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Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Endless West

Many moons ago, I posted a blog called “Where the West Begins.”  It pointed out that at one time or another, just about every town west of the Mississippi River has claimed to be the jumping-off point for a trip through that immense region of romantic legend.

My choice was Fort Worth, Texas, since, as I wrote then, “Fort Worth emerged from the prairie sod as a classic ‘cow town,’ a cattle-drive stockyards stop on the great Chisholm Trail.  And even today, Fort Worth’s ‘uptown cowboys’ in white and black Stetsons still holler at rodeos and ride mechanical bulls and line dance to the ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie’ at clubs like Billy Bob’s” in stark contrast to the sophisticates in Dallas, just to the east.

Throughout West Texas, huge stores sell nothing but hats and boots, belts and western shirts, jeans and even saddles.  In places like Amarillo, the hub city of the panhandle-shaped protrusion of northwest Texas, folks wear their broad black or white hats just about everywhere but church.  The wind’s usually blowing there, and I asked a cowpoke how he kept his big hat on.  “I make sure it’s good and snug and fits ever’ crease of my head,” he replied.

If you draw a straight line from Fort Worth up to Canada and down to the Gulf of Mexico, the West takes up about half of the United States.  That’s about four million square kilometers (3.1 million square miles) of breathtaking rock formations, arid wasteland, snow-covered peaks but also ubane metro areas.

To give you a sense of this enormous and diverse place, I’ll relate a few stories from my travels.  It will take me more than one posting to do so.

Down Mexico Way

Let’s start down around Brownsville, at the very southern tip of Texas, where the United States, Mexico, and the Gulf of Mexico converge.  Lots of ordinary people live there, raising spinach, strawberries and such.  But this is also very much the turf of the U.S. Border Patrol, whose agents are on the prowl for illegal border “runners,” contraband, and smuggled humans.  It’s also home to predatory bandits on both sides of the border who pounce upon illegals, stealing what little money they have and sometimes killing them for good measure.

From Brownsville, the U.S.-Mexican border snakes 1,300 kilometers (807 miles) northwestward along the Rio Grande River to El Paso.  Then, with a couple of jags, it mostly straightens and shoots west through the desert, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  In all, that’s a 3,700-km boundary that needs watching.  Despite the talk of a double fence and hi-tech network of security cameras the whole way, only about 19 kilometers’ worth are in place.

In the scrub brush far from border cities, there are no barriers at all.  One can simply walk over the line admittedly into forbidding terrain.

So U.S. and Mexican agents drive rugged off-road vehicles, scouting the border as best they can.  Each month in the Brownsville sector alone, they nab 2,500 or so illegal aliens.  Most are young and looking to cross into the United States for just enough time to earn money at odd jobs or to steal goods to sell for U.S. dollars.

The Border Patrol used to send out lots of roving patrols, rounding up whatever illegals they could find.  More recently, in hopes of discouraging illegals from even trying to cross over, the strategy has been to saturate the boundary in populated areas with agents in stationary positions, illuminated at night by lights so powerful that their posts look like desolate football stadiums.

What happens when people are caught dashing across these no-man’s lands?

Almost nothing, which helps explain why so many young Mexicans and Central Americans try to sneak across, over and over again.  They are taken to a holding cell, where their identities and criminal records are checked.  If they’re not on a wanted list for serious crimes, they are driven to the bridge across the Rio Grande and set free.  They simply walk back over to Mexico.

Others, often older and determined to start a new life in the United States, pay polleros  Spanish for “chicken herders” and also often called “coyotes” exorbitant sums to help them elude patrols and get over the line.  This has led to tragic accidents and mass suffocations in the blistering summer heat involving illegals whom the heartless coyotes wedged into trucks like cattle.  So border agents hunt coyotes with special ferocity.

It’s hard, sometimes deadly, often sad work.  “You have to believe in what you’re doing,” one Border Patrol agent told me.  “Your heart really has to be in it.”
Some Like it Hot

Extreme South Texas could fairly be called Mexican-American.  Ninety percent of the residents of Brownsville, for instance, speak Spanish as their first language.  So it’s not surprising that there are little Mexican restaurants on many a corner as far north as cosmopolitan San Antonio, where spicy “Tex-Mex” food is actually a tourist attraction.

Tex-Mex combines such staples as flour tortillas with hearty Texas-style barbecued meat that’s been broiled over an open flame.  Since Mexico’s many regions offer endless varieties of peppers, there’s an infinite choice of recipes.  Mexicans use a lot of pork, but Texas is beef country, so that’s what you’ll get in most eateries.  Fajitas, made with steak, shredded cheese, and piquant salsa, for instance, are a San Antonio invention.  Two other staples on many a Tex-Mex plate are rice, seasoned with a few tomatoes, onions, or peas; and a gloppy concoction called “refried beans.”  Like tamales stewed meat stuffed in ground cornmeal dough and cradled in dried corn husks these beans are fried in lard and are incredibly fattening.

Little wonder San Antonio routinely ranks in Men’s Fitness magazine’s listing of “America’s Fattest Cities.  In 2009, it placed third, and two other Texas cities Houston and El Paso also made the Top 10.

All sorts of Texas immigrants influenced the tradition as well.  Germans and Czechs inspired the popular habit of serving Tex-Mex tacos and the like with lots of good beer.  There’s even a strain of Tex-Mex music, in which the accordion originally a Northern Europe instrument joins the traditional Mexican trumpets, fiddles, and mariachis.

Décor is one more part of the experience.  A typical Tex-Mex place is festooned with colorful hanging sombreros, serapes, paper flowers, and quite often, Christmas lights all year long.  Somehow, these vivid and lively surroundings, enhanced by a frozen beverage made with tequila, make what one San Antonio chef called “the rich food of the poor” all the tastier.

The Hangin’ Judge

One of the legendary figures of frontier justice was a crusty old frontier judge whom actor Paul Newman played in the 1970s movie “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”  Bean was known as “the law west of the Pecos” a river in Southwest Texas that in the 1880s separated civilization from the truly wild West.  So firm was Judge Bean in his rulings that everybody called him “the hangin’ judge.”  There was even a hanging tree out front of his saloon, which doubled as his courtroom.  The bar, plus Bean’s home in the opera house that he built, and a cactus garden out back, are now part of a Texas welcome center in the tiny town of Langtry, near the Mexican border.

Most of the time, Judge Bean dispensed justice while sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch.  His law library consisted of a single volume of state statutes.  Often as not, according to accounts, he’d have the book upside down and just pretend to read from it.  The illiterate defendants didn’t know the difference.

After his verdict guilty, mostly he would fine most offenders, stick the money in his pocket, and invite everyone, including the defendant, in for drinks on the house.

Even though he was the “law” in West Texas, Bean made a dollar any way he could.  Once, he staged a world heavyweight match that had been banned in Texas.  He moved it to a sandbar in Mexican territory in the middle of the Rio Grande River.

Bean named his bar the “Jersey Lily” and the town “Langtry,” out of fascination with actress and singer Lily Langtry, from Jersey, England.  He never met her, but he saw photographs and read articles about her.  The old bachelor stayed up late into the night, writing Lily letters.

Sometimes she wrote back!

Judge Bean built the opera house in hopes that Lily would one day come visit and sing.  No luck there.

At one time, 1,700 people lived in Langtry.  They were railroad construction workers who soon moved on, leaving Roy Bean as the only permanent resident.

Even though it’s still in the middle of nowhere, the town is growing again.  When I visited a few years ago, 30 people lived there!

Ouch and Double Ouch

Wide-open West Texas spaces aren’t good for much other than drilling for oil and raising cattle.  The latter is more of a sure thing, so Texans raise millions of “cows,” as they call them all.  Something like 40 percent of all the red meat eaten by Americans comes from cattle raised in West Texas.

And just as in the western movies, ranchers still brand their calves to make sure the ownership of each animal is clear.  Afterward, however, they don’t usually get together and sing the way Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers did on the silver screen and TV.

Clint Eastwood played a cowhand in the television show Rawhide that glamorized cowboy life.  But the “rope, throw, and brand ‘em” part of a cowboy’s responsibilities referenced in the show’s theme song is anything but glamorous.  It can be downright unnerving to visitors, since cows, separated from their calves that have been herded into a pen, are bawling mournfully for their young ones the whole time.

The first task is heating the branding iron not in a crackling fire, but using a butane torch.  It’s cleaner and easier, and there’s not much wood to waste on fires in West Texas anyway.  When the iron’s ready, a cowboy opens the gate into a big ring, and a single calf is driven out.

No sooner does it think it’s off for a romp than a skilled roper flicks out his lasso and snares the calf around the neck.  That brings the young animal up short and puts the first glint of terror into its eyes.

Then two other cowboys hustle over and toss the unfortunate calf onto its side on the ground, while a third cowhand ties another rope around three of its hooves.  In a flash, it’s dragged to the cowboy with the branding iron, restrained with more ropes so it can’t kick anyone, and seared with the hot iron.  Not red hot, since that would leave an open sore that would get infected, but hot enough to leave a permanent mark on the calf’s tough hide.

The idea of such a mark is an ancient one.  Egyptians branded oxen on the rump as early as 2000 B.C.  Today in Texas, famous cattle brands are as well known as corporate symbols.  Slaughterhouses carefully check for them, but a clever rustler can alter one.  A “1,” for instance, can easily be made to look like a “7.”  That’s why many brands are deliberately elaborate.

But back to our miserable calf.

In less than a minute, the creature is branded, vaccinated, gets its ears cropped, and, if it’s male, endures castration.  The neutered bull-calves will become gentler “steers,” content to grow fat and tasty.  Calves’ ears are distinctively clipped so the hands can quickly tell the males (right ear notched) from the females (left ear cut).  In large Texas herds some reach 2,000 head each animal also gets a numbered “bangle tag,” similar to a plastic luggage tag, stapled to an ear as an individual ID.

An aside: You may have heard the cowboy song that trills, “Yippy ti yi yo, get along little doggies.  It's your misfortune and none of my own.”   These doggies, pronounced “DOAG-ees,” aren’t canines.  They’re orphan calves whose mothers died, perhaps while giving birth.

To top off branding day, there’s one more procedure that must seem like a pastureland frolic compared to what the calf has already been through.  It’s a huge injection of vitamins and antibiotics.

About a year and a half from this day, when the calves have grown into fat and sassy adults of 450 kilos (almost 1,000 pounds), just about all of the males, and some of the females, too, will be sides of beef, hanging in a processing plant.  Many heifers female calves who have yet to produce their own calves and a very few unneutered bull-calves will live on as breeding stock for future generations of beef on the hoof.  But these days, most ranchers rent bulls with proven bloodlines for stud.

All in all, branding day is a most unpleasant occasion on a calf’s calendar, and no treat for squeamish visitors.  For ranch hands, though, it’s just another day to rope, throw, and brand ‘em!

Don’t Fence Me In

It has often been written that the Colt pistol tamed the American West.  Others say it was the plow, which turned empty grass prairies into cultivated farms.  Or the railroad, which brought refinement east from San Francisco and west from Chicago.

But a strong argument could be made that it was, instead, an object no bigger than your second toe that truly gave men and women mastery over the rugged western countryside.  It was a sharp metal barb, tied every few centimeters along two twisted strands of wire.

Barbed wire, or “bob wire,” the white settlers called it.  Plains Indians, who had roamed the prairie freely for centuries, called it “the devil’s rope.”

Farmers who had moved west wanted to protect their precious water and keep great herds of cattle and American bison called “buffalo” from trampling their crops.  They wanted fences.  But there was not enough wood in the West to build the quaint rail fences they were used to not enough stones for walls, either.  Stringing plain wire did not work.  Burly beasts easily trampled it and rumbled on.

The settlers found their answer in barbed wire.  An Illinois farmer named Joseph Glidden had invented the most successful variety.  A young farmhand would climb Glidden’s windmill with a strand of wire in hand.  He’d slide the sharp, curled barbs down the wire from on high.  Others below would space them and hold them in place with a second piece of twisted wire.

Barbed wire was a big seller.  A man named John Gates sold 12 million kilos of it a year in Texas alone after a simple demonstration.  He herded about a hundred longhorn steers into a corral in the San Antonio plaza and bet everyone that not a one of them would break out.  The crowd whooped, dogs barked, and the steers were scared half to death, but none broke out of the pen.

Ranchers loathed barbed wire.  Their herds had always run free, since steers need endless stretches of the dusty plains to search out vegetation.  During cattle drives to railheads, cowboys simply picked the shortest route never mind whose land they had to cross.

Deadly range wars were fought over barbed wire.  Sometimes fencemen would drive in posts and tack up wire from huge rolls on their wagons, only to have cattlemen follow right behind and tear the fences down.

Barbed wire would first be used in wartime by both sides in the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 20th Century, and thousands of men died among barbed-wire entanglements along the trenches of World War I.  Barbed wire was also a haunting symbol of suppression at the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.

You still see it throughout the American West, doing the same job it did a century ago.  And if you’d be absolutely fascinated by 200 or so varieties of this prickly wire, take a trip sometime to the little Texas Panhandle town of McLean and tour a museum devoted to the devil’s rope and some artifacts of old U.S. highway 66 that runs through the Texas Panhandle.

While you’re there, you’ll also get a good look at historic artifacts of Route 66, the old, two-lane highway from Chicago to Los Angeles that’s been subsumed by modern interstate highways in many places but still runs through McLean.

Little Armored One

Well, we haven’t even gotten out of Texas on this first leg of our western expedition.  I thought I’d close with a personal story that amused me.

One day, Carol and I were driving down one of the forever-long roads that folks in Texas are always building.

“Eeek,” Carol shouted.  “An aardvark!!!”

Of course it wasn’t the little burrowing African animal whose long, sticky tongue snatches termites.  Texas has millions of termites, but likely not a single aardvark in the wild.

What we saw and nearly turned into road kill was another odd-looking animal that ranges from Texas all the way down into South America.

It’s an armadillo.  There may even be a country song about the armadillos of Amarillo.

The locals call them “Texas speed bumps” or “anteaters on the half shell,” referring to the ugly little creatures’ scaly bands that look like a lobster’s belly.  But these are more leathery than brittle.

Ugly?  Check out their rat-like tails.

Even though they’re sturdily plated, few armadillos survive an encounter with an automobile.  While they can scoot pretty fast, they kind of hop when they’re excited – right up into your bumper.

Armadillos are prehistoric creatures, 300 million years old.  In his famous 1980 book on Texas, American author James Michener devoted a whole chapter to them.  Perhaps, too, you’ve seen Charles Russell’s classic Old West painting of Plains Indians on horseback, shooting arrows at fleeing buffalo.  Somebody made T-shirts out of this, but on it, the Indians are shooting at giant, galloping armadillos.

Truth is, armadillos are more fright than flight or fight.  Attacked, an armadillo will curl into a ball, hiding its little pink head and soft belly under its armor.

The reason that I know a bit about these pocket-sized dinosaurs, other than Carol’s alarm at encountering one, is that we ran into a fellow named Jalepeño Sam.

As his name suggests, Sam Lewis makes great chili.  But he also raises armadillos near San Angelo, Texas.  Not as food though I have heard that some Texans toss armadillo meat into their stew but as pets and to race.

Sam showed me an armadillo up close.  I declined his invitation to cuddle one.

These mammals have no teeth, but their long snouts and powerful front claws can quickly burrow into sandy soil to escape predators or paw after food.  “They’ll latch onto a worm with their sticky tongues and suck him out of the hole,” Sam told me, “just like a kid eatin’ spaghetti.”  Armadillos also eat bugs and lizards and little snakes.

Sam races these critters at county fairs, chili cook-offs, and that sort of thing.  He brings his own portable wooden racing pen, about 12 meters long.  Set a couple of armadillos in there at one end, and the first thing they’ll try to do is dig.  They can’t tunnel through the floor, of course, so Sam gets them off and running.


“Well, you get in there with ‘em and blow on ‘em,” he told me.

“You blow on them?” I replied, amazed.

“Yup.  An armadillo doesn’t look like he has hair on him, but he has coarse hair.  You excite the hair on an armadillo, and he’s gone!”

Armadillo races.  Little doggies.  Boot scootin’ boogies.  Jalepeño chili.   Part of the American West, Texas-style.

 (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Festooned.  Festoon is a French word for a wreath or garland, and originally to festoon a room was to hang many of these decorations.  The term has since been broadened to describe lavish interior decorating of all sorts.

Railhead.  The end of a railroad line and often the staging area for the shipment of materiel in war zones or livestock in remote areas.  In the American West, cowboys sometimes had to drive cattle thousands of kilometers to reach a place where they could be loaded onto trains heading for eastern slaughterhouses and markets. 

Rustler.  A livestock thief.

Serape.  A long, colorful shawl traditionally worn by Mexican men.

Tequila.  One of several potent Mexican “mescal” liquors made from the fermented juice of the spiky-looking agave plant.  Legend has it that you’ll find a worm in the highest-quality tequilas, but this is a marketing gimmick by certain brands.

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