Thursday, March 20, 2014
Chisolm Trail wandering
There's just so much Texas to Texas. The only distance I'd ever traveled inside the Lone Star State was from the airport in San Antonio to a sweet region Texans call "Hill Country," some two hours or so away. San Antonio spreads itself thin over the landscape, so it takes a while to get out of town. But once you're out, the landscape is southwestern-nice, really is, beautiful until you get higher, when the land turns rocky and stubborn, thick with overgrown ashe junipers and occasional cypress trees.
Here and there through the open miles, elaborate (even monumental) locked gates appear as if out of nowhere, suggesting that someone somewhere has pocketed more than his or her share of Texas oil revenue. Most Hill Country homes are safely behind those gates and subtly out of sight from the road, suggesting even more wealth, even more ostentation.
That's all I'd ever seen of Texas--two and half hours northwest of San Antonio. But this year we drove to the Hill Country--from Iowa!--and stayed in the state (as one does when one drives) for a long, long, long time, even though we never went south of what seems to me to be the geographical "heart of Texas." Texas just goes and goes and goes. It won't quit.
I'd heard of the Chisholm Trail before, in part, I suppose, because I grew up in the age of the TV Western, Ward Bond leading wagon trains west from Missouri, the Ponderosa filling the screen with endless vistas every Saturday night, our whole family around the screen. The Rifleman, Broken Arrow, Lone Ranger, even Gene Autry--all have their own diorama in the western museum of my memory.
But I'd never traveled the Chisholm Trail before, and when I did, I couldn't help thinking how impossibly endless it must have seemed from the back of a horse. Miles and miles and miles through unbroken country, pre-Civil War mostly. It would be the 1880s before anyone would even conjure something as strange as barbed wire. There is so much "out there" out there that it's virtually impossible to imagine being back in the saddle again, one of a crew of cowpokes to drive a thousand cattle north to Abilene, then to Kansas City.
There are rivers to cross, sometimes easily, I'm sure, but often not, often rampaging with run-off or spring melt. There are hills to climb, there's dust to eat, heat to fight, not to mention cold-as-ice winter nights. Once into Indian Territory, they had to be wary because they never knew who might show up. It's no wonder the cowboy plays as significant a role as he does in our national saga. It wasn't easy driving cattle, hundreds, thousands of them, millions, in fact, all that interminable way.
So many longhorns, people say, that when they'd cross the Red River a steady-as-you-go cowboy could walk on their backs and not get his boots wet. Millions of scrawny Texas steers bound for a market where their normal four-bucks-a-head price could deliver something worth traveling for.
The Chisolm Trail exists only in the imagination these days. There aren't many tourist stops, just road signs, letting you know that somewhere beneath the highway there's likely a treasury of manure left there graciously by longhorn millions, so many gifts by so many that the lot of 'em likely enriched Texas forever.
Once in a while a road sign will prompt you to think about what happened there, long ago, when a million hoofs made the ground quake beneath your boots, when men with dirt in their ears picked their harmonicas out of their saddle bags and sat round a camp fire, having finished their beans and coffee, sat there and told stories or sang from a cowboy songbook no one owned but everyone knew.
You can fly on the Chisolm Trail these days: speed limits are as high as 80 miles an hour because there's not much traffic and a scarcity of burgs. No matter. There's still a whole of Texas to Texas, and once upon a time, at twenty miles a day, there was much, much more.
Get along, little doggies.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:00 AM