The day we found out we weren’t cowboys
January 4, 2018
I was gambling on Crawford being able to capture that same beauty with one of the three Nikons he had strapped around his neck. An excerpt from my Memoir of Sorts: The Man Who Talks to Strangers.
Gerald Crawford had no idea what to expect, but he certainly didn’t expect to see what he saw, rugged peaks, carved by wind and time, that knifed their way out of New Mexico and rose like a great rock wall across the crown of Texas, so distant from civilization that an old rancher once told me the sun set between his house and town.
The sheer thousand-foot cliff of El Capitan has been called the continent’s most significant Permian fossil reef, and the stone face of Guadalupe Peak is the tallest point in Texas. It is home for deer and bobcat and cactus thorns.
Crawford was working as chief photographer for a brand new magazine called Southern Living at the time, and we floaters and promoters at the Texas Tourist Development Agency had brought him out for an early look at an array of sculptured mountains that had been designated as Guadalupe National Park.
The agency wanted publicity.
I wanted out of the office.
Crawford wanted out of Birmingham.
So it seemed like a good match.
One of those mythical Texas millionaires named J. C. Hunter had donated the spectacular high country of his ranch to the national government, and, for the first time, those forested peaks, created when an ancient ocean dried of old age, would be open to visitors who had previously only been able to view them from afar and usually by the side of the road.
It was a wild country. The press release I sent out quoted one early day explorer as calling the mountain range “the most rugged country I’ve seen on the North American continent.” Former Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall, said, “The Guadalupe Mountains contain the most diversified and beautiful scenery in Texas, some of the most beautiful landscape in the Southwest.”
I was gambling on Crawford being able to capture that same beauty with one of the three Nikons he had strapped around his neck.
The Guadalupe peaks were not on the road to anywhere. You had to be going there on purpose to reach the old Hunter Ranch. The high country sat out in the middle of nowhere. It was a lonely land, a harsh land that gave no quarter and knew no mercy.
I picked up Crawford at the airport and told him his flight from Birmingham to Dallas would be the shortest leg of the trip. He didn’t believe me. We drove for ten hours before we reached Nickel Creek Station, which was our jumping off place. We drove for miles and miles and saw nothing but miles and miles. The sky was the only scenery we had. We were trapped in the world of flat. Flat land. Flat highways. And if your car broke down, you were flat out of luck.
“Are we hiking back into the mountains?” Crawford asked.
“Are we driving?”
“How do we get there?”
“You expecting us to ride horses into the mountain?”
“All the way to the top.”
“You ever done it before?” he asked.
“I’m not that crazy,” I said.
We spent the night at Nickel Creek Station, owned and operated by Noel Kincaid. He was also as J. C. Hunter’s ranch foreman, as thin as the blade of a knife with black hair that defied the comb, and a face chiseled by time and the wind. He was as tough as the leather on his boots. To him, the landscape was as familiar and just about as formidable as his face in the mirror.
The town had two buildings, a service station that doubled as a general store and café and three motel units out back. Noel usually reserved them for deer hunters. A man could sleep on the floor or in a bed. One was hard. The floor had lumps. The windows were open. The doors did not lock. The only time the floor was cleaned was when you walked across it in your stocking feet.
“That’s just enough,” Crawford said.
“How do you figure?”
“There’s one for me, one for you, and one for Noel Kincaid.”
“We’ve got seven more coming,” I said.
“Jerry Flemmons is. The rest just think they are.”
“How are we gonna sleep?” Crawford asked.
“Cozy,” I said.
In a cramped motel unit, a man could sleep on the floor or in a bed. One was hard. The floor had lumps. The windows were open. Flies and bugs did not need a reservation. They came and went as they pleased. The doors did not lock. The only time the floor was cleaned was when someone walked across it in his stocking feet.
The whole gang – driving down various and sundry roads from various and sundry towns in Texas – wandered into Nickel Creek Station by sundown. A few hands of poker, stud and otherwise, a few jiggers of bourbon, and we were up two hours before sunrise. We had to get an early start. It was a long way to the top. It was a long way back down. We didn’t dare spend the night in the mountains. We wouldn’t dare ride back out of the high country in the dark, clinging to a horse that was clinging to a trail less than a foot wide.
Crawford thought he had a glamorous job. At least, it sounded glamorous. A travel photographer for a major magazine like Southern Living should be wandering from one lap of luxury to another and taking in the high life. High-rise resorts. Bikini-clad beaches. Wine served for every meal. Champagne when the wine was gone.
But, no, here he was in the chilled darkness of a dark morning, his skinny little muscles still sore from sleeping on the floor of a tiny motel unit, getting ready to ride horseback up a narrow, winding trail to the top of the tallest peak in Texas.
He liked mountains from ground level. He didn’t climb them. Crawford liked horses at a racetrack when somebody else was on their backs. I had not seriously ridden one in a long time. Crawford had never been in the saddle.
“Don’t worry,” drawled Noel Kincaid. “That old horse knows his way to the top and has a pretty good idea of how to come back down.” Noel shrugged. “The trouble is that the danged old horse don’t know you.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Not for me, it ain’t,” Noel said.
Crawford was the only one of us who didn’t have to worry. He didn’t ride horseback that day. Noel Kincaid saddled him a donkey.
“He ain’t pretty,” the old rancher said, “but he’s a sure-footed little guy. I’ll let you have the donkey because you’ve got a lot of money tied up in those cameras around your neck. Don’t want you to lose any of them.”
“What about the writers?” Crawford asked.
“They got ballpoint pens,” he said. “If we lose any of them, we haven’t lost much.”
“The ballpoint pens?”
Noel Kincaid grinned again.
We saddled up, and Kincaid, along with his son, Jack, led us on packhorses – and one little old donkey – up the three-thousand-foot-high cliffs, headed toward the summit of Pine Top Mountain just as the morning sun rose above the desert floor of Frijole Valley. The trail near the top became narrow and rocky. The horses were moving along single file, sweating heavily and blowing hard. The cold air had left us three hours ago.
There was nothing on the mountain except man and beast, and vultures were circling overhead. The buzzards didn’t think any more of our chances than I did. My left shoulder was scraping against the bare rock on one side of the cliff. Over my right shoulder, I stared two-thousand feet straight down into the canyon floor.
The trail was a foot wide, and Jack Kincaid said, “It’d be better to walk your horses along here.” He pulled the brim of his hat lower to hide his eyes from the sun. “It’s a long way to the bottom.”
For most, it’s a three-hour ride to the mountaintop. Jack Kincaid had made it in forty minutes.
The crest of Pine Top sprawled just beyond the next rim when my big red horse slipped on the loose rocks, strained to regain his balance, then slid a dozen feet or so down the side of the mountain. I didn’t bother to count. I was hanging on to the saddle horn, the reins, the horse’s mane, anything I could wrap my hands around.
The horse was struggling, frantically trying to catch his balance.
I was hanging onto a cactus.
I no longer felt the thorns.
Didn’t care about the thorns.
I looked up. It was a long way back to the trail.
Jack Kincaid climbed down.
Good, I thought. He’ll rescue me.
Jack took the loose reins and dragged the horse back onto the flat trail. Falling rocks echoed as they bounced down the canyon wall. That’s the lesson I learned about good ranch hands. Save the horse.
The rider can take care of himself. I pressed my belly flat against the cliff and pulled my way back toward Pine Top.
No need to pray.
God was laughing.
I was close enough to hear him.
The ride to the top and the trip back down took all day, from the beginning of sunlight and the ending of dark to the ending of sunlight and the beginning of a new kind of dark. We ate sandwiches, drank hot soda water, and, with every step, we added one bruise on top of another. Muscles ached. The sunburn burned. My skin was raw, my shoulders sore, my hands starting to bleed from hanging so tightly onto the leather reins. My belly growled.
Each step the horse took felt like a hammer pounding the pain from my head down to the bottom of my boots. My boots were new. My feet hurt. Other than that, I was in pretty good shape.
It was after dark, but the mountains had grown purple instead of black, when the horses began running, and the donkey ran harder, down out of the foothills and on toward the barn. They were on flat ground again and headed home. They acted as though they had never heard anybody yell whoa before. It was not a command. It was a plea for leniency.
We drove away, and I could hear Noel Kincaid still laughing at us.
He sounded like God.
Jack Kincaid was laughing.
So were the horses.
But not the donkey.
Crawford’s donkey didn’t give a damn.
We drove all the way to Odessa before we found a place to spend the night.
“Can you get out of the car?” I asked Crawford.
“I’ll try,” he said.
We opened the door, fell out onto the parking lot, and crawled to the motel