Monday, February 27, 2006


Dispatches from Cowboy Country is about the land, people, and general character of the remote area of West Texas in which I live.

The land: I live on a 189,000 acre subdivided ranch in West Texas, bordering both the Big Bend National Park and the Big Bend Ranch State Park. The nearest real town is Alpine, 75 miles from my house. At just over 6000 people it is little more than a village. The nearest large towns are Odessa and Midland, about three and a half hours by road. El Paso, at almost 5 hours is the nearest city. The Mexican border lies about 15 miles due south, just beyond the Rio Grande.

This is Chihuahuan Desert country, full of spectacular geological features, incredible sunrises and sunsets, and a mild climate. At our place we get highly variable, and little, rainfall. Over the mountain to the southeast the Ranch Lodge generally gets nearly twice the precipitation we do. To the northeast, it’s the same - more rainfall. We find ourselves in what we few who live in this area call ‘the Blue Hole’.

This is a very harsh land - a land of extremes. We have some of the wildest storms I’ve seen, and I’ve been on most continents and in perhaps 40 countries. When we do get rain it tends to come in buckets, generally in a 20 minute period and often horizontal. Frequently it is accompanied by hail, also horizontal at times. Storms usually arrive with about ten minutes notice. You have to be ready to batten down the hatches quickly or even heavy wooden chairs, tables, or stacks of wood can be 200 yards out in the desert when the storm has passed. Then, as suddenly as the storm has come, it is gone and often the skies are the purest blue within an hour.

We get microbursts and the rare tornado. On the other hand, we get fronts that stall for a week in winter and we are under fog or cold gray skies for a week. Though we seldom get hard freezes we can drop 50 degrees between one day and the next, have a two day period of 15 degrees with frozen pipes, broken pumps, dead winter gardens. The first year we were here we experienced a week of 80 degree or better days at the end of March, only to wake on day eight to snowfall. By noon the snow was gone and by four o’clock we were in shirtsleeves again. It is said by locals that only two kinds of people try to predict our weather: fools and newcomers.

The people: West Texans in general are very independent people. While they are very friendly they are also very straightforward. You will know where they stand on an issue quite quickly. Even if you get in a shouting match over politics and nearly come to blows, if you see your opponent broken down on the side of the road you will stop and render whatever assistance is needed, including a ride several miles out of your way, and neither of you will think anything of this. You will be polite throughout, and the next time you see each other you’ll probably be back to the throat holds.

Despite the remoteness the place has an incredible variety of people, from recluses hiding from the law, family or ex-business partners to gregarious snowbirds, retired PhDs, an ex-ship’s captain or two, refugees from the dot com world, old cowpokes, immigrants from England and Germany. You’ll find artists, musicians, dope fiends, screwups, jerks, ex- and/or current hippies, straights, gays, neocons, raging liberals, illegals, and folks you just can’t put in any box in whole or in part. Lots of people ‘live off the grid’, and not just the power grid.

The general character: This is a place with wide-open spaces. A place never soft though you can be entranced by beauty so subtle and so magical that you’ll think you were in fairyland. The beauty is more often stark, brutal, devastatingly magnificent. The people who live here often refer to it as ‘paradise’ without the slightest hint of pretension. It’s a simple fact, to those of us who are desert rats, this is as close to paradise as it gets.

It’s a rugged existence. Everything breaks down, wears out or gives up the ghost far more quickly here than anywhere I’ve been. Buy a dozen 2x4s and forget to peg and weight them for a couple of days and you’ll come back to find pretzels in all shapes and forms. Run out of water for three days and those 15 tomato plants that are covered with luscious fruits are all dead.

But the harsh is mixed with the solitude, the quiet, a sky so unfettered and full of stars you can nearly read a book by starlight.

The rest: Of course there are the flora and fauna, and they reflect the character of the area, and the nature of the land. Odd creations in many cases, all highly adapted to lack of water, high winds, huge temperature swings. Tough lifeforms, many dangerous in one way or another. Survival here is survival on the very edge. And so we tend to protect the flora and fauna, for we admire anything that can survive here.

And that’s what I’ll be writing about: this place and its inhabitants and characteristics, it’s fictions and its facts, its joys and its sorrows. Its uniqueness.

I hope you will enjoy the weekly posts.