What was either a small grey wolf or a big grey coyote padded towards Magda from the inside of a collapsing shed. She was turning in retreat as I called to her from the safety the car,
“Turn to face it!”
This was easier said than done as a glance over her shoulder back towards the ghost town showed that the sleek grey canine was closing fast. It never growled, barked, or postured, it just trotted in a direct line to where Magda had been readying her camera. Without turning again, Magda sped up and rounded the car, hopping in as the dog reached the road. We sped off back down the deserted county road. The mirrors showed it smelling the ground where we’d been parked.
She had been trying to shoot the jumble of farm equipment and outbuildings that surrounded the remains of Estacado, one of the hundreds of ghost towns dotting the Great Plains. Once a little settlement of Quakers, Estacado was nothing more than a handful of buildings in various states of abandonment quietly sandwiched between the prairie grass and the heavy blue sky. Magda had scoured the Internet searching for interesting buildings, dusty ghost towns or towering grain elevators of note – so we dove off of the interstate and tailed by a plume of dust, lost ourselves in the back roads of Texas.
We laced our way up the pinnacle of the Texas Panhandle until we reached Amarillo, which we couldn’t help but pronounce ‘Ama-riyo’. We were leaving behind a smattering of Spanish signs and city names as we headed north, Latin America fading rather than abruptly ending at the Texan border. Once we passed the city of Yellow, we would see fewer and fewer reminders that we were in territory once claimed by Spain, part of the New World empire that stretched from here back to the beginning of our trip in Ushuaia. The Great Plains is so quintessentially American now, it’s easy forget the involvement of Spain and the French. Our origin story skips from Native Americans to a line of covered wagons cutting across the prairie, filled with bonneted Northern Europeans. The Indians that we portray as hopelessly but valiantly defending their territory against a destiny, manifest, are always shown riding horses. Horses that were given to them by the Spanish.
We reached Oklahoma City late, as planned, in order to pick up our friend Carrie Bobo-Gibbs at the airport. During our brief trips back to New York over the past year, Carrie and her husband Jason have hosted us in their Bushwick home. The last time we were there we’d gotten so comfortable that getting back on the road seemed more of a burden than an adventure. Now that we’d reached Carrie’s home state of Oklahoma, she flew over to help host us again, this time on her parent’s ranch an hour north of the state capital.
After a long drive beneath a black sky speckled with stars, we turned into the driveway of Deer Time Ranch. There were no signs of a house in the darkness, just a well kept gravel road lit only by our headlights. After crossing over several cattle-guards and dipping into a shallow valley, we reached the cozy home of the Bobo’s, windows lit with a warm inviting light despite the late hour.
Lonnie and Terry Bobo run Deer Time Ranch as a small side business to their nation wide hazardous waste management company, Environmental Management. They only raise a few dozen head of Bison, host a herd of cattle or two, raise turkeys, chucks, and pheasants. They grow and harvest hay and guide hunting trips. As you can imagine, it all practically runs itself.
Terry took the day off of work to show us around the property. Magda wanted to take portraits of a few of his two dozen hunting stands, preferably all of them. While Terry and Magda climbed in a ‘Gator’, a cross between a golf cart and a panzer, Carrie and I followed driving ATVs. Our first stop was a settlers dug-out that dates to the time of the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. Not much was known about the people that had settled here except that they must have been small, the doorway was low and narrow. Terry poked his head in to make sure it was safe to enter but it was not.
“Skunk.” He said, and then he pulled out a pistol.
While Brooklyn has more guns than skunks, it doesn’t have many of either. Having been raised around both, Carrie knew to take us for a walk towards the foundations of an old house, again from the days of the first white Oklahomans. This was both to protect us from being sprayed by a wounded and ornery skunk, and the inevitable squeamishness that comes over city folk when cute animals are exterminated. Terry shot the skunk with a pop, the report mostly swallowed by the open grassy field. He and Magda climbed back in the Gator and left, followed by Carrie on her ATV.
I got on my vehicle with one eye on the old dugout, and tried to start it up. It chugged and wheezed, but didn’t start. I wondered how often skunks played dead. Carrie noticed I was missing and circled around to find me. As we tried to start the ATV together, Carrie caught a movement out of the corner of her eye.
“The skunk is alive.”
I looked over to see a black and white miracle newly risen from its tomb, walking around as if unmoved by its resurrection. Instead of waiting for the skunk messiah to speak to its witnesses, we redoubled our efforts to start the ATV. Any wisdom imparted from this critter would undoubtably be delivered from its backside. Finally we gave up and fled the scene. When Terry returned he saw neither the skunk he’d shot or its phantom.
Once my ATV was working again we continued on our way, crossing grassy fields that swallowed us whole and muddy hollows that sprayed clumps of wet earth skyward when we roared through. Each of the hunting stands we visited was unique, either constructed from the recycled sleeper cabins of semi trucks, corrugated metal, or simple wood. Some were built with items Terry had scavenged from clean-up sites, discarded metal pipes and in one case an entire viewing platform that had needed to be taken down. They all commanded a panoramic view of watering holes or feeders. Much of the wildlife hunted on Deer Time Ranch are wild pigs. Feral and hairy, these are the descendants of domestic pigs that have returned to their natural state. Forced to fend for themselves, genetics re-arms these hogs with long tusks and coarse fur, undoing millennia of genetic engineering by pig farmers in just a couple generations. I like to think if we were left in the wild we too would regain our prehensile toes and lustrous fur coat after some time, but it probably doesn’t work like that.
We spent much more time on Deer Time Ranch than we usually spend in one place. Like Carrie and Jason in Brooklyn, Lonnie and Terry were the consummate hosts, making us feel at once extremely comfortable and like extended family. I wanted to offer to do something to help on the ranch, but figured I’d probably be better at making a mess that others would need to clean up. One afternoon we went to feed the bison in a big flatbed truck that held a giant plastic tub full of corn. Being the helpful sort, I jumped out to open the gate to the bison paddock and waited for the truck to pull through. Curious, the herd of bison shifted nearby. Closing the gate behind the truck, I had the feeling I was making a mistake.
When I returned to the flatbed, Terry kindly advised that the next time I was on foot near a herd of bison, to not turn my back on them. He then went on to cheerfully relate a number of near miss stories involving bison horns, most of which had required stitches. These warnings in mind, he told us all to get out of the truck cab, run through the grass and climb into the back. I quickly swung up into the flatbed while Terry encouraged Magda and Carrie to hurry before the herd wandered over to find the corn. From the back of the truck I had a flashback of the coyote in Texas as the giant brown beasts closed in. I helped Magda onto the flatbed while Terry faced down the hungry herd. He claimed they knew his smell and thus were less likely to gore him, but we were strangers. His daughter strongly objected as Terry waved his arms to ward off the giants. As a big bull shoved his way to the front of the line, I pictured one of us being tossed around like a rag-doll over their big bushy heads, gigantic necks thick with brawn, black horns polished by frequent use.
The bison behaved like immensely strong children, crowding the back of the truck, pushing each other to and fro. “Bully” the biggest male, swung his massive bulk around to monopolize the corn. He had a big bristly blue tongue that scraped at my skin as I help out handfuls of kernels for him to slurp down. If the bison business didn’t work out, Bully could have easily found a job sanding floors.
We dumped out a few buckets of corn and left the herd to fight over it. Further out we reached a stand of oak and cedar trees and Terry told us to look for a big bull. We found him hiding in the trees, limping from a nasty wound. He’d obviously had a run-in with a bigger bull and it wasn’t a problem to guess who. We gave the wounded bull the rest of the corn and bumped back across the fields for home.
Deer Time is near Guthrie, Ok, the old capital of the state. With wide streets lined with handsome brick buildings from the turn of the last century, Guthrie resembled many prairie towns, but differed in its vitality. The old buildings are well kept and house a variety of businesses. We’d found that most of the old mid-western towns had a few antique stores in their town square but otherwise a lot of vacant windows. The sidewalks weren’t exactly crowded, but a number of restaurants were full and the sounds of bells over doorways ringing was common.
Magda and I put on our reporter’s hats and introduced ourselves to some of Guthrie’s celebrities, hoping to take some portraits to round out our upcoming New Yorker slide show. Our first visit was to Lisa Sorrell, a master cowboy boot maker. We introduced ourselves, told her about our trip, and asked if we could take a few pictures. It should be noted that Lisa Sorrell is sort of a big deal. Starting at $5,000, her handmade boots take 3 months to complete. Her brand was built by hand, not Madison Avenue, and she’s always busy. If a country music star doesn’t have a pair of Lisa Sorrell’s boots, they probably aren’t very well known. Despite her prestige, Lisa was pure Guthrie, and dropped everything to show us around. She even demonstrated her process of inlay and overlay, handing over a sharp razor for us to try our hand at leatherwork. While the knife cut the soft leather like butter, it was difficult to hold a straight line, or keep the angle of the cuts consistent as it needed to be. We each decimated our little piece of leather, thankful it wasn’t one of the alligator or ostrich pieces that make up much of the cost of the boots.
After Lisa’s we walked down to Byron Berline’s ‘Double Stop Fiddle Shop’. Like Lisa, Byron is a celebrity amongst people who do what he does. Despite being one of blue grass and country’s best know fiddle players, his little shop was in a humble storefront filled with beautiful stringed instruments. Naturally the fiddles were prominently displayed. We considered ourselves lucky to find him there and like everyone we’d met so far in Oklahoma he found time to stop a talk to us for a long while. It was so easy to talk to Oklahomans that time tended to slip away. We found ourselves in long conversations with people you might think we’d have nothing in common with. Perhaps in Oklahoma, that’s exactly the reason to start talking.