Love and Land

Inspired by John Wayne's words of wisdom, John Erickson—perhaps best known as the author of the Hank the Cowdog series—writes what it means to be a man of the West.
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Inspired by John Wayne's words of wisdom, John Erickson—perhaps best known as the author of the Hank the Cowdog series—writes what it means to be a man of the West.
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“The West—the very words go straight to that place of the heart where Americans feel the spirit of pride in their Western heritage—the triumph of personal courage over any obstacle, whether nature or man.” —John Wayne

The wind is blowing again today, this time out of the north. It blew yesterday out of the south, and the day before, it howled straight out of the west. It is relentless. It has no mercy.

My ranch is in the third year of a drought, and it aches and bleeds. I ache with it—the bare patches of dust where grass used to grow, the skeletons of hackberry and elm trees that died last summer, the silence left by wild turkeys that have died or moved out, and cattle and horses that are gnawed by constant hunger.

I wake up in the night with a vivid memory of 2006, when wildfires burned almost a million acres in the Texas Panhandle—fire on top of drought, disease on top of injury.

Those of us who grow attached to a piece of land can’t escape its suffering. We’re involved in a love affair with parcels of land that don’t always love us back. It is a tradition that comes to me through my mother’s family, who moved to West Texas in the early 1880s.

My great-grandparents survived the awful drought of 1886–7 when, for 24 months, it hardly rained a drop in Crosby County, Texas. My grandparents in Gaines County ran cattle through the drought of the 1930s, and my great uncles held their ranch together during the drought of the 1950s.

Sometimes I wonder why my ancestors left greener places and came to West Texas. I wonder why they stayed. Some of them might have been riding away from trouble and needed a fresh start. The Underhills, Quakers from Ohio, saw the High Plains in a good year and thought it would stay that way forever, but, of course, it didn’t. They were all looking for cheap land, because owning land was important to them.

My kinfolks were not wealthy people and in today’s world, we wouldn’t describe them as “educated.” None of them ever set foot inside a college classroom and some didn’t finish high school. But they read the King James Bible, spoke correct English, and wrote good letters, when they had time.

They weren’t afraid of silence or empty space. They wanted to be left alone to face challenges head-on, and to prosper from their own hard work and ingenuity. There was a stubbornness about them that made them not want to bend a knee to any mortal man—not to the kings or squires or bishops in the Old World, not to politicians, bureaucrats, or tax collectors in the New.

They found that freedom in the vast, treeless prairies of West Texas, where cautious people feared to go. They hung on through the bad years, and when rain blessed them, they prospered in the cattle trade, improved their holdings, raised good children, and led meaningful lives. It’s a cliché, but harsh country tends to produce strong people.

My great-uncle Forrest Sherman was raised on the family ranch near Seminole, Texas, and later became foreman of the 380,000-acre Turkey Track Ranch in eastern New Mexico. He was a true Man of the West, as well as a devoted husband and father.

When he died suddenly at the age of 57, his wife, Mary D, did something that ranch people seldom had the opportunity to do. She sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a short memoir for her grandchildren. She wanted to tell them where they came from, who they were.

When I married Forrest Sherman in 1914, he was considered the best cowboy in the whole country. He worked cattle and ranched all his life. From childhood almost to his grave, he loved and used horses. He was proud, almost vain, of his horsemanship. Few men who ever lived and rode had better reason to be.

He was a lover of nature and a lover of freedom, and the country as a whole seemed to give him pleasures, to the extent that he wanted no human company. He wanted no human talk to interrupt his enjoyment of the solitude. He rode often alone, and the mesquite thickets as well as the tall prairie grass seemed to fascinate him.

These delicious moments seemed to form a mute religious feeling of gratitude for all of the blessings that had come his way.

The great outdoors does something for people. The prairie and sky have a way of trimming people down to size or changing them into giants—into people to whom nothing seems impossible. They came to a big country needing big men and women to live in it. There was no place for the weak, man or woman.

Aunt Mary D’s beautiful memoir contains an element that is present in the best writing about the West: a powerful, self-defining sense of place. The West she described with such loving detail wasn’t just the West of the working cowboy. It was her place too. She lived it just as deeply as Uncle Forrest did. I have no doubt that there were times when she cried from loneliness and screamed back at the wind, but she wrote about her place without a hint of self-pity.

One hundred and thirty-three years after my family came to West Texas, I am humbled by her example, because I’m awash in self-pity. I hate this drought—the spirit-killing wind, the dust, the dying things. She was right, the land has a way of trimming people down to size. I feel trimmed.

But I know it will pass. It always has, and I can’t help loving this poor, wind-thrashed ranch. It shows on every page of a series of books I write about a dog named Hank. Like our forebears, we will have to sustain ourselves on crumbs of wisdom, and on our sense of humor.

“Every day, we’re getting closer to a rain.”

“We’re building character.”

“In a year like this, it takes forty acres to rust a nail.”

And as Hank once said, “It’s always darkest before it gets any darker.”

I won’t quit, I’m too stubborn. It runs in the family.

John R. Erickson has written and published 75 books and more than 600 articles, and is best known as the author of the Hank the Cowdog series of books, audio-books, and stage plays. His stories have won a number of awards, including the Audie, Oppenheimer, Wrangler, and Lamplighter Awards. Erickson is currently working with a film group to produce a Hank the Cowdog animated movie, expected to reach theaters in 2015. John and his wife, Kris, live on their ranch near Perryton, Texas.