I exited the shabby motel room into early morning light, and was overwhelmed by the utter vastness of Texas high plains. Nothing but blue sky and flat brown earth.
“Is this a golleeshazam moment?” I asked 12-year-old Leslie Pitts. He grinned.
Needing coffee, I walked to the motel office past two old cars with flat tires.
“No bed bugs? Clean sheets?” asked the Indian inn keeper with a clipped tone.
“Guude place, yeah? Am I guude too?”
I smiled. “You good too.”
Nearby at an abandoned gas station on Route 66, were five VW beetles buried head first in the earth, rear ends sticking up. A sign read “Bug Ranch.” Obviously it was someone’s artistic response to the famed “Cadillac Ranch” west of Amarillo.
Bonnie Pitts pointed the Dodge Caravan south across the northern edge of the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) down narrow asphalt to tiny Claude, Texas where we breakfasted at O. J.’s, a Mexican café and the only eatery in town. It was small, with brown tile floors and red-checkered table cloths, and friendly. I had scrambled egg whites smothered with red chili sauce, sopped up with corn tortillas. Sipping my third cup of coffee, I called “Dee Dee” and got directions to the Bar H Ranch at Clarenton. The road leading there was straight as a pool cue. A small sign along a railroad track announced, “Goodnight.” Across the road was a rambling old ranch house that was of no significance to me at the moment. Later, we turned off asphalt, bumped across a cattle guard, and rattled down a dusty road that cut through mesquite and sagebrush, and ended at a red ranch house. An attractive and smiling middle-age blonde wearing white shorts and trailed by an Australian Shepherd greeted us. “Hi, I’m Dee Dee. Welcome to the Bar H.” Introductions were made. Bonnie, always full of good humor, gave her a back door compliment. “Are you married?” he asked, grinning.
“How big is your husband?”
“Bigger than you,” she said flatly.
We stored our luggage in the bunk house, and went by bouncing pick-up to the corral where the wrangler, Melissa, and a German couple, Herr and Frau Neurath of Melsback, and their young son were already in the saddle. The dude ranch is 1800 acres of broken country grown over with cholla cactus, juniper, mesquite, sage brush, yucca, buffalo gourds, blue bonnets and along the water’s edge, large cottonwoods. It was rattlesnake and jack rabbit country. The only snake I saw was a large King snake slithering through the brush. “Is this a golleeshazam moment?” I asked Leslie. He grinned. “Yes sir.”
The horseback ride took us past Longhorns and buffalo that watched us suspiciously. Pain radiated down my right hip. That evening we gathered at the ranch house for supper. Dee Dee’s husband, Frank appeared. Bonnie offered his hand. “Your wife said you were bigger than me. And she was right.” Frank’s hard body resembled an oak timber poked into well-worn cowboy boots and sweat-stained jeans. He was a real cowboy, and the fifth generation of Hommels to work the ranch.
We sat at a long bench table, with Tater, the Australian shepherd, at our feet, begging for scraps, while Frank fed us crispy salad, baked potato and a Texas size steak. I learned that the old rambling ranch house I’d seen up the road had once belonged to Charles Goodnight of “Goodnight Trail” fame, and the inventor of the chuck wagon. In 1876, he drove his herd of Longhorns down from Colorado to Palo – Duro Canyon. He and John Adair founded the JA Ranch in 1877, which covered 1.3 million acres, and ran over 100,000 head of cattle. Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove is based on Goodnight’s life.
“Like a beir, ya?” Herr Neurath asked me.
He fetched a Texas Longneck. Later I offered him a scotch. Alcohol loosens tongues. “Tell me why it is against the law to drink alcohol in America but okay to carry a gun?” he asked. “Makes no sense. Crazy!”
“The Second Amendment guarantees every citizen the right to pack heat,” I said. I further explained that armed citizens give criminals hesitation before breaking into someone’s house; that Americans have an inherent distrust of politicians, and the fact that over 100 million folks own guns, discourages would-be tyrants. Lastly, Southerners especially distrust politicians. “We were invaded in 1861, and that hasn’t been totally forgotten.” Nor forgiven, I should have added.
“America will always be America,” he said.
“Don’t forget that Germany elected Hitler fair and square,” I said. “He consolidated power, disarmed the people and you know the rest of the story. It can happen in America if we aren’t vigilant.”
Melissa, the wrangler, produced a cardboard box filled with homemade wines made by her mother in Tennessee. Leslie began dancing with himself, singing and having a grand time. I was suspicious that he had been imbibing wine. He denied it. When you are 12 years old and happy, I suppose you can throw your own party. That night, I crawled into a lower bunk, rubbed my aching hip and listened to locusts and July flies. Each time I got up to go the bathroom I bumped my head on the upper bunk.
Next morning, while Leslie was horseback riding, Bonnie and I talked to Dee Dee. The Bar H working ranch consists of 64 sections (40,960 acres) where the spring round-up is held around May 1st. Dee Dee invited us out. “It’s five days and four nights camping with the cowboys and helping brand calves,” she said. “The cost is approximately $1,250 with everything furnished.” I was interested, but worried about my hip. “I don’t think I could stay in the saddle all day,” I said.
“You can work on the chuck wagon.”
“Yeah, I learned to peel potatoes in the Army.”
Then I remembered a Rawhide TV episode from years back, when “Wishbone,” the cook, allowed the chuck wagon horses to eat loco weed. They ran over a cliff while pulling the chuck wagon. Rowdy Yates had to rescue Wishbone. I shuddered to think about it. “I won’t have to drive the chuck wagon, will I?” I asked Dee Dee.
“No, just peel potatoes.”
Later that morning, we said goodbye to our wonderful host, Dee Dee and Frank, and Melissa and our new friends from Germany, tugged Tater’s ears, and departed south across the Llano Estacado beneath blue sky.
To be Continued – Jerry Barksdale