impression that a few of these acquaintances were genuinely puzzling over the image of me going to buy dry goods on the bench of a venerable buckboard. No surprise that this didn’t dovetail perfectly with the person standing in front of them sans bonnet and petticoats, so I suppose a little cognitive dissonance was to be expected.
What wasn’t expected was an idea of America that seemed so humorously archaic to me, but then the many years passed and I moved to Texas and discovered that the American West had merely shrunk a bit over the years. Once the tide of non-native migration had swept across the continent and splashed onto the shores of its far coast, the wave seems to have receded gradually and settled back a little farther inland. Where fishermen and foresters could more easily embrace the coastal life, the settlers who intended to keep riding the range with their herds were logically drawn into the vast middle of the country where land was still open enough to be that range. I can attest that I’ve not yet seen the old one-room schoolhouse in Ponder filled with current students, least of all equipped at their desks with inkwells in which to dip each other’s braids, nor do the hands all ride horseback every day anymore: they pile on their ATVs and into their big-axle F150s and go about their business with cellphones glued to their downwind ears.
The venerable and beautiful farmhouses and barns still dotting the highway side of the farms and ranches are largely in a state of slow collapse and empty as a politician’s promises, looking for all the world like Dust Bowl reenactor sets. But if I squint a little and slow down to avoid the road kill as the rest of the world zooms by on I-35, I can see that the ranchers have merely relocated to be farther back on the acreage and have more room for their massive faux-Chateau ranches with mile-high roofs and the barns for their hybrid beef cattle stretching to the invisible horizon beyond. Even the hay bales have grown into giant water tower-sized behemoths that would crush the balers that used to pop out little sugarcubes of hay. Every darn thing is bigger and more commercially driven and faster…and yet, there they are on the ridgeline over there, a couple of leathery guys on paint horses, sauntering toward the gully as they hunt up the boss in his Jeep, who isn’t answering his cellphone because on a 14,000 acre ranch nobody can be bothered to find him to make him do it.
And as briefly as I’ve lived in Texas, I know by now that when the three of them eventually get back to the ranch house, they’ll be putting up their boots, eating brisket that’s been on the smoker since this morning, and washing it down with a cold Lone Star longneck. Some of the cowboys may have traded in their saddles for a four-wheel drive, but some things haven’t changed so all-fired much.