My Summer in West Texas

On Sunday the 22nd of September I made a long flight in the Husky, first heading due north to Nose Lake and the headwaters of the Mara River, then east to the upper Ellice watershed, then southwest to cross the Back River, and finally southwest two hours back to home. About 650 miles altogether. It has become almost an annual ritual, this final flight on floats over the far reaches of the central Arctic mainland, and it is chartered by the wildlife department. The goal has to do with retrieving dropped (and still valuable when refurbished) radio-tracking collars that are hung nowadays by the hundreds on the necks of a random selection of hapless individual animals. The collars automatically drop off when the pre-programmed time and date are reached, and of course are left if and when one of the collared animals is killed by predators. There is an entire long saga to be written someday, detailing some of my comical and not-so-comical adventures retrieving these gadgets. Mud pits, boulder fields, snow slopes, malfunctioning receivers, stuck airplanes, and on and on.

Collar-retrieval misadventures and my own satellite-wildlife-tracking misgivings aside, it feels like a privilege to someone as enamored of The Big Empty as I am, to be sent out there on these flights and to be paid to make them, to choose the days for them and to come and go right from home. No passengers, no cargo, paid work… every pilot’s dream.

Autumn Equinox is pushing the season’s limits for this kind of work, up past treeline, on floats. It is late in the year, for decent flying weather and even for walking around and getting in and out of shorelines that will soon be coated with ice and snow. We have had a mild September this year, and the first dusting of snow is lying on the ground here as I prepare to send this out.

On a day in late September a flight up into that part of the world feels like a stealthy raid, sneaking past a row of signs marked “Closed For Season.” It was a Sunday when I flew that route, and Sundays are always a little quieter in terms of flying activity, but the other day every clue was reminding me that I was the only human moving around out there for hundreds of miles. This is exhilarating, in a way, to certain oddballs like myself, but nerve-wracking to a pilot because we always have in the back of our minds the real possibility that something mechanical could go wrong, or we could botch the job and wreck something, and then we might need assistance or rescue. The air-to-air radio on 126.7 was dead silent, and the only mineral exploration camp I flew over, at Goose Lake, was obviously mothballed and shut down. The canoers are long gone down those northern rivers. Snow was already hugging some of the slopes. As I got up toward Nose Lake a layer of low cloud forced me to fly at a hundred and fifty feet above the tundra, but by mid-afternoon near Beechey Lake I was hiking in shirtsleeves and bright sun, and the Arctic winter felt a long ways off.

Scooting along low to the ground, with the little engine chugging and the propeller augering its miniscule whirlwind in that enormous air, cruising at a hundred knots with a tailwind push, I look down, look out, sip coffee, munch Corn Nuts, study the GPS, and make random notes to myself. But mostly, minute after minute, hour after hour, I look down. Brown, black, gray, pale blue. The bright reds and yellows of autumn are gone. Dull brown and gray dominate, with patches of green lichen interspersed. Mile after mile of boulder fields, trickling water in tiny creeks, winding sand eskers. l do not know if I can come close to describing it all. Its austerity, its silence and emptiness. I love this country most, maybe, at this time of year, maybe because I love the feel of all that emptiness and silence, with a hard dark winter coming on. It is a thrill to see it. That is, I suppose, an odd statement. The thrill I feel as I fly over and walk across this bleak late-autumn tundra might explain why I spent so much of my summer in West Texas.

I have never actually been to West Texas, nor to any part of Texas. Over the past ten years I have probably read more pages of fiction and non-fiction set in and around Texas than about any other specific non-northern, non-Arctic part of the world. Along with the open ocean, the high Himalaya, and the Far North, frontier and rural Texas have been a top-choice destination for my armchair travels. Been musing lately about why this might be, and I have come up with a few motives.

Maybe we all like to have a fantasy-land, a part of the world where we have never been, where we know no one. Unencumbered by any grounding in real experiences, we can blithely imbue that far-off place or far-off life with characters and scenes and constructed realities that suit our imagination and our desires. The stuff of myth and legend. The places and peoples of the Far North exist only in this way for a great many people, and the Arctic has been layered and peopled with fantasy and romantic fallacy for centuries. Still is, and often to its detriment. West Texas for me, this past summer, was that place.

And maybe for some of us a place of extremes is always more appealing than a place of moderation. I am not a man much given to extremes, in my habits or my hobbies, or my tempers (usually), but I do have a predilection for places, weathers, terrain, and lifestyle that edge toward extremity, on the scale of these variables.

West Texas sounds extreme, in the prose of Cormac McCarthy (as does almost everything) and Elmer Keaton, and Larry McMurtry. McMurtry is the father of musician James McMurtry, and he set a long (and long-winded) novel there, Comanche Moon. I picked it up on a whim in a used-book shop just before a long train ride back in late June, and after nearly giving up on it a hundred pages in, I worked my way through it all summer. Sitting on float struts and on patches of rock and sand tundra, waiting, as bush pilots do, for the return of biologists and camera people and geologists. (Pilots are glorified taxi and bus drivers, after all. Same line of work, different machinery.)

I can’t say I will plough through the 700-some pages of Comanche Moon again, since life is short and books are many, but I did find some real nuggets in there, sentences and sentiments that made me appreciate McMurtry’s efforts. At times I would think “why am I reading this stuff?” and then I would think back to a letter from my friend and English prof, the poet Lee Merrill, years ago when he told me he was working his way through the westerns of Louis L’Amour. Lee said, “I’m enjoying reading at the seventh-grade level, some days.” One blurb on the cover of McMurtry’s magnum opus was from none other than the New York Times Book Review (so there!): “A sprawling, picaresque novel.” (Picaresque sent me to the dictionary, and now it may send you there too. A big heavy paper one, I hope, since it leads to so many other side-trails on the same page.) I often underscore things in books, as I read, and if after I finish a book I have underscored some passages in it, I know that my reading was time well spent.

I learned a lot about the Comanches this summer. Always up til now my fascination, when it comes to particular races and tribes, had centered on the Sioux, the Ojibwe, and the Inuit, at least in my reading. The Comanches were much too far south to interest me as I shaped my path in life. S.C. Gwynne’s history of the Comanches Empire of the Summer Moon details their origins (up in the Wind River range), their migration, their rise to fearsome power as mounted warriors, and their eventual demise. I thank the passing July boater (from Austin Texas) who took the time to mail me the book after he got home.

And I continue to return to Cormac McCarthy, although only in doses. One can only bear so much Cormac at a time. (I have often wondered whether he might have managed to write light-heartedly about, oh, say, his child’s 8th birthday party, for Pete’s sake…) The Sherriff’s italicized soliloquies in No Country for Old Men – only a few of these made it into the movie – are the soul of that book. His ponderings on his life and on the future of his dry, hardscrabble homeland are timely today, and timeless.

I don’t like hot weather. Don’t know much about horses. Can’t speak or read Spanish. I like water, rock, snow, sled dogs, old sailboats, caribou, and wild empty unpopulated scrawny Arctic and sub-arctic landscapes. Maybe what I find way down in Texas, through all the pages, just feeds layers of craving for an other-ness, a place far away and unfamiliar, where my imagination can just roam and roam, unfettered by personal experience or nuanced facts.

I think there might be one other important aspect to my infatuation. West Texas is harsh, vast, unforgiving, yes, but still it is actively and even vibrantly populated. It has had a human presence since long before the Comanches swept into it three hundred years ago on their newly-acquired horses, and it still has a human presence, and a human culture adapted to it. There are people moving around in its vastness, twelve months a year, year after year. I crave that year-round indigenous presence here – and please note that I use the small-i, non-racial original meaning of the word indigenous. Every year this country gets emptier. The country I flew over the other day is nearly as empty of humankind nowadays as Mars. I do not think this bodes well. It is a confounding mystery to me. But that is a topic for another time.

Here are a few snippets from my summer in Texas:

Larry McMurtry. Comanche Moon (Simon and Schuster)

“Thinking about the buffalo – how many there had once been; not a one remaining on the comancheria – Kicking Wolf grew so heavy with sadness that he could not speak. He had never thought that such abundance could pass, yet it had. He thought that it would have been better to have fallen in battle than to have lived to see such greatness pass and go.”

“Famous Shoes {Kickapoo tracker, a main character of the novel} had been wondering about the same thing. The journeys that people took had always interested him; his own life was a constant journeying, though not quite so constant as it had been before he had his wives and children. Usually he only agreed to scout for the Texans if they were going in a direction he wanted to go himself, in order to see a particular hill or stream, to visit a relative or a friend, or just to search for a bird or animal he wanted to observe… When he felt disturbances in his life, as all men would, Famous Shoes tried to go back to one of the simple places, the places of rock and sky, to steady himself and grow calm again.”

 

From Cormac McCarthy. No Country for Old Men (Vintage International)

Bell watched him. The old man stubbed out his cigarette in the lid. Bell tried to think about his life. Then he tried not to. You aint turned infidel have you Uncle Ellis? No. No. Nothin like that. Do you think God knows what’s happenin? I expect he does. You think he can stop it? No. I dont. They sat quietly at the table. After a while the old man said: She mentioned there was a lot of old pictures and family stuff. What to do about that. Well. There aint nothin to do about it I dont reckon. Is there? No. I dont reckon there is. I told her to send Uncle Mac’s old cinco peso badge and his thumb-buster to the Rangers. I believe they got a museum. But I didnt know what to tell her. There’s all that stuff here. In the chifforobe in yonder. That rolltop desk is full of papers. He tilted the cup and looked into the bottom of it. He never rode with Coffee Jack. Uncle Mac. That’s all bull. I dont know who started that. He was shot down on his own porch in Hudspeth County. That’s what I always heard. They was seven or eight of em come to the house. Wantin this and wantin that. He went back in the house and come out with a shotgun but they was way ahead of him and they shot him down in his own doorway. She run out and tried to stop the bleedin. Tried to get him back in the house. Said he kept tryin to get hold of the shotgun again. They just set there on their horses. Finally left. I dont know why. Somethin scared em, I reckon. One of em said somethin in injun and they all turned and left out. They never come in the house or nothin. She got him inside but he was a big man and they was no way she could of got him up in the bed. She fixed a pallet on the floor. Wasnt nothin to be done. She always said she should of just left him there and rode for help but I dont know where it was she would of rode to. He wouldnt of let her go noway. Wouldnt hardly let her go in the kitchen. He knew what the score was if she didnt. He was shot through the right lung. And that was that. As they say. When did he die? Eighteen and seventy-nine. No, I mean was it right away or in the night or when was it. I believe it was that night. Or early of the mornin. She buried him herself. Diggin in that hard caliche. Then she just packed the wagon and hitched the horses and pulled out of there and she never did go back. That house burned down sometime back in the twenties. What hadnt fell down. I could take you to it today. The rock chimney used to be standin and it may be yet. There was a good bit of land proved up on. Eight or ten sections if I remember. She couldnt pay the taxes on it, little as they was. Couldnt sell it. Did you remember her? No. I seen a photograph of me and her when I was about four. She’s settin in a rocker on the porch of this house and I’m standin alongside of her. I wish I could say I remember her but I dont. She never did remarry. Later years she was a school-teacher. San Angelo. This country was hard on people. But they never seemed to hold it to account. In a way that seems peculiar. That they didnt. You think about what all has happened to just this one family. I dont know what I’m doin here still knockin around. All them young people. We dont know where half of em is even buried at. You got to ask what was the good in all that. So I go back to that. How come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for? They dont. You can say that the country is just the country, it dont actively do nothin, but that dont mean much. I seen a man shoot his pickup truck with a shotgun one time. He must of thought it done somethin. This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it. You understand what I’m sayin?

From S.C. Gwynne. Empire of the Summer Moon (Scribner)

“On grassy plains and timbered river bottoms from Kansas to Texas, Nautdah had drifted in the mystical cycles of the seasons, living in that random, terrifying, bloody, and intensely alive place where nature and divinity became one. And then, suddenly, all of it disappeared. Instead of Stone Age camps aswirl in magic and taboo and scented smoke from mesquite lodge fires, she found herself sitting on taffeta chairs in drawing rooms on the outer margins of the Industrial Revolution, being interrogated by polite uncomprehending white men who believed in a single God and in a supremely rational universe where everything could be explained.”

“No other tribe, except possibly the Kiowas, so completely lived on horseback. Children were given their own horses at four or five. Soon the boys were expected to learn tricks, which included picking up objects on the ground at a gallop. The young rider would start with light objects and move to progressively heavier objects until finally, without assistance and at a full gallop, he could pick up a man. Rescuing a fallen comrade was seen as one of the most basic obligations of a Comanche warrior… Women could often ride as well as men. One observer watched two Comanche women set out at full speed with lassoes and each rope a bounding antelope on the first throw.”

 

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