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.
A longhorn with a handsome set of horns as curly as they get
He’d had some hope he was exempt from need to keep his long horns kempt
And polished to a shiny sheen like pearl, his hooves polished to keen,
Dark, perfect handsomeness, the ring hooked in his nose, and everything
In fashion, grand in every way; turns out, he’d missed his class the day
The rules were set out in his youth, and so he lacked this simple truth.
So he was startled when the fuzz pulled him aside and said because
He’d failed to keep in such fine style, he’d have to go to jail awhile.
You, also, may not know these rules, if you too missed time in your school’s
Important seminars, so here I share them with you; do not fear
That cops will catch you; do not dread, but spiff your hooves and horns instead,
And you’ll be free to roam and graze in any pasture, all your days.
As stud bulls, just in case they meet random policemen on the street,
December has a lot going for it. There are loads of holidays jammed into this single month all around the world (not the least of which is my birthday), and depending on which of those locales is Home, the month is usually the time when peak summer or winter vacation time comes. Given all of the holidays, I tend to think there’s no excuse not to spend a bunch of December partying in one way or another. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by people, places and things that make every day feel like a party’s very possible, if not already in progress.
I mean, longhorns, people. I can drive in any direction from home, not even going very far, and have a great chance of seeing big, bold, beautiful longhorn cattle. Just seeing them makes my heart do a happy dance. Looking at longhorns brings a big grin to my face and a lightness to the day, and I’m pretty sure that on the day those cattle were invented there was some partying going on in heaven, too.
It’s easy to indulge my love of the bucolic and pastoral when I live where I do in north Texas. This county is full, as it has been for generations, of farms and ranches of all sorts that intermingle freely with the towns, cities and suburbs of the area. Whenever we take a drive or go running errands, we’re just as likely to see fields full of sorghum or corn, red or black Angus cattle, or sleek tobiano horses as we are shops and schools and natural gas pumping derricks.Plenty of relics and remnants still stand that tell me it’s been this way for a very, very long time. The little bronze school bell and windmill that remain standing right next to the old Ponder schoolhouse’s clapboard walls seem perfectly ready to go back to work (with just a tiny bit of functional renovation first, of course)–or to transport me instantly backward into the nineteenth century. A small private herd of longhorns spends its days in a cozy paddock that sits directly next door to a modern brick housing development, and on the other side of it is a stretch of fields full of wildflowers and prickly pear, punctuated by the occasional gas well and electrical tower, the latter often populated by small flocks of turkey vultures.All of this makes an atmosphere highly conducive to my happiness: the conveniences and riches of contemporary urban existence, conveniently interspersed with spirit-soothing farmland or ranch and historic pleasures. If I play it right, I can feel like I’m on vacation no matter which world I happen to be in at the moment.
Been out in weeds, in the way-back forty,
Tumbling along by the dry mesquite,
Rambling and ambling the afternoon by
With nary a stop to rest or eat
This is the way the daytime passes,
A couple of dogs at our heels to steer them
Until we whistle them in at night
Some things change on the range with passing
Time and tide and the phase of moon,
With years and advances and techno-wonders,
But none of this here’s like to change so soon,
And why should it do? We still will mosey
And saunter our way through the rolling plain
As long as the longhorns and the Angus
I wonder if you flinch at all
At cows upon the bedroom wall
That have great horns and twitching tails—
The massive cow that seldom fails
To win a ribbon at the fair—
And like them watching over me
To fend off any sleepless nights
I’ve No Beef with Your Cultural Identity
Being a female or male Croatian
Is no more determined by your location
Than eye-color, height or weight, or sex is
By where you were born in the state of Texas—
But I will admit Texan regions do
Determine the skew of your barbecue,
And can also say, since it ain’t no tattle,
I May be Texan 2
I never thought to come to Texas, even for a visit,
But serendipity is not predictable, now, is it?
And if I might not so have planned—don’t have a longhorn cow—
Turns out it was a fine surprise to land here anyhow.
Oh, pretty little heifer cow, I think you’re cute but know not how
Appreciation paid in full to such sweet charm could seem but dull
Poor compensation for my plain bland bullishness; am I a drain
Upon your dewy calf-eyed ways; am I so silly in my craze
For you, adorable and fine, that I’m a fool to wish you mine?
Nay, let us frolic and cavort and caper ’round for joy and sport,
Let us delight in being calves and neither shrink from fun by halves
Nor ever find we’re short of hay in pasture, or get sent away,
Or be penned up, for these things, too, would make a poor calf cry Moo Hoo!
No tragedy besmirch our wooing and leave us sadly this way mooing;
Let us, instead, just take a vow to stay together, bull and cow.