I’ve been in Alpine, at the top of an area of Texas called the Big Bend, teaching at a summer writing academy. It’s an interesting area, desert and mountain and big open spaces with views that make your heart open and your breath catch. Apaches, Pancho Villa, Buffalo Soldiers, railroads, cattle, oil, Mexico once its owner and everywhere its influence.
Two people have made the writer in me sit and take notice. One was an 85-year-old rancher who walked stiffly and slowly––I’ve been broken up so many times I finally had to get down from my horse, he told me later––into a coffee shop and then talked with me for a while. Pressed chinos, polished boots, straw cowboy hat, crisp shirt, he was authentic in a way I seldom see.
He came to the Big Bend at fifteen to survive the Depression and cowboyed on every ranch in the area, eventually owning one himself and becoming an influence. His card said simply, cattle and investments. There’s a local memoir about him called The Last Campfire. And he’s written a memoir himself: Shades of the West.
Some of the things he said: Life has been good to me. Children step on your toes when they’re small and on your heart when they’re grown. I used to have 18 cowboys and 100 horses. Now you can’t find 18 cowboys between here and El Paso. His dignity was immense, and later I realized that I had gotten to meet what was likely one of the last real cowboys. His name is Ted Gray.
The second person to raise the ghost of my writer was a waitress in Marfa. She reminded me of an actress called Lois Smith who was in East of Eden with James Dean. Smith gave off a vulnerability that was haunting in that movie. The waitress was slim, quiet, young, a tautness to her. I asked her if she was from the area, and she said no, she was from Alpine. Alpine is about 24 miles from Marfa. I assumed she was a student at the university in Alpine and had to work. The area’s magnificence has its grimness, too, a lack of easy ways to make a living. So, I asked if she was a student at the university, thinking to myself, she couldn’t be more than a freshman. No, she said, with a swallow and quick glance at me. I’m just trying to raise a family. The words hit me hard, and I’ve been thinking about her since. I don’t know her name.